Every six months a General Conference of the Church is held in Salt Lake City, Utah, and is broadcast around the world via satellite and the Internet. This is a venue for Church leaders to teach, expound, and clarify the doctrines, beliefs, and practices of the Church. At the most recent conference in October 2013 there were two talks about health-related subjects. I thought it would be useful to review these as we approach conference again next month.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland
In his talk entitled “Like a Broken Vessel,” Elder Holland discussed psychiatric disorders, and major depressive disorder in particular. He advocated for the destigmatization of these disorders, and stated that “there should be no more shame in acknowledging them than in acknowledging a battle with high blood pressure or the sudden appearance of a malignant tumor.” His treatment of the subject was very sensitive and heartfelt as he drew upon his personal experiences with depression in close friends and in himself.
Elder Holland taught that diseases of the mind can happen to anyone, because we live in a fallen world where bad things happen even to good people. As in all of life’s challenges, we can and must draw upon the Lord for strength. “Trust in God,” Elder Holland admonishes. “Hold on in His love. Know that one day the dawn will break brightly and all shadows of mortality will flee. Though we may feel we are ‘like a broken vessel,’ as the Psalmist says, we must remember, that vessel is in the hands of the divine potter. Broken minds can be healed just the way broken bones and broken hearts are healed. While God is at work making those repairs, the rest of us can help by being merciful, nonjudgmental, and kind.” We may not have deliverance from these trials in this life, but we can certainly look forward to perfect healing in the resurrection. This teaching is consistent with the view that mental illnesses are organic disorders, based on biological functioning, rather than simply moral weaknesses.
I felt that Elder Holland did a good job of navigating this challenging topic, providing helpful teachings and instructions based on sound scriptural doctrine while being consistent with the current disease model of psychiatric illness.
Elder Russell M. Nelson
Russell M. Nelson, MD, PhD was a pioneer in open heart surgery during the 1950’s, and was internationally renowned as a cardiothoracic surgeon before he was called to be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He has spoken on health-related topics on many occasions in Church meetings. In fact, a devotional talk he gave at the University of Utah when I was an undergraduate student there became an important part of my decision to pursue a career in medicine. I may tell that story in a later post. (Update: here is the later post.)
In his October 2013 General Conference address, entitled “Decisions for Eternity,” Dr. Nelson draws upon his knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of the human body to illustrate the wonder and gift of God’s creation. The nervous system, the cardiovascular system, the immune system, and other body systems all testify of God’s goodness to us. Even the body’s imperfections can be seen as blessings. Summarizing this part of his talk, he says:
With your body being such a vital part of God’s eternal plan, it is little wonder that the Apostle Paul described it as a “temple of God.” Each time you look in the mirror, see your body as your temple. That truth—refreshed gratefully each day—can positively influence your decisions about how you will care for your body and how you will use it. And those decisions will determine your destiny. How could this be? Because your body is the temple for your spirit. And how you use your body affects your spirit. Some of the decisions that will determine your eternal destiny include:
- How will you choose to care for and use your body?
- What spiritual attributes will you choose to develop?
Elder Nelson’s discussion highlights an important concept in our theology. The human soul is composed of two parts: the spirit, which is eternal, and the body, which is temporal. We are the children of our Heavenly Father, and we lived with him as spirits before we came to live as mortals on earth. God created our physical world, including our bodies, as part of his eternal plan for our happiness. Because our spirits are housed in our bodies, the care we provide for our bodies can have a large impact on our spiritual health. The converse is also true: our spiritual health can be reflected in the way we care for our bodies.
With this doctrinal backdrop it should be clear why so many of God’s commandments relate to the way we care for our physical bodies, and the way we treat other people’s bodies, and the way we join together to create brand new human bodies. It is perfectly sensible that God would have something to say about all of these things. Isn’t it also sensible for us, his imperfect and shortsighted children, to seek for and try to follow the advice of our perfectly wise and loving Father in Heaven when it comes to these and other important matters?