First Do No Harm

First Do No Harm

And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. Exodus 32:4

In medicine, this phrase – First do no harm – is an ethical principle of the Hippocratic Oath, which physicians have historically repeated upon graduating from medical school. It may seem a simple concept, but it’s not necessarily so easy in practice. In addiction medicine for instance, my patients often demand treatments that are inappropriate. I need a stimulant, a sedative, an opiate, and medical marijuana. As a physician, I want to help my patients and I don’t like saying no, but often, that’s a big part of my job. I can’t stop my patient from buying these medications on the street, but neither can I be responsible for providing a harmful treatment. So, sometimes I must put on my big boy pants and say, Absolutely not. I’m not doing that. It may be uncomfortable, but if I can’t say no, then I can’t uphold the principle of First do no harm, and I shouldn’t be a physician.

We may not all prescribe medications, but most of us have been in a position where we’re responsible for the well-being of others, holding some authority over them. When in such a position, it’s sometimes our job to say no. This will inherently put us in conflict with them. What do you mean no? We may not necessarily have the power to stop the other person from doing wrong, but there are times when we must stand on the side of right, refusing to participate in self-destruction.

In today’s passage, Aaron failed at this part of his job. In the story, the Israelites got impatient waiting for Moses. So, they went to Aaron, demanding an idol. Aaron didn’t object or try to talk them out of it. Rather, he gathered up some jewelry and made a golden calf for the Israelites to worship, violating the first two commandments. In doing so, he sinned himself, but he also facilitated the sin of the Israelites. He was supposed to lead God’s people to God, but instead, led them to sin. Instead of telling his people no, he caved, giving them what they wanted.

People often want that which is unhealthy. It may not be in our power to stop them from pursuing it, but, for our own sake, we must not participate in it. We prefer to avoid conflict, but for our own spiritual and emotional health, we must sometimes say, No. I’m not doing that. Maybe those around us will listen and maybe not. There is a limit to our responsibility for others. Inasmuch as we’re responsible though, we must be brave enough not to participate in behavior that will hurt those for whom we’re responsible. Sometimes, we must say no.

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