From nucleus - winter 1999 - Maintaining Spirituality [pp22-28]
Maintaining spirituality in our ministry is an essential subject for us all, as we are all serving the Lord's ministry in every sphere of life we live. Our 'ministry' is simply our 'sphere of service'. And so our need to maintain our spirituality as doctors is the same as that of ministers of churches, and of all other professionals, wherever God may call them to serve.
What does maintaining spirituality mean?
Maintaining assumes prior existence and a desire for continuity. One must buy a new home and then move in, before the job of maintaining it can begin. Spirituality could be described as godliness, that is doing everything in accordance with God's will, in a way pleasing to him. So, maintaining spirituality can be best summed up as being Christ-like; that is continuing to become more like him, our Lord Jesus.
We are to be imitators of God, and to act just as Christ did (Eph 5:1-2). Thus it would be wise to consider our Lord Jesus' ministry before defining our own.
'For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.' (Mk 10:45) Jesus' ministry was one of constant service, so our ministry must therefore be the same. We serve God alone (Mt 4:10), and by serving others, we serve him (Mt 25:40). We can serve in two ways, by giving, and by witnessing.
How did Jesus give of himself? He always had time for all who came to him, he never turned anyone away. He gave them his time, his interest, his love and care without grumbling, criticising or complaining. The Gospels are full of examples, one of the most famous being the little children (Mt 19:13-14). The Lord Jesus himself, in John 13:1-17, stooped down and washed his disciples' feet. Are we willing to show people the love in our hearts by serving them?
So, how can we give of ourselves? We can do as Jesus did, be aware of people's needs, be always ready to give our love, time and money and effort, be always thinking of others, and not of ourselves, give without grumbling, doubting and criticising. Jesus tells us in John 15:10 that we remain in him by obeying his commands. By obeying him through giving of ourselves and loving others, we bear much fruit, such as that described in Galatians 5:22. We must be prepared to give ourselves to others at all times, in all situations and in the way God wants us to.
I learnt such a lesson in Africa. I was helping a team of workmen to empty our first brick kiln. A student nurse came for me, saying I was needed urgently. I went quickly to our small temporary hospital to find a woman in urgent need of a Caesarean section for an obstructed delivery. I scrubbed up, the new nail brush cutting cruelly into the sores on my bleeding hands (as I was unaccustomed to handling bricks). Antiseptic alcohol added to my discomfort. As I pulled on surgical gloves, my distress was complete, and I found myself grumbling against God. Why couldn't he send me a helper to take over the building programme, and allow me to be the doctor I was trained to be? I was becoming bitter against the load and the difficulties of being in charge of every department, and asked the church elders for prayer. They prayed for and with me, and then one said to me, 'you know, Doctor, when you are being the doctor, white coat on, stethoscope round your neck, speaking French (the Government language), you are miles from us: we are scared of you. We don't really listen to what you say: we just say 'Yes'. But when you're down at the brick-kiln, using our local tribal language, making howlers, and we all laugh at you, that is when we have come to love and trust you. That is when we listen to what you tell us of the love of God!'
God (of course) knew best! I had to 'give' my desire to be a good doctor to the Lord, and ask his help to enable me to give myself to my African friends in the way he chose, that was best suited to their needs, so that they could see Jesus in me in a way they could easily understand and appreciate.
In 1970, I had been in Africa for 17 years, and was what some people might call 'a senior missionary'. In that time I had built and run a small 100-bed hospital, trained paramedical workers and looked after an orphanage for some 80 children of leprous parents. In the meantime, others had come to join the team who were better trained to teach the students, better trained to do the surgery and medical outpatients, better trained to take morning devotions, even more capable to train the local football team! I suddenly found myself almost without a job. I went to the church elders to discuss the situation with them, and ask them what they thought I should be doing.
'There is one job you can do better than we can', the elders commented. 'You know how to type' (if they had been speaking English they would have said 'you can still make two plus two equal four!'). 'Would you be willing to become the office girl?' The truth was, yes, I did mind: I was not honestly willing for an office job. I liked being with people, but I knew I couldn't say that - it didn't sound very spiritual! So I became the office girl. I worked in the school office from 6.30am to 9pm every day of the week. I couldn't even get out on the weekend preaching teams as there was always so much to do. I never learned to like the work and I grumbled. Eventually, I went back to the elders, and asked if they could not find someone else to do the task as I felt I had done it long enough. They prayed with me, and then one said 'Doctor, you know that according to Government regulations, none of our school graduates are allowed to work out there in the clinics, preaching the gospel to their outpatients, if you are not behind them, signing all the letters and documents and cards of authority'. I'd given seventeen years to building up the work in all its aspects, and all they really needed now was my signature! I felt humiliated, angry, hurt… and then I laughed! Yes, God said to me, that is what they need; that is why I put you here at this time; are you not willing to fulfil their need?
Jesus came to earth to serve those who did not deserve such grace. We cannot serve in the exact same way that he did; we cannot give our lives as a ransom as he did. However, we can serve others by giving of ourselves, where we are really needed, and trusting in God to place us where we can be most effective for him.
We can also serve God by being his witnesses. Paul, speaking of the church, wrote: 'I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the Word of God in its fullness.… We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ' (Col 1:25,28). The last words of the Lord Jesus to his disciples was 'you will be my witnesses' (Acts 1:8) even though they knew that this might well entail being his martyrs as well.
Paul commanded young Timothy to: 'Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage - with great patience and careful instruction' (2 Tim 4:2). And this preaching does not always have to include speaking - our whole manner of living should be a portrayal of Jesus Christ.
In the first week after I moved to Nebobongo there was a knock at the door at about 2am. On the veranda stood a mother carrying a desperately ill baby. 'Why ever didn't you come to me earlier?' I blurted out. She obviously did not understand my Swahili, and answered me in her own tribal language which I did not understand. All through the night I worked to counteract the baby's severe dehydration, and handed over to a student nurse in the morning. Later that morning, our African pastor took ward prayers and then went round to speak to each patient in turn. Coming to this lady, she asked him, 'Whatever made her come out? In my village, no-one, not even my mother or husband or the Chief, no one would come with me to the hospital in the middle of the night, even though I knew my baby was dying. They were all too scared of the dark (the evil spirits and wild animals). But when I knocked at her door she (the foreign white devil) came out, and has saved my baby's life!' The pastor was able to preach Jesus to her, and before she eventually left the hospital she had given her heart to the Lord. I personally had been unable to say a word to her. Our life and behaviour have to preach as much as our lips: we are constantly being watched, and we must seek his grace and power to live in a way always pleasing to God (1 Thes 4:1), so that men will see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven (Mt 5:16).
Am I willing to serve others as Jesus served us? Are you?
How can we maintain our spirituality in medicine in our ordinary, every-day busy lives, surrounded by people, needs, crises, decisions to be made, responsibilities to be carried? We need to do two things: make pleasing him our major ambition and avoid hardening our hearts.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus fell with his face to the ground and prayed, 'my Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will' (Mt 26:39). Jesus longed to do the will of his Father alone, no matter what the cost would be. Paul, at the end of his long missionary career, in prison in Rome, still prayed that he might know Christ (Phil 3:10). He had a tremendous hunger and desire that all his ministry should be pleasing to God.
Do we have this attitude? If my one over-riding desire, my main ambition in all my life is indeed to 'please him', I will need to consider him - watch, study, imitate him - that I may come to know what would be pleasing to him. I can only consider him as I spend time with him, in Bible study, in prayer, by myself and also at times in fellowship with other Christians. I need to ask myself, is this desire absolutely and definitively central? Is it the beginning and the end of all I do, and how I do it?
At the end of his life, Paul gave this testimony: 'I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith' (2 Tim 4:7). If anyone had a busy life, Paul had! He was always ready for battle, always running with all his might, always clinging to the cross.
Hebrews 3 warns us not to harden our hearts. 'Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts….' (Heb 3:8, 15). 'See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness.' (Heb 3:12-13)
Three times, the writer to the Hebrews warned them 'not to harden their hearts'. What can harden our hearts towards God?
If we make pleasing God our main ambition and avoid hardening our hearts in the ways I have outlined, then Hebrews 4 gives us three further suggestions about how we can maintain our spirituality.
'Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it' (Heb 4:1). We must be careful to keep high standards, by fixing our eyes on Jesus (Heb 12:2), and being alert to the danger of backsliding. We must keep our personal standards high as a constant witness to Christ. Not only medically in our care of patients, but even in the matter of filling in income tax forms. We have to keep alert to the danger, and keep our eyes on Jesus, so that what we do and how we do it remains always pleasing to him - even if no one else sees it or understands our motives. To help us achieve this, God has given us his Word. Oh, let us be sure to read and study and meditate on the Word every day, not just when we feel like it! We should all practise daily reading and studying of the Bible and keep it up. Believe it, mark it, learn it by heart, put it into practice.
'Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no-one will fall by following their example of disobedience' (Heb 4:11). The KJV translates this as 'labour to enter in'. Labour is hard and we should expect this. Don't let us grumble at hard work or long hours, don't let us demand holidays or time off, don't let us think we are hard done by. But rather, let us be prepared for what it takes to become a real servant to our local community - both in work and out of work.
I remember clearly one day at our Nyankunde mission hospital that started with an emergency Caesarean Section at about 3am and continued with interruptions and emergencies throughout the day, as well as trying to fulfil an ordinary day's timetable. At 10pm there was a knock at the front door. 'No,' I thought, 'this day has been long enough: I can't take any more!' I turned the lantern right down, and stood rigidly still, trusting the visitor would go away. But he didn't. I went to the front door, praying that the Lord would give me grace for whatever task needed to be done. A third year student stood on the veranda, in obvious distress. I invited him in and listened to his troubles, and that night he confessed his sins, and I had the joy of leading him to put his trust in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We must be prepared for 24-hour round-the-clock availability, willing to 'labour' to enter into his perfect will for ourselves and others. Our lives are to be witnesses unto him, ready to die to self and to comforts that others may come to live in him.
'And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying' (Eph 6:18). 'Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God' (Phil 4:6). Jesus himself, however busy he was, however tired, always made time for prayer - out on the mountainside, alone, early in the morning, late at night, throughout the night.
Above all else, keep the daily quiet time apart with God. Let nothing squeeze this out of your timetable. This is where you grow, where he can teach and change you into his likeness: where he can speak to you, direct you, encourage you, and where he maintains the spirituality of your service. Paul said: 'pray continually' (NIV) 'without ceasing' (AV) (1Thes 5:17). Does this sound impractical? Beware! It is scriptural - and the Lord knows just how busy you are! The busier you are, the more you need to pray. We have to learn to use all the spare moments, and to bring everything to God in prayer. There is nothing too small or insignificant to bring to him in prayer. Talk everything over with the Lord - the disappointments, problems and joys. We can pray as we scrub up, as we wait for the traffic lights to change, as we peel the potatoes.
We fail so easily; we harden our hearts, we fall short of God's standards, we are lazy and allow our standards to fall, and above all, we put ourselves first. It is easy to become discouraged. But we are not the first to do so; Moses, the meek man of God, failed. He was irritated by the endless grumblings of the Israelites, and he failed to obey exactly what God told him to do (Nu 20). Abram, the friend of God, failed. He doubted if God could fulfil his promise and give him a son by Sarai, so he took Hagar for his wife (Gn 16). David had Uriah murdered so that he could have his wife Bathsheba for his own (2 Sa 11).
These men of God hardened their hearts against God, failing to put him first and trust him. Yet when they repented, God forgave them, re-instated them and went on to use them mightily. Thus, prayer is of paramount importance; we can come boldly before God in prayer by the blood of Christ, repent, ask for God's forgiveness and for strength to begin again. 'Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need' (Heb 4:16). 'Come boldly to the throne of grace' (AV), with everything undergirded by prayer.
Just determine that you are going to win the battle against sin and failure and tell the devil to 'get packing' - it is here, on our knees in prayer, that he fights us most assiduously, but in Jesus, we are more than conquerors (Rom 8:37)! And it is here, in prayer, that we win the battle of maintaining spirituality in our busy lives - actually, it is not we who maintain spirituality in ourselves, but the Lord himself who does the maintaining as we rest in him. God maintains our spirituality as we, by his strength and in gratitude for his mercy, love and serve others out of our desire to please him.
Medicine is hard work, there is no doubt about that. We are always struggling to be Christ-like in our behaviour to our patients, to our colleagues and at home. Maintaining our spirituality in an ungodly world is not easy; however, it is not impossible either (Mt 19:26). As we strive to serve our Lord out of gratitude and love, by giving ourselves to others selflessly and being his witnesses, we find that we become more like him, as God's Spirit works in us. As we live our lives to please God alone and avoid hardening our hearts against him, as we study the Bible daily, work hard and pray ceaselessly, God himself works in us to transform us to the likeness of his Son (Rom 8:29). And if we fail, as we all do, we can boldly approach the throne of grace through the blood of Jesus and ask for forgiveness and strength to try again. Our reward is incomparable; we will enter God's perfect rest and be awarded the crown of righteousness (2 Tim 4:8).