Bible study or home groups meetings are part of the life of many churches between Sundays. In preparation for a shared time of prayer, group members often talk about health concerns of individuals and lift these people up to God for his grace and healing. Three observations may be made; (1) health issues are a common concern of people in a church community; (2) the working definition of health is often limited to bio-medical dysfunctions or injuries; and, (3) there is a sense that God’s involvement transcends the work of medical specialists.
I submit that health and well-being are virtually synonymous concepts for most of us in western countries. Our default option, when considering health, is the biomedical dimension. We may overlook the example of robust individuals who are wounded people that inflict damage on themselves, others, and the created order. Yet most of us would acknowledge that such people are not healthy notwithstanding their strength and vigor. This extreme example challenges us in our reflections, prayers, and pastoral work to move beyond the well-being of physical bodies and to consider other dimensions of health.
Eight dimensions of health
As indicated above, our working definition of health often has a select group of themes related to the biomedical functioning of our bodies. I call this the first dimension of health because of the immediate association of modern medical practice with individual well-being. In those times when we are unable to function at an acceptable level, there is a general tendency to seek the assistance of medical specialists in designated locations. The sense of need intensifies both in times of crisis and in the long-term process of watching our strength decline due to age. We turn to doctors, nurses, rehabilitation specialists, and pharmaceutical products that we find in clinics, hospitals, and pharmacies.
In recent years, some people in western countries have broadened the definition of well-being to include mental health. We acknowledge that people struggle with issues such as self-concept, traumas from the past, and distorted perceptions. Accordingly, mental health concerns now have a place alongside bio-medical matters as people are helped in the process of restoration to functional levels of health.
However, it may be timely to open discussion about other dimensions of health. In a general manner we would all agree that human life is complex. Christians would say that we were created with a range of needs including physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual. Working from this perspective, I wish to propose that there are eight health dimensions that play a role in defining the well-being of individuals and their communities. The reader will note that in opposition to the hyper-individualism of our time, I hold that personal health is related to the collective health of one’s community.
|Biomedical||Concerned with the functioning of the physical body, disease, and injury.||Doctors, nurses, nutritionists, pharmacists, personal exercise trainers etc.|
|Concerned with self-knowledge, stability, and positive attitudes.||Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, diverse counsellors and pharmacists.|
|Family relationships||Concerned with the quality of relationships in the immediate and extended family. The goal is a balanced sense of belonging and independence in a warm and supportive environment.||Families members generally seek to resolve their own issues. Outside professionals may include social workers, counsellors, police, and lawyers.|
|Community Networks||Concerned with functional communities that offer employment, education, recreation, and a sense of belonging. Optimal community networks are dependable, just, accessible, and non-discriminatory.||Politicians, employers, public servants, and leaders of civic organizations including places of worship.|
|Security||Concerned with people’s confidence that the basic needs of human dignity will be met. These include shelter, food, transportation, primary medical care, and protection. Reliance on government and family may be detrimental to one’s sense of self worth.||Social workers. People that address chronic poverty in the charitable sector|
|Intellectual||Concerned with encouraging open and enquiring minds. Intellectual health involves the freedom to ask questions, to think critically, and to examine one’s cultural assumptions.||Teachers. Community librarians. Youth works. Poets. Artists.|
|Creation||Concerned with the well-being of the planet including clean air, pure water, biodiversity of ecosystems, and the health of soil and oceans.||Environmental scientists and activists.|
|Spiritual||Concerned with the big questions of God, the purpose of life, morality, and eternal life.||Pastors. Rabbis. Imams.|
We recognize the painful reality that our bodies were made in such a way that we are constantly endangered by disease, injury, misfortune, and violence along with the ravages of time. No one escapes death as we experience it during this life. 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 use science to end our lives in ways that we choose).
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, wonder at the goodness of creation, and depend on God’s loving presence. I have tried to express this broader view of health through the eight dimensions.
A Hebrew poet asked God to teach us to number our days so that we could live with wisdom (Ps. 90.12). This Psalmist would have 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 well at every life stage, including those troubling times when our bodies are weakened and the shadows of death lengthen around us. We are challenged to redefine “health” in a broader way for people in our congregational communities.