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How Fundamentalist Prohibitions Cause Needless Suffering and Pain

sin can make you sick

Polly’s father, who died two years ago, was always a hard worker, often able to work circles around men half his age. He and I got along well because we both had that workaholic drive, the need to constantly be busy and get things done. However, at the age of sixty-five, Dad was in an industrial accident that injured his back and required immediate surgery. He never walked straight again.

Soon, pain became an ever-present reality for him. Dad, having been taught that taking narcotics could lead to addiction, refused to take anything more than Tylenol or aspirin. Later in life, Naproxen was added to the mix, as was Darvocet, a drug that was later removed from the market due to serious side effects. Dad would do his best to only take what he thought he needed, often only taking half a pill or going without taking anything for several days. No matter how often I reminded him that it would be better if he took the drugs regularly and on schedule, he continued to endure the pain rather than take the drugs as the doctor ordered. Dad’s doctor eventually gave him a prescription for Tramadol, and later prescribed Oxycontin. Finally, I thought, Dad will find some relief for his pain and suffering. Sadly, that was not to be.

You see, Dad was afraid of becoming addicted. I tried to explain to him the difference between addiction and dependence, but I don’t think heard me. Having been a narcotic user for seventeen years, I know that I am physically dependent; I’m not an addict. I take the drugs as prescribed. I wish that Dad had seen that being dependent is no big deal, and that regularly taking Oxycontin would have reduced his pain and improved his quality of life. Unfortunately, thinking drug dependence is a sin kept Dad from getting the full benefit of the drug.

This is a perfect example of how Fundamentalist prohibitions cause unneeded suffering and pain. From preaching that says addiction (dependence) is a sin to viewing pain and suffering as some sort of test from God, many Fundamentalists eschew drugs and treatments that would likely improve their quality of life. Better to suffer for Jesus, the thought goes, than to become dependent on narcotics. In just a little while, Jesus is coming again . . .so endure until you see your Savior’s smiling face.

I pastored numerous people over the years who thought taking pain medications was a sign of weakness or lack of dependence on God. I watched one man horrifically suffer from bowel cancer, unwilling to take drugs for the pain. I’ve come to see that this is the Evangelical version of Catholic self-flagellation.

As an atheist, I am deeply troubled by this kind of thinking. Since I think this life is the only one we have, we should do all we can to eliminate not only our own pain and suffering, but that of others. Since there is no Heaven and no reward in the sweet by and by, why needlessly suffer? Better to become dependent on narcotics and have some sort of pain relief and improved quality of life than to go through life suffering, only to die in the end.  While I certainly think having a chronic illness and living with unrelenting pain has made me more compassionate, I don’t wish such a life on anyone, especially those I love.

How about you? Were you taught that taking narcotics and becoming dependent on them was a sin? Please share your story in the comment section.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    Working in a hospital, I see this dynamic regularly. Especially as we’re on the other side of the opiod epidemic, so many people are terrified of becoming addicts. Patients, especially older ones who may have seen a family member struggle with addiction and want to set a good example to younger ones, will forego pain meds that would give them welcome relief. And many chronic pain sufferers like yourself aren’t educated in the difference between a drug use disorder and dependence and high tolerance. Even more tragic – cruel, even – are patients whose doctors don’t understand the difference and won’t give chronic pain or like cancer patients the meds they need for relief. Who cares if someone is an addict if they have terminal cancer????
    Experiencing or enduring pain when it could be reduced or eliminated is not virtuous or strong or anything. It’s needless suffering.

  2. Avatar

    I think that happened in the SDA church. The good part was that the church believed that God gave people the ability to do medical work, so hence all the SDA hospitals. But still, taking something just to get pure relief? It seems like most conservative groups are somewhat opposed. And also, people having emotional stuff was seen as mostly a sin problem, which is completely wrong.

  3. Avatar

    When a family member is in constant pain, that becomes a burden on the rest of the family. The sufferer may be grouchy or unwilling to participate in activities. And the sufferer tries to hide the pain.

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    I don’t recall that my Southern Baptist family ever turned down medical care recommendations EXCEPT when my mom was pregnant at age 38 and her doctor recommended a battery of tests on the fetus, including amniocentesis. She refused the testing, saying, I can’t/won’t have an abortion anyway so I don’t want to know if there’s something wrong with the baby.

    All of my relatives who had terminal cancer took morphine, and no one complained about it. Everyone hoped for a miracle, but no one could fathom watching the loved one suffer needlessly when the morphine was available.

    Here are areas that were NOT specifically religious where I saw pushback:

    1) epidural for childbirth – this was over 20 years ago, but there was a prevalent movement of women showing their badge of courage/toughness by NOT using any painkillers during childbirth. During my 1st childbirth, I was induced, and I tried to put off as long as possible getting an epidural because of that thinking. I lasted about 4 hours until I couldn’t take it anymore. With the 2nd kid, I got the epidural as early as they let me, and the experience was way better.

    2) menopause hormone therapy – there’s a movement to tough out menopause symptoms, though research shows that there are numerous benefits for bone, cardiac, and brain health for those who can take MHT, not to mention the benefits of improved sleep.

    • Avatar
      Karen the rock whisperer

      My mom-in-law and sis-in-law (her daughter) both took what was then called hormone replacement therapy for years, before their respective gynecologists retired, the new ones told them firmly that long-term therapy was linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, and weaned them off of it. (Maybe the therapy itself has changed? This was a good two and a half decades ago for Mom, a little less than two for Sis.) A correlation, that does NOT demonstrate causation, is that both women suffered breast cancer. Mom’s responded well to a lumpectomy and radiation, and she has been cancer-free for a decade and a half. Sis’ was treated half a decade ago with chemo/lumpectomy/radiation, and two years later it returned and she needed a full mastectomy.

      I had a dozen hot flashes in my late 40s and my body said, “we’re good”. I never even saw a gynecologist. I’m aware that menopause is rarely so easy, and my aging body has, er, made up for that one bit of ease with other chronic problems.

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