Prayers or Pills?

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.


In case you just found this blog, this week’s installment is a little different from usual because it’s a continuation of the chapter from last week. So if you haven’t seen that post, you should read it first by clicking here. (Don’t worry, we’ll just talk amongst ourselves until you get back.)

In addition to what we discussed last week, this part of our family’s story also raises a common point of conflict between faith and medical care: How do I choose to treat any given symptom? In essence: “Do I pray about this, or do I take a pill?”

For most people, the answer is pretty clear when considering physical conditions. However, when dealing with mental or psychological problems, the water can get more than a little murky. Before going any further, please understand that I am not a doctor. So do not take what I’m saying as medical advice without first discussing it with your doctor – or perhaps even a couple of doctors.

Now with that said, let’s consider a few of the issues that you should take into account when considering a medication – for you or your loved one.

1. Can a pill address the real problem?

The first thing to consider is whether the real problem can even be fixed with a pill at all. To be sure, there are many medical reasons for psychological symptoms such as depression or anxiety, and the pills that medical science has produced are very good at handling these conditions. The problem is, what happens if the symptoms aren’t the result of a medical problem? If the symptoms are instead rooted in a spiritual problem, the pills many suppress them for a while, but the symptoms will return as soon as the pills wear off.

To address this potential, pills should ideally be given in concert with counseling from someone who is qualified to help the patient identify whether a pill is really going to help what is fundamentally wrong.

2. Lack of Authenticity

To highlight how complex these situations can become, let’s now consider the other side of the coin: Janet’s case. She didn’t want to have a pill “make her” be happy. Her underlying concern is that the happiness wouldn’t be “real” because the medicine is simply covering up a problem – which, of course, technically it is. The difference is that the “real problem”, in this case, is an incurable disease. Therefore, the best we can hope for is to cover up a troublesome symptom.

The fancy medical term for this type of treatment is “palliative care”. Again, much prayer and counseling should be used to guide you in making the correct choice.

3. Duration

This point goes with the previous two. Unless there is an underlying medical condition, psychoactive medication, should not be considered a long-term solution. If an otherwise healthy person is on this type of medication for years at a time, that diagnosis is likely one that should be revisited, with a different doctor, if possible. As an example of what you want to avoid, it is unfortunately common for doctors at the VA (the US Veterans Administration) to have vets suffering from PTSD and other conditions on a veritable cocktail of psychoactive drugs for decades with no real improvement in their condition.

Given a reasonable amount of time, if a treatment isn’t working, starting exploring what alternatives might exist for the failed treatment. For example, a recent study presents some exciting results for treating psychiatric problems with exercise. Note that the referenced document is a medical research paper so slogging through it can be slow going, but it contains a lot a good information.

4. Follow up

No competent doctor will put someone on a medication without ensuring that there is adequate follow up. The goal of this follow up is to make sure that the medicine is working with no, or at least acceptable, side-effects. In addition, while some side-effects show up right away, others can take much longer to appear. Therefore, ongoing checking and rechecking is needed.

For example, at one point Janet was on a common epilepsy medication to help control her body movements. She took it without problems for over 4 years, then suddenly it stopped working and began causing problems of its own.

5. Qualifications

The medication that I am taking can be legally prescribed by anyone with an “M.D.” after their name. But that doesn’t mean that just any doctor should be prescribing it. With specialized drugs, your primary care physician may not have had the training needed to identify problematic reactions before they become major health concerns.

Don’t be afraid to ask your doctors about their experience with the drug they are wanting to give you or a loved one.

6. Staying Alert

Continuing with the idea of healthy scepticism, whenever a new medication is recommended, you need to look it up online yourself. You can’t trust even the best doctor to tell you everything that you might need to know.

Janet has been blessed with some really excellent doctors, but once she was prescribed a drug that would have had a potentially deadly interaction with a thyroid medication that she was taking. This situation has only come up once, but in this case, even once would have been too much.

Beyond these sorts of situations, a caregiver has another advantage over a medical professional, in that you know your loved one better than they do. Consequently, you stand a much better chance of identifying subtle changes in their behavior. Good doctors will recognize this fact, and be anxious to take advantage of your “expertise”.

7. Faithfull Confidence

Finally, there is another spiritual principle to consider. In his letter to the Romans, Paul discusses a couple issues for which there was no definitive right or wrong answer. The logical point he makes is that if you don’t in good-faith have confidence that the course you’re going to pursue is acceptable, but go ahead and do it anyway, your actions are essentially saying to God, “It may be wrong, but I don’t really care.”

So whether you take the medication, or don’t, you need to be fully convinced in your own mind.

In Christ, Amen ☩


A prayer for when you are starting a new medicine…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for all the ways that You take care of us, heal our wounds and comfort us in our sorrows. But today I especially want to bless You for the knowledge that You give to doctors, researchers and scientists. Their skills make the world in which we live safer by turning killer diseases such as scarlet fever, into mere nuisances. Please guide my doctor in selecting a medication, knowing that in the end only You can ultimately heal. Amen”

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