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I lay awake in my dorm room, rehearsing the conversation over and over in my head. Beside my bed lay an A4 page, scribbled with handwritten notes on both sides.
I had an airtight argument.
He just couldn’t see it from my perspective. And how should he know? He’s not medical. Sure, he might have seen plenty of medical students come through, say the same things, and end up in the same place, but I was going to be different. I was truly going to use medicine to impact people’s lives for Christ. I would use my position as a doctor to reach hurting people with the gospel. If I lost my medical licence for being too open about my faith, then so be it. Christian brothers and sisters through the ages had lost their lives for less.
It was 2008. I was at a ministry recruiting conference (called Spur in those days). As part of the conference, delegates were interviewed by someone in fulltime ministry to discuss thoughts about whether vocational ministry was something they should consider. I was down to be interviewed by my senior pastor, who had already tapped me on the shoulder 6 months prior. At the time, he asked me if I’d considered full-time ministry. My response was that I was already heading towards full-time ministry – as a Christian doctor. What followed was a slightly heated conversation about whether medicine was or could be a ministry, which was cut short as I had to run off to my next class.
“I was truly going to use medicine to impact people’s lives for Christ.”
So here I was, at this conference, sitting on the grass with my senior pastor, chatting about my thoughts on ministry. I’m normally pretty unflappable, but at this point (not helped by my lack of sleep the night before), I was pretty jittery. I had my page of notes tucked into my Bible, at the ready.
Right from the start, my senior pastor threw me, “Hey, I don’t really wanna talk about the whole ‘medicine vs ministry thing’. Let’s just talk about how you’re going in your relationship with God.”
I was a little baffled, but I complied, talking through how my quiet times were going, the people I was evangelising to, the epiphanies I’d had lately, the sin I was fighting, my passion for all the ministries I was involved in – the usual stuff.
Our hour passed quickly, but as we walked to the next session I cracked, “Look I really want to talk to you about medicine and ministry. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’ve even prepared some notes on my thoughts. Can you just tell me what you think?”
“Sure,” he said.
I proceeded to give him my spiel. My airtight case. His response changed my life.
Pastor: “So, you want to spend your life reaching out to the hurting, the sick, the dying, with the good news of Jesus?”
Pastor: “Why do you need to be a doctor to do that? Why not be a hospital chaplain, or a hospital evangelist – where it’s actually your job to do that?”
I hadn’t thought of that. I was lost for words. I had nothing to say in response. Why had I not thought of this option? It was at that point that the veil was lifted. I saw how I had once again been led astray by my heart. Deep down, I really just wanted to be a doctor. I wanted the prestige, the respect, the acknowledgement of how hard I had worked to get to this point. I had spent the last few months, especially the previous night, finding a gospel-loving, Christian-sounding justification for what deep down I just really wanted.
To. Be. A. Doctor.
We are really good at convincing ourselves that we are wholeheartedly seeking God’s will when in actual fact we’re simply justifying our own will before God. We are such good self-justifiers. This is especially true for type A, high achieving, highly rational personalities. In fact, doctors are trained to seek justifications:
“Tell me what your provisional diagnosis is – justify why you think that.”
“Tell me why you think this patient needs a CT today.”
“Tell me why my Dad needs to stay in hospital over the weekend. Justify your decision, doctor.”
We’re not only good at giving our justifications to others, we’re even better at justifying things to ourselves – without even realising it. Those things that we’ve convinced ourselves as the only rational choices, are really just about what we love deep within. As Thomas Cranmer aptly put it, “What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies”. We think that our rational brains are what’s steering the ship of our lives. Actually, it’s our hearts. Our brains are just the instrument we use to justify what our sinful heart has already decided we should do. In general, God has given ‘medicos’ fairly highly functioning brains – so we tend to be pretty good at it.
This danger of self-deception is further heightened when our propensity for self-justification is coupled with another narrative or worldview. It’s the narrative that our senses, our culture, and our profession are screaming at us. It’s the narrative that this world and this life is all there is; that what we perceive in the physical universe is all that there is to know about reality, and that we are simply collections of atoms, and when we die, we simply decompose and our mind ceases to be. Now surely, as Christians, we believe something different (at least, if we’re asked). Even so, it’s amazing how our perception of the world, and our subsequent attitudes and behaviours, are dominated by this narrative. In this narrative, doctors are like modernday gods. We have the power to give people the most valuable thing they could possibly possess: the breath of life. More time to be alive. When this life is all there is, there is nothing more valuable we could offer. My non-medical friends have often said in passing, as I’ve headed off to work, “Off to save some lives then?” It’s funny, but in my 8 years of medical practice, I can’t think of a single life that I’ve actually saved.
“We’re not only good at giving our justifications to others, we’re even better at justifying things to ourselves – without even realising it.”
I’m sure many reading this article can think of those patients who, if it wasn’t for their direct intervention, would have died – more so in some specialties than others. Whether we’ve saved lives as a small part of the health machine; or as one of the 74 administering that ‘lifesaving’ medication where the number needed to treat (to prevent one death) is 74; or as the ED Registrar literally giving someone ‘breaths of life’ through a bag and mask when they’ve stopped breathing for themselves; it seems we have the power to save lives. Or do we? Are we actually saving lives, or are we just giving them a bit more time?
With everything around us shouting the “this life is all there is” narrative, we need to be constantly reminded of the truth. We need a different perspective – to see the world as it truly is. As God, the ultimate source of truth in the universe, has revealed to us. When you add eternity to the equation, all we are doing if we save someone’s physical life is giving them more time to repent. We are giving one of God’s image-bearers a tiny fraction more time on earth, before they plunge into an eternity, either in heaven with Jesus, or in hell, cut off from God’s goodness. Forever. The sad truth is that for the vast majority of lives we ‘save’, we are really just giving people a little more time to struggle on with this broken life on earth before they face the fires of hell. Some saviours we doctors are! But as disciples of Jesus we have a far more powerful ability. We have the message of salvation. We truly can save lives. We can see people brought from death to life. We can give people the true gift of life – not a few years more, but eternal life – where death is no more. A spiritual perspective means we no longer regard anyone from a worldly point of view (2 Cor 5:16). People’s greatest need, no matter how dire their physical condition, is to be reconciled to God.
It’s only the supernatural work of the Spirit of God working in our hearts and minds that will enable us to see things as they really are. On the surface, everything appears to be going on as it always has. On the surface, it looks like a doctor saving someone’s life is merely a system of cause and effect between our medical intervention and the effect it has on the body’s damaged physiological processes. Yet, when we see our practice truly, it is primarily the mercy of God, at work every step of the way to keep that person alive. He is patient with us, not wanting anyone to perish but rather giving everyone the chance to come to repentance. On the surface, it looks like a doctor who is giving away a satisfying, respectable and lucrative career to teach ancient superstitions to gullible, ignorant people. In reality, it is giving up a role focussed on the temporary and physical, to help give people the true gift of eternal life.
We need to examine our hearts, humble ourselves before our God, and let him show us where we are justifying our actions to ourselves; and where we are avoiding doing what we know we should be doing because it’s so much easier to pretend those spiritual realities just don’t exist. We need daily reminders of the reality that exists behind what our senses, our culture and our profession are telling us. It might mean intentionally pausing to pray between consultations, for our patients, and even with our patients. It might mean looking for, praying for, and taking fresh opportunities to share Christ in our workplace. It might mean using more of the money God has given us to support those who are doing the work of gospel proclamation, rather than saving for the next holiday house, skiing holiday or new car. It might even mean giving up ‘saving lives’ altogether, so we can give ourselves more fully to the work of seeing people come to Christ and seeing people truly saved in Jesus.
Dr Andrew Williams is a medical practitioner in full-time ministry. He completed a Bachelor of Divinity at Moore Theological College in 2018. Andrew and his wife Claire are currently job sharing on the pastoral team at City on a Hill Evangelical Church in Wellington, New Zealand, having moved there at the start of this year.
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