Response to: Do we really save lives? – A/Prof Alan Gijsbers

A very similar conversation with a very different outcome


from Luke’s Journal 2021 | Fire in the Belly 2021 | Vol.26 No.1

Andrew Williams’s story, “Do We Really Save Lives?” (Luke’s Journal 2020, Vol 25 No 2), brought back difficult memories of a very similar conversation I had with my vicar in the late 1980’s-early 90’s, but with a very different outcome.

My wife and I had just come back with our three children from a five-and-a-half-year missionary stint at the Christian Medical College and Hospital, Vellore, South India. There our home on the college campus had been a centre for fellowship and Bible study, where medical students explored their vocation as Christian doctors training for their role, mostly in mission hospitals around the country. Our theme had been David Livingstone’s famous statement, “When God sent his Son into the world, he sent a medical missionary.” The conversation with our vicar centred on his vision to encourage suitable candidates into the ordained ministry. I recall the event vividly. We were at the beach and
I remember a strong sense of being called to become a theologically-sensitive medical practitioner, seeking to integrate Christian faith and clinical practice, bridging the Sunday/Monday disconnect and seeking to incarnate the Christian Gospel into my daily work. 

Some adverse consequences followed upon our return to Australia. First, I stopped being part of the church preaching roster. Whereas before I had a role as a missionary sharing my faith in a different culture, now that I had returned, I became one of God’s frozen people in the pews – reduced to listening to sermons, usually from trainees who were novices at the art. There was little call in our church for the sort of reflection I was doing. They preached the simple Gospel of God’s love, our sin, Christ’s atoning work and our need to repent, become a Christian and therefore receive life. Our lives had been saved, and that was that. There was little exploration on growing in discipleship, growing into community, and living as God’s people in the secular community. We were saved, that’s all that mattered. In retrospect, this is probably a caricature, but that is what it felt like at the time.

Finding a niche in the Christian Medical and Dental Fellowship

In the meantime, I found a niche in the Christian Medical and Dental Fellowship, where we explored what it meant for us to be Christians in the secular environment where God had placed us. I found a further niche with the Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology (ISCAST) – an organisation of Christians in the sciences – where we explored what it meant to study God’s two books, the Book of Nature, through science, and the Book of the Word of God, Scripture. These explorations were enormously fruitful, enriching my reflections and my clinical practice, encouraging people without faith to come to faith, and encouraging those with faith to have that faith strengthened. 

In my vocation as a Christian doctor, I newly learnt the depth and breadth of Gospel proclamation. The Gospel is not just for unbelievers, but also for believers. As evangelicals (Gospel people), we feed on the Gospel for ongoing spiritual nourishment, eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood (John 6:53-58) as we reflect on how his atoning work impacts all our relationships – in our families, in the church, and in the secular world. 

“The Gospel is not just for unbelievers, but also for believers.”

Further, I learnt that the Gospel of God’s love is not just preached from a pulpit, but is expressed in word and deed. Jesus embodied God’s love by his commitment to the poor, the outcast, the marginalised, the sick, the dying, and even the dead. Further, God’s love is not just embodied in word and deed, but also proclaimed communally in the way the community of faith embodies the love of God in their daily relationships. The church, in all its diversity, embodies the love of God, and invites others into that community. 

My neuroscientific reflections in addiction led me to see that the Gospel is not just a statement for intellectual assent, but a reflection of God’s loving passion for humans, who are more than just thinking beings. We are first emotional beings and our passions drive our thinking and behaviour. I explored this in my paper, Neuroscience, Addiction and the Gospel (2008).1 

My clinical practice in addiction medicine caused me to reflect deeply on how to address damaged relationships; relationships with ourselves, other people, our higher power, and the lived environment. Humans are not isolates whose ideas need correction or else they will not be saved, instead we are embodied people, living in community, in a physical environment. God has entrusted us as stewards of this environment, and one day we will be accountable to him for the way in which we have discharged the creation mandate that he has given us. Our sin is not just individual disobedience which needs repentance, but also our corporate responsibility to care for the earth – for ourselves and for future generations. For a reflection on how the Atonement affects my clinical practice of addiction medicine see my paper Addiction and Atonement (2020).2 

Trying to integrate my Christian faith into the secular world has caused me to become bilingual. So, when I talk with people of little or no Christian faith, I explore with them the meaning and purpose of their lives and what relationships they have. When I talk in a Christian context, the language is the fundamental Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. Further, in ethics, Charles Taylor3 described the modern moral dilemma (which in fact is ancient also) of why should I do good, and how do I get the power to do good? The Christian answer is that the love of Christ constrains us and the power of the Holy Spirit is there to develop in us the virtues of the fruit of the Spirit, empowering us to flourish as we become more and more like the Christ we serve. 

Mentoring HMOs and registrars in a secular space

I have the privilege of mentoring HMOS and Registrars in a secular space. I commented to one, not a believer, that if I had my time over again, I would like to explore psycho-spirituality in more detail. He commented, “Don’t you do that now?” Indeed. I was able to give a grand round at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, a secular hospital, on spirituality in clinical practice. I explored meaning, purpose, love, and empowerment, as well as passion, and I told the audience two formative stories which shaped my outlook – the story of the Prodigal Son, and the story of the Good Samaritan. I discovered again that day how attractive the gospel is to those who are thirsty. On another occasion I spoke to hospital chaplains about addiction and spirituality and explored with them the skills of the Master Clinician as he sat with the much-married, now living-in-sin, woman of Samaria, gently peeling off the layers of defence until he had told her everything she had ever done. But that was healing, not condemning! I follow Jesus as he skilfully addressed this lady’s deep thirst for God, and how she found that through him, in spirit and in truth, she could have direct access to the Father. 

We need good clergy, but the secular world also needs Christians called by God to shine for him in their vocations.

The Christian Medical and Dental Fellowship as a member organisation of the International Christian Medical and Dental Association sees itself as empowering Christian doctors and dentists to live for Christ. We encounter a lot of patients in our practices who would have little contact with Christians if they did not see us. It is one of those unhelpful dichotomies to say that doctors save physical lives whereas clergy save spiritual lives. Most Christian doctors subscribe to the bio-psycho-social-spiritual model of clinical care and the Saline program empowers Christian doctors to explore the spiritual dimension of the clinical consultation in a sensitive and appropriate way. There is a lot of literature on the value of spirituality in medical care.4 

So then, what do I make of Andrew Willams’ journey to the ordained ministry? He felt he could do more being a clergyman than being a doctor, as did his mentor. I hope his education has been broad enough to still be able to speak into the everyday world of his parishioners. Helmut Thielicke describes docetism in the pulpit – when the Word does not become flesh and stays within an ecclesiastical enclave. There is a great need for Christians to be salt and light in the secular world, and we can do that as medical missionaries to that world – encouraged, prayed for and supported by clergy aware of these broader issues. We need good clergy, but the secular world also needs Christians called by God to shine for him in their vocations. We are not all hands or ears or whatever, and each of us cannot say to the other we have no need of you (1 Cor 12:4-25). However, there are other calls than the call to the cloth, and I encourage medical students to follow in the footsteps of the Great Physician and his disciples, like David Livingstone, and so many in Australia through the CMDFA, and around the world through the ICMDA.

A/Prof Alan Gijsbers     
A/Prof Alan Gijsbers (MBBS FRACP FAChAM DTM&H PGDipEpi.) is a Specialist Physician in Addiction Medicine, Melbourne, and President of Christians in Science and Technology (ISCAST). He has a particular interest in a studying neuroscience and theology, the philosophy of the self, and spirituality, topics which underpin his approach to addiction care. 

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  1. Gijsbers AJ Neuroscience, Addiction and the Gospel, talk at New College NSW, 2008., also as a written paper
  2. Gijsbers AJ Addiction and Atonement: an Easter reflection from the ISCAST President. 2020.
  3. Taylor C. The secular Age. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007:695ff. 
  4. Gijsbers AJ. Review of Hostility to hospitality: spirituality and professional socialization within medicine. Balboni in MJ, Balboni TA; Oxford 2019. In Christian Journal for Global Health.