Do You Believe in Miracles?
Turning to divine intervention when facing serious medical illness.
Posted Dec 15, 2017
Physicians are encouraged to understand and recognize the importance of their patients' spiritual and religious needs. For many, believing in miracles gives meaning to life, especially when their life is threatened.
Discovering that you or a loved one is seriously medically ill can be devastating, particularly if the prognosis is poor. Among the various responses to this type of news, such as experiencing disbelief, anguish, and worry, many people turn to spiritual support—including the hope for a miracle.
Believing in miracles is somewhat common. Holding these beliefs is not limited to certain age groups nor is it restricted to certain religious denominations or affiliations. In 2007, a survey of almost 36,000 Americans, age 18 to 70-plus, found that 78 percent of people under age 30 believed in miracles, and 79 percent among those older than 30 (Pew Research Center, 2010). With respect to religious affiliation, 83 percent of those who were affiliated believed in miracles in contrast to 55 percent of respondents who were unaffiliated. Although people from all religions believe in miracles, over 80 percent of those with Protestant and Catholic affiliations endorsed this belief.
Even physicians believe in miracles. A national poll of 1,100 physicians from different religious faiths asked whether they believed in miracles; 74 percent believed miracles occurred in the past and 73 percent held the belief that miracles occur today (Poll: Doctors Believe in Miracles, 2004). Moreover, 72 percent of the physicians believed that religion is a “reliable and necessary guide to life.”
Some people rely on religious or spiritual beliefs as a way to live their lives; however, many others turn to such beliefs in time of need. Relying on a powerful, beneficent, supernatural being (e.g., God, angels, guardians) to be present, and hopefully intervene, can help the afflicted cope with extremely difficult situations. In medical contexts, faith in God and/or the competency of their treating medical professionals can provide powerful psychological comfort. This is especially so when a patient believes God acts through physicians.
When a doctor predicts little to no chance for a patient’s recovery, it is not uncommon for the patient and/or family members to reject the prognosis. They may question the doctor’s predictive accuracy. Moreover, if they believe in divine intervention, the patient’s surrogate (usually a family member) may be more likely to request continuation of life support. In such cases, medical professionals who underestimate the importance of religious and spiritual beliefs may be undermining their patient’s medical care by creating conflicts and impaired bereavement (Widera, Rosenfeld, Fromme, Sulmasy, & Arnold 2011).
On the other hand, the quality of the patient’s life near the time of death can be adversely affected when individuals are steadfast in their hope for miraculous healing to the extent that they reject care that will ease the patient’s demise. Consequently, there needs to be a mutual understanding between the medical team and the patient and their family, where the spiritual beliefs of the patient/family are respected, and the medical condition is meaningfully and sensitively communicated to them.
In recent years, physicians have been encouraged to understand and recognize the importance of their patients' faith. This has resulted in more attention being paid by medical professionals in supporting patients’ and families’ spiritual and religious needs. More specifically, medical professionals:
- are having conversations with the patients and families regarding their religious concerns.
- are incorporating chaplains as part of the treatment team.
- may be prescribing prayer.
Generally, these types of considerations may not be extended to all patients, especially if there is no serious medical concern. However, regardless of the gravity of the medical condition, sensitivity to a patient’s spiritual needs can have an enormous impact on the doctor-patient relationship.
In cases of life-threatening illness where palliative care is provided, guidelines have been established recognizing the importance of “spiritual, religious, and existential aspects of care” (National Consensus Project for Quality Palliative Care, 2013). The following criteria are included in the guidelines:
- an interdisciplinary team that includes “spiritual care professionals” (ideally a professional chaplain) who can address the patient’s and family’s spiritual and existential issues that they may be confronting.
- care providers who are not chaplains receive training in spiritual screening and care skills.
- supporting the spiritual resources that provide strength to the patient.
- that the palliative professionals understand their own spirituality given the work that they do.
Although the literature supports that medical professionals inquire about and address a patient’s religious and spiritual concerns, there is no consensus as to whether they should disclose their own beliefs to their patients. It appears that the appropriateness of this issue is determined individually.
There are many people whose spiritual and religious beliefs include the existence of miracles. To some, these beliefs may seem peculiar or even reflective of mental illness. We should not be so inclined to mistake this faith in the supernatural as a sign of a mental disorder. Doing so takes away the power of giving meaning to life, especially in the direst of circumstances when life is threatened. This vehicle of hope should not be underestimated or debased.
National Consensus Project for Quality Palliative Care. (2013). Clinical practice guidelines for quality palliative care (3rd ed). Pittsburgh, Author. Retrieved from https://www.nationalcoalitionhpc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/NCP_Clinical_Practice_Guidelines_3rd_Edition.pdf
Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. (2010). Religion among the Millennials. Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/files/2010/02/millennials-report.pdf
Poll: Doctors believe in miracles. (2004, December 23). Retrieved from http://www.wnd.com/2004/12/28152/
Widera, E. W., Rosenfeld, K. E., Fromme, E. K., Sulmasy, D. P., & Arnold, R. M. (2011). Approaching patients and family members who hope for a miracle. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 42, 119-125. DOI:10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2011.03.008