On Compassion in Medicine

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it looks like to be a Christian doctor. At first, I thought the answer was pretty simple: excel at what you do (for God’s glory of course), be nice, and be ethical. But, to be honest, that doesn’t look too different from the world’s view of what a good doctor is either. I’ve met a lot of doctors who fulfill these criteria, but when I look at them, I don’t see Jesus.

About two months ago, I started reading through the gospel of Mark. I’m pretty slow with my Bible reading, so I’m not even finished with it yet. That’s beside the point though. I came across a moment in the first chapter that really struck me. The passage reads,

40 And a leper came to him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, ”I will; be clean.” 42 And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. (Mark 1:40-42)

There’s a lot to unpack in this passage, but my favorite part is the phrase, “Moved with pity.” As a Classics major, I can’t help delving into the Greek a little here. The participle used here references Jesus’ “splagnon” or guts. Basically, Jesus is so affected, that he has a physical reaction to this man’s suffering. This isn’t some case of Jesus saying, “Oh you poor dear, let me kiss it and make it better.” This is God himself, looking at a suffering human and allowing himself to be affected by it. The thing that struck me about this was that Jesus didn’t have to be moved with pity. It would have been perfectly possible for Jesus acknowledge that the man was suffering and to heal him without a personal reaction.

The first thing that this made me think about was the idea of professional distance. I’m not even in medical school yet, so I don’t have a first-hand knowledge of this, but I’ve heard plenty of physicians talk about the need for professional distance. You experience so much suffering as a physician that you have to hold yourself at arm’s length so that you’re not overwhelmed by it. Only then can you be objective and give the patient the highest level of care, and of course, if you allow yourself to get too involved, you can lose your authority in the exam room.

In some ways, this view makes sense to me. Suffering is tough, and you don’t want to be overwhelmed by it. But in Jesus, I see something totally different. I see someone surrounding himself with crowds of sick people, healing them and casting out demons. I see someone who gets to know those he heals. When the bleeding woman in the crowd touches Jesus and is healed in Mark 5, he stops the entire crows so that he can know who it is he healed. He refuses to allow this woman to remain anonymous. I’m borrowing heavily from another author with this idea (whose name I can’t remember), but Jesus could have laid down a blanket healing for everyone in the crowd. But he didn’t, because the identity and the personal suffering of each person he healed mattered to him.

So this is how my thoughts on what a Christian doctor is have evolved. Yes, Christian doctors should excel at what they do. And I sure hope that they have high integrity. But what sets them apart is that Christian doctors embrace human suffering as Christ did. They allow their “splagnon” to be affected at a leper’s suffering. They are willing to sit alongside a patient and share in her suffering rather than stand aloof.