Talking about God in Medicine

train hopping
Why don’t you talk about God more?

This question is familiar to me.

People think that with as much as I see and am seen by, as a psychiatrist, I do not feel awkward.  Not so.  I can face all manner of dragon, beast, friend or foe, but put me with a Christian who wants to know why I do not talk about God as much as they think I should in my medical practice, and I become a wet-eyed girl again, hopping from foot to foot.

This would never have been a question someone would dare have asked Kreplin or Bleuler.  But then I am not Kreplin or Bleuler.  I get asked.  Kreplin and Bleuler would not be caught discussing psychiatry casually nor personally.  I do.  In the history of psychiatry, what has developed the culture of our practice, we have biases toward the practicing of medicine without bias.  I am biased otherwise.

Conversely, the culture of Christianity in our generation is that we do almost the opposite – nothing is not about Christianity.  Everyone is a creation of God so that makes it everyone’s business.

You can see how there is a tension between countries and I am a train hopping hobo.  You know the risk in train hopping, do you not?

Why don’t you talk about God more?  (Hop! Hop!)

I tried to explain this to my Dad.

“Dad, so many people, who have been hurt, perceive that the trauma related to God.  The Christian language, is for them, a wolf in sheep’s clothing and can be activating.  So many people are confused about God and I’m not to confuse them more.”  This is consistent with the culture of psychiatry and standard of practice.

It is uncomfortable on even a more personal level though.  Being Christian means that God and I are united, married, intimate and there is not much more personal than that.

We have discussed before the difficulty in describing behaviors without tagging them with a moral quality.  This is important in part because our emotions and behaviors come from our hard wiring, our temperament, not from a stick shift or consistently from choice.  We intuitively think that what comes naturally from our personality is a thing of rightness or wrongness.

We have explored that emotions and behaviors come from the brain, a human organ, and not Jerusalem, or the city of Oz.  Emotions and behaviors come from a human organ, tissue matter, and are symptoms of the health condition of that organ.   Emotions and behaviors sometimes come without invitation.   When our brain is not healthy, what we feel and do that is not friendly to Me or others are symptoms of that illness.

So now when we describe God, a very personal, intimate union in us, we oft affect our humanness.  If I describe my perception of God to another, there are huge personal implications.  Maybe that person does not want an intimate relationship with “Someone” who has my personality traits, my temperament, and as generated by the condition of my brain health.  Maybe that person might feel violated rather than be in a patient-doctor relationship.  Maybe that person might afterward, as I have felt when others described God to me, think they need to take a good hot shower or at least wash their mouth out.  Icky.  You think?

One of the reasons I love the writing of King David is that he just tells his story.  Not much more convincing than someone’s story.

The Lord is my Shepherd.  I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.  He leadeth me beside still waters.  Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for Thou art with me….

sheep

Nice.

When a patient is in treatment with me, there are unique moments that come and go when my story comes out, but it is not standard.

Why don’t you talk about God more?

So there you have it.  That is why, for now.  I hope to grow and assume this will not be my opinion nor practice forever.

And between me and thee, at Friend to Yourself, we are also still figuring this out.  Together.

Questions:  Do you wish your physicians talked about God more? or less?  Why?  How has it affected your treatment?  How do you wish it would change?  Please tell us your story.

Self-Care Tip:  When people talk about God, or hurt you and you believe Christianity or religion is involved, remember they are human, not God.

(Even me!  lol!)

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21 thoughts on “Talking about God in Medicine

  1. The orthopedic surgeon I saw prays before he enters the exam room then before the patient leaves he prays for them. I was surprised the first time I saw him. He didn’t ask if it was ok or tell me that he was going to pray…he just did. Truthfully, it made my day! Such a humble man.

    • oh what a lovely connection. thank u patricia for sharing your story. reminds me of my dad. i used to round w him when i was a kid on the orthopedic post op wards and he routinely did that as well. no one ever challenged him on it or gave negative feedback. i hear u. keep on.

  2. I like this article. The manifestations of God in the mental sciences have been a great complexity. The history of psychiatry is replete with examples of the ‘God Factor.’ Johann Weyer (Father of Modern Psychiatry talked a lot about God, and many sources suggests that he encourage his patients to do the same. It is interesting however, that he also relied on the intellect and sciences in an age of superstition.

    • Idii, I think that’s interesting too. When I was discussing this w my friend the other day, he said it so well, “we are expected to practice impersonally but we are personal creatures.” It’s like asking a fish to fly to ask a human to not get personal. of course that’s very different from professionalism. 🙂

  3. Dr. Q, One reason you are effective for me is that you did not assume the word “God” means something to me that is similar to your perception of Him. To do so would have made me feel you had a non medical agenda and had not cared or understood my frame of reference. I respect all versions of “God” that others trust in and I trust people who respect mine.

    Are patients with dissimilar views not as treatable or desirable be treated?

    Would a doctor say: M did not have the right idea of God so I can excuse my less than optimal success?

    Doctor: I tried to cure him but he just didn’t have right concept of God. Darn it! Poor guy is untreatable”

    When I hurt or want to stay otherwise healthy I go to a Doctor. That is what I know. When I am pondering spirituality I will seek where I need to for that.

    Once on a medical history update form a question asked about my religion. The doctor, a very good one, was disappointed to learn this and said “you mean you do not walk with the Lord”. Yes that is what I meant. What was I supposed to do now? I had gone to him for years and now I think he has pity for me. My respect for him was reduced that day and his for me. Awkward to say the least.

    Sign on door : We have the right to refuse service, must have shoes, shirt and be Christian only.

    That’s how it feels.

    Sincerely,
    M

  4. Hey Sana. I had counseling once for a period of time in what was once an old house that had been added onto. It was lovely. Anyways, the rooms were largish and cozy and had lots of windows. So there was room for desks and chairs. It came out after a few sessions (if I remember correctly it was after I said somethings) that it was a Christian based counseling service along with mental health, psychiatry. Who knew?! That was why there was always at least one extra chair it was explained. If more people were in the room there was always still an extra chair brought in. For Christ. I could handle that. I would never have known if it had not become clear from my words that I was a Christian. There was prayer if I asked before and after. It was lovely. I can see why you don’t mix Christianity and your practice though. It is incredibly personal and I deeply deeply appreciate your explanation of your personal relationship and beliefs. You rock!

      • Why did I stop? Hmm . . . well it was a natural rhythm to stop. I have seen different counselors over the years. There was only so many visits or so much money. Not a good reason but there it is. I found that I went through periods of using counselors and periods where I was trucking along on my own. I was okay with that. Perhaps more would be better, but, to be truthfully honest it got to the point where there was not a whole heck of a lot that counselors could tell me. I had done a lot of work on my own and had many different influences that provided answers and questions and I had God. It came to a point where I wasn’t getting what I needed. I figured a lot out and the counselors couldn’t provide me with what I needed. It took our daughter being hit by a truck and the social worker at the hosp. He was the one who knew tons and had tons to impart and that is exactly what I needed. Someone to tell me, he wasn’t someone who just listened and then sent me on my way. He helped me to create tools and create insight. I NEEDED THIS DESPERATELY. Someone who knew more than me. I know how egotistical that must sound and I certainly don’t mean it that way. But he gave me answers he guided me to answers, he unlocked answers inside me of or I should say helped me unlock the answers for myself. Tools, how to’s and why for’s. It was exactly what I needed. I am forever indebted to him. When I asked him how he got to be so clever, he let me know it was only because of the people before me he learned from. I am so grateful for him being in my life.

  5. This is a very, very good post. Learned so much about you! Also, I responded well to the balance of humility and assertiveness you have going on here. You are gifted at enabling others to be in your presence without making them feel judged.

    When I see a doctor, I want to feel confident that she is confident that she can use the materials of Earth to help me to feel better (to the best of her ability). M’s comments are right on for me…

  6. I just wrote a long response, got half way through, and lost the whole thing. If you get it, keep it. I’ll try again.

    When I was in the worst stage of my emotional breakdown, I was seeing a phychotherapist at least twice a week, a pastoral couselor twice a week and was in constant contact with my associate pastor a church any and all other times during the week. I was, obviously, a mess. Being in therapy was hard, to put it mildly, but my Jewish psychotherapist gently guided me through the memories and the revelations that come up in therapy, and was there for me at any moment for seventeen years. I loved going to the pastoral counselor, who said that she was kind of the bandage on the surgery that the therapist had performed. She had me doing a lot of writing about the Bible and my faith and how it related to my emotional health. Since I had always thought about being a minister, it was “just what the doctor ordered”, so to speak.

    However, after two years, I got more deeply into some things in therapy that, I am now convinced, my pastoral either could not or would not handle, and she ended our relationship very abruptly and with extreme hostility. I was devastated. My husband wanted to sue her which was very uncharacteristic for him. We didn’t because I couldn’t have handled it, but, because of what she did and the way she did it, I could not longer pray or read the Bible or even go to church. I had lost my connection to God and it took many more years of therapy to get me through the loss both of the counselor and of the spiritual journey I had been on. It was a very Christian journey and, because my associate pastor retired at about the same time as I left the counselor, I was left with my Jewish psychotherapist. She, metaphorically, picked me up, held me close and guided my, though her strong faith, back into my faith as a Christian. Her spiritual guidance almost literally saved my life because I was suicidal at that time. She showed me through her faith and through a discipline called Focusing,

  7. I’m sorry. I just lost all of that again, so this time I posted it and will continue here. (I hate computers!!!)

    My Jewish therapist showed me that I had lost nothing in my faith journey but a woman who was unable to handle someone in my condition, perhaps because of her own issues. I still feel the pain, after twelve years, and I still don’t really understand what happened between me and my pastoral counselor, but the point I’m trying to make is that God may be my Christian God, or God may be my therapist’s God, or God may be the being worshiped by the Muslim community, or God may be something that keeps an aethiest going. I don’t think it matters. What matters is that we all need to follow whatever path, with whatever god we choose (or, maybe with no god at all) and, perhaps, that doesn’t fit everyone’s way of healing. I could not have gotten through what I went through without walking simultaneously on my faith journey. For me, I needed to involve my God in my healing process. I will never be able to thank my Jewish therapist for accepting me for who I was as a Christian and helping me to get back onto my own spiritual path as she helped me to heal emotionally. I would hope that the choice, then, is that of the patient, and that the physician would be open enough to let the spiritual part of our healing flow as we need it to flow without feeling the need to interject his or her own faith into the mix. I think that, you, Sana, would pick up on my spiritual needs and guide them, or not, as you saw fit. I would hope that other physicians would do the same.

    Sorry this is in two parts and way too long. It’s a subject near and dear to my heart and one to which I will always be emotionally attached.

  8. MY pcp once remarked that he has seen so many people suffer and suffer in dying he does not care to have much to do with God because of this aspect of the Creation Plan. I spoze he feels like he’s fighting God to keep his patients well and to ease their suffering.

  9. I am a mental health counselor, and also a Reflective Christian. I don’t talk about God in my counseling sessions, but allow my patients to talk about their faiths if they choose to. I sometimes pray for my clients. I do teach them to be in the present, and refrain from worrying about the future and the past. I also like to teach them about forgiveness and charity. Anyways, very interesting post!!

  10. I am almost 80. I had my first professional counseling when I was forty due to depression. I purposely chose a non-Christian Counselor and saw her six times. I did not want someone to make it a religious issue, but someone who would dig out this problems and give me some sensible direction. I was asked lots of questions about my early life and mother. I remember saying things that surprised me. She said those thoughts had been playing in my mind like a recording and now I could see it was wrong. I was helped a great deal, but since I read the Bible every year could validate her guidance and my thinking.

    Some old things are still trouble me, but I am no longer depressed and can handle it.

    I was a manager and id not talk about God in the office since I had employees of all backgrounds. I focused on work quality. Sometimes things would come up naturally and I responded in a measured way.

    I think you are correct in how you hand this issue.
    frank

    • Hello Frank. Welcome and thank u so much for connecting w us! This story, yours, is powerful. What a life journey. We need to hear your voice. I am, and I know others of us, very much in need of the experience u hv, the side of depression u r now on, the forwardness u persist w and your rln w God. Keep on.

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