Philip Yancey opens up about the British leprosy surgeon who inspired his Christian faith

Philip Yancey

Knowle Parish Church near Birmingham was full on Wednesday night as hundreds of people turned out to hear Philip Yancey speak about his latest book, Fearfully and Wonderfully, and the profound impact a British leprosy surgeon had on his faith.

Yancey, author of Where is God When It Hurts and What's So Amazing About Grace, spoke candidly about how, in his younger years, he had struggled to understand why God would allow pain and suffering.

"That was a barrier to my faith, I needed an answer to that," he said, adding that he needed more than the "cheerful, smiley propaganda tracks" of the Christian faith.

He explained that it was by chance that he came to hear of Dr Paul Brand after his wife stumbled upon a booklet about him as she was clearing out a closet of medical supplies at her work.

Dr Brand was a Christian doctor who was working with people with leprosy in Vellore, India at the time and the booklet contained a speech he had given about the "gift" of pain.

The idea that pain and suffering could be a "gift" was a radical concept to Yancey at the time and he tracked down Dr Brand to find out more, striking up a friendship that was to endure until the doctor's death in 2003.

Yancey credited Dr Brand not only with helping him to see pain in a positive light, but also with healing him from a negative experience of church that had "damaged" him in his earlier years.

"He opened my world and he opened my faith," said Yancey.

Yancey was speaking at an event in aid of Leprosy Mission, the Christian charity that Dr Brand was president of from 1993 to 1999.

He spoke about the continuing stigma that many sufferers still experience despite the advances in treatment and understanding of the disease, and he said there was still a lot of misunderstanding and fear, despite the fact that about "95% of people have a built in immunity".

"A lot of people think this is something from the past, but there were 200,000 new cases last year," he said.

"It's groups like Leprosy Mission that keep the facts alive."

Until relatively recently, it had been believed that leprosy was highly contagious and that it rotted the flesh. Through his pioneering work, Dr Brand realised that it was not the disease that was rotting the flesh but rather that the flesh was being damaged or diseased because sufferers had no pain sensation alerting them to the harm.

Reflecting on his friend and mentor, Yancey said Dr Brand had once told him: "I thank God for pain. If I could give one thing to my patients, I'd give them pain."

He paid tribute to Dr Brand as a "father figure" and at one point, became visibly moved as he recalled visiting him in hospital shortly before he died.

Fearfully and Wonderfully is an updated edition of Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, co-written by Yancey and Dr Brand in 1987.

During his talk, he admitted that at one time, he had been so put off by his experience of Christianity that he only wanted to be a hardhitting secular journalist and had no interest in writing books about the Christian faith.

"If you had told me in those days, about 40 years ago, Philip one day you're going to be writing a book about the Christian life and who Jesus really is and what is the nature of grace and prayer, I would have said, 'Man, that's the last thing I want to do, I want to be around famous people and be a New Yorker journalist, I don't want to do that Christian stuff.'

"Because I had been burned and I had seen a lot of the flaws of the church, the hypocrisies of the church and I been wounded by it.

"Dr Brand became that person who showed me what God had in mind and I wanted to be that person. He became a model to me of what I wanted to be like."

Yancey said he wanted to publish an updated version of the book because he "didn't want Paul Brand's legacy to be lost".

He ended with a call to Christians to do as Dr Brand did by seeing the image of God in those around them and being the hands of God "that can make out of each one of us a work of art".

"Are you able to bring out the marvel of God's image in someone else's life?" he said.