A few years ago I had surgery to remove my thyroid after discovering a cancerous tumor two days before Christmas. In the weeks leading up to the procedure, a burning question was left unanswered amidst the myriad of medical ones:
How should I think about my surgery theologically?
Gene L. Green understands this question. He asked similar ones before aortic valve replacement surgery. Marching toward his procedure he discovered something:
through all the literature I discovered nothing written that could be called a theology of surgery. How should I be thinking about the forthcoming surgery in relation to my faith in Christ, my theology? (20)
That’s why he wrote The Scalpel and the Cross (Ordinary Theology Series, releasing 5/5/15). He wrote it for patients facing and recovering from surgery; for surgeons considering the meaning of their operating room; and for pastors who provide comfort and council in surgery’s midst.
One of the biggest issues Green addresses is the issue of the fundamental questions of human existence, such as: the meaning of being, plans for the future, and the life of the inner soul.
With theological insight and pastoral care he helps patients and their caregivers navigate these questions by charting an ordinary theology of surgery.
Questions About Meaning
Many people who undergo surgery find that it impacts life at the deepest of levels, especially because it often impacts the things they can do. Often a crisis of meaning arises:
“A person’s concept of self and their labor morphs as surgery exposes weaknesses in the human frame and sometimes leaves the patient in a less-than-perfect state.” (41)
One of the risks for my surgery was the possibility of not being able to speak again, or at least having a severely curtailed voice. The nerves to the vocal chords run dangerously close behind the thyroid gland, which makes surgery tricky. As a pastor, the thought of never being able to preach again was frightening. What would I do and how would I define myself without being able to preach the Word?
Because of the possibility of such physical limitations, for many surgery becomes a time to contemplate one’s life meaning: “The period after surgery for many becomes a time of soul searching, especially if the surgery acted as an imposition of authority upon a very dreadful destiny.” (41)
Questions About the Future
Alongside questions about meaning are questions about the future. Green and his own family asked such questions:
I knew beforehand that open-heart surgery brought with it risks, and prudence dictated taking the necessary steps to assure the well-being of my family should I perish in surgery or recovery. (41)
With the possibility of death looming, Green explains how he and his wife signed new wills; discussed with their daughters what life would look like without his presence, support, and income; how they should get on with their lives after mourning his death; and they should look to the Lord Jesus and rely on each other to carry them through.
“We could not control the outcomes,” Green explains, “but we could make wise plans, and I wanted to offer the best council I could as a potentially departing husband and father. Yet we all moved forward in the hope that none of the talks and provisions would be really necessary.” (41)
While such questions may seem morbid, they are a necessary aspect of surgery. And placing such future-oriented question firmly in the hands of the Great Physician are a corollary of faith in Christ.
Questions About the Soul
Inevitably, such brushes with death lead to questions about the soul and ones inner life.
Like Green, I too experienced a spiritual cleansing that was “deep, surgical, and quite surprising…I did not anticipate the spiritual journey that would bring me to the heart of God’s concern for my eternal well-being.” (43)
In the weeks preceding my surgery I was deeply aware of my fragility, which caused me to consider how I was living such a fragile life. And after surgery, recovering in my hospital bed and later on my living room couch brought many sins to the fore.
And yet perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by such questions:
Surgery examines and corrects the inner workings of the body but also opens the patient to the deeper spiritual surgical intervention by the Lord. If surgery brings questions about the direction of a person’s life to center stage, what could be more important in this scene than one’s spiritual state? (43)
The spiritual nature of surgery is perhaps the most unanticipated outcome of undergoing an operation.
“Surgery leads to the core questions of human life” (45) Which is why I wish I would have had The Scalpel and the Cross. It fills a crucial gap in surgery literature by helping patients, surgeons, and pastors navigate such questions.