When considering the interaction between mission and individual health it is interesting to note that the modern medical mission is almost the complete antithesis of the Biblical pattern. More accurately it follows the pattern exemplified by those that know not God. This paper will outline the New Testament teaching on health and attempt to apply that to the world today; especially in the context of Mission.
The first thing to make clear is that the Bible clearly teaches that the infirmities of the unsaved human condition are caused by the fall and that they will not be rectified until the Lord returns. In fact we are told that God deliberately subjected the creature to infirmity to alert it to the more serious spiritual malaise. Therefore if we were to 'wave a magic wand' or more realistically develop some magic pill that removed the majority of the individuals suffering then we would be directly thwarting God's plan to alert the person to their need for salvation.
Even within redeemed humanity we are told that the principle reason for infirmity is a lack of prayer. Of course the famous example of Paul's 'thorn in the flesh' teaches us that prayer may not cause the infirmity to be removed. In fact Paul learned that infirmity in the believer may well be a source of great blessing.
2Co 12:10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
We see therefore that for the believer the goal is not so much to achieve perfect health so much as to achieve the collection of infirmities that most suits us to our God given task. The Spirit helps in assembling this collection in order that God's plan may be carried out.
For the non-believer these infirmities do not fit them to a task; they are to reduce their pride and to warn them of the potential of death. In New Testament times this close correlation between spiritual and physical need was miraculously linked by the ability of the Lord to heal sin and the body at the same time. Within the apostles this same ability to miraculously heal was a sign to the population that these men had the ability to radically alter lives. Thus the miraculous nature of the healing emphasized the spiritual reality that the ailment had been sent to disclose.
Viewed this way it can immediately be seen that a medical mission based upon Western medicine most certainly does not help to alert the individual to their spiritual need. On the contrary it suggests that if they can get enough money and human wisdom then you too will be able to afford the medicines we take for granted today. It is ironic that American evangelism is fighting a battle against complacency, conceit and monetarism and yet those are exactly the three attitudes that we seek to export first when approaching an otherwise ripe mission field.
Balancing the above is the issue of compassion. Whilst we may understand that someone has lung cancer because of years of smoking we should not be able to look upon them coughing blood without feeling the same love for them that their Savior would. We also have no excuse to be less loving to our neighbor than a Godless person. Therefore if infirmity is brought into our pathway then we have a normal human obligation to do what we can to help. Further we should honor this obligation more fervently because we have the Spirit within. However this should be our normal human behavior; it has nothing to do with our mission.
Some have suggested that in addition to the matter of the health of the 'sent to' population that the health of the missionary should be considered by a sending church. To me this is entirely ludicrous. If the Spirit is sending someone to a location then we must assume that the Great Physician knows how the body He created will function at that location. If someone is being sent we should send them if we have to do it on a gurney. Equally if the Spirit is not sending someone to a location then no matter how good their health we should not send them their; or they may well return on a gurney!
In the preceding I have attempted to show that we have to be particularly careful if we use a service-led approach to missions focusing upon healthcare. Not only do we risk distracting ourselves from the Great Commission but we also risk severely reducing the receptivity of the target population. Health and sin are intricately interwoven and our commission is to deal with the issue of sin. I also noted that our commission is of course different from our human behavior and that compassion should lead us to assist those placed in our pathway. Finally I refuted the notion that health should play any part in missionary selection.