Many of my Christian friends at medical school have now lost their faith entirely. Others are not as strong in their faith as they once were. Why should this be? What part does medical training play in the 'derailment' process?
This is an issue that desperately needs highlighting among Christian medical students. I myself have often wished that someone had warned me of the danger at the start of my career. For this reason, I hope to identify here some of the key reasons that students go astray and to provide some guidance on how others can avoid the same trap.
It is very difficult to be exact, but I have estimated that up to 50% of those Christians who started medical school in the years around me had given up on their faith entirely by the junior doctor ranks, and perhaps three out of four were much less keen as Christians. Another author gives a figure of 60% for one particular medical school.
Medical school is difficult. We face numerous life crises including transition from school to university life, from university-style studies to 'life on the wards' and finally that overnight transformation in becoming a junior doctor. At each stage a young Christian either leans on God with his faith or develops other coping mechanisms which may deflect him from God.
Weak Christian foundations
Those students who have weaker Christian foundations have less background support to rely on during such times. This applies both to their personal character and to the availability of support from Christian family or friends (eg church friends). Likewise those without the pattern of a regular devotional life miss a source of strength enjoyed by others.
Medical school forces us into proximity with various secular and anti-biblical viewpoints, held by our teachers and peers. Attitudes to evolution, abortion, ethics and death take swings at our faith, particularly if we have not used our faith to form biblical conclusions. Long hours of study and time away during hospital attachments lead to isolation from Christian fellowship. As work pressure increases it is so easy to spend time only with other medics.
Social standards slip as we yield to temptations over alcohol, relationships with non-Christians and our use of language. I found it hard to believe the pornographic language used by some who had previously prayed with me, as they now sought to promote our annual medical school revue. Equally shocking was how proud some could be of how drunk they had been at the 'drug dinner'. Peer group pressure is strong and as our Christian friends' standards slip, so the quality of our Christian fellowship decreases.
Medical students and junior doctors are a very cynical lot. Death and suffering are just part of the job. We decide that what's important is ME!
Medicine becomes an idol as it ranks in importance above our faith. Career plans determine time priorities rather than guidance from our heavenly Father who first called us into medicine.
This does not occur overnight; it is more of a dilutional process that takes place over a period of months or years.
Keys to survival
Get involved in Christian ministry
This is an almost uniform finding in those whose faith has survived. Through this they have gained Christian support outside of medicine. Some have been involved in their churches and others have been part of young people's Christian groups or missionary organisations. One of my weakest times was when I stepped down from the CU committee to study for my first professional exams. I lost a source of support and a focus which had provided a refreshing break from study. I promised myself that I would not do this again and in all future exam times I continued to be strongly involved with CU and, later, with a missionary organisation. And yes, I still passed the exams! I'm not suggesting that you do less study but I am saying that locking yourself away with your books and other medics is a bad idea. Even involvement with a non-medical football team can serve as an escape valve.
Cultivate your devotional life
Prayer, personal Bible study and Christian fellowship within medicine are of course essential. Many have received great support from 'prayer triplets' or the like. Having a close friend to whom you can be mutually accountable is also a help to some.
Take a strong stand on difficult social issues
Temptation abounds in areas such as alcohol and relationships. Those students who took a strong stand as Christians and were recognised as such within the medical year, seemed to survive the temptations better. What would Jesus do if he was in this situation?
Don't be afraid to ask for help
Be willing to talk to a Christian friend, church leader or Christian doctor. As one of the latter, I can now say that Christians such as myself who have 'survived' medical school would only be too delighted to offer a listening ear, perhaps inviting you to their home for an evening away from the books. CMF can provide details of those in your area who are willing to help in this way.
Live an examined life
Just as we are now compelled to audit our medical work, it is a biblical principle for us to review our Christian lives (2 Cor 13:5). We need to create the time to do this. This brings us back to the point I made earlier. Christian medics can have a life outside of medicine. It's simply about using our time appropriately.
Living as Christians in the medical world
All Christians can have exciting lives within medicine! We have a vocational call from no less a person than the Creator of the universe. We all make our own contribution to medicine and its practice, some to furthering medical knowledge. We stand against the tide in areas such as abortion, pre-natal screening, genetic manipulation and euthanasia.
We can provide fuller whole-person care as we consider a patient's spiritual needs as well as physical, mental and social needs. Many doctors are able to witness to patients, while all are able to be a witness to peers (1 Pet 3:15).
We must not ignore global issues. What about population control measures, healthcare provision in the developing world and the immense physical and psychological suffering experienced by millions in our 'global village'? Overseas opportunities abound for doctors to spend variable periods of time abroad.
I want to ask a question that I feel underpins all of the above discussion. What is the primary reason for my or your existence on this planet? I believe it is to be involved in building the kingdom of God, in our own lives, in our communities and to the ends of the earth. I define 'kingdom of God' as the sphere of life where God's rule is accepted.
Once we have been called into the family of God we are sent out with his message of hope to our needy world. Jesus said, 'go and make disciples of all nations...teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you' (Mt 28:19,20) and, 'as the Father has sent me, I am sending you' (Jn 20:21). Should not this 'great commission' be our daily motivation and career planner?
Jesus also said, 'seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well' (Mt 6:33). It is not easy to live such a life because it means denying yourself and some of the things that you enjoy. But how many times have we made new resolutions against sin and for a closer walk with God? How do we get into such a relationship? I believe it involves an initial, and then daily, point of total surrender to him. Repentance has to be more than 'saying sorry'. It involves dying to ourselves (Gal 2:20).
Such a response to the call and command of God leads us into a life of 'brokenness', as we allow God to break our selfish will and lead us into a life of greater closeness to his will and purpose. This is true revival as his life is poured into ours. Once we have tasted of how good his life is, we will be much more reluctant to ever let it go or, in other words, allow our faith to slip.