Cross and Caduceus: Sins and Tumors

One of the terrible things about being a physician is the remarkable capacity to turn even the smallest thing into an enormous worry. It goes like this: I see a mole on my wife’s back. It’s a little dark, so it must be melanoma. I force her to have it biopsied. It’s normal, and she has a scar. I’m relieved. She’s mildly annoyed.

Edwin Leap

My child has a headache. It must be a tumor. I fret and fret about it. Three years later, no tumor and no problems, and I remember how much time I spent worrying over his symptoms.

I can’t remember where I put my keys. I must have Alzheimer’s disease. (It can’t possibly be that I put things down in silly places, or that I’m just 48 and have lots on my mind – it must be a disease.)

The ability to turn a molehill into a mountain is sometimes useful. It reminds me as a physician to be diligent. To pay attention to small things that could easily escape my eye or my ear: the blip on the ECG, the shadow on the X-ray. But taken in the wrong context, it imposes a huge and unnecessary emotional weight on my life.

It’s not unlike our spiritual life, is it? So often we obsess and worry. We fret over the slightest things. Our sins of commission and omission seem to haunt us. Was I angry last week? I must have lost my way. I need to confess. Maybe I am a backslider!

Did I do enough for the church? Did I give enough? Did I serve enough? I wonder if I failed my Master? I need to do more! I need to pray and fast more!

Do I really know Jesus? I read this book and it said that maybe I don’t! And my friend seems to know Jesus, and we worship differently and talk differently, and maybe I’m lost after all!

And on and on it goes. I see it a lot at youth rallies, where emotions trump doctrine and truth and rationality. Where young people come away convinced that however confident they were of their beliefs, however certain their hearts, their faith wasn’t nearly as genuine as the faith of the folks crying at the altar or meeting with the counselors. (“I must have unrealized sin! I must have insufficient faith! Why, I don’t even want to be a missionary!”)

The point is, fears of physical and spiritual diseases are both dangerous. While due diligence matters, excess fear paralyzes and overwhelms us. If we always look for signs of a disease, there will be no end to the exams, lab tests and X-rays we seek out – and no time to enjoy the fact that we actually feel just fine!

And if we focus only on our own sinfulness without the balance of grace, which is our spiritual source of health, then we will focus on the very sin Christ came to defeat and will, with great irony, appear to empower that thing which he made powerless (a feat our enemy no doubt finds both useful and comical).

It’s fine to try to make our lives more godly. But to do so requires that we focus on God. And He tells us that, thanks to Christ, our true Physician, our souls are healthy even if they have the residual scars, wounds and tendencies of our former selves. And we can rest in the assurance of our eventual salvation and our current transformation.

So go to the doctor when you need to, but don’t focus on every little symptom, for worry is an idol never satisfied by any sacrifice. And worship God, knowing that you will sin, but your Redeemer knows it, knew that you would, and redeemed you anyway.

And know this: Even as your body does sometimes have diseases and will ultimately fail, your soul is doing the opposite and growing stronger and better and brighter if you are in Christ Jesus. In light of that, what’s to worry about?

You’ll live forever. Your sins will perish forever. And one bright day, you’ll get a new body anyway. And you won’t even have to check it for moles.


– Leap is an emergency physician and columnist who lives with his wife and four children in Walhalla.