Episode 079: Christianity and Physical Health
Health & Faith
Is your body a possession or a gift? Interesting question. We chat this week with Dr. Bob Cutillo, a Christian physician from Colorado, who’s recently written a book called Pursuing Health in An Anxious Age. We talk about the book and why he wrote it, and engage some specific issues involving our understanding of health. For one, in the current age when medical technology is highly advanced, why are more and more people anxious about their health? Shouldn’t we be less stressed? And why do many Christians leave their faith at the door when they walk into a clinic, doctor’s office, or hospital? Also, Dr. Cutillo draws from a famous character, Humpty Dumpty, to help illustrate where a lot of people are at when it comes to their bodies. Enjoy this friendly, interesting, and informative conversation about a topic that we, as Christians, don’t often think about.
Who’s Our Guest?
Dr. Bob Cutillo (MD, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons) is a physician for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in Denver, Colorado, an associated faculty member at Denver Seminary, and an assistant clinical professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. He has also served as a missionary to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bob currently lives in Denver, Colorado, with his wife, Heather, and they have two married children.
Dr. Bob Cutillo’s book is called Pursuing Health in An Anxious Age. It was published by Crossway.
Also, Dr. Bob works at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. Check it out!
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is Dr. Bob Cutillo. He’s a physician for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, and an associate faculty member at Denver Seminary, and also an assistant clinical professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Thanks for coming on the show today, Bob.
It’s good to be on your show, Isaac. Thank you for inviting me.
First thing, before we jump into our conversation, Bob, how did you meet Jesus?
Well, just in brief, I come originally from an Italian family in northern New Jersey. I was born in the greater New York City area and attended medical school in New York City. I had the great blessing, thanks be to God, of realizing the truth of the gospel and the goodness of God for me right before entering medical school. That’s when I first realized that Jesus was my Lord and Savior and that I wanted to follow him.
That was a very wonderful timing on God’s part because for me it was a monumental change to leave behind the despair and confusion of my life on my own and see the great difference in seeing things from a Biblical world point of view. There I was becoming a new Christian and then immediately entering into becoming a doctor and entering the world of sickness and death.
For me, it was just so important that I had that foundation to begin to reflect upon my life there. Basically, I’ve spent most of my time as a doctor in mostly larger centers of the United States caring for disenfranchised populations. I did spend a few years in Central Africa as a missionary. In fact, it might be interesting because I know we’re speaking to a heavily Canadian audience, I actually learned French to speak in French-speaking Africa.
At Laval University in Quebec, Canada for a year. My son was born in Quebec. We spent a little time in Canada and appreciated that.
Now we’ve been in Denver since 1999. My two kids have grown up here from their preteen to adolescent years. I’ve been here for about 19 years now or 18 years in Denver, Colorado.
I just had a question. When you were in medical school and you just gave your life to the Lord and went to medical school, did you feel kind of alone in your faith? Was there other Christian brothers and sisters in those classes?
Well, the wonderful thing was one of my early classes I saw a young student … I didn’t know him at that point. He was in the front of the medical school auditorium. He was memorizing Scriptures. I went up to him and I said, “What are you doing?” His name was Juan. He and I and two or three others became quite a small group that strengthened our ability to be Christians in a, at times, hostile situation of trying to see what it means to practice medicine through a Christian perspective versus a secular perspective. It was really good to have some brothers and sisters in Christ. We did find some folks to get together with and be strong and support each other.
That’s awesome. That’s so good. Now as I said at the beginning, you wear at least a few different hats. What’s a snapshot of your life look like now?
Well, I spend portions of four days seeing patients at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, which as probably you can tell is folks that primarily live either in no housing or shelter or street or transient housing. We try to deliver as broad based a care as we can in that context.
Then I sporadically teach my seminary class at the seminary and then I also teach medical students at the university. Those teaching and practicing roles really work well together because by practicing medicine in the trenches and then going and trying to teach people what it means to be a good doctor they really correlate with each other.
It helps me keep my mind fresh and my applicability strong.
That’s awesome. Thank you for the work that you do.
Now you wrote a book last year called Pursuing Health In An Anxious Age. To propel us into this conversation on health and faith do you mind giving us the general understanding of what you’re getting at here? Then what’s the problem you’re addressing?
Well, Isaac, I think probably I would have to say the motivation for writing the book and being someone who is not primarily an author or a writer but being someone who has a deep desire to communicate truth, the motivation for the book really spun from two observations that I was making over my years as a physician. It became clearer and stronger to me as I practiced medicine over the years.
The first observation was this widening gap between the way we were pursuing health, especially in the modern West, the promises that medicine was making, and our expectations for healthcare. Comparing all of that with the truth of who we really are as human beings.
As you know, the Bible has a lot to say about what we are as human beings and our nature and who we are in our destiny. I was seeing this widening gap where I was spending more and more time on things that mattered less, and less and less time on things that mattered more. That was quite disturbing.
In fact, if I give you maybe a simple example to illustrate. Not too long ago I was counseling an elderly woman, quite elderly, in her nineties, about an operation that she probably would benefit from for a fairly distressing symptom she was having on a daily basis. In medicine, we have our routines and we just feel like every patient we have to treat the same way.
I start going in there and I start going into all the pros and cons of the operation and all of the advantages, the disadvantages of doing it and not doing it and correlating with her symptoms and making sure she had informed consent. She stopped me in the middle of it all and she said,
“Dr, you can stop talking now. I’m going to have the operation. I just want you to know that I’m afraid.”
The thing is the way medicine is going that we have less and less time and many of my colleagues have a real heart for this. Less and less time hearing what people really are afraid of and just doing things so routinely. That was one of the observations.
Let me also say that the second observation is probably the one that finally pulled the trigger.
I think most upsetting of all for me was seeing that Christians, much like everyone else, seemed to leave their faith at the door and seemed to exercise very little of that faith when they entered the hallowed halls of medicine.
It almost seems, like everyone else, they’re overwhelmed by the power and the prestige of medicine and they seem to have a difficulty bringing their faith in a personal God, who is very much aware of what they’re going through, and it almost becomes this distant cosmic deity that is on the sidelines while medicine manages the show.
I think that was something that was very disturbing to me. In fact, it was such that
it was so rare to actually see someone vibrantly practicing their Christian faith in medicine.
It would really catch me by surprise when I did. I remember this patient who was telling me about her mother with cancer and the treatment they were pursuing. She said, “You know, we followed that treatment but I wanted to make sure the doctors knew that our real doctor was Dr. Jesus.”
“We could use some of the medical things but I wanted them to know that Dr. Jesus was the real doctor.” I think that ultimately what I really hope is that more of us enter the halls of medicine understanding that the real doctor is Jesus and that we can use the good of medicine faithfully but
we always have to remember where our real dependence lies.
Yeah. That’s so good. Now, Bob, you say, after reading the introduction of your book, you say that with the advancement of healthcare technology comes this increase of worry and anxiety and things like that.
Can you flesh that out a little bit more? The question that I think a lot of people would be asking is “Wouldn’t it be the opposite? With the advancement of healthcare shouldn’t we be less worried?”
Yes. That is an important perception that you have clued onto. I think one would assume that with the advances in medicine over the last hundred years we’ve had so much success in managing our health and overcoming sickness and delaying death, that with this sense of accomplishment in all of that that you would think that we would have less worry and anxiety with more power and control in our advancing technology.
That’s an important paradox that I have seen. The more that we feel in control of our health, the more anxious we seem to be about the things that are not yet in our control or haven’t happened yet but could happen. Even if they’re exceedingly rare.
I think that as my career has progressed over the years I’ve found myself spending less and less time addressing actual illness and more and more time helping people worry less about things that haven’t yet happened. The context would be calling a patient with a test result and letting them know that it was abnormal but it’s probably going to come out normal if we do a couple other tests, and how much the anxiety has produced in someone. Especially the more they have control over their lives or think they do.
The analogy would be that the patients I give this conversation to have their datebooks set up for the next six months are the ones that are most worried by this disruption in their plans versus those that are living more confidently day to day seem to be less distressed.
One of my colleagues used the idea that we all know what post-traumatic stress disorder is but we’re also now experiencing pre-traumatic stress disorder.
That even before something happens we’re worrying about it even though it might be exceedingly rare.
Isaac, let me point out, this is not some brilliant observation on my part. Really, it’s nothing new. Jesus told us in Luke 12,
“Who of you, by worrying, can add a single hour to your life?”
Maybe if anything the amount of research has only showed us that not only can you not add an hour you’re probably actually subtracting hours from your life by worrying about things in our lives.
I think that part of the dilemma is, and it is a paradox, but I think much of truth is paradoxical. That with our increased success and our endeavors to control our health we’ve learned to secularize our hope and place any technical control over our circumstances. That gives us little ability to deal with uncertainty or precise trust.
I think that the bottom line is that efforts to control our health will almost always do more harm than good. That doesn’t mean that we’re not interested in nurturing or stewarding our health but that’s very different from controlling our health.
Definitely. I think this next thought will actually play into this a little bit. You do bring up a way of thinking about healthcare that I think a lot of people have never really thought about. I certainly really didn’t. That health can be understood as either a possession that you have or a gift that you’ve been given.
Can you explain these two views of healthcare? Then the one that we as Christians probably should take?
Well, this really gets at the core challenge of the book, Isaac. Both for me in writing it and for the reader in reading it. As I was thinking about trying to write a book about health you immediately think, “Well, I need to define health.” Then as I began to do that I realized, first of all, there’s already been so many good efforts at that. I couldn’t do any better than that.
Once you actually decide that you’re going to define health you’re already in the wrong place because once you make an effort to define it then you start getting into measuring it and controlling it and ultimately you corrupt it. For me, it was really crucial that I needed to get the conversation back behind what is health to what kind of thing health is, the nature of health. What kind of thing it is rather than what it is.
While it would be a mistake to try to define love or define wisdom or define the satisfaction of good work we would actually hinder it by trying to over-define it. We know it when we see it. The important thing is to first recognize it for what kind of thing it is. For me, it was really important that I try to take us back to the thing of,
is it a possession or is it a gift?
That’s the book. Basically it’s trying to show the damage done when we treat it as a possession and the possibilities if we treat it as a gift. Really, if it’s a gift we receive it in gratitude and in a sense we feel a sense of indebtedness that we would use it well, that it’s given so that we can feel good purposes in our life. We are going to nurture it, we’re going to invest it. We’re not going to try to control it as if it’s something that’s our possession. I think that was the great challenge of the book for me to write and I hope it’s a great challenge for the reader to read it.
Yeah, for sure. Now would you say that changing your mindset to view health as a gift from God that you nurture have you seen that help people bring down their worry and anxiety? How would that work out that way?
I think when you see it as a gift and you see it as a given then you begin to realize that the giver of the gift, who gives the good things like health, has every desire to see our lives flourish within the gifts he’s given us.
In a sense then you realize that you’re not alone in the world trying to defend yourself against all the dangers that are out there. There are many we know. We live in an evil world. We are actually walking with a good God who has every good desire for us. When you entrust your life to God it allows you to not take unnecessary risks with your health but more invest your health and not consider your health a primary good but a secondary good, that God is the only primary good, and even something as good as health gets corrupted if we make it a primary good.
It becomes a secondary good that we receive as a gift from the primary good who is God.
It allows us to enter into life with much more enthusiasm, much more energy, and much more hope, and I think much more involvement in the lives of other people in a meaningful way.
That’s good. That’s really good. Now you talk about this “wall of the world” that we sit on. You bring up the whole idea of Humpty sitting on this wall.
What is this wall of the world? Then if some of us are on this wall, that you’re going to tell us what that is right now, what advice would you give us to help us down safely?
Well, I have to really thank Lewis Carroll. I’ve got a lot of mileage from Humpty Dumpty. It’s just an amazing story when I read it and thought of what I was trying to teach.
Here you have Humpty Dumpty, this egg in a fragile shell, up high on a wall thinking that he’s invulnerable, thinking that he’s independent, and thinking that he’s in control and arrogantly thinking that he is the master of his universe. It was just such an analogy for me of what modern culture tells us about our own lives. That we really do live in a world that tells us we are in control, that everything about the world around us is saying, “You’re in the driver’s seat” or if you’re not, you should be.
You absorb that. You breathe that in with the air you breathe in and you begin to think that you actually are in control of your lives and you can do it independently and invulnerably. You’re high up on this wall and the higher up you are, of course, the more danger it is when you fall.
I think for me that’s one of the reasons why I’ve noticed how sickness is so surprising to so many people. It’s kind of a shock to their sense of things because it discomfortly reminds them of their mortality and it shows that their invulnerability is quite a thin veneer.
I just think that probably we’re at a crossroads in our world because we have never really been here before where we have such an amazing capacity to avoid our dependence and vulnerability as human beings. We can continue to try and act as if we can make that go away whereas one of my colleagues said, “To relieve the human condition of the human condition.”
What we really have to do is recognize that it is a central part of who we are. Now how you do that, there’s many ways to do that. The first thing is just to recognize the wisdom of the age, that
we are vulnerable dependent creatures.
You can use an old adverb and proverb like, “I am because we are” and it’s the whole idea that you can’t be alone and healthy in your life.
As Christians, we can even use something as important as the doctrine of the trinity where in the very interrelationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the trinity teaches us that to be God-like is to be in a dependent relationship. Not independent and in control and having our own power. Just beginning with that wisdom of our theological, Biblical worldview.
Now how you come down, if you realize you need to come down, and I think that’s the important thing, first is to realize you’re up there and that’s one of the deceptions of our culture is that we don’t realize what we’re breathing in. I think one of the things you should do is watch people who know how to live invulnerable dependant relationships to spend time with them. That could be children, that could be the elderly, that could be disabled, that could be the poor.
I really think that what you want to do is see community at work and to be a part of it. I’m hoping that for many of your listeners that Christian community would be a place for that.
If I have a minute to tell a story about Christian community. When I was a young Christian in New York City I was a part of a tiny little church. An elderly disabled woman was coming to the church named Grace. Grace was blind and Grace had a neck brace and she was alone and she had no one and different people would bring her to church.
In my short time there in medical school, she got baptized and shortly thereafter it was revealed that she had a terminal illness. She had no family except the church family. I’ll never forget. This is a very strong impression upon a young Christian like myself at that time is to see how the church formed community around her. She went into the hospital for her last days and the church said, “We are going to set up a vigil that around the clock for 24 hours, as long as Grace is with us, we will have someone in the church by her side.”
We all participated in that. I spent my time there. What was remarkable was, first of all, to see the Christian community at work supporting one another in dependent relationship. The interesting thing, Isaac, is the witness it gave to the hospital staff. They were so intrigued and so smitten by this church community supporting Grace that it was a witness in a sense.
I think that the Christian community can really be a place where we learn how to live in vulnerable, dependent relationships.
That’s so good. Thanks for sharing that, Bob. Now as we begin to wrap up here with these last few questions there are many young adults … Not just young adults. This stretches over all demographics but lots of young adults that seem obsessed with their health. Fitness, weight, diet, they feel like maybe Humpty, that they can be in control of it.
Now in many circumstances, obviously, these activities, this sort of anxiety can get in the way of their community, of church, their own spiritual devotion, things like that, so what are your thoughts on this obsession? Then what do you think needs to change? You probably are going to say some things twice now because we’ve already talked a little bit about that.
Well, I think that one of the things we have to recognize is that a lot of our obsession with health is because we’re focusing on how we look. We’re focusing on our image. In other words,
we’re not trying to actually be healthy. We’re trying to look good.
I think at one point we need to make sure that we pierce that delusion and say why are we really pursuing healthy activities and make sure that we’re not focusing on image.
I think the other thing would be is, it’s again connected to this thinking that we were talking about is whether we can control our health. I think that’s one of the first things we need to do. Our healthy activities cannot be pursued as if we can control our health.
Let me give an analogy that I think might be really helpful for your audience because I know that there’s a lot of young adults in your audience that either have children or maybe are thinking of having children. I guess the analogy I would have is if you think about your children I would ask you how much control do you think you have over what your kids will turn out to be?
That’s a very interesting question because that’s one of the cultural messages we get with the way we raise our children. They think if we do it just right they’re going to turn out just right. In fact, we know over and over again that we can’t control what our children will turn out to be.
Now I want to be very careful to say that it’s a good analogy because just like health we can have a great influence over our health, we can have a great influence over what our children turn out to be.
If we’re raising them in an environment of warmth and stability, that’s going to do buckets for them as far as what they might turn out to be. We really have no control over what they’ll turn out to be. I think that just like the more we try to control our children, the more we get in the way of God’s good purposes for them. It’s the same with health. The more we try to control our health.
The obsession with health if it is related to either image or trying to control an outcome, we’re pursuing it for the wrong reasons.
We may still end up doing the same activity, exercising in the morning or eating good food, it may not change the actual action but it will change the motivation and then ultimately then changes whether it becomes an obsession or it becomes a good habit.
That’s very good. I really wanted to ask this question because I find your role as a physician for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless pretty interesting. I like that. I wanted to ask how has healthcare with the poor and the marginalized helped shape your understanding of health in general?
Well, Isaac, I’ve been really lucky that very early in my career I received a very specific call to work with the outcast in healthcare. I think in a sense anyone who receives a call early in their life to know exactly what they should be doing for much of their professional care it’s a great gift.
I think besides that I didn’t realize what a gift it was and that living in the trenches with folks, experiencing a lot of the times, their experience of powerlessness, I was much more able to see my own true state of health, which was really good for my own human condition and my spiritual condition.
I think that being called has made me so much more aware of God’s grace. It’s made me so much more aware of the need to depend on others for health, that health really does need community, and then unfortunately it’s also made me so much more aware of how the selfishness of our world and the injustices that proceed from them are a cause of so much poor health.
I really think that it’s helped me to see myself see the world and see God at work in the world more closely because of this intimate relationship. If I can just make a small call out to your young adult folks, I just really want to encourage them that you really may not realize how blind we are in our culture. That how much is influenced in our thinking.
I really think that for many of us our culture is so powerful and it’s almost like driving in a car without windows. There’s so much cultural dust and debris … If we had windows it’s almost like a snowstorm with no windshield wipers. In a sense we go to church on Sunday and drink this protein shake and then during the rest of the week we’re drinking this cultural mix of individualism and personal choice and technical control. I don’t think we realize.
My call out to your young adults is do something to help you to get out of your cultural box. There’s several ways you can do it. I’ve told people one of the ways of course I’m sure young folks have done this is to see it from another place, like go to another part of the world, and see it from that perspective or see it from another time.
I’ve told people, “Try to read a lot of books that are at least 50 to 100 years old.” You’ll get a totally different perspective on your world. Or in my case, and I think this is good for anybody, it’s to learn to see things from the perspective of the down and out. I really think that if you spend time with folks like that you’re going to get a better view of how God sees the world. You’ve got to do something. That’s my plea to your folks.
That’s so good. That obviously wraps up our time. Bob, thank you so much for taking your time out of your day to chat with me about this important subject that I don’t think a lot of people think about. I’m glad that we talked about it.
If you’re listening and lie what Bob’s been talking about, what we’ve been talking about health and faith, if that interests you at all I’d encourage you to grab Dr. Bob Cutillo’s book Pursuing Health in An Anxious Age. You can find that at Crossway. I can put all the links on the episode page as well for you. Anyways, again, thank you so much, Bob. I hope to have you back on the show again soon.
Okay, Isaac. Thanks for conversing with me. It was a great conversation.