In the previous two posts in this series I discussed how medicines are made by God and should be appreciated as a gift from God. Today I want to consider a new aspect of medication, that of abuse. As often happens, what God has made and declared good, man can find a way to abuse.
All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. Romans 6:12
Although God made drugs and medicines and declared them to be good in their original state, man in his depravity has tampered with what God has made. God made grapes that would ferment into wine. This wasn’t enough for man, so man began distilling spirits in order to make "strong drink". It’s the same way with drugs. God graciously provided medicinal purposes for the poppy plant to be used as a pain reliever or sedative, but man tampered with it and made “narcotics” to get high.
I see two considerations in the above verse. First of all, the Christian must ask himself whether taking a particular medication is helpful. We could list lots of situations in which it is obviously helpful to take medicine. We have several friends fighting cancer right now and I'm so grateful for the recent advances in oncology meds (and am praying for further advances). When we have an infection that renders us sub-par, it is helpful to take meds if they can return us to our productive state. Even when we have a mallady that has no cure, meds can sometimes be used to attenuate the severity of our symptoms, and this, too can be helpful for us. I think we must remember that what Paul has in mind here is helpful in terms of our spiritual lives. Will taking this medicine enhance my Christian walk or take away from it? Will taking this medicine allow me to serve God or His church to a greater degree (ie get me off my sickbed so I can serve others)?
Likewise, it is obviously not helpful for us to be incapacitated- either physically or mentally. Of what good are we to God when we're unconscious? If taking a particular medicine knocks us out to the point that we can't function, is this helpful? I want to consider two more verses here.
But the end of all things is at hand; therefore be serious and watchful in your prayers. 1 Peter 4:7
This word serious is sometimes translated sober-minded, the point being we have to be careful that the meds we take allow us to stay in control of our wits.
And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the the Spirit... Ephesians 5:18
We know it's a sin to be intoxicated, that's not the point of my including this verse. The issue in this verse is that of control. When we are controlled by a substance (drink, drug, medicine, etc.) then we are not able to be controlled by the Spirit of God which indwells believers.
This brings us to the second consideration of Romans 6:12. Paul says he will not be brought under the power of any. What does it mean to be brought under the power of something? I propose two applications here to meds: intoxication and dependence. As the verses above attest to, when we take something that intoxicates us, we are no longer in control of our faculties, we are no longer sober-minded, and we are no longer controlled by the Spirit of God. We will be more likely to sin and less likely to obey the Lord under these circumstances. I think this point is obvious, we understand as Christians why we shouldn't be intoxicated by a substance, but dependence is a little more subtle.
When we think of drug dependence we probably all conjure up images of the crack addict who severs all relationships and resorts to living on the street and stealing to get his next fix. This is an extreme example, but let's stay with it for a moment. A crack addict is controlled by his desire for crack. That controlling influence is greater than his desire to be a productive member of society, it's greater than his desire to be a law-abiding citizen, it's greater than his desire for meaningful relationships, and finally it becomes greater than his desire for life.
What does it mean to be brought under the power of a drug or medicine? It either causes us to do something we wouldn't otherwise do, or it causes us to neglect something we would otherwise do. This is my simplistic definition. Now let's move away from the extreme example of the crack addict into the more subtle realm of medicine and think about the power of dependence.
An inherently good pain reliever can be abused and made bad in a person’s life. Being brought under the power of any drug or medicine means that we are controlled by it. God calls His children to be self-controlled. To be self-controlled and to be other-controlled are mutually exclusive. We can’t be both! Either we “possess our own vessel” and are in control of our minds and bodies, or we aren’t. The Christian must consider his purpose in life to know God and glorify Him. The Christian must ask the question of whether his use of drugs or medicine is interfering with his ability to know God and glorify Him. So, back to the example of pain meds. It is widely known that narcotic pain relievers are quite addictive and many steps have been taken by medical boards and professionals to try to prevent the abuse of these meds, yet dependence continues, especially for many with chronic pain. Should the Christian with chronic pain suffer without any medication? My answer to that is: it depends. Can they take their pain meds and still function (ie work, family, church)? If taking your meds knocks you out to the point of not being able to work or contribute to your church and family, is it still ok? What if missing a dose completely wreaks havoc on you to the point that you'll do almost anything to avoid missing a dose? These are difficult considerations and I thank God that I'm not in a chronic pain situation. I'm merely posing the questions- I don't have all the answers. I have witnessed first hand, however, the devestation that dependence on pain relievers can have on a family. Is it possible to take narcotic pain relievers and not become addicted? Yes, but those with chronic pain must beware. Signs to watch for include needing to take a higher dose to have the same pain-relieving effect (tolerance), changes in behavior, and increased time spent obtaining prescriptions. Please see this more comprehensive list of the signs of addiction to narcotic pain relievers if this is something that affects your life. You can also check out this schedule of drugs according to how likely they are to produce dependence. Schedule I is the most dependency producing and Schedule V is the least likely to produce dependence. Notice that methylphenidate (Ritalin) is Schedule II, as is Oxycontin and many of the narcotic pain relievers.
What about something as harmless as caffeine? Caffeine can be beneficial in certain circumstances and it certainly doesn't cause intoxication, but can it also begin to control you? Have you been brought under the power of caffeine if skipping it one morning gives you the mother-of-all headaches which in turn causes you to be awful to your family or late to work? I'm not saying drinking coffee is a sin, I just want to challenge us to think through this issue of being brought under the power of something as it relates to drugs and medicines. If our body must have something to function then it seems to me we have been brought under the power of that substance, however seemingly harmless it may be.
In summary, believers must consider whether taking a particular medicine will ultimately be helpful for them and whether they will be able to take this medicine without being brought under its power- either in the short-run (intoxication) or over time (dependence).
I'd love to hear your reaction to this somewhat controversial post- get ready because the next one will be even more controversial :) . Feel free to comment here or join the discussion on my blogfrog community.