Vibrant Health: The Crucial Biblical Keys

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Vibrant Health

The Crucial Biblical Keys

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Good health is something we take for granted—until we start to lose it. When our health takes a downturn, we quickly begin to question our habits and diet.

One man, lying in a hospital bed while regretting the damage he had inflicted on his body over a lifetime of bad choices and habits, offered a suggestion for God: "How would it be ... if we arrived in the world with an owner's manual tied to the umbilical cord?" (Minneapolis Star Tribune, Jan. 25, 1989).

The human body is an "instrument [that is] the most resilient on Earth. It can endure fractures and adhesions. It can endure constant pain and great stretches of tedium.

Yet it is also the most fragile instrument on Earth, because it is not built to handle excess, whether this takes the form of nourishment, fuel or additives. Unlike machines, this instrument chokes on poisons when they are administered in continuing doses and mistaken for fuel ... It is an instrument [that] has moving parts, thinking parts and feeling parts. All of them can be misused" (ibid.).

Many people do not realize that God does supply an "owner's manual" that tells us how to operate the human body, and it's been with us for millennia. The problem is that not enough people pay much attention to it.

That manual is the Bible, a book that contains instructions for proper maintenance of our moving, thinking and feeling parts. Although it isn't a medical text, it is God's Word, and in its pages He reveals many basic principles for good health.

A major part of the Bible's health instruction dates back to the time of Moses. Yet in our day, some 3,500 years later, many researchers and medical doctors are stunned at the accuracy and effectiveness of its many provisions.

"The laws given by God to Moses contained remarkable rules pertaining to public health ... What are the primary concerns of a public health officer today? Water and food contamination, sewage disposal, infectious diseases, health education—these are all dealt with in the Mosaic health laws" (The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, 1975, "Diseases," p. 460).

What are some of these health principles that have been rediscovered only in recent times? What do they offer us? What do we have yet to learn about the Bible's instructions regarding health?

If we learn and practice the biblical instructions on healthy living, we can enjoy more-vibrant, energetic lives. Let us, then, examine what the Bible says about health and wellness, concentrating on seven key principles.

Principle One: Obey God's commandments

The first principle, a foundational key to physical and mental health, is simply to obey God. We find this in Proverbs 3: "My son, do not forget my law, but let your heart keep my commands; for length of days and long life and peace they will add to you ... It will be health to your flesh, and strength to your bones" (verses 1-2, 8).

It should not surprise us that obedience to God's commandments and other laws would promote health. When we obey them, we operate in accordance with our Maker's instructions. As our Creator, He certainly knows what's best for us. "Fear God and obey his commands, for this is the duty of every person" (Ecclesiastes 12:13, New Living Translation).

Remarkably, researchers have found that believing in God and living according to that belief bring significant health benefits. "In 1995 ... a Harvard Medical School conference [was convened] on the subject of faith and health ... One study reviewed at this conference found that weekly churchgoers in Maryland were less likely to die from heart attacks (50 percent less), emphysema (56 percent less) cirrhosis (74 percent less) and suicide (53 percent less)" than non-churchgoers (S.I. McMillen, M.D., and David Stern, M.D., None of These Diseases, 2000, p. 200).

The recognized father of aerobic exercise, Dr. Kenneth Cooper, stated: "Intrinsic belief ... characterized by such qualities as profound spiritual commitment, a sense of having found the ultimate meaning of life, a devotion to heartfelt prayer, and a quest for a truly transformed life ... has the capacity to spark major personal enrichment in every area of life—including dramatic improvements in physical health, emotional well being, and levels of fitness" (It's Better to Believe, 1995, p. 4).

Some biblical statements about health are specific. "If you diligently heed the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in His sight, give ear to His commandments and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have brought on the Egyptians" (Exodus 15:26).

What diseases afflicted the Egyptians? "... Autopsies on Egyptian mummies have shown evidence of tuberculosis, arteriosclerosis, arthritis, cancer, gallstones, bladder stones, schistosomiasis and smallpox" (Wycliffe, p. 459). In short, the people of Egypt suffered from the kinds of diseases that have ravaged mankind throughout history.

God's commandments and statutes include many laws that pertain to pathology as well as spiritual principles. The Egyptians suffered many diseases because they did not understand the health principles God gave Moses. Their ignorance is illustrated in the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical text dating from 1500 B.C. (about the same time God revealed His health laws to Moses).

"The remedies it prescribes make modern readers cringe. A few of the treatments include: statue dust, beetle shells, mouse tails, cat hair, pig eyes, dog toes, ... eel eyes and goose guts ... To splinters, the ancient Egyptian doctors applied a salve of worm blood and donkey dung. Since dung is loaded with tetanus spores, a simple splinter often resulted in a gruesome death from lockjaw" (McMillen and Stern, p. 10).

The Egyptians believed evil spirits were the cause of illness. Consequently the priest-physicians applied "magical" cures. Conversely, the biblical instructions regarding health maintenance and recovery from illness involve application of cause-and-effect principles—based on true science—that were given thousands of years before scientists developed the technology that enabled them to discover germs, bacteria, viruses, genes and the like. Modern medical science has discovered many principles of good health, but God originated them.

Principle Two: Basic sanitation

In contrast to the unsanitary medical treatments of the Egyptians, God emphasized physical cleanliness to His people. Today no educated person doubts the connection between hygiene and health. The major plagues and epidemics that killed millions through the ages generally originated because this principle was compromised in some way. Cholera, for example, has been one of the major killer diseases throughout history. It breaks out when sanitation principles are violated, and the resultant epidemics can be global.

For example, a cholera pandemic began in India in 1817, then spread to China, Sri Lanka, East Africa, the Philippines, Japan, Persia, Arabia and Russia. Another wave began in India in 1826, following a similar course, but spread also to mainland Europe and the British Isles.

From there it crossed the Atlantic to Canada, and then it made its way to the United States, appearing in Chicago and spreading south into the Mississippi Valley. Also, "it appeared concurrently in New York City and Boston and spread south and west, so that by 1836 cholera was present in most of the U.S. and did not disappear until 1838" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1961, "Cholera").

To this day cholera is endemic to many parts of the world and breaks out when unsanitary conditions prevail. This is especially true when the improper disposal of sewage is present, because the disease is usually spread from the fecal matter of cholera victims. Should we see a large-scale breakdown of sanitary measures, "the rapidity of travel ... would make possible the spread of cholera in pandemic proportions in a matter of a few weeks or months" (ibid.).

Yet thousands of years ago the Bible provided instruction that would prevent cholera and other similar epidemics: "Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement" (Deuteronomy 23:12-13, New International Version).

"Used as directed, this [simple] prescription could have saved more lives than every drug ever made" (McMillen and Stern, p. 34). God directed that raw human sewage must be disposed of in a manner that keeps people and animals from direct contact with it.

Everyone needs to apply these commonsense principles to avoid person-to-person transmission of contagious diseases. Otherwise carelessness by only a few negligent people can start a full-scale epidemic, particularly if the sanitary standards of a community are lax. Collective diligence is essential for avoiding the spread of contagious diseases.

Death in Vienna

In 19th-century Europe no one knew about bacteria. In a hospital in Vienna, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was appalled at the death rate of pregnant women who came to the hospital to give birth. The deaths were attributed to "labor fever." After the women died, medical students would perform autopsies and then immediately proceed to treat live patients.

After much observation, Dr. Semmelweis arrived at a revolutionary conclusion: It might be contaminants on the medical students' hands that were responsible for spreading death from one patient to another. Thus he ordered the interns to wash their hands in chlorinated water.

He then watched to see the results. "The history books tell us what happened next ... In just three months the death rate fell from 18 percent to 1 percent" (ibid., p. 20).

Yet more than 3,000 years earlier God had revealed to Moses the sanitary measures people were to take if they touched a corpse. First, they were to be considered "unclean" for seven days and had to wash with water on the third and seventh days (Numbers 19:12-13). As long as a person was unclean, he was to avoid social contact with others. Although it served a ritualistic purpose, this law also literally served to protect others from exposure to harmful bacteria, even though people at the time did not know such things existed. The washing procedure cleansed the person of germs, and exposure to fresh air and sunlight between washings assisted in further purification.

Another basic rule of sanitation revealed in the Bible is the practice of quarantine. Bubonic plague, also known as the black death, ravaged Europe on several occasions through the centuries. One of the worst episodes came in the 14th century. Historical estimates of the death toll at that time ranged from 25 to 50 percent of the population. Sometimes whole towns were lost.

Yet, if the biblical law regarding quarantine (Leviticus 13:46) had been strictly practiced, the spread of the plague could have been minimized. In fact, "the origin of the word ‘quarantine' is the Jewish use of the period of 40 days of segregation from patients with certain diseases ... adopted by the Italians in the 14th century because of the relative immunity of Jews from certain plagues" (New Bible Dictionary, 1996, "Health, Disease and Healing," p. 455).

Principle Three: Sexual purity

One of the current controversies swirling around sexual permissiveness in society is the imperative of practicing "safe sex." The truth is that there is only one kind of completely safe sex, and that is to live by the laws of the Bible regarding sexual behavior. Sexual practices should always be monogamous and always within the context of marriage.

Rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging the world over. "Worldwide, estimates hold that there are more than 300 million cases of STIs annually" (Johns Hopkins Family Health Book, 1999, p. 861). And "worldwide in the next few decades AIDS is expected to kill almost 300 million—more than the population of the entire United States" (McMillen and Stern, p. 116).

Some experts push condoms as a reliable way to arrest these epidemics. But condoms are not the answer. "Condoms, long the mainstay of the safe-sex public health model, do not protect against the spread of nearly all sexually transmitted diseases, according to a benchmark report released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services" (Women's Health Weekly, Sept. 6, 2001, emphasis added).

Huge numbers lose their health, reproductive capacity and sometimes even their lives because of sexual promiscuity. They find themselves regretful only when it is too late. "For the lips of an immoral woman drip honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two edged sword ... And you mourn at last, when your flesh and your body are consumed" (Proverbs 5:3-4, 11).

Sexual permissiveness can also cause psychological harm. Adultery saddles a person with guilt and destroys marriages. Sexual profligacy before marriage detracts from happiness after marriage.

For many people cohabitation serves as a substitute for marriage. Yet it is a cheap and ungodly substitute. "People who are cohabiting are less happy generally than the married and are less satisfied with their sex lives" (Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage, 2000, p. 74).

A systematic study found "higher reported levels of emotional and physical pleasure for married people than for cohabiting or single people" (Journal of Marriage and Family, February 2001). Serial cohabitants also run a high risk of contracting STDs, which they are apt to pass on to later sexual partners, including their spouses if they later marry.

The Seventh Commandment—"You shall not commit adultery"—is God's way of preventing epidemics of STDs, as well as helping us achieve happiness sexually and in other areas of life. "Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral" (Hebrews 13:4, NIV).

Principle Four: Circumcision

Infant male circumcision is a practice at least 4,000 years old, originating in the Bible. Can we find sound medical reasons for it?

Some doctors say no, and some groups have organized to ban the practice. But let's examine some of the evidence. For starters, "uncircumcised boys [are] ten times more likely than circumcised boys to suffer urinary tract infections" (McMillen and Stern, p. 73). This conclusion draws from a study that involved the medical records of 200,000 infant boys.

It also appears that circumcision impedes the spread of AIDS and other STDs. "In Africa AIDS spreads mostly among tribes that do not practice circumcision" (ibid., p. 76). Why is this? The foreskin of uncircumcised males provides a warm, moist environment for the multiplication of bacteria. This poses a threat to the men, as well as their wives. "... The female partners of uncircumcised males have more infections, which in turn result in a higher incidence of cancer of the cervix" (Rex Russell, M.D., What the Bible Says About Healthy Living, 1999, p. 11).

Circumcision also provides protection against another disease—penile cancer—that is almost nonexistent among circumcised men and boys.

The Bible states that circumcision, when done, should be eight days after birth (Genesis 17:12). Doctors have routinely performed this procedure soon after birth instead. The result has sometimes been prolonged bleeding because the blood resisted clotting. Researchers have since found that in the first few days of life infants have a low supply of vitamin K, the vitamin that provides the blood's clotting capability. "After five to seven days ... infants have built up enough vitamin K to allow blood clotting to withstand circumcision" (ibid.).

Until these discoveries by modern medicine, the instruction to circumcise on the eighth day was believed to be superfluous, but we now know it was based on solid physiological reasons, proving the wisdom of the Bible.

However, it should be mentioned that the New Testament makes it clear that circumcision is not required for salvation in the Kingdom of God (Romans 2:26-29; 1 Corinthians 7:19; Galatians 5:6, 6:15.)

Principle Five: Control Your Stress Level

Stress is unavoidable and sometimes even helpful because it can add spice to our lives. People who are insufficiently stressed become bored; they find life lacks interest. When most of us use the term "stress" today, we really mean we are in distress or experiencing stress overload. Living with too much stress can bring frustration and anxiety. "An anxious heart weighs a man down" (Proverbs 12:25, NIV).

The list of diseases that stress can exacerbate includes AIDS (by hastening its onset after contracting HIV), cancer, heart disease, herpes, respiratory infections and disorders of the digestive system.

It is critical, especially in our fast-paced world, that we manage our stress load. If we subject ourselves to relentless stress, it will be only a matter of time before our bodies pay a price. The challenge of accomplishing a lot of things and perhaps making a lot of money may be thrilling for a while, "but at the same time, it causes an accelerated wear and tear in our bodies. In a nutshell, stress is accelerated dying" (Archibald Hart, M.D., The Anxiety Cure, 1999, p. 136).

Keys to stress management include setting priorities and avoiding taking on more than we can handle. Jesus gently corrected one of His friends who violated this principle. "Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things" (Luke 10:41). He urged her to reorder her priorities as her sister Mary had done (verse 42).

The focus of Jesus' teaching was the Kingdom of God. He told the 12 apostles to seek the Kingdom of God above all, and, if they did, God would supply their other needs (Matthew 6:33).

One of the keys to stress management is a relationship with God and an understanding of His purpose for life. "... Hundreds of studies have examined the relationship of faith and health. Eighty to ninety percent of these studies have reached the same conclusion: Faith makes fit, and doubt makes sick" (McMillen and Stern, p. 199).

One study examined the value of church involvement for recipients of open-heart surgery. "Those who neither had regular group participation nor drew strength and comfort from their religion were more than seven times more likely to die six months after surgery" (Dean Ornish, M.D., Love and Survival, 1997, p. 51).

God can lighten the stress of life so you can deal with it—if you put your trust in Him. "Cast your burden on the Lord, and He shall sustain you," says Psalm 55:22.

One of the ways to do this is to observe His weekly Sabbath rest. Neither our bodies nor our minds are designed to go days on end without a break in our routines.

Some attempt to cope with high levels of stress by using alcohol or other drugs, including illegal substances. This practice often results in substance abuse and addiction. Avoiding addictions is critical to handling stress and life in general. Addictions are not a solution and will only add to one's problems.

Principle Six: Exercise

The Bible contains few commands about physical exercise. Paul wrote that "bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things ..." (1 Timothy 4:8). Paul did not mean that physical exercise has little value. Indeed, he was acknowledging that there is profit in it. But he was contrasting the short-term physical benefits of physical exercise with the long-term spiritual benefits of living a godly life—to live forever and enjoy true and lasting happiness.

In Bible times it was not necessary to exhort people to exercise regularly. Most people would walk a considerable distance daily in the course of their regular routines and work. Someone calculated, using maps of the roads during Jesus' earthly life, how far He must have walked in the three-plus years He traveled and taught. That researcher "calculated that the total miles Jesus walked during the three years of His public ministry were 3,125 miles" (Don Colbert, M.D., What Would Jesus Eat?, 2002, p. 168).

Today many if not most people lead sedentary lives. The result is a dramatic increase in obesity and a host of diseases that threaten to decrease the quality and length of life.

Aerobic exercise—which can be something as simple as walking—helps control weight, lowers blood pressure and improves cholesterol levels. "In one study, researchers monitored more than 84,000 female nurses for eight years. Those women who exercised regularly had a 54 percent decreased risk of both heart attack and stroke when compared to sedentary women. Similar studies with men have produced similar results" (ibid., p. 170).

Exercise lowers the probability of adult-onset diabetes. Weight-bearing exercise, including walking, provides insurance against osteoporosis because it helps maintain bone density. This disease is a particular threat to women over age 50.

"There is even evidence that regular, moderate exercise may slightly reduce the risk of certain forms of cancer, especially cancers of the colon, breast and uterus. A nineteen-year study of over a million Swedish men found that those who led sedentary lives had a 30 percent greater risk of developing cancer of the colon" (Paul Martin, M.D., The Healing Mind, 1997, p. 246).

The people of the Bible—except for the severely physically disabled and elderly—were not sedentary. Their primary means of travel was walking. The work of men was generally physically demanding, and the same was true for women. Among the chores women customarily performed was the daily drawing and transporting of water for their households. This often required a fair bit of encumbered walking, because water sources were frequently central wells that were some distance from home.

People commonly lived to 70 years of age during biblical times (Psalm 90:10). It is probable that their physical activity coupled with other factors contributed to their longevity. Life expectancy didn't reach 70 in later centuries until 1955 (Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, 1995, p. 10).

Principle Seven: Emotional Management

Proverbs 17:22 states, "A merry heart does good, like medicine ..."

In recent years the health profession has affirmed the truth of this ancient wise saying, but a corollary, which could be phrased this way, also applies: A dejected spirit is like a toxin to the body.

"Research has confirmed the existence of systematic links ... between anxiety, stress, depression and hostility, and a wide range of physical disorders including minor infections, gut disorders, herpes, allergies, asthma, arthritis, coronary heart disease and cancer" (Martin, p. 32).

Anger—in its various forms—is particularly harmful to one's health. This is something that has only recently gained the attention of medical science. "For most of the twentieth century, medical experts did not consider hostility to be a major health risk ... Few worried about high hostility" (McMillen and Stern, pp. 206-207).

In one study "researchers tested hostility levels in 255 medical students ... Over the following years ... the doctors with high hostility [died] like raging bulls ... By middle age, 13 percent of the high-hostility men had died. In contrast, only 2 percent with low hostility had died. The men with grudgitis had more hypertension and five times more heart attacks" (ibid.).

How can anger be so debilitating? "Anger management is vital to your health because the chemicals released in your body during a tirade or tantrum are as dangerous to your cardiac health as smoking or a high-fat diet" (Portland Oregonian, Aug. 20, 2000). According to Stephen Sinatra, director of the New England Heart Center: "When a surgeon operates on a diseased heart, he can't tell if the person has a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet or if he has simmering anger" (ibid.).

Manifestations of anger constitute part of what the Bible calls the "acts of the sinful nature" (Galatians 5:19, NIV). The list includes "hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy" (verse 20). If these or other malevolent emotions are a residual part of your mentality, you are setting yourself up for serious future health problems.

You can begin a process of eradicating these characteristics from your personality by seeking to emulate the attributes called "the fruit of the spirit." These are "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23, NIV). In so doing, you will make life better for yourself and everyone around you. Your new conduct will also please God.

Of course, to truly take on the characteristics of God's Spirit and root out wrong, sinful emotions requires that His Spirit be in us—which comes after repentance of sin and baptism (Acts 2:38).

What will you do?

It was not until the modern era that men obtained detailed knowledge of human physiology and medicine. Yet the Creator God, who is sometimes called the Great Physician, knows everything about us.

God doesn't want anyone to suffer unnecessary illnesses; He wants us to enjoy good health (3 John 2). That's why He gave us the foundation for a program to provide for healthy living. The Bible provides the necessary keys. The choice of whether to apply them and reap the resultant benefits is ours to make. GN