Mennonite Health JournalArticles on the intersection of faith and health
Personal Choices in Community Context
Paul D. Leichty
from Mennonite Health Journal, Vol. 15, No. 4 – November 2013
In the last issue of Mennonite Health Journal, I reflected on the choices that we as a society make as we attempt to resolve the moral dilemmas that are before us. I suggested that as we ask the question, “Who actually benefits by our choices?” we move toward a broader circle of persons who merit consideration in our choices, especially those who are most needy.
I also hear the language of personal choice used in a variety of healthcare-related decisions that many of us face as individual persons. How do we make those choices?
- I was recently involved in a loved one’s choice of living and caregiving arrangements. The choices were not easy between a comfortable home-like atmosphere and providing for long-term medical care, safety, and well-being.
- Some of us are confronted with an array of choices as we consider a new healthcare insurance plan. We are told that we have a choice as we weigh low monthly premium costs vs. having costs more fully covered for a major medical event and thus paying higher premiums.
- I attended a workshop recently on end-of-life issues. Repeatedly, the presenter emphasized that the use of advance directives gives each of us choices on how we live our remaining days and how we die.
In the complex world in which we live, we have so many choices that it is easy to get paralyzed by the desire to make the right decision. Here are some ideas that have helped me to make choices that are consistent with the values of my Christian faith.
I am a person who likes to have all of the information I can get in order to make a decision. I generally get my information from two main sources: (1) Asking people who have some experience or expertise on the subject, and (2) Searching the Internet. In both cases, I want to have some assurance that the information I am receiving is accurate and reliable. The ideal situation for a healthcare decision is that the key person with the experience and expertise is my doctor or other healthcare professional whom I see regularly. Yet, for major issues, I like to have a second opinion. When I find controversy or disagreement on an issue, I also want to know why that is the case. What are the underlying assumptions that lead to conflicting information?
A number of years ago, my physician wanted to put me on a statin drug to help prevent further heart disease. I complied, but I also started reading. I eventually came to think that for me, the risk of a heart attack was roughly equal to the risk of health-damaging side effects of statins. I proposed an alternative to my physician and was pleased to hear in reply, “You are smart and informed; you can make that decision.” As I continued reading, I realized I could do even more through healthier eating. As a result of having good information, my cholesterol is considerably lower, well into the acceptable range. My physician is pleased, and I am monitored yearly instead of quarterly.
Individualism and Community
Most of the language of choice that bombards me emphasizes that we are all individuals. I’m told I have to make my own choice, what is “right for me.” All of that is valid—up to a point.
Our Anabaptist Christian faith informs us on both the importance and the limitations of individual choice. We believe that choosing to follow Jesus is a personal choice, one that each person should make freely and not be subject to coercion. Yet, making that big personal choice to be baptized as a Christian is ultimately a choice about what community I belong to. Do I find my grounding in being a member of a particular nation, race, or culture? No, belonging to the people of God in Christ subsequently affects, and indeed, provides a foundation for all my other identities as well as all of the other choices that I make.
My congregation encourages small groups, and my wife and I belong to one. Some members of our group are in the process of considering end-of-life issues. They have heard the messages around them encouraging them to choose their advance directives, their healthcare representative, and how they want their body disposed. Yet their questions are, “What does our faith say about these matters? What does the Bible say? How are my brothers and sisters in the faith coming to terms with these issues?” So, as hard as it is, our group is starting to talk together, as well as to seek counsel from other churches in our area who have studied end-of-life issues. That is the value of a faith community.
Who is in control?
Finally, I realize that despite the many choices that I do have, and despite a supportive family and faith community around me, there are many factors affecting my life over which I do not have a choice. I am not in control.
Thus, I can select a healthcare insurance plan with a low premium and high deductible based on the fact that I think I am living a healthy lifestyle and will not need many medical services. However, I don’t know that I won’t get a serious illness and need to pay thousands of dollars for diagnosis and treatment. I don’t know that I won’t be involved in a serious accident and be hospitalized for many weeks. I am not in control of all of the factors.
Instead, ultimately, my life is in God’s hands. This is where my faith and future ultimately rest.
Living by faith is not a form of fatalism which says, “My choices don’t make a difference anyway; I don’t need to be concerned about them.” Living by faith does not absolve us of the responsibility of discerning the information available and deciding between what is life-giving and what is harmful. Living by faith certainly does not kick us back to an individualistic “God and me” approach that says, “I’ll do what’s best for me, regardless of the consequences for anyone else.”
Rather, our Christian faith gives us a solid rock foundation from which to make our choices, in consultation with our brothers and sisters to whom we can be accountable. Faith gives us the courage to wade through and make the choices that we can make under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and then rest in God who is ultimately in control of the overall picture.
About the author
Paul D. Leichty, M.Div. was the first Executive Director of Mennonite Healthcare Fellowship (MHF), serving from Sept. 2011 through May 2020. Paul has served as a pastor, church musician, computer support person, disabilities advocate, and administrator/organizer of a number of church-related ministries. In addition to responsibilities at MHF, Paul is Executive Director of Congregational Accessibility Network and was formerly Director of User Services at Mennonite.net. He is a member of Agape Fellowship of the Mennonite Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife, Twila Charles Leichty.