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Alternative Medicine and the Need for Discernment

By Dónal O’Mathúna, Ph.D. and Walt Larimore, M.D.

{This article is adapted from material in our Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, revised and expanded edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan) to be released January 2007.}

Alternative medicine remains very popular. Surveys have found that roughly one-third of adults in the United States use some form of complementary and alternative medicine. (1) But what are these people using? Is what they’re using safe? Should Christians be using any of these therapies and remedies? Answers to such questions are not straight-forward.

We have found that accurate information about alternative medicine can be difficult to find, especially for those not familiar with the medical literature. In our book we provide a summary of the best scientific evidence available on over one hundred of the most popular remedies and therapies. (2) We also examine the spiritual benefits and risks from an orthodox Christian world view. This article will review recent trends in alternative medicine and summarize the approach we take: one of urging careful discernment. Underlying this is our conviction that we Christians are called to carefully evaluate all claims before we act upon them. Luke commended the Berean Jews when he wrote in Acts 17:11, “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Such study led many of these men and women to believe the Christian message. Such study of alternative medicine’s claims (both scientific and spiritual) is essential if Christians are to avoid the errors that exist in the complex world of alternative medicine.

Despite some problems with and concerns about alternative medicine, Americans are spending more and more money on alternative medicine. (3) Between 1997 and 2002, significant increases in the use of herbal remedies occurred. In 2002, 18.6 percent of Americans were using herbal remedies, not including vitamins and dietary supplements not of plant origin. (4) Over 4 billion is now spent annually in the United States on herbal remedies, although sales through mainstream markets dropped 7 percent in 2004. (5) No longer can it be said that alternative medicine is a small, fringe market. It is a major business enterprise with all of the advantages and limitations that this brings.

WHAT IS ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE?
Many would like to replace the term “alternative medicine” with “complementary and alternative medicine” and its acronym, CAM. The term “alternative” suggests that people use these approaches instead of conventional medicine. However, surveys have found that most people use these approaches along with conventional medicine. In other words, alternative medicine is most typically used to complement (or supplement) standard health care. Hence, the term “complementary” is preferred by some. We will use “alternative medicine” since that term remains most popular in everyday discussions. We use it in its broadest sense to include therapies and remedies used instead of or along with conventional medicine.

What is included within alternative medicine varies considerably from one person to another. The simplest definition, and the one we will use, is that alternative medicine includes any therapy or remedy that is not generally accepted or provided by the dominant medical establishment in a given culture. Alternative medicine has a number of general characteristics.

  • Passed over by conventional medicine, alternative medicine includes remedies, therapies, and healing systems that conventional Western health care professionals are unlikely to provide for their patients. The dominant medical establishment tends to look with disfavor on alternative medicine, or views its approaches as going beyond the proper domain of medicine. Sometimes, alternative medicine claims to have been pushed aside by practitioners of conventional medicine for reasons of political or financial gain.
  • Holistic approaches to health care are commonly stressed in alternative medicine. This means different things to different practitioners, but in general they treat the body, mind, and spirit. It also means relying on noninvasive “natural” methods of healing with an emphasis on disease prevention. Although conventional medicine can be holistic, physicians usually do not stress that fact.
  • Spirituality is frequently addressed within alternative medicine, though often in ways that are unfamiliar or alien to Christianity (and other major religions such as Judaism and Islam). Without understanding the roots of a particular therapy, people may find themselves involved with a theology dangerously different from what the Scriptures teach or what Jesus would want his followers doing.
  • Little good-quality scientific evidence is available to support many of alternative medicine’s assertions about healing, safety, or effectiveness. Some aspects of alternative medicine have excellent scientific support, yet are not utilized with conventional medicine. Other therapies, with proper testing, might garner support for their claims. Without such evidence, no one, not even the experts in alternative medicine, knows for certain whether the untested, unproven alternative therapies actually have healed anyone or not. All we know is that patients relate how they were helped, or cured, or went into remission after using an alternative therapy.

INTEREST GROWS AMONG CHRISTIANS
Interest among Christians appears to mirror—and sometimes exceed—general trends in the United States. Christian radio stations carry advertisements for herbal remedies and nutritional supplements even more commonly than the secular media. We have serious reservations about most of these “infomercials.” Our God is a God of truth, and claims made in Christian media should be supportable and true. A Christian company should have the courage to insist that its advertisers support the accuracy of their claims. Those who declare that their therapies and remedies can treat or cure conditions should provide the sort of verifiable evidence of effectiveness and lack of harm expected by contemporary health care.

Specific “Christian” alternative therapies are also promoted. One entrepreneur claimed to have figured out the recipe for manna and alleged it would protect people from all forms of illness, just as the original manna protected the Israelites in the wilderness. Another is a group of diets based Genesis 1:29 and God’s declaration that “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.” Believers in these diets teach that people will be most healthy when eating a biblically based vegetarian diet.

Some Christians now claim the power of prayer is supported by scientific research with “overwhelming, undeniable results”. (6) Is that really the case? Highly sophisticated medical studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of prayer for healing. However, many of the studies have not shown clear evidence of benefit. For example, the most recently published study found that those prayed for in a scientific study did no better than those in a control group. (7) How do we reconcile these results with our belief that God calls us to pray when sick (James 5:13-16) and that he can bring healing? Results of research on the impact of spirituality and religious faith on health and healing have been published in mainstream medical journals. (8) Does that make faith a therapy that works for some and not for others? We are both firm believers in the power of prayer as described in the Bible. We both put our faith in Jesus Christ. But should scientific studies be used to validate those beliefs? Alternative medicine raises many such issues that require careful discernment—and more space than we have here.

RISKS IN ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE
The risks with alternative medicine are real. Reliance on unproven alternative therapies can have tragic results. A researcher for the British Research Council for Complementary Medicine visited twenty-nine health food stores in London asking advice about frequent, severe headaches. (9) Her fictitious symptoms were chosen so that a trained professional would easily recognize them as suggesting a brain tumor or other serious problem. The researcher was told by health food store employees that her headaches were caused by a variety of factors, such as the flu, low blood sugar, tension, the weather, or using her brain too much. Forty-two different therapies were recommended, with no consistency in the advice given. At fewer than one in four of the stores was the researcher advised to see a physician.

In another study in Hawaii, a researcher visited forty health food stores stating she was gathering information on herbal remedies for her mother, whose advanced breast cancer had spread throughout her body (metastasized). (10) In 90 percent of the stores, employees recommended various products to cure cancer, even though making such a claim is against the law. The most popular remedy, recommended at almost half the stores, was shark cartilage. In our book we discuss extensively the complete lack of evidence that shark cartilage cures or helps cancer—or anything else. Of great concern is that almost one in five employees counseled against using conventional cancer therapies that have been proven to be effective.

Of course, many stories could also be told about the conventional medical system also causing harm to patients. Numerous cases of real horror stories do exist—like thalidomide given to pregnant women to treat nausea that resulted in babies having serious birth defects, including missing or shortened arms or legs. Mass inoculation against the swine flu virus resulted in serious illness, even death. Some people have become overly dependent on the latest tranquilizer or sedative. Allegedly new wonder drugs, such as Vioxx to treat arthritis pain, have been withdrawn from the market after being linked to patients’ deaths—in spite of all sorts of controlled studies beforehand. People die every year from medication mistakes in hospitals and from prescription errors. Conventional medicine is not perfect. It is a human enterprise where practitioners are always learning and sometimes make terrible mistakes.

PROOF OF EFFECTIVENESS IS MISSING FOR MANY ALTERNATIVE THERAPIES
One of the significant problems with alternative medicine is that most alternative therapies and remedies (herbs, vitamins, or dietary supplements) have little or no compelling clinical evidence to support their effectiveness or safety. Evidence that does exist is often ambiguous or based on seriously flawed studies. In some cases the “proof” that a therapy is effective is based on interpretations of controversial theories. For many therapies, the only evidence offered are anecdotal reports—testimony of users of the therapy.

Perhaps even worse is the way popular media sometimes cover developments in alternative medicine. As soon as a new therapy begins to show some positive results in some people, reports appear promoting it as though it has already been proven to work. The fact that the reports are from those with a vested interest in the therapy, or that the positive result could just as likely be a coincidence, is virtually never mentioned. Instead, we see the touting of a cancer “cure” or a diabetes “cure,” based on preliminary evidence and supposition. And, if the “cure” is subsequently disproven, little if any coverage usually occurs.

Coenzyme Q10 is a good example of such a media blitz. Coenzyme Q10 at one time was one of the most popular dietary supplements. Physicians and researchers know that Coenzyme Q10 is a critical factor in generating energy in all living organisms. They also know that older people and those with a number of different ailments often have reduced levels of Coenzyme Q10. Therefore, some alternative practitioners reasoned, if a person took Coenzyme Q10 as part of a regimen of daily nutritional supplements, it might slow or stop the aging process and the person would be assured of better health.

Soon several popular books were touting this theory as fact. Coenzyme Q10 became a “must have” nutritional supplement. There was even talk that it could combat or reduce the severity of AIDS, slow or reverse aging, and give people longer, better lives.

Then long-term, carefully controlled studies began to be conducted. Coenzyme Q10 is indeed showing some preliminary evidence of having potential in treating some illnesses. But it is not an anti-aging pill or an HIV treatment. Coenzyme Q10 is critical for energy and its level is reduced in certain people. But the supplement is nothing like the “fountain of youth” it was originally advertised to be. Because of the premature claims, many consumers may have wasted millions of dollars on Coenzyme Q10.

ALTERNATIVE THERAPIES LACK ADEQUATE REGULATION
Most European countries strictly regulate the manufacture and sale of herbal remedies. In Germany, the Federal Health Agency set up what became known as Commission E to evaluate the safety, efficacy, and quality of herbal remedies. Although the Federal Health Agency does not test herbal remedies, manufacturers are required to submit proof of a product’s quality, safety, and effectiveness. Each product’s license must be renewed every five years.

Once established, Commission E functioned independently of the Federal Health Agency. From 1978 to 1994, Commission E reviewed all available literature on the safety and efficacy of 360 herbal remedies. These technical reports were published and are now available in English. (11) In countries with regulations like these, consumers are assured of the consistency and safety of what they purchase—and they have some confidence that the claims made about a substance are accurate.

Unfortunately, this is not true in the United States, as there are no such standards or regulations. The consumer not only has no guarantee of the safety or efficacy of what they purchase, in many cases they can’t even be sure that the amount of the herb or other active ingredient indicated on the label is actually there in the bottle. Studies have shown the following:

  • Missing ingredients where what was listed on the label was not in the container. (12)
  • Contaminants in some products, including dangerous chemicals or pharmaceuticals not listed on the label. (13)
  • Differences in the contents of the same product from different manufacturers (or even from the same manufacturer). (14)
  • Prescription medications found in “natural” remedies and supplements without being listed on the label. (15)
  • Unacceptable variation in the amounts of active ingredients in different batches of the same product. (16)

Such problems exist in the United States in large part because of the way dietary supplements are regulated. Prescription and over-the-counter drugs are heavily regulated and closely monitored. Not so with dietary supplements. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees the regulation of drugs, food, and dietary supplements. Passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) expanded the list of items regulated as dietary supplements and limited the FDA’s role in their regulation.

Under DSHEA, the term “dietary supplement” includes dietary substances added to supplement the diet as well as vitamins, minerals, herbs, and extracts of any such ingredients. Manufacturers are not required to submit evidence of effectiveness or safety prior to marketing a dietary supplement. The burden is on the FDA to prove that a dietary supplement is unsafe before it can be taken off the market. Hence, in spite of the many reports of adverse effects from ephedra, it took from 1997 to 2004 for the FDA to succeed in banning ephedra products. (17) (By contrast, the manufacturer of a new pharmaceutical drug must prove the drug is safe and effective before the company is allowed to put it on the market.)

Controversy reigns over precisely what claims can be made for a dietary supplement. General health claims—“maintains a healthy heart,” “helps relaxation”—are allowed. Claims cannot be made that a product prevents or treats a disease. The DSHEA also requires all statements about health claims on dietary supplements to prominently display the words: “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” (18)

The warning appears to have had little effect. Consumers continue to buy these products, believing manufacturer claims and ignoring the DSHEA warning. The warning actually gives the makers of these products an easy “out”—deniability.

ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE AND ANCIENT OR TRADITIONAL CULTURES
The issues that must be evaluated before trying a specific form of alternative medicine are not just scientific. Spiritual discernment is also needed. Many alternative therapies are associated with ancient or traditional cultures which have been viewed through romantic lenses, their lifestyles seen as healthier than modern, fast-paced ones. The therapies, especially the herbs, used for centuries in these cultures would, it is claimed, never have gained acceptance if they were not effective. Thus, some champions of these traditional products claim that their therapies were suppressed for years by Western imperialism and Christian missionary crusades. Only now, they say, are they being rediscovered and made available in the West.

The link with other cultures raises another concern, especially for Christians and others who take their faith seriously. Some alternative therapies are based on practices and rituals that have long been part of pagan or spiritual traditions and other religious practices.

Spirituality is an important concept within much of alternative medicine. Practitioners can be devout Christians or they can believe in worldviews that are radically different from a biblically based worldview. Sometimes the same terms are used, but with meanings that are quite different. For example, prayer may be recommended by various therapists, but they may have completely different practices in mind. A valid concern is that some forms of alternative medicine may be vehicles for the promotion of religious perspectives that are opposed to Christianity. A few may actually involve occult practices.

Some alternative medicine practitioners believe they cannot help their patients without first introducing them to one or another of the ancient Eastern or New Age faith systems. This leads to potential conflict for Christians. They may hear anecdotal stories from friends about shamanism easing arthritis pain without drugs, Therapeutic Touch increasing the speed of healing after wounds, or Reiki easing a chronic health condition. The stories are positive. Nothing is said about the spiritual side of the treatments.

A few general points can be made here. One of the central tenets believed by many in the New Age movement is that all spirituality is good, that no form is any better than another. (19) This is in opposition to the Bible’s message that many problems originate, either directly or indirectly, in the conflict between the spiritual forces of good and evil. Paul wrote in Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

The “openness” advocated by many in the alternative medicine community could expose people to practices and spiritual beings whose primary purpose is to harm people and lead them away from the loving Father of the universe. Although some question the existence of evil spiritual forces, Jesus spoke repeatedly about them, and the Bible warns that “your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Before trying any therapy, carefully evaluate its spiritual background and exactly what each part of the practice means for its practitioners.

ALL HEALING IS NOT FROM GOD
We believe that certain alternative therapies have spiritual roots that make their use inappropriate for Christians and unwise for anyone. We do not accept the claim that all healing comes from God and is therefore good. Any type of healing that might occur via these therapies is not worth the spiritual cost. Therefore, from a biblical perspective, some therapies are always wrong to pursue, even for “good” reasons.

Alternative medicine as a whole is not rooted in any particular religious tradition, but some therapies are. A number of healing rituals and traditions are part of the Wiccan religion (also called “white witchcraft”). Eastern religions often view healing as dependent on the movement of “life energy” through nonphysical channels that coincide with the physical body. Native-American religion uses herbs as part of its healing rituals. In a number of nature religions, shamans contact spirit beings or guides to get advice on how to treat and heal those under their care.

The current interest in holistic healing includes concern for spirituality, the meaning of which can be whatever the individual wants it to mean. What is important, according to this approach, is that a person be on some spiritual path. Any therapy can be pursued for its potential healing benefits. All that matters is whether it works. And if others claim it works, it’s worth a try. This leads to a strong emphasis on “personal experience” being the deciding factor. As the developer of Therapeutic Touch stated: “Therapeutic Touch works.… You can do it; everyone who is willing to undertake the discipline to learn Therapeutic Touch can do it. You need only try in order to determine the truth of this statement for yourself. So, I invite you: TRY.”  (20)

The problem that Christians should have with this approach is that the Bible tells us not to engage in certain practices. Certain forms of healing are always wrong because they are accomplished via prohibited methods and have been consistently condemned by God in the Bible. Many of these practices have been incorporated into certain alternative therapies. The most complete list of prohibitions is found in Deuteronomy 18:9–14, although each practice is prohibited in many other passages (see also 1 Corinthians 10:18–21). Prohibited are divination, necromancy (channeling), mediumship, spiritualism, witchcraft, magic, and sorcery.

  • Divination covers a variety of practices used to discover information by supernatural means (Leviticus 19:26; 2 Kings 21:6; Jeremiah 14:14). Also included as divination would be tarot cards, reading or interpreting omens, crystal gazing, and any technique which attempts to discern information transmitted from the spiritual realm through natural objects. Divination includes direct attempts to contact the spirit world for information, as in the use of spirit guides and shamans.
  • Astrology is based on the same principles as divination but uses the stars to uncover hidden information. It is denounced as a waste of time in Isaiah 47:13–14 (see also Jeremiah 10:2).
  • Channeling, or necromancy, has become popular within New Age circles. It involves calling up the spirits of the dead. Isaiah specifically denounces this practice and not because it doesn’t “work.” Rather, necromancy, as with all these practices, displays an attitude of rebellion against God by refusing to do things his way: “When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?” (Isaiah 8:19).
  • Mediums and spiritists are those who possess the ability to contact the spirits of the dead (Leviticus 19:31; 20:6, 27; 1 Samuel 28; 2 Kings 21:6; 1 Chronicles 10:13–14).
  • Witchcraft is the use of magical spells and charms to obtain desires through supernatural or psychic powers. God makes his views about magic very clear through Ezekiel. “I am against your magic charms with which you ensnare people like birds and I will tear them from your arms; I will set free the people that you ensnare like birds” (Ezekiel 13:17–21; see also 2 Kings 21:6; Acts 19:18–19).
  • Sorcery is the ability to use magical spells, an ability usually obtained through contacting evil spirits. The prophet Micah brought this message from God to those who in his day dabbled in these occult practices: “I will destroy your witchcraft and you will no longer cast spells” (Micah 5:12; see also Galatians 5:20).

These practices are all condemned because they lead people away from the true God and entrap people in false ways. The use of magic and charms to influence the future reflects a lack of trust in the goodness of God to bring about what is best in a situation. Instead of trying to manipulate the future, we are called to trust in God’s trustworthiness.

The Bible clearly teaches that good and evil spiritual forces exist. Many today deny or ignore this teaching. Performing spiritual acts with good intentions and getting good results does not excuse being unaware of the source of the power behind those acts. Scripture states that evil spiritual forces are powerful and dangerous and should not be dabbled with (Ephesians 6:12; 1 Peter 5:8; 1 John 4:4).

In our opinion, it is naïve and unsafe to think or teach that Satan would not use his powers to heal people, especially since healing is such an important sign of the Messiah. Satan will resort to “good deeds” to deceive people and draw them away from God. Jesus warned us: “For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive the elect—if that were possible” (Matthew 24:24; Mark 13:22).

Clearly, great discernment must be exercised before dabbling in alternative therapies (or any practice) with a spiritual background. It is never appropriate to use therapies that involve magic, contacting spirit guides or the spirits of the dead, or that attempt to manipulate spiritual powers.

‘LIFE ENERGY’ OR ‘MEDICAL MAGIC’
Alternative therapies based on “life energy” use principles just like those generally attributed to magic. Although “magic” is difficult to define concisely, magical practices do have common features. Magic involves specific techniques or rituals by which people attempt to manipulate supernatural powers to meet their immediate needs. (21) Practitioners of energy medicine claim they can manipulate a supernatural force using certain techniques to bring about healing or relaxation.

  • Healing is demanded by practitioners of magic. “There is never anything humble about the requests addressed to supernatural agents.” (22) Incidentally, this leads us to have great concern about Christian healers who demand healing from God. This contrasts with the way Christians are encouraged to humbly make requests of God, yet trust in his will.
  • Healing is guaranteed when magical instructions are followed precisely, or so it is claimed. “In magic a ritual is performed and if it is correct in every detail, the desired result must follow unless countered by stronger magic.” (23)
  • Present-day desires of the individual are the focus in magic, not the long-term needs or goals of the community.

When magic doesn’t work, it can still do harm. It wastes precious time, time that could have been used to seek proven, effective remedies. A cancer continues to grow. Diabetes and high blood pressure go untreated. Pain lingers.

An even bigger problem arises when magical practices do work. Long associated with occult traditions, many of these practices can lead people into all sorts of entanglements with evil spiritual beings. Kurt Koch, a Christian theologian and an authority on the occult, recounts many stories of people being healed by alternative therapies without knowing of the occult connections. One young man went to an iridologist, someone who claims to be able to diagnose and treat illnesses by examining the iris in people’s eyes. (24) Soon afterward, this young man recovered completely from his illness. But then he noticed some disturbing changes. Every time he tried to enter a church, he experienced physical pain. The same thing happened whenever he tried to read a Bible or sing a Christian hymn. He rapidly became severely depressed, started abusing drugs, and eventually had a complete emotional breakdown. Certainly, not all iridologists (or alternative practitioners in general) are connected with the occult, but this particular one seems to have been. We acknowledge that this story has all the limitations of testimonials and anecdotal reports. But it fits the pattern of stories where people inadvertently received an occult healing and paid for it with their emotional and spiritual health. We are not raising it to claim that iridology usually leads to involvement in the occult. We use it to point out that an alternative therapy sought for good purposes can lead to spiritual harm.

Be suspicious of any practitioner who claims he or she can accurately diagnose illnesses by “extraordinary” means or who knows things about others through some “amazing” intuition. Those powers, if real, must come from somewhere. The chances are that they are supernatural powers. Great caution and discernment are necessary to ensure they are not occult powers.

BIBLICAL CHARACTERS CONDEMNED FOR PURSUING CERTAIN FORMS OF HEALING
The Bible recognizes the great temptation inherent in healing by evil spirits and illicit healers. The Old Testament describes an intense conflict between legitimate and illegitimate approaches to healing and spirituality (2 Kings 1:2–4). King Hezekiah of Judah became deathly ill and was told by the prophet Isaiah that he would not recover. Hezekiah turned to God and was healed (Isaiah 38:2–5; see also 2 Kings 20:2–6). In contrast, King Asa, a godly king during the early years of his reign, responded differently.” In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was afflicted with a disease in his feet. Though his disease was severe, even in his illness he did not seek help from the LORD, but only from the physicians. Then in the forty-first year of his reign Asa died and rested with his fathers” (2 Chronicles 16:12–13).

Some conclude from this passage that the Bible condemns using physicians and calls on people to seek healing only from God. Yet Scripture refers uncritically to physicians and their role in healing (Jeremiah 8:22; Matthew 9:12), and Luke, the author of a gospel and of Acts, was a physician (Colossians 4:14).

The context of the passage about Asa makes it clear that Asa’s primary problem was not his use of physicians but his refusal to ask God for help. It is most likely that the physicians Asa relied on were Gentiles who practiced pagan magical healing. (25) Support for this view comes immediately after Asa’s death, when his son, who succeeded him as king, is praised because he followed God and “did not consult the Baals” or carry out the idolatrous practices of Israel (2 Chronicles 17:3–4). Biblical examples show the need for discernment regarding where we turn for healing.

THE CHOICE WE FACE
In The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis dramatically captures the importance of making the right choice. The series’ first book, The Magician’s Nephew, reaches its climax when Digory must decide whether to bring healing to his mother or obey Aslan, the lion who plays the role of God. The choice is stark, especially when the Witch describes what will happen to Digory’s mother. “Do you not see, Fool, that one bite of that apple would heal her?. . . Next day everyone will be saying how wonderfully she has recovered. Soon she will be quite well again. All will be well again. Your home will be happy again. You will be like other boys.” (26)

Lewis skillfully raises all the usual justifications we think of when we struggle with whether to do the right thing or not. What if Digory’s mother finds out he could have removed her pain and didn’t? Who’ll ever know that he stole the apple? What has Aslan ever done to deserve obedience? Digory struggles, as we all do when something a little wrong seems able to bring about a lot of good. But Digory finds the courage to make the right choice. He chooses to trust Aslan.

A similar choice faces those who look to alternative spiritual therapies for healing. Maybe they’ll bring a lot of good, though there’s no guarantee. Wouldn’t God be pleased at the good that could come about?

Not if “good” comes by illegitimate means. God has warned us that certain spiritual practices are not just harmful, but wrong. Are we going to trust him? Will we put our faith in him and his promises? If we do, we will avoid spiritual therapies that connect us with spiritual powers or beings apart from the God of the Bible.

CONCLUSION
Many people, including physicians, nurses, and other health care professions, are left confused and frustrated about alternative medicine. People with health-related questions don’t want theological or political debates; they want relief. They don’t want conflicting information, they want trustworthy guidance. They want to know the right thing to do. Christians also want to please God in their actions, base their beliefs on his Word, the Bible, and reflect his character in their decisions and actions.

When considering a treatment, we should know why we are using whatever therapies or remedies we use—or don’t use. We need to know that a particular remedy is not only effective but reasonably safe. Scientific studies are not perfect, but they are the best way we have available to figure out whether something is effective or safe. Others’ experiences and recommendations can be an important part of any evaluation; but they are not, by themselves, enough to make wise decisions concerning our stewardship of the temples of the Holy Spirit (our bodies), our finances, and our time.

When considering alternative medicine, the spiritual dimensions must also be examined carefully. The first concern should not be whether something spiritual “works.” Rather, the first concern should be whether it is true and brings glory to God. Spiritual practices that arise from belief systems that ignore or deny the claims of God will not lead to true health. Strong faith in something false is like a tower built on sand. Eventually it will crumble.

Therapies and remedies must also be examined from an investment, or stewardship, perspective. We are all limited in the amount of time and money available to us. We should not squander our resources. Christians, especially, are called to be accountable stewards of these resources. Jesus asked, “So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?” (Luke 16:11).

We should investigate the claims made about the remedies we put into or onto our bodies, the therapies we allow to be practiced on us, and the practitioners in whom we place our trust. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). To do this, we need to gather information that is medically reliable and biblically sound, weigh the options, seek sensible counsel, pray diligently, and then carefully make decisions that are as informed and as wise as possible.

Dónal O’Mathúna (Ph.D.) is Lecturer in Health Care Ethics in the School of Nursing, Dublin City University (DCU), Ireland, and Visiting Professor of Bioethics in the School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Ulster, Coleraine, Northern Ireland. He is also a Fellow of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity in Chicago, USA. He is co-author (with Walt Larimore) of Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, revised and expanded edition (Zondervan).

Walt Larimore is (M.D.) is Assistant Clinical Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver and a Clinical Instructor at the In His Image Family Medicine Residency Program in Tulsa. Dr. Larimore is listed in the Best Doctors in America and Who’s Who in Medicine and Healthcare. He is co-author (with Dónal O’Mathúna) of Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, revised and expanded edition (Zondervan).

Notes:

  1. Patricia M. Barnes, Eve Powell-Griner, Kim McFann, and Richard L. Nahin, “Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use Among Adults: United States, 2002,” Advance Data from Vital and Health Statistics 343 (May 27, 2004). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/ad/ad343.pdf (September 13, 2005).
  2. Dónal O’Mathúna and Walt Larimore, Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, revised and expanded edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, to be released January 2007).
  3. David M. Eisenberg, Roger B. Davis, Susan L. Ettner, Scott Appel, Sonja Wilkey, Maria Van Rompay, and Ronald C. Kessler, “Trends in Alternative Medicine Use in the United States,” Journal of the American Medical Association 280, no. 18 (November 11, 1998): 1569–75.
  4. Hilary A. Tindle, Roger B. Davis, Russell S. Phillips, and David E. Eisenberg, “Trends in Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine by US Adults: 1997–2002,” Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 11, no. 1 (January–February 2005): 42–49.
  5. Mark Blumenthal, “Herb Sales Down 7.4 Percent in Mainstream Market; Garlic Is Top-Selling Herb; Herb Combinations See Increase,” HerbalGram 66 (2005): 63.
  6. Reginald Cherry, Healing Prayer (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), xiv.
  7. Herbert Benson, et al, “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: A Multicenter Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessory Prayer,” American Heart Journal 151.4 (2006): 934-942.
  8. Harold G. Koenig, Michael E. McCullough, and David B. Larson, Handbook of Religion and Health (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
  9. A. J. Vickers, R. W. Rees, and A. Robin, “Advice Given by Health Food Shops: Is It Clinically Safe?” Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of London 32, no. 5 (September/October 1998): 426–28.
  10. Carolyn Cook Gotay and Daniella Dumitriu, “Health Food Store Recommendations for Breast Cancer Patients,” Archives of Family Medicine 9, no. 8 (August 2000): 692–99.
  11. Mark Blumenthal, ed., The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines (Austin, Tex.: American Botanical Council, 1998).
  12. J. Parasrampurra, K. Schwartz, and R. Petesch, “Quality Control of Dehydroepiandrosterone Dietary Supplement Products,” Journal of the American Medical Association 280, no. 18 (November 11, 1998): 1565.
  13. Donald M. Marcus and Arthur P. Grollman, “Botanical Medicines—The Need for New Regulations,” New England Journal of Medicine 347, no. 25 (December 19, 2002): 2073–76.
  14. B. J. Gurley, P. Wang, and S. F. Gardner, “Ephedrine-type Alkaloid Content of Nutritional Supplements Containing Ephedra sinica (Ma-huang) as Determined by High Performance Liquid Chromatography,” Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences 87, no. 12 (December 1998): 1547–53.
  15. Edward W. Boyer, Susan Kearney, Michael W. Shannon, Lawrence Quang, Alan Woolf, and Kathi Kemper, “Poisoning From a Dietary Supplement Administered During Hospitalization,” Pediatrics 109, no. 3 (March 2002): 49–51.
  16. Walter L. Larimore and Dónal P. O’Mathúna, “Quality Assessment Programs for Dietary Supplements,” Annals of Pharmacotherapy 37, no. 6 (June 2003): 893–98.
  17. FDA, “Sales of Supplements Containing Ephedrine Alkaloids (Ephedra) Prohibited.” Last updated April 12, 2004. U.S. Food and Drug Administration: www.fda.gov/oc/initiatives/ephedra/february2004/ (September 26, 2005).
  18. U.S. Congress, “Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994; Public Law 103-417; 103rd Congress.” Approved October 25, 1994. U.S. Food and Drug Administration: www.fda.gov/opacom/laws/dshea.html (September 26, 2005).
  19. John P. Newport, The New Age Movement and the Biblical Worldview: Conflict and Dialogue (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
  20. Dolores Krieger, Accepting Your Power to Heal: The Personal Practice of Therapeutic Touch (Santa Fe, N.M.: Bear, 1993), 8.
  21. Howard Clark Kee, “Magic and Messiah,” in Religion, Science, and Magic: In Concert and In Conflict, eds. Jacob Neusner, Ernest S. Frerichs, and Paul Virgil McCracken Flesher (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 121–41.
  22. Ibid., 126.
  23. John Ferguson, quoted in Ibid. 123.
  24. Kurt E. Koch, Occult ABC (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 1986), 104.
  25. Darrel W. Amundsen and Gary B. Ferngren, “Medicine and Religion: Pre-Christian Antiquity,” in Health/Medicine and the Faith Traditions: An Inquiry into Religion and Medicine, eds. Martin E. Marty and Kenneth L. Vaux (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), 53–92.
  26. C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (New York: HarperTrophy, 1955), 192–93.
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