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ss nucleus - winter 1996,  Should Doctors Evangelise?

Should Doctors Evangelise?

Some years ago a seminar was held at a conference for Christian doctors, and about 30 were each asked their opinion on whether doctors should evangelise their patients. 25 of them thought that we should not. Reasons given included:

  1. There is no time
  2. It doesn’t help the dignity of our position
  3. Patients won’t trust you again
  4. It is not what we are paid for
  5. It is not right to get at people when they are down and susceptible
When you hear how some Christian doctors behave you can understand this view. A young lady went to her GP with frequent headaches. It did not take him more than a few seconds to reach a diagnosis: she obviously felt guilty and needed the gospel. The rest of the consultation was spent telling her that she needed to become a Christian. He did not take a reasonable history, did not examine her, did not measure her blood pressure. That girl rightly left the surgery rather angry.

We are not talking about evangelism as a substitute for medicine, but as a part of good medicine. There are compelling reasons why these skills should be developed by all caring Christian doctors:

The Gospel is therapeutic

People go to their doctors with a wide variety of symptoms, many grossly amplified by psychological problems, which may themselves come from mental distress and often from a spiritual void.

An Irish student nurse, who had recently become a Christian in a Bible study group my wife and I led when I was a surgical registrar, was feeling increasingly tired and anxious. She couldn’t concentrate on her revision for her final exams. She had already failed twice and this was to be her last chance. She plucked up courage to go and discuss this with her GP. After listening to her problem and discussing the possible explanations, the doctor quietly asked her ‘Do you have any faith to help you tackle this problem?’

The nurse then hesitatingly explained how she had recently become a Christian. The GP smiled encouragingly at her. ‘I’m a Christian too,’ he exclaimed, pulled out of his top drawer a Bible and turned to Philippians 4: 6-7:

’Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’

The two of them discussed what this meant and then prayed together. That nurse left the surgery walking on air. She felt she had not only met someone who obviously cared about her, but had also received much more help than a quick prescription for Valium would have given her. She passed her Finals too!

A first year student came to see me when I was a university medical officer, and immediately started weeping. He was feeling very low indeed. He had recently got over an attack of ‘flu, wasn’t sleeping, was well behind in his work and stressed because of this, and was very lonely. When asked ‘Do you have a faith to help you in all this?’ he replied ‘No, I have no real direction or purpose’.

I explained how problems of either the body, the mind or the spirit can press a person down a spiral of depression. Indeed the word ‘depression’ comes from the Latin de-pressum which means ‘pressed down’. We then discussed how to resolve each of the three groups of problems. He was given a two week supply of sleeping pills to help overcome the sleepless fatigue. I contacted his supervisor and arranged for him just to do one essay instead of the five outstanding, and then took him to an open tea held every Sunday by some nurses and students at The London Hospital.

They befriended him, and soon he was joining them at the evening evangelistic services at St Helen’s Church in Bishopsgate. He came on their houseparties and after a few months this young man was not only coping with his studies, but he also became a Christian. He is still going on well with his Lord.

To be really effective doctors we must treat the whole person - body, mind and spirit. This tripartite aspect of man is recognised in the Bible (see 1 Thes 5:23). God is concerned with all three aspects and therefore we should be also. There are some problems in which there is largely a physical dimension, but there are also spiritual problems.

In Sophocles’ tragedy Ajax, the hero rightly says ‘It is not for a wise physician to wail charms over a wound that needs the knife’! Neither is it for a wise doctor to wave tranquillisers before a patient when the major problem is spiritual. Unfortunately this diagnosis is seldom made.

Towards the end of his lifetime, the psychiatrist Jung wrote: ‘During the past thirty years, men from every civilised country in the world have come to me for consultation. Among all my mature patients there was not one whose problem did not spring from a lack of religious world outlook. I can assure you that each of them had become ill because they had not that which only a living religion can give to a man, and not one of them will recover fully unless he regains the religious view of life.’

Tom was a man of about 50 who was dying of an inoperable recurrent pelvic tumour. He was beginning to have persistent pain and was started on regular morphine. I discussed all the implications of this with him and his wife. One day, when we were chatting, I asked ‘Tom, do you have a faith that helps you go through all this?’

‘I wish I did’ Tom replied. I took the Gideon Bible from the locker and read Psalm 23 to them both. We then prayed together, and later Tom was given David Watson’s booklet ‘Start a New Life’. We had several further discussions over the following weeks. He died peacefully at home. A little later his wife wrote ‘Thank you for all you did to help Tom, but thank you especially for the way you helped him spiritually. He had such peace before he died.’ Later still she came to an evangelistic supper party, joined an enquirers’ Bible study group and then put her trust in the Lord Jesus.

People do need to know the true explanation and answer to life in order to have a full, satisfying existence. Jesus is that answer.

People need conversion - it is God’s wish

Jesus himself said ‘Whoever believes in him [God’s Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already’ (Jn 3:18). It is therefore vital that everyone should put their trust in Jesus and commit themselves to follow him. How can they do this if they have not been told the true story? To say it is unkind to keep this from people can only be called an understatement!

For the sake of our own spiritual lives we need to talk about Jesus

Nobody, and certainly no doctor, is exempt from the injunction openly to acknowledge Jesus:

‘Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.’ (Mt 10:32-33)

The person who tells others about the Lord experiences the full joy and excitement of the Christian life. This is why Paul writes to Philemon ‘I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ’ (Phm v6). If we are not evangelising we are fossilising!

However, these ‘compelling reasons’ must be considered alongside the following queries:

Is it right to get at people when they are susceptible?

One of the few ways we ever learn seems to be by having problems! A child who has everything his own way will become an insufferable spoilt brat. Similarly adults will only stop and think when life is not going as they want. C S Lewis wrote in the The Problem of Pain:

‘God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. They are his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’

Jesus was willing to use tragedy to help people think about eternal issues. There had recently been a disaster in Jerusalem when the tower of Siloam had collapsed and 18 people were killed. There would undoubtedly have been considerable mourning. Yet Jesus asked ‘Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’ (Lk 13:4-5)

We are meant to learn from suffering. Jesus experienced the same tension that Christian doctors face. There was a seemingly unending stream of people wanting physical healing, yet Jesus knew their greater need was to be taught the lessons of God. Read Mark 1:32-39 to see how he resolved the dilemma!

Jesus also used his healing ministry to draw people back to God. On one of his journeys down to Jerusalem he met ten leprosy sufferers. They called out to him for help, which he willingly gave. They were told to go and show themselves to the priests. It was only as they went they realised they were ‘cleansed’. The reason this story is passed on to us is because of the response of just one of them, who was a Samaritan. He returned, praising God, and threw himself at Jesus’ feet. Jesus responded (Lk 17: 18-19): ‘“Was no-one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”’ Jesus was not just interested in seeing people cleansed physically, he wanted them healed spiritually as well.

Can we not leave this work to others in the church?

This is a most disturbing way to think. In this country 80% of the churches are becoming smaller and older. We are making little impact, yet some want to leave the struggle to others! The great commission was originally given to the 11 disciples to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ (Mt 28:19). These new Christians are then to be taught ‘to obey everything I have commanded you’. So the great commission does belong to us all, even the doctors! It is the seeming apathy in this area that has led to the present weakness in the church.

Pierre Berton was a renowned journalist, author and commentator in Canada. Although an agnostic, he wrote a book called The Comfortable Pew, in which he gives his testimony. ‘I did not reject the church. God remained a real if somewhat less effective figure. I attended church and Sunday School regularly, though as I grew older I found myself fidgeting through a service grown monotonous with familiarity. The church was also for a youth rapidly moving into puberty, a colossal bore. Thus began a slow drift away from the church unmarked by any real violent anti-religious convictions. Mine was a rebellion born of apathy.’

Most adults in this country are like this - the church structures are failing. It is up to all of us, and particularly to those of us ‘to whom much has been given’, to work to remedy the situation. There can be few groups of people who have as many opportunities as the medical profession - opportunities of being in the front line, of meeting the unconverted public face on, and of being trusted still.

What is the church primarily for? Is it so we can attend meetings and sing hymns? No! We are here that others may be saved and then built up as disciples of Jesus Christ. Every Christian needs to seize the opportunities given to achieve these ends.

I strongly suspect that people do not get involved in sharing the gospel because they find it very difficult and embarrassing, and consequently they rationalise why they should not be involved. At that seminar of Christian doctors, only five out of 30 felt it was right to use their position as doctors to evangelise. I asked this same group later how many of them had ever led someone else to faith in Christ, and you can guess the result. Only five, the same five, had done this! The obvious assumption is that the others had always found sharing the gospel difficult, even when students, and had consequently found reasons to justify their position.

The enemy now holds the ground. Even a hundred years ago Christian teaching and ethics were orthodox, but no longer. In Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers one of the characters says ‘The tide is running the atheists’ way and it is a tide which has turned only once in human history. There is presumably a calendar date, a moment when the onus of proof passed from the atheist to the believer, when, quite suddenly, secretly the noes had it.’ It is now us, the Christians, who are back on our heels and on the defensive. We all too often feel embarrassed to acknowledge to others that Jesus is our Lord and Saviour, and that the Bible is the Word of God which must be taken seriously.

How did all this happen? It was by the hard dedicated work of a group of atheists, who undermined a poorly taught, uncommitted church. One such man was Charles Bradlaugh, who was one of the leading 19th century rationalists and secularists. He was a boisterous man with boundless energy. In 1866 he founded ‘The National Secular Society’ and in one year alone addressed over 276 meetings, in days when travel was much more difficult. He attacked and shocked the religious establishment. One of his meetings was advertised as:

‘The Bible, What is it?
Being an examination thereof from Genesis to Revelation, intended to relieve the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge from the labour of retranslating the Bible, by proving that it is not worth the trouble and expense.’
The damage is now done and a radical response is required. Every Christian must join battle. We do need more good preachers, but even more we need every Christian to sign up and be an active personal worker for Christ. Why don’t we? The cost may be the occasional loss of prestige or respect, or of gaining a reputation for being ‘keen’, or even a ‘crank’. It was Schumacher who wrote in his book Small is Beautiful: ‘I don’t object to being called a crank, it is small, but it causes revolutions!’ We certainly need a revolution! We staid professionals must learn to share the gospel sensitively.

When studying for the final FRCS, I attended a course in orthopaedics at Rowley Bristow Hospital. Mr Graham Apley, the famous orthopaedic teacher who ran the course, demonstrated patients to the whole group. One patient was a retired soldier, General Sir Arthur Smith, who had a stable pseudoarthrosis of his left tibia which intermittently discharged. When Mr Apley had finished discussing his case, the General, then aged 92, asked if he could say something to the large group of doctors on the course.

In his public school, military voice he said: ‘I sustained this injury when I was hit by a piece of shrapnel at Ypres, during the Battle of the Somme. My foot was just dangling about. I was taken to a field hospital, a Nissen hut, and was put in the last bed at the end. Everyone was very worried about my foot, they thought I would have to lose it, but I asked them to patch it up as best they could. I didn’t know what would happen. The next morning I read my Daily Light, which for those of you who don’t know consists of portions of the Bible, God’s Word to us, by which I live my life. I read for that day the words ‘The Lord is thy confidence, He shall stop thy foot from being moved’. (Gripped by this story, the whole group of us burst out laughing at this point.)

‘At the base hospital’ the General continued, ‘a doctor said that it would have to come off. “Not so” I exclaimed, and to this day I have my foot to remind me of God’s faithfulness. I do hope that all of you young men here will come to find that God is faithful, and that you can trust him.’

The group of us spontaneously erupted into a combination of applause and enthusiastic laughter. On the way back in the train we all talked about the testimony of that courageous old soldier. I shall never forget him, such an eminent man, to whom Jesus mattered more than anything else.

It is vital that all we Christian doctors get over our embarrassment and learn to talk to others about Jesus. When first attached to a gynaecology firm as a medical student I found it extremely embarrassing to take a history from the ladies. How often I blushed and was tongue-tied! Yet because I had to learn the art, I slowly overcame the problems, so that now I am no longer coy, and consequently I don’t think my patients are so awkward either.

It is just the same in talking about spiritual matters, where it is even more important we learn to overcome being embarrassed. To be embarrassed is one thing, to be ashamed of Jesus and of the Bible is another. It has eternal consequences for us. Don’t forget what Jesus said: ‘Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory.’ (Lk 9:26)

But, you may ask, how can doctors talk about spiritual things?

Take a spiritual history

We are used to taking a full medical history which includes a history of the present condition, a drug history, a past history and a social history. Why not learn to take a brief spiritual history? The question ‘Do you have a faith to help you at a time like this?’ is very useful indeed.

When I was first a house physician, I started to do this. One of my early patients was a dear old Cockney lady who presented with anorexia and weight loss and then started vomiting. When taking the history I asked her if she had any faith that helped her at a time like this. She replied ‘Oh yes dear, I believe in God’. I was a bit perplexed as to what to say next, so I blurted out ‘Do you read your Bible?’ ‘Oh no dear.’ That seemed to be the end of that so we moved on to discuss some other subject, such as her bowels!

Later that week I was wandering around my patients during visiting time. When I approached this lady’s bed it appeared as if a considerable proportion of the East End were visiting her. She introduced me to them as her doctor and then added ‘This is the man who told me I ought to read my Bible!’ I blushed and wished a hole would appear in the floor. To save face I smiled at the visitors and weakly asked if they read their Bibles. Then I moved on to the next bed!

A few days later her daughter brought in a new Bible. The mother was proud of it and I would suggest passages she could look at. There just happened to be a Christian staff nurse doing night duty on that ward and every night they would go over the passages together. The lady was diagnosed as having cancer of the stomach. She died in a few weeks without going home. She did however tell her daughter that she had become a Christian.

Brian was a patient of mine who had just been diagnosed as having secondary cancer in his liver, causing him to become jaundiced. He and his wife realised that the outlook was not good. After talking about possible treatment options, I asked Brian ‘Do you have a faith that helps you at a time like this?’ He turned to his wife and asked ‘Do we, dear?’ As there didn’t appear to be much concern about spiritual things I simply said ‘For me, knowing that there is a God who loves us and cares for us is the only thing that makes sense of problems like this’, and changed the subject.

The following week, however, I met Brian as he sat in the waiting room for a blood test. He said ‘You know what you said last week, it is strange but my next door neighbour, who is a Christian, asked us if we would like to go to church. What do you think?’

‘I think that is lovely, but honestly Brian I wonder if sitting through some hymns, prayers and a sermon is what you most need at the moment? I would guess what you most need to know is ‘How can I get right with God?’ There was a two second pause before Brian looked up and asked ‘How do I get right with God?’ We arranged to meet up the following morning at his home and there we went over the basics of the Christian faith. After a few days, first Brian and then his wife became Christians. Amazingly, Brian remained alive for eight months during which he and his wife joined our ‘Christian Basics’ course and became grounded in the faith.

Such experiences have made me certain that there is a growing number of people who, although disillusioned with churches, have many questions they would like resolved. Bernard Levin has written in The Times ‘There are probably more people today seeking some larger meaning or purpose in their lives and in life in general than there have been, certainly in the west, since the day of unquestioned faith’.

Follow up any openings

I have been treating a young lady with cancer. When chatting together alone after the operation she admitted that she had seriously contemplated suicide. ‘Are you ready to meet God then?’ I gently asked. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, it seems to me a crazy thing to do, to commit suicide, and bring yourself face to face with God if you are not certain that you can face him with confidence. It may even be that this happening to you will help you sort these things out.’ We then discussed other matters, but I did return to see her the next day and left her, as a present, a copy of Start a New Life, the evangelistic booklet by David Watson. I don’t know how this will work out, but I do know that she has at least thought about the gospel and the forgiveness the Lord wants her to have, and she has met at least one Christian who is convinced it is true.

Open evenings

In a busy life and in busy clinics, you can’t open spiritual conversations with many patients. We therefore hold twice yearly supper evenings in our home, and invite selected patients, usually those who seem to appreciate me. We also invite medical colleagues and friends. After a good buffet supper, everyone is seated and a guest speaker is introduced. We are very careful whom we invite to speak, knowing that most of our guests have little interest and are usually doubtful about churches.

Some guests are invited by mouth, or by phone, but most are invited by a letter. This explains clearly that ‘these evenings are put on to give people an enjoyable evening out, but also to give us all a chance to think again about the Christian life in a way that is interesting, without any cringe factor’. As my wife and her friends can only cope with just over a hundred guests at a time, we have had to have two or even three consecutive evenings to cater for those who want to come. Recently we have hired a local school hall, but have limited the food to gateaux and coffee!

After the first two evenings many said ‘That was lovely’ or ‘It makes you think, doesn’t it?’ But we saw only one or two make commitments to Christ. What was missing? There was nothing arranged to help those who were interested to inquire further without compromising or embarrassing themselves. We then learnt to use these evenings as just ‘a taster’, and that those interested in going further needed to join in a ‘Christian Basics’ course. We now run five or so such five week courses a year, in conjunction with our local vicar and his wife. It is at these groups that people really understand the gospel and are converted.

Sometimes in the clinic, I will ask patients ‘Have you ever been invited to one of our open evenings?’ The usual reply is ‘No, what are they?’ ‘They are occasional get-togethers in our home with a good buffet supper, but their aim is to help people to think again about Christian things. Since we have been living in this area we have met so many people who are disillusioned by the churches for many reasons, often finding them rather boring and irrelevant, but who deep down know there is a God who is important. These evenings are there to fill that gap, so everyone can have the chance to look at the essentials of the Christian faith without any embarrassment.’ It is interesting not only how many come but also how many return.

It is also remarkable how many people want to talk about spiritual matters and how opening the door to them in this way often leads to helpful conversations.

Conclusion

There are obviously many ways to introduce people to Jesus. The real problem is commitment to the task. Billy Graham wrote ‘We are guilty of spiritual lethargy. Sometimes we sit about like overstuffed toads and we croak and grunt at the right place with a sleepy “Amen” and a weak “Alleluia”.’

We Christians hold the answer to life, yet are loathe to pass it on. It may be because it makes us seem arrogant. G K Chesterton once said ‘What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man is meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth. This has been reversed.’

What do we most need to be more effective in winning others for Christ? Is it:

  1. More knowledge, to convince ourselves and them?
  2. More winsomeness, so that we appeal more to them?
  3. More prayer, so that God will work in spite of us?
  4. More courage, so that we will speak up for Christ?

I have no doubt we need to pray for more courage. When we long to speak to others, we will have to pray for openings and ideas, we will want to be more winsome, and we will then want to know more so that we are more convincing. It is no coincidence that the Holy Spirit was first given to the early church in the form of ‘Tongues of Fire’. This was to demonstrate that his prime role is to help us speak up for Christ. Spiritual problems are all around us, and God’s solution needs to be told.

Some of the last words of Jesus were ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).

The great Christian surgeon, Sir James Simpson, who introduced chloroform, was once interviewed by a newspaper reporter who asked ‘What was your most important discovery?’

‘I discovered that I was a sinner and that Christ was my Saviour’ he immediately replied. This is the Spirit and unction we need to find again. The question is not, 'Should doctors evangelise their patients?' but, 'How should doctors evanglise their patients?'

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