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Health and Faith: What's The Link?

Footsteps is a magazine that shares practical information with remote communities, in order to equip local people to bring about positive change. Here, Footsteps editor ZOE MURTON explains why their latest issue is about health and faith.

What we believe really does have an impact on our health. This became very clear to me while editing the latest issue of Tearfund’s Footsteps magazine, which looks at the topic of faith and health care.

I don’t mean to link our beliefs to our health in some sort of New Age ‘think yourself well’ approach. Rather, our deepest held beliefs about the world will affect whether or not we adopt healthy practices.

Our beliefs affect our health practices

One of the articles in Footsteps 102 explores the way faith leaders helped beat the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. Initially, many people felt Ebola was a punishment from God, and focused on looking for spiritual rather than biological solutions. Both Christians and Muslims were unwilling to change their faith practices: Muslims continued ceremonially washing dead bodies; Christian leaders continued laying their hands on people in prayer. Practices such as these caused the virus to spread further.

But when Muslim and Christian leaders asked the government for training on Ebola, the game changed. Together, faith leaders educated people about how to prevent and respond to Ebola, using quotations from the Qur’an and Bible to support the official advice. They showed people how to adapt their religious practices to minimise the infection risks, and modelled these changes. And as people’s understanding grew, they became willing to change their behaviours.

For another article in Footsteps, I interviewed Terry Dalrymple from the Global CHE Network. His organisation trains community health workers around the world – and sees a definite link between people’s beliefs and their health practices. For example, Terry tells the story of an animistic community in Thailand that stopped water pipes being laid because they feared it would anger the spirits. ‘Helping people change their behaviours very often means offering them the opportunity to change their beliefs,’ he says.

And sometimes we need to apply this to ourselves as Christians. While planning this edition of Footsteps, I emailed our readers to ask what problems they were experiencing relating to health and faith in their communities. The response was overwhelming: readers from Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Zambia and beyond described many people’s reluctance to consult doctors or take medicines because they believed it showed a lack of faith in God’s ability to heal. The Bible study in Footsteps 102 carefully presents a biblical challenge to this idea, arguing that doctors are one of the ways in which God brings about healing and recovery.

Our beliefs affect our view of others’ health

But that’s not all. Our beliefs do not just affect our approach to our own health – they are fundamental in shaping the way we think about the health of others.

From the earliest years of the church, Christians have been motivated by their faith to get involved in healthcare. In Roman times there were no public clinics or hospitals. The sick were sometimes even left to die in the streets. But the early Christians believed God wanted them to care for all who were suffering. When a terrible plague hit the Roman Empire, it was the Christians who took care of the sick and dying. They did this despite the risks to their own health and the persecution they faced under the Romans.

This edition of Footsteps is full of similar (if slightly less dramatic) examples of Christians showing practical love to their communities through healthcare. The issue features churches in Jordan running exercise classes to boost the morale of refugees, and health workers flying to the furthest reaches of the Amazon to provide healthcare to remote communities.

I know that faith is a motivating factor for many CHGN members, too. It was a privilege to feature an article on CHGN in Footsteps 102, highlighting the way Clusters bring together faith leaders and farmers, health workers and humanitarian staff, who want to improve health and well-being in their area.

This is certainly not to say that only people of faith can be selflessly involved in healthcare. But as Christians, we are motivated by a desire to show God’s love to all and to take care of the sick as if we were caring for Christ himself (Matthew 25:36). As CHGN’s Dr Ted Lankester writes in his lead article for this edition of Footsteps, what higher priority could be given to health and development work?

I hope and pray that this edition of Footsteps will be helpful to you in your own work.

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