For the last four and a half years, I have worked in a profession with one of the highest suicide rates: medicine. An easy Google search throws out many opinion pieces and real life stories as to why; and sadly too many devastating suicide stories. Medicine is hard.
It’s hard for those with and without faith in Christ. Secular articles highlight many good and valid reasons as to why this is so: bullying, social isolation, the pressure of never being good enough, the trauma of the work, long hours, sleepless nights and a profession made up of mostly type A personalities who, for the most part, have never failed at anything.
In some ways, the hope we have in Christ makes a doctor who really walks with Him a little more hardy to those challenges because we draw our strength and identity from Him. We are instead warned of other dangers that would make it hard for us to be Christian in this profession: pride, money, busyness. Yet, the difficult reality I have come to know is far, far different. No one and nothing has prepared me for how increasingly hard it can be to simultaneously be a Christ follower, a doctor and a single woman.
The great irony is that none of these titles were my doing. Christ is the one who saved me, created me as a woman, called me audibly (cessationists, we can debate later) to be a doctor and has kept me single. So, He must also provide the grace for me to be all those things, right? Yet, by the middle of 2018 I had sunk into a deep pit of depression for reasons so different to what I ever expected. It is my hope that by telling my story, maybe someone out there will feel less alone and see the light of Christ in the midst of their own pain.
“… a profession made up of mostly type A personalities who, for the most part, have never failed at anything…”
Don’t get me wrong, I love Jesus more now and walk with Him closer than I ever have. I also see my work as a mission field, and I have had countless opportunities as a doctor to share my faith – never by force, as the door was always already open to pray for people in pain, to hug and to comfort. That makes me so happy.
If I could not see my profession being used to bring God’s kingdom and love to this world, then I would not be doing it. It truly is a special mission field, calling and battleground. So then, what threw me into the pits of darkness? It was the disjoint I experienced between what I lived at work and what I experienced in church.
The battleground and the homefront
Work in an Australian emergency department over any given weekend (as I did), and you would need no convincing of the depravity of mankind: drugs, alcohol, violent crimes, rapes, mental health problems, child abuse, children living on the street, disease.
The suicide attempts and the rapes always gut me and stay with me long after I leave work. There was one particular night when I really, really struggled after caring for a hopeless, suicidal trangender man who confessed to me some previous social support as he grew up in a churchgoing family. It hurt me to think about what happened to this man to bring him to this point.
There’s also the “charming” side of many patients. I remember one night shift at 3am draining an abscess from a homeless man’s buttock who concomitantly had a history of Hepatitis C from IV drug use, and was MRSA positive (he had a superbug). I tried to instil some dignity into him: I let the man have a shower and clean up, gave him some food. He needed to take antibiotics for the next week, for which I gave him a script. I also gave him a take-home pack of antibiotics (public hospitals in Australia can give enough medicine to last until a patient can fill their scripts). The emergency department, however, is not a dispensary, and I couldn’t give him more than two days worth because that’s all we had at 3am. His response was to walk up to the desk where I was sitting and yell at me, “I won’t have money to get more until Friday! This is ridiculous! Why can’t you give me more? You don’t care if I die. You don’t care, sweetheart. I’ll just be back and worse off!”
Did medicine or life make me hard? I stood up, resting my finger on the duress button under the table and responded firmly with, “Don’t call me “sweetheart”, I am the doctor. I am sorry, but I cannot change hospital policy and I have already given you all the antibiotics that we have to give. Do not tell me that I do not care, because I am awake at 3am draining pus from your butt. Now please, go back to your bed space while I finish your paperwork and you can go.” The nurse next to me’s jaw was on the floor as she watched the exchange. He shuffled back to his bedspace, then helped himself to (stole) some more sandwiches from the patient fridge.
“God, where is my gentle and quiet spirit?” The thought of not being pleasing to Christ when I fall at work, when I get angry or frustrated and am tired, hungry and sad; the thought of not being a woman after His heart… that devastates me too. Worse still, I had no one to share my struggles with. Unless you work in medicine or make a massive effort to understand, I’m sorry but you won’t get it.
I asked for prayer from the church prayer group and if someone would maybe volunteer to be a prayer person for me, especially since I had no one at home to pray with – no family, no husband; I just had the church. There were no volunteers, only “encouragement” that one day God would give me a husband (James 2:15-16). It was humiliating and I didn’t even know what to say. None of it was malicious, but I felt so alone out there in the midst of the darkness. My struggle had nothing to do with my marital state, but with the pain of living in a broken world.
Then came the Sunday worship services: seemingly perfect families walking through the doors. Everyone fed, most have had a beautiful surf and maybe an acai bowl that morning. Some (in their own words) think the best thing about our church is that you can rock up barefoot. (International readers, this is Australia and is normal). They are (mostly unintentionally) worlds away from the mess of humanity I would see earlier in the week. Aside from the beautiful souls who feed the homeless or run a rehab house, I wonder how many of them even know about the darkness in their city or would be moved enough to do something crazy about it. I already felt like I was not part of the tribe.
“[Church-goers] are (mostly unintentionally) worlds away from the mess of humanity I would see earlier in the week.”
They say our church members are really good breeders because there are toddlers everywhere. Most of the women my age have babies in their arms. The others may or may not work part-time. Most look slept, well-presented (if one allows for our beach culture) and relaxed. I don’t spend more than ten minutes on my appearance in the morning… just enough to try to look tidy. God knows I don’t like the messy look!
I struggled sometimes to know what to say to my fellow churchgoers. I wanted to talk Bible, Christian hope and worldview to reset from the horrors of the week; but when I asked, “What did you read in the Bible this morning… this week?” I was often met with blank expressions. Some told me not to expect Christians to read the Bible every day, as I shouldn’t expect everyone to connect with God through it. Apparently it was only for “smart” people like me. Where did this false teaching come from? Certainly not from Jesus Christ (the Word). Did He not teach us that His words are life and by them we would live? Are spiritual things not spiritually discerned? Isn’t the flesh of no help at all? I digress…
We stuck to small talk. I started to avoid people I knew would only lead to small talk. Most Sundays I sat alone because no one sat next to me.
I still tried to meet new people. I tried to engage and be encouraging, especially to the young mothers living in the midst of such perverse feminism. I didn’t speak about what I did; in fact, I tried to avoid it. “That’s so amazing that you stay at home and raise your kids! I really honour that as a beautiful task.” I was sincere, I meant every word. “Oh wow, we didn’t know you believed in that, being a career woman and all.”
Career woman? They didn’t know that I’d exchange this job and all its 3am “glory” in a heartbeat for a family to love and serve Jesus with. Sometimes I cried at home. Then, I would wipe my face, get up and get on with what God had placed in front of me.
I wondered though, as a single Christian woman, what I was supposed to do other than use the gifts God had given me to seek and save the lost? If nothing else, medicine has taught me perseverance, diligence, hard-work, organisation, time-management, team work, problemsolving, patience… Proverbs 31 stuff: character.
Sometimes it feels as if the only standard by which a woman’s worth is measured is wife; mother or aspiring to be either. I feel silently penalised for not being either; as if it were my choice to walk alone!
I have a dear friend who studied medicine in Perth as a young Christian. She was told by Christians in her church that she should quit medicine because God wouldn’t give her a family if she pursued career. Praise God, He gave her a beautiful husband who is a physiotherapist and adores her. Yet, their first child was born with Down Syndrome and when she was most downcast, one of the questions she asked me was, “Is this my fault for doing medicine? Is God punishing me?”
I’m not pursuing a career. I’m pursuing God’s kingdom and using these gifts to do so. I have absolutely no aspirations to be a career woman, but that’s what people see. I have to ask again, as a single woman, what else would you have me do? Be idle? A busybody? Spend more time on my appearance in the morning than I do in the Bible? Be sweeter? Less intense? Cuter? Someone else’s idea of “wife material”? Less God-fearing?
I recently read a Gospel Coalition article where the author said:
“I’m amazed and saddened at how often I hear young single guys say of bright, gifted single women, ‘Wow, she is so strong I don’t think I could lead her’, at which point, too many bright, gifted single women begin to consider ways to ‘tone themselves down’ or ‘soften themselves a bit’.” (Jen Wilkin On Daughters and Dating) 1
I wish this was not my experience, but sadly it is so easy to be hurt and burdened by this as a single woman. I’ve heard guys (some whom I thought were very godly) say this to me behind my back and show it to me by the kind of women they choose to hang around with.
Yet my aim is to please Christ and be beautiful for Him. Whether or not a man listens to the writer of Proverbs and seeks out a God-fearing woman who would honour and stand by him unconditionally for the perfect Christ’s sake, above the pretty and charming ones who make him feel good; that’s between him and his Lord.
It’s hard to make friends and feel connected when you walk into all these presumptions about you. I remember driving home from work one day and hearing a voice “If you had an accident and died, no one would even miss you. No one’s day-to-day life would even be different.” It was true, I was so disconnected, I didn’t know whether anyone’s day to day would change if I was gone. The hospital would certainly keep going. Yet, Jesus would care!
In July 2018 I broke down and realised I met the ICD-10 criteria for depression. What helped was that I at least knew the things that made me so sad: the loneliness, the disjoint between the outside medical world and “Churchianity”, feeling ashamed for my convictions and about my job as a woman.
I made myself vulnerable and started to share these struggles with people I thought I trusted, hoping they could help me navigate it. Our beautiful pastor was very supportive, even though he didn’t say much. I don’t know that many people actually realised how dark my vision was at that time. It certainly sounded a bit too dramatic and attention-seeking to say, “I feel like if I die no one would even care.” (I see patients with borderline personality disorder all too frequently). One of the people I confided in said to me, “I’ve always said that the only people who could be your friends are people who are very self-assured… because you’re just good at everything.” (If you’re wondering, I am not good at everything).
“‘Whatever you do, just don’t shine or do well, because they won’t like you.’ My heart became walled off…”
Those words crippled me. He didn’t elaborate further, though I asked, but I am sure that being a doctor was part of it. So then, every time I walked into church, a voice would whisper, “Whatever you do, just don’t shine or do well, because they won’t like you.” My heart became walled off. Little armadillo. Did I mention Australia is famous for ‘tall poppy syndrome’?
Trying too hard
In the midst of it, I still tried, and felt a responsibility to be the church I wanted to see: community caring for each other. Even if the church hurt, God still commanded us to not forsake the fellowship of the saints. I attempted to host community dinners every month for the believers who lived in my area, but it lasted less than three months. I hoped for a Bible study to grow out of these dinners, but it didn’t. There was no Bible study in my church for a single woman to go to. I cut down my work hours to part-time so that I could be more involved in church, but as I realised none of my endeavours to create or participate in fellowship were working, I became even more depressed.
Thankfully, God’s providence took me on a refocusing mission trip to Albania and then sent the ACEM (Emergency) primary exams at just the right time. An odd thing to say, perhaps. Yet I can tell you that I found that keeping my mind busy with study gave little opportunity for me to ruminate about other things such as my ‘feelings’, or to continue putting burdens on myself that were not of God. I was forced to cut back and get back to some foundational basics.
A simple and pure devotion
One moment of brilliant light in the midst of the sorrow changed the tide. Out of the ashes rose one powerful life-changing question from 2 Corinthians 11:3: “Is this a simple and pure devotion to Christ? And if not, why am I busying and breaking myself with it?” It astounded me to find how much of my busyness and church activities were merely things I did to please others or to meet a standard that God never set for me. I was Martha, and miserable; but Jesus was calling me to just come back and be in Him, with Him, and rest.
I was forced to, and gave myself permission to be weak and limit my priorities to just Christ, the mission field at work, my studies and only the people He brought across my path who needed help. I stopped seeking out other churchgoers in attempts to serve them or make myself needed when they were already looked after by others. I had to stop trying in my own flesh and just rest in and rely on God to be my friend, my intercessor, my help, my comfort, my belonging.
Now, I refuse to do anything if I cannot answer it with “This spurs me on to a simple and pure devotion to Christ”. Healing comes from loving Him, drinking from Him and accepting His standards for me not those of others or myself.
‘God is as sufficient with our suffering as He is with His Son’s blood. Your suffering, Christian, is your slave. The next time suffering comes into your room, say, “Welcome, my slave, produce for me the glory that God has designed.”’ (Thabiti Anyabwile)²
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Genesis 50:20 – ESV)
More than a year later, I am now taking a break from clinical medicine to work as a bivocational missionary in Germany.
In the preceding months, before the mission year was a sure thing and after a lot of prayer, I had to make some difficult decisions. This included connecting into another church when God opened a door for me to do so. I did this with the blessing of the leadership, who had walked this journey with me and knew of all my struggles.They told me I would always be a part of the family!
When my heart was in a good place, when Christ was all-satisfying and the One who filled my cup, I could say to Him, “Lord, I will serve in whatever community of people You place in front of me. Until You so choose to open another door, I will pour myself out into those around me whether they love me back the way I want them to or not. I look to You to satisfy my needs and ask You to meet them in Your perfect timing.”
A door opened. I joined a small church-plant with a very similar vision to mine. Realising that I wasn’t physically able to work as a doctor and start up a side-ministry on my own was so humbling. I knew my limits now – I needed to work in a team, to come alongside ministries I could partake in that were already running. Sadly, this did not involve any family, marriage or child focussed-groups; but it did involve attending a Bible study where there was a strong focus on Bible teaching and exhortation; and where some members were just a little bit crazier than I was about Scripture.
I loved the people in my old church very dearly and still saw them regularly, but I also knew that it was time to move. I cannot overemphasise how important it is for a single Christian doctor to make sure they are in a community where they are encouraged to a simple and pure devotion to Christ, consistently and intentionally; where your encouraging of others to be so devoted is welcome. (In one of the last conversations I had with a girl from my old church before I left for Germany, I said to her, “If I can give you one piece of encouragement, it would be: whatever you do, wherever you end up, whatever job you are seeking, seek God first and above all.” She sadly replied with, “I didn’t ask you for your advice.”)
“I cannot overemphasise how important it is for a single Christian doctor to make sure they are in a community where they are encouraged to a simple and pure devotion to Christ, consistently and intentionally”
Christ’s burden is light and His yoke is easy. Without Him, we can do nothing; but if we remain in Him, there will be fruit. If our lives are weighed down, we must stop and ask ourselves if our lives are marked by simple and pure devotion to Jesus, or by busyness and striving to meet expectations of what we should and shouldn’t be. There is a reason He tells us to shake the dust off our feet; learn to be OK with rejection and move on.
If I were discipling a girl who endured the lashes of words that I did, I would tell her:
• If people reject you because you do well, that’s ridiculous! Envy is their problem, not yours. I celebrate you for using the talents God has given you and not burying them in the ground.
• Live your life unto Christ and Him alone – a simple and pure devotion.
• Keep a soft heart.
• Seek out those who would enjoy your living for Him, and not resent you for it.
• Avoid those who do not rejoice in you being Christlike. Avoid those who make it clear they want to hear nothing of you. God has called us to peace.
• Do not take criticism from anyone who does not read God’s word, daily.
• Do not speak into people’s lives yourself if you are not in His word, daily.
• Look at what God has given you, and be thankful. Don’t be guilty of envy by looking at what you don’t have.
Still learning, still healing
So here I am: a God-fearing woman, trying to navigate what it means to be a woman after His heart as a single person, a doctor and a member of His body. Yes, the Bible often and painfully relates the beauty of womanhood in relation to motherhood and being a wife (and the church, sadly, often inadvertently thinks less of you for not being either).
Yet, may I remind you and myself that the women God has used most powerfully in the Bible were the barren ones, the unloved, the lonely, the rejected, the desperate, the ones who got on with what was in front of them instead of husband hunting (Ruth) – the God-fearers. You are in good company!
Working as a doctor is hard. I am so thankful to be able to lay it (toss it) aside for the next year as I seek out God’s kingdom work in Germany. I am so relieved that for one year it will be an almost insignificant part of my identity – that people will be able to see just me.
I’m not looking forward to going back to medicine. It’s not an easy call to have when you don’t feel consistently surrounded and grounded and held accountable by a strong body of believers who can cry with you. However, I am praying that God will bring more redemption and healing for me in the next year.
I pray for you too. I pray, if you are a believer and a doctor and a single woman, that you would not be discouraged by the disjoint you may see between churchlife and your work-life; that you would know Christ in your pain, loneliness and struggles; that your ears would be deaf to inadvertent careless words spoken over you and over your womanhood; that you would examine your life and toss aside all things that do not flow from or encourage a simple and pure devotion to Christ.
Do not be ashamed of who God made you to be, for above all He is pleased in you because you are in Him. That is all that matters.
Dr Caren Laubscher
1. Jen Wilkin. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/ article/on-daughters-and-dating-how-to-intimidatesuitors/
2. Thabiti Anyabwile, as quoted by The Gospel Coalitition https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/what-every-planter-know-pain/