A famous CMF one-liner that I often quote is this: 'As medical students you have more time now than at any time in your life.' But in fact, it's not true; everyone has 168 hours in each week and 52 weeks in each year. You may have more discretionary time that isn't already committed; but you have exactly the same amount of time as everyone else. The real question is how you use it.
As we grow older it seems that time goes faster and faster; but in reality we are simply coming to realise more and more how precious time is. Our time on this earth is limited and goes quickly; most of us get about 70 years.
But we should always be ready for our deaths, or Christ's return, and plan our priorities accordingly. The reason that God doesn't take us to himself immediately when we are converted is that we have a job to do here.
Our principal tasks are to bring him glory by living holy lives and making disciples.
The Great Commandment and the Great Commission
Jesus replied: '"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: "Love your neighbour as yourself." All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.'
'Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.'
These are to be our overriding principles of living and everything we do should be ultimately measured by how far it accords with these. But we all have different roles to play in the body of Christ, which will further determine the overall direction of our lives and indeed the different directions we take each day. We need to know our place in the body of Christ,[5-7] so that we can use what skills and gifts God has given us.
God gives each of us a certain amount of time. As the Psalmist tells us, 'All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be'. Have you really taken on board the fact that God had your whole life worked out even before the world began?
But even more than that, he has prepared ahead of time the things that he wants us to do: 'For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.' Do you wake up in the morning and ask the Lord: 'What is it that you have prepared in advance for me to do today?'
The Australian Baptist Minister, Rowland Croucher, said, 'You have enough time to do everything God wants you to do. If you haven't enough time you are doing something that God does not want you to do'. I believe that's true, but it may also be that you are not organising yourself as effectively as you might.
Competing time demands are an inevitable part of life. I would suggest that those who don't grapple with competing time demands are simply not taking their Christian responsibilities seriously. Jesus grappled with competing time demands but he was the master of time management.
The master of time
When Jesus called his disciples he had two purposes in mind: 'He appointed twelve - designating them apostles - that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach'. Firstly they were to be with Jesus - to have an intimate relationship with him; secondly, they were to be sent out into the world in ministry. These are our two purposes as well.
Jesus uniquely maintained a balance between worship, prayer, family, friends, work and rest. To do this, he kept an intimate relationship with God and he had a clear view of his life task; he is our model. In preparing this, I spent time going through the Gospels looking at his example and these are the ten points I came up with.
1. Jesus guarded his devotional life
Jesus regularly spent time in prayer and in studying the Scriptures, especially during periods of intense activity. After a long evening of healing that extended after sunset we read that, 'Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.'
He prayed regularly and especially before each important decision, such as choosing the disciples, embarking on his public ministry, feeding the 5,000 and facing his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane. He also withdrew to pray after periods of exhausting ministry. To junior doctors embarking on a career of ministering to the sick, I regularly quote the verses, '...crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.'
The more he worked, the more he prayed. He recognised that he needed to spend time communing with God to refresh himself. I think that God often creates the delays and stoppages in our busy lives; the red lights and traffic jams, so that we might have the opportunity to pray.
Similarly he was immersed in the Word of God - so much so that when the Devil challenged him in the wilderness, he could answer with three quotations from the book of Deuteronomy; a book that many of us could not easily find, let alone be familiar with.
Let me encourage you to be readers and students of the Bible; to make it one of your first priorities. Do you have a reading plan and a pocket Bible you can dip into when opportunities arise? Have you read the Bible once through yet? Make your Bible reading a pleasure and not a chore, for it is time with God.
2. Jesus did not sin
It is sin that weakens our witness more than anything else; it consumes our energies and our thoughts and it distracts us from our calling. In particular, there are the sins of the mind, what the church fathers called the seven deadly sins: pride, gluttony, lust, anger, envy, sloth and greed. How many of our idle moments are spent indulging in these? Sin begins from within, and even if it never translates into action, it paralyses and distracts us. A mind preoccupied with any of these is not a mind tuned to the purposes of God.
We need to be clean right through; and much as it may seem impossible we have God's promise. Because Jesus suffered and he was tempted in all the ways we are, he is able to help us resist temptation.[15,16] Jesus did not sin by commission or omission; he did the things he ought to have done and he did not do the things he ought not to have done. By cutting wrong thoughts and behaviours out of our lives, we find that we have more time and energy to be used by God.
3. Jesus was not driven by the expectations of others
Everyone had their own agenda for Jesus. His family wanted to slow him down because they were embarrassed by the attention he was attracting, but the crowds wanted to make him king. The zealots wanted him to lead a revolution; the Pharisees wanted to shut him up; and the sick wanted to be healed. Despite all these pressures, Jesus did not let demands from others, even loved ones,[18,19] control how he spent his time - nor was he put off by criticism and threats.
When we face the demands of patients, their relatives, managers, consultants, family and society - we need to remember who we are actually serving. Colossians 3:24 reminds us that it is the Lord Christ we are serving. While this service will lead us to serve others in his name, Jesus is the one who ultimately dictates the terms. His will takes priority and at times this means making choices that those around us may not understand or respect.
4. Jesus had a clear strategy
Whether we are talking about a church, commercial company, organisation or individual - each has a mission statement summing up their overall purpose. We find Jesus' mission statement in his sermon to his own community at Nazareth where he quoted from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.
I spent more time analysing this statement and applying it to medicine in a previous Nucleus article. But here, it's important to note that Jesus, in quoting from Isaiah 61:1,2, deliberately stopped in the middle of a verse. Everyone in the synagogue stared at him because they knew how it ends. Jesus chose to omit the words '(to proclaim) the day of vengeance of our God'. He was signposting the separation, in time, of the day of salvation and the day of judgment. The Messiah came first to save through his death on the cross; then he will return to judge.
What separates the two comings is the era of the church. I believe the church is expected to follow Christ in the living out of this mission statement. Indeed, if we look at his commission to the twelve disciples, we see this instruction to preach and to heal, and the book of Acts reflects this.
Jesus' strategy involved an overall purpose (to save the lost), and a plan to achieve that purpose (his ministry, death and resurrection). The plan was worked out in stages: there was a time of preparation such that he could say with conviction to his mother at the wedding in Cana, 'My time has not yet come'. There was a time of ministry, 'Jesus replied, "Let us go somewhere else - to the nearby villages - so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come."' And there was a time of passion, '"We are going up to Jerusalem," he said, "and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law.'
In the same way we need to have an overall purpose and vision in line with our own calling within the body of Christ and we need a plan to get us to that end-point. We, like Jesus, need a strategy. We have to take control of our lives by choosing to obey God in the same way Jesus did.
5. Jesus established priorities
It is true that Jesus fulfilled everything in his mission statement, but he had a priority. This is clear from many passages in the Gospels. After a busy day of healing and casting out demons, people pressed him to stay, 'But he said, "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent."' His prime concern was the preaching of the gospel, which took precedence over all his other ministries.
One of the devil's primary tactics is to distort our priorities so that ministering to the sick, calling for justice, or compassion for the poor take priority over evangelism. These are important and part of the expression of the kingdom, but they were not Jesus' first priority.
Jesus also prioritised people. He spent a disproportionate amount of time with those who would carry on his ministry. There were the 70, the twelve and the three. Although he often spent considerable time with other individuals, these groups were those who had his consistent attention.
There are many priorities given in the Bible: the gospel over healing; family over community; and brother in Christ over non-Christian friend. For each of us, the priorities will be different depending on the gifts he has given us and the situation he has placed us in. But for each of us, there are certain activities and people God wants us to prioritise.
6. Jesus made time for individuals
In the midst of Jesus' busy ministry, he did not let the urgent crowd out the important. As a surgeon I find the story of the woman with the haemorrhage very challenging. Jesus was on the way to see someone who was critically ill with an acute infection, and he was stopped by a woman with long-standing menorrhagia. She got his full attention and then, as if to vindicate his decision, God enabled him to raise Jairus' daughter from the dead.
We need to be ready to pause with certain individuals that God brings across our path. The Gospel encounters are made up of a string of accounts of individuals whom Jesus paused with. He did not pause with everyone; he healed only one man at the pool of Siloam, he spoke only to one Samaritan at the well, only one rich young ruler, only one tax collector - but he did make time for these individuals.
In your time at medical school and your ministry as doctors, you will not be able to spend time with everybody. Rather, you ought to pray that God will show you the people that he wants you to pause with. You may learn something from them or give the touch and say the words that transform their lives.
7. Jesus equipped others
Jesus did not feel that he had to meet all the need himself. Throughout his entire ministry, he probably travelled no further than 200 miles from the place he was born. His strategy was not to do all the work himself but to devote time to equipping others; through training, envisioning and delegation.
We should always be asking how we can multiply the ministries God has given us by involving others. If we are given a choice between doing something ourselves or teaching someone else to do it, we should go for the latter. The effectiveness of a ministry is not only measured by what is achieved but also by what carries on after the key person leaves.
This can be particularly hard for us in the medical profession. Many of us are independent pioneers and loners; but God wants us to equip others to do our work so that the work multiplies. We may find that those we equip end up doing a far better job than we did. We will certainly find that passing the baton on will mean that God opens up new avenues of ministry for us. Jesus' response to seeing the fields ripe for harvest was not to encourage the disciples to work harder to bring it in, but to pray that God would raise up more workers.
8. Jesus chose his company
We become like those we choose to spend our time with, 'Bad company corrupts good character.' Who should we be spending our time with? We've already dealt with this problem in part. Jesus spent his ministry years with the needy and those who would carry on his task.[36,37]
Nevertheless he spent his formative years with the wise. We see him in the temple asking questions and listening. Do you notice how many of the men and women God used in biblical history spent a period of their lives as understudy to some role model? Think of Joshua and Moses, Elisha and Elijah, or Timothy and Paul.
Latch on to those older Christians you can really learn from. Study their behaviour, their lifestyles, their priorities, their strategies and prayer lives. Read the biographies of men and women, of doctors that God has really used. I am not asking you to idolise them; the more you get to know them, the more you will see their frailties and failings. But seek to learn what it is that makes them effective in God's service and emulate it.
9. Jesus recognised the need for rest
Jesus was not legalistic about the Sabbath but rather he recognised its true purpose. At times he healed on the Sabbath; he implied that one should respond to emergencies on the Sabbath. He respected the Sabbath, but recognised that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.[40-42]
He realised that it was important to withdraw and rest, even in the face of pressing need. We also need to rest, relax and withdraw; we need to allocate time to chill out. How we spend it will depend on our own personality. The important thing is that we take time out altogether from work and ministry at regular intervals.
Burnout is a major problem for Christian doctors who are motivated by a strong sense of responsibility and who are aware of the vast amount of unmet need. But the danger of burnout is that the more tired one gets, the less insight one has into one's state of exhaustion.
10. Jesus was never idle
Whilst recognising the need for rest, Jesus was never idle or slothful. Rather he packed his life full of more activity than was possible to record. Jesus kept long hours and he went for it.
Hard work brings God glory because in working hard we are emulating God who himself works. Read through the Gospel of Mark to see how often the word 'immediately' appears when describing Jesus' actions. He was always on the move from one activity to another, although busyness is not a virtue in itself. It is important to work smart - but that should not stop us working hard.
It's important that we think of all service to God as work, not just paid employment. Spending time with our families and friends is just as much work in God's service. It is part of our obligation to God; the person who neglects his or her family in supposed Christian service is not bringing him glory. There is no-one apart from you who can be a husband to your wife, a wife to your husband, a parent to your children or a child to your parents.
Paul tells us that, 'If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.' And surely that provision must not be just material, but emotional and spiritual as well.
Some practical tips
As well as seeking a godly mindset, we can also use some practical techniques that Jesus himself may have employed. He would have been working smart as well as working hard. For each of us, there are times of the day where we can concentrate best. Make the most of these! We are only working at 80% of our effectiveness for 20% of the time. For 80% of the time, we are only at 20% effectiveness. In addition, develop an effective filing system and bin stuff regularly. Clutter slows you down!
Procrastination can be costly in the long run, so it is important not to make it a habit. Even when you manage to start a task, distractions can slow you down and stop you from finishing the job. Be honest with yourself - can you really focus on writing that essay while reading the news online? We all have spare moments that can be used more effectively. Instead, you could read the newspaper while waiting for your bus.
My prayer is that we would learn from Jesus to use our time in a way that most glorifies God. But don't let worries about time management consume you. Trust God, for his grace is all sufficient; his Spirit lives and works in you.
This article is also available in Italian