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Examining one’s faith helps to bring God into focus

Paul Graves

A scientific study of religious faith must be, at best, an exercise in elusive conclusions. But that was the task a group of medical researchers took on recently.

A summary of the study of cancer patients and their religious beliefs was reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The Los Angeles Times news report of the study said that “researchers found that terminally ill cancer patients were nearly three times more likely to go on breathing machines or receive other invasive treatments if religion was an important part of their decision-making.”

“Such treatments didn’t improve the patients’ long-term chances, however.”

To get a fuller report of the study and its interpretations, I Googled “faith study from Journal of American Medical Association.” If you want to learn more about the study, I invite you to do the same.

For now, I simply want to reflect on how important it is to explore “faith,” even if it’s impossible to quantify it.

I don’t know what faith-related questions the study asked the participants. But I wonder if they were like Marcus Borg’s intriguing question in his book “The Heart of Christianity”: “What is your God most basically like?”

I like this question because it nudges us to consider how we “see” God as God, and also in relationship to us as people and in relationship to the world. It gets us to what we believe God’s essential character is like – the “stuff” of the God we want to be in charge of the world and sustainer of our lives.

The focus of our faith is very important to consider, for it helps determine whether we react negatively or respond positively to the inconsistencies and frustrations in our lives.

As I considered this, my mind wandered back to February 1997 when I wrote in this column about the “phoropter.”

You know what that is, don’t you? If you wear glasses, you know it well, even if you don’t know its formal name.

The phoropter is the weird instrument eye doctors use to determine what kind of glasses we need: “Now just focus on that letter. Is number 1 better, or number 2?”

As you focus on a letter, or two images on the wall, the doctor manipulates different lenses to bring visual clarity to one eye, then to the other.

As I consider God in my life, or reflect on how others “see” God in their lives, I easily think about the phoropter process.

The phoropter is a limited tool. It has only a finite number of lenses to help us see. So our “perfect vision” is determined by a machine and our own ability to “see” what is perfect vision for us. No perfection there.

A perfect vision of God isn’t possible either. We see God and our relationship with God through so many filters that we are never able to really, clearly see what our God is basically like.

But that doesn’t stop us from sometimes believing our vision of God is the only vision worth having. We can unintentionally settle for a “little g” god that is – at best – only a pale imitation of the God who created our world, who lives and breathes in each of us, who…

Oh, I’m sorry. I’m telling you about my version of God. I like to think my version is the best version.

But even my best version isn’t big enough, nor great enough to capture God. I suspect yours isn’t either.

Maybe that’s one reason the cancer patient study conclusions were so … inconclusive.

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is founder of Elder Advocates, an elder care consulting ministry. He can be contacted via e-mail at
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