My friend Sharlene Craig helped me think through some of the content of the last post on 8 dimensions of health. I have reduced the number of dimensions to seven. I have also tried to show that a problem of specialized care is that we concentrate on one dimension of well-being to the exclusion of others. Trusted friends and spiritual advisers play an important role in helping us to redefine and reshare our expectations of what it means to live fully and meaningfully during different chapters of our lives.
I appreciate further comments. This reflection will hopefully serve as an entrance point to understanding the healings and miracles stories of our faith.
Bible study or home groups meetings are part of the ministry program of many churches. In preparation for a time of shared prayer, group members often talk about the health concerns of people in the congregation before lifting them up to God for his grace and healing. We want to make three observations; (1) there is a common concern for biomedical issues (diseases and injuries) that affect people of our congregations; (2) people of faith sense the need for God’s intervention in addition to the assistance of paid professionals; and, (3) other issues related to the health of individuals and communities are often neglected in conversations and prayers.
We submit that health and well-being are virtually synonymous concepts for most of us in western countries. Well-being is a broad concept that has several dimensions. Yet when we discuss health, often our default option is reduced to biomedical considerations. We may fail to engage in broader conversations, prayer, and pastoral care that encompasses other dimensions that are integral to living a full and abundant life.
The limitation of this fixation on biomedical health can be illustrated in the following example. Bradley is a robust middle–aged man. He works out regularly in a gym with the advice of a personal trainer. His blood and heart tests are normal. He has not missed a day of work in the past 10 years. However, things are not as good in other areas of Bradley’s life. At work, where he is a manager, Bradley has trouble with employee retention and morale. He is officially on a work improvement plan. He has lived on his own since his marriage ended five years ago. His children avoid him. His neighbors think he is angry and overbearing. He has no significant friendships. Most of us would acknowledge that someone like Bradley is not healthy notwithstanding his physical strength and vigor. This extreme example challenges us to broaden our working definition of health.
Seven dimensions of health
It may be timely to open discussion about multiple dimensions of health. There is general agreement that our well-being is a complex and multi-faceted concept. Christians would say that we were created with a range of needs including physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual. Working from this perspective, we wish to propose a working model that has seven health dimensions that together play a role in defining the well-being of individuals and their communities. Each dimension relates to the other six in different ways to form a pattern of intersecting lines.
The biomedical functioning of our bodies can be considered as the first dimension of health. In times of crisis, we seek assistance of doctors, nurses, rehabilitation specialists, and pharmaceutical products that we find in clinics, hospitals, and pharmacies.
In recent years, people in western countries have broadened the definition of well-being to include mental health. We acknowledge that individuals struggle with issues such as self-concept, traumas from the past, and distorted perceptions. Mental health specialists include psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors with diverse products including psychoanalysis, self-help books, and anti-depressant pharmaceuticals.
The third dimension of our proposal is supportive relationships with family and a broader community of people. Well-being requires a balanced sense of belonging and independence, participation in the lives of others, trust, and acceptance. When there are relational dysfunctions in families or social networks, professional assistance may be sought from social workers, therapists, and other counsellors.
The fourth dimension of health is security. A sense of well-being requires relative confidence that needs for food and shelter will be met in an adequate manner. Security also includes access to education, health care, and public safety without fear of prejudice or oppression. In countries like Canada and the USA, we depend on governments and the business sector for fair employment, social policies, and the protection of citizen’s rights.
We propose that intellectual well-being is the fifth dimension of health. This category is concerned with encouraging open and enquiring minds. Intellectual health involves the freedom to ask questions, to learn, to think critically, and to examine one’s cultural assumptions. The professionals generally associated with intellectual health are teachers, librarians, poets, artists, and authors.
The sixth dimension of health is concerned with the ways that we individually and corporately relate to God’s creation. Human well-being depends on the quality of air, purity of water, preservation of bio-diversity, and maintenance of soil nutrients. The abuse and exploitation of the environment is a threat to our existence. The list of professionals concerned with creation care include scientists, conservationists, farmers, certain politicians and activists.
The seventh health dimension is spiritual in that it concerns our relationship with God the Creator and Sustainer of all life. The spiritual dimension probes the big questions of the purpose of life, morality, forgiveness, and eternal life. The professionals in this area are people like pastors, rabbis, and imams.
Our bodies were made in such a way that we would recognize our finite and vulnerable nature. We are endangered by disease, injury, misfortune, and violence along with the ravages of time. Every human life ends with death. This commonality explains, at least partially, our concentration on the biomedical dimension of health. We have the desire to extend life as far as modern science makes possible (and even to have the right to use science to end our lives).
This singular focus has restricted our understanding of what it means to live in ways that are full and meaningful. Well-being is a thick concept that is not restricted to the biomedical or mental health dimensions. People that enjoy well-being have a realistic self understanding, thrive on supportive relationships, participate in their communities, appreciate basic securities, wonder at the goodness of creation, and depend on God’s loving presence. We have tried to express this broader view of health through the seven dimensions.
We deliberately included a list of qualified professionals associated with each dimension to make the point that specialists may perpetuate a narrow focus that fails to consider other components of well-being of individuals within their communities. As a result, we must rely on trusted family members, close friends, and spiritual advisers to help us to navigate and balance our needs and desires regarding how to live well.
A Hebrew poet asked God to teach us to number our days so that we could live with wisdom (Ps. 90.12). This Psalmist understood wisdom in a practical manner. I am attracted to Eugene Peterson’s translation: “Teach us to live wisely and well.” I propose that congregational leaders have an important role in helping people to live fully and meaningfully through different life stages. The seven dimensions of health require us to be attentive to the well-being of individuals and communities including the quality of relationships, social equity, opportunities for intellectual growth, respect for creation, and spiritual nurture. Our dialogue, pastoral work, and prayers should be grounded in a broader definition of health.
Gordon King lives in Calgary, Canada. He is author of Seed Falling on Good Soil: Rooting our Lives in the Parables of Jesus (2016),
Sharlene Craig is director of Human Resources and Member Care for Canadian Baptist Ministries.