Unpacking the why of what we do
6 MINUTE READ
From Luke’s Journal Jan 2023 | Vol.28 No.1 | Evolving Professionals
“Sounds great,” I said, “Which one of you is going to give the speech?”
I had been duped.
Dragged into one of the meetings of Christian medical students that I generally shunned, I was now being saddled with the responsibility of explaining the meaning of Easter eggs (to be handed out after a lecture) to my entire third-year class of 150. Not wanting to disappoint, I gave it a shot.
I was 19 years old, and I knew more about the inside of the university tavern than the inside of my church. I’d only been a Christian a couple of years and was still woefully immature in my faith. Without fully understanding why, I unexpectedly stumbled into leadership roles in the Christian medical students’ group and found that it imbued me with a previously unknown enthusiasm. This zeal was unequally yoked with my spiritual maturity and very often I found myself teaching the lessons I’d learned myself only the day before. God’s grace is sufficient and He gives us today’s manna as we need it. We are never more compelling as teachers and motivators when we’re sharing the discoveries that have moved us afresh. Additionally, my relative immaturity afforded me a measure of bravado that a wiser man would have kept more tightly restrained. The older I grow the more aware I become of how utterly unqualified I am to teach on matters of eternal consequence. God blesses the immature with fearlessness just as He blesses the mature with sound judgement.
“We are never more compelling as teachers and motivators when we’re sharing the discoveries that have moved us afresh”.
After graduating from the University of Western Australia (UWA) and commencing as a junior doctor I was encouraged to take up a national role within the Christian Medical and Dental Fellowship of Australia (CMDFA) as the Recent Graduates and Students (or REGS) Worker. Thankfully this greater responsibility was supported by my entry into a fellowship of wiser heads who had seen it all before. Never forceful, they gave me further opportunities to serve and explore the gifts God had given me while gently drawing me into maturity.
I was spurred on by the warm responses I received during my time as REGS Worker. Whatever narrow experience I was able to draw upon seemed sharply relevant to the students and juniors leading student ministries or attending the newly-minted ‘IMPACT’ conferences. These gatherings were selected for students who sought to apply the same earnest effort to their faith as they did their medical and dental studies. This was a motivated and receptive group that any leader would be grateful to serve, and I was energised by the opportunities laid out before me.
If I had any success in nurturing the faith of this group, I think it was in unpacking some of the conflicting motivations and anxieties that were so commonly experienced among them and that were more than a little familiar to me. I was becoming increasingly aware of how much I was enjoying the acclaim I received in my role as a leader and public speaker. My ego was revealing itself to be insatiable: an unwelcome competitor against my earnest attempts to live for Jesus. Recognising this trait in some of those around me, I dug a little deeper. Ambition and high achievement very often keep company with approval addiction and fear of failure. It wasn’t difficult to find some common touchpoints among Christian medical and dental students. Most of us could assuage our doubts by cladding our ambitions for professional success in spiritual language, speaking of our choice of vocation as a ‘calling’, or a ‘mission’. The truth was doubtlessly more complex.
“Most of us could assuage our doubts by cladding our ambitions for professional success in spiritual language, speaking of our choice of vocation as a ‘calling’, or a ‘mission’. The truth was doubtlessly more complex.’
I wasn’t the only one who recognised this weakness among our clan. I heard eerily similar stories from many students and junior doctors who had been provoked to question their choice of profession by Christian campus group leaders who saw the looming threat of idolatry all too clearly. The tantalising lure of a dazzling medical or dental career (all ‘in the name of Jesus’, of course) has shipwrecked many a promising believer. We’ve seen it all before and we know the danger is real. For fear of storms and jagged rocks, some would understandably advise against boarding the ship at all.
This contrived fork in the road – choose God or your career – was intended to unmask the risk of losing one’s soul in the relentless pursuit of an ‘altruistic’ profession and result in a clear-eyed re-evaluation of priorities. However, the unintended result of such a provocation was sometimes a profound undermining of a young Christian who needed more time and thoughtful guidance to ponder such questions.
The opportunity presented to me was to offer some light and balance amidst this confusion and I was delighted to play my part. As a tight-knit group of CMDFA leaders, we opened the lid on this box of swirling questions and peeked inside, untangling the mixed emotions and contradictory beliefs, trying to align them with a God-oriented view on vocation and Christian service. To achieve this we had to peel back the layers to understand the lies and the wounded parts of ourselves that drive so much of our behaviour. We had to understand why.
Why did we want to be medical or dental doctors in the first place? How much of that vocational pursuit, which some even described as their ‘calling’, was being driven by our own needs: our need for approval, our need for significance? I preached from Zechariah 7:
“ 1In the fourth year of King Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, the month of Kislev.2 The people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-Melek, together with their men, to entreat the Lord 3 by asking the priests of the house of the Lord Almighty and the prophets, “Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?”
4 Then the word of the Lord Almighty came to me: 5 “Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? 6 And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?” ” (Zechariah 7:1-5)
The question posed by the priests about proper religious observances is sharply reflected back at them: ‘This good thing that you propose to do in my Name, is it really for me?’.
Most of us are experts at rationalising and justifying our inner desires, dressing them in robes of righteousness, but are our motives really so pure? Sincerely pursing the why invites the Spirit’s illumination of our troubled souls, unmasking our idols and drawing us back to true worship.
With worship – glorifying God – established as our bedrock, we’re able to build a life of service. Our vocation becomes less a threat to faith and more an instrument for His glory. However, our susceptibility to idolatry remains and we must be ever vigilant, reminding each other of this truth.
Leading into the 2006 ICMDA World Congress in Sydney I was asked to write a handbook for Christian junior doctors and medical students. Blessed with a quiet ICU rotation at a private hospital I was able to write most of it during slow nightshifts. We rushed to self-publish it and Tessellating: Where Faith Meets Practice1 went to print in the nick of time. The book was an attempt to walk the reader through this self-examination – exploring the why – to steer them well clear of vocational idolatry while still avoiding the other extreme of casting their career aside. I was humbled by the reception the book received among our networks.
Years later I found myself again coming back to the why. Having moved to Timor-Leste with my wife Bethany and our four children in 2016, we found ourselves running a chaotic charity hospital in the manner of a Twenthieth Century mission. Medical volunteers flocked to this hospital for the extraordinary experience: the ward round was an exhibition of both pathology and tragedy. We were sloshing around in a cocktail of altruism, voyeurism and medical voluntourism, with the sweet and bitter flavours thoroughly intermingled.
We felt compelled to gradually steer a change of course. To the disappointment of the wide-eyed medical students, we progressively pulled our internationals back from the adrenaline highs of providing direct bedside care, diverting them instead toward support roles in teaching and mentoring Timorese clinicians. Through a chain of thoroughly unexpected events – a sudden and unanticipated withdrawal of our organisation from the charity hospital and an overnight rebranding into a development non-government organisation (NGO) – we found ourselves struggling with new challenges. However, we were much better positioned to execute this change in approach.
“With up to twenty international volunteer clinicians on our team at any given time, we had plenty of opportunity to explore the why and help them reorientate their trajectory.”
With up to twenty international volunteer clinicians on our team at any given time, we had plenty of opportunity to explore the why and help them reorientate their trajectory. Most of the volunteers came with a burgeoning interest in global health unmatched by any genuine field experience. Naïve aspirations of becoming the Jungle Doctor (or his secular equivalent) had to be gently massaged into a different shape as they experienced the frustration of having to practice vicariously through another, resisting the omnipresent urge to take over and do it themselves. We spent many evenings in reflection – a ‘small group’ for non-Christians – journeying toward a shared understanding of why.
Why does our fascination with a clinical case increase in proportion to its rarity and gruesomeness?
Why do we exert so much effort addressing physical ailments when the root causes of their illnesses are generally social, relational, or even spiritual?
Why do we find it hard to resist ‘helping’ even when we can see that helping hurts2? Our best intentions to ‘help’ are so often counterproductive in a cross-cultural low resource setting.
Helping our international volunteers to explore such questions and understand their own conflicted motivations enabled them to let go of some of their almost compulsive behaviours and to begin to practice with something approaching genuine compassion.
If I’ve learned anything from these past years in helping juniors to find their way it has been in the relentless pursuit of the why. My own personal why continues to emerge as I learn more about what drives me, what scares me, and who I hope to one day become. Most people I meet are very comfortable talking about what they did and how they did it, but it’s not until we stop and ask them why that we begin to truly learn about ourselves and each other. As we rush breathlessly from one well-intended obligation to another let us not become so hurried as to lose sight of the why.
You may also like to read: “Why Did You Choose Medicine/Dentistry?” by Dr Eleasa Sieh
Dr Jeremy Beckett Dr Jeremy Beckett is the Medical Director of the Geraldton Regional Aboriginal Medical Service in Western Australia. Trained as a GP Anaesthetist, Jeremy’s career took a sharp turn in 2016 when he relocated with his family to Dili, East Timor, for five years. Jeremy worships at Lighthouse Church in Geraldton.
Would you like to contribute content to Luke’s Journal? Find out more…
1. Beckett JP. Tessellating: Where Faith Meets Practice. 2006.
2. Corbett S, Fikkert B. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor– and Yourself. 2012.