I Just Want to Study
By Dr. Brad Cole
Life is full of transitions, some more dramatic than others. Having children interjects many of these transitions into life. For example, the first day of Kindergarten for each of our three children marked a dramatic transition in their lives and ours. Each time my wife and I drove away from school on those memorable mornings we asked, “How will they survive in this new environment? What if they forget to eat or drink? What if they need help and the teacher is busy?” You would think that the novelty of this experience would have worn off by the third child, but it never did. Our children, of course, will experience countless dramatic changes in life after Kindergarten – the transition between high school and college or between college and career, the transition from single to married and perhaps someday to welcome a newborn baby into the world, with all of the sudden responsibilities that come with being “Dad” or “Mom.”
There is an important transition that needs to occur in the life of every follower of Christ – a transition that is usually gradual but at times can suddenly be forced upon us. To illustrate this point, I’d like to describe the transition between the second and third years of medical school. The first two years of medical school are predominantly in the classroom and laboratory and involve countless hours of reading. The third and fourth years, however, are night and day different. There are almost no formal lectures, labs or specific pages that are assigned for reading. Most of the learning is now “hands on” – in the family practice clinic, emergency room, intensive care unit, surgical suite, internal medicine ward service, and so on.
This transition is dramatic and can be a difficult adjustment. During the month of May, the second year student was reading 4-6 hours a day in between lectures and labs; two months later during the month of July, the third year student is now thrust into real life situations. Typically there is an initial period of shock – students feel helpless, useless, even a hindrance to the work that needs to be done. One of my earliest experiences as a third year medical student was on the cardiac intensive care unit. I was even given a pager and was on with a team of individuals (of course, all much more experienced than I) who were to immediately respond if someone coded in the hospital and needed resuscitation. In my insecurity and inexperience, I remember my intense worry and hope that I would not be the first person to arrive on the scene. But then, during the second week of the rotation, it happened. A nurse discovered that her patient with diabetes was suddenly unresponsive. As she rushed out of the room, who was standing there but me – all by myself! While she went off to page the “real” doctors, I went inside the patient’s room – heart pounding and memorized facts flashing before my mind, to examine the patient. It didn’t take long to confirm what the nurse already knew – the patient was breathing but unresponsive. There was no time to pull out a textbook and to methodically sort through the list of 500 things that can cause someone to lapse into a coma. Something needed to be done and now.
The nurse came back into the room and I’m sure sensed the anxiety and uncertainty in my face. To my great relief, she threw me a bone and said, “Doctor, would you like to check the patients’ glucose level, order the usual STAT labs and an EKG?” Clearly she was leading me to the obvious things that needed to be done. “Yes! Thank you!” I responded, wishing that I had thought to make those suggestions first and I remember fantasizing in that split second that I had said with confidence, “Nurse, we need labs, EKG, and chest X-ray. STAT!”
Within minutes, other members of the team were there and the patient’s glucose was found to be dangerously low. He was given IV glucose and after a short period of time was awake and talking again. To me at the time, it seemed miraculous. As we walked back to the call room the intern said to me, “Good job!” If only he knew what really happened!
With time and experience, of course, medical students gradually become more knowledgeable and comfortable dealing with situations like this. Confidence grows as well and finally the student is ready to graduate and to take on the responsibilities of a “real” doctor.
Let’s imagine for a moment that a student at the end of the second year of medical school made a decision not to move on to the third and fourth years of medical school. It isn’t that the student wants to leave school, he just wants to remain as a second year student. When asked why, his response is, “I don’t know enough yet. I just want to study. I need to memorize more lists before I’m ready to take on the real world of medicine.” After devoting 6 months to intensive study, this student finally decides, “I don’t want to see any patients during medical school. I just want to study as many facts as possible in the field of medicine because I fear that seeing patients will detract from my task of acquiring knowledge.” And so, this student remained a second year student, for 5, 10, 20 years – reading, reading, reading.
How would you feel about a student like this? Despite the knowledge this student would possess, would you feel comfortable having this student as your doctor, bringing your first child into the world, or performing surgery on you if you needed it?
Do Christians “just want to study”?
In contrast to this unrealistic scenario, when it comes to the area of “religion” it is much easier to become a “reader” and a “learner of facts” rather than one who puts the life of Christ into practice. Too often we have become obsessed with knowledge, getting the doctrines right and having the right list of beliefs, and with a sharp ear to detect heresy, while underemphasizing the importance of “living out” the kingdom of Christ. This is what Paul was talking about in the famous “love” passage:
“I may have the gift of inspired preaching; I may have all knowledge and understand all secrets; I may have all the faith needed to move mountains—but if I have no love, I am nothing.” (1Co 13:2)
This passage gets watered down because we hear it at weddings so often, but notice Paul’s emphasis. I may have “all knowledge” and even “the faith to move mountains” but if I do not live out the love of Jesus Christ, “I am nothing.” You would think that knowledge and faith would get more credit, but according to Paul everything else that we associate with the Christian life is worthless if we don’t possess a spirit of love. If we were to translate this passage into the medical illustration, we would say, “I may possess a complete knowledge of every cause of hyponatremia, but if I don’t know how to apply that knowledge to a real patient, it is worthless.”
Greg Boyd pointed to this problem, “A number of studies have shown that there is very little difference between professing Christians and non-Christians in America in regard to the core values we espouse and behaviors we practice. In other words, the only clearly identifiable area that sets Christians apart is that they hold different beliefs from non-Christians, and this, in the opinion of many Christians, is what “saves” them.” But are we saved by knowledge?
In some cases the gap between our private devotional life and how we treat people can become worlds apart. C.S. Lewis described a man where “…the cleavage [was] so wide that no thought or feeling from his prayers for the imagined mother ever flowed over into his treatment of the real one… [This man] could be turned at a moment’s notice from impassioned prayer for a wife’s or son’s ‘soul’ to beating or insulting the real wife or son without a qualm.” (1)
The purpose of our private devotional life is not the fine tuning our doctrines or the acquisition of biblical knowledge. Jesus read His Old Testament and obviously knew it better than anyone else, but His bible study and prayer life was a means to an end and that end was to be a blessing to others by representing God to them. Likewise, our mission in life is to bring the healing message of Jesus Christ to others by the way we treat them.
Second year medical students learn about the causes and treatment of epilepsy so they can help patients with epilepsy. What students discover about reading in the third year of medical school is that the medical literature now becomes much more exciting and relevant because as they read the light bulbs now go off – “I’ve seen someone with that problem!” – the knowledge now becomes a practical component of how they take care of patients.. In the same way, the various activities of our devotional life such as bible study are important in the life of the Christian because they prepare us to make a difference in the lives of those around us. The bible becomes a living book when applied to the daily life. When we consciously seek to bring Jesus into our real world of family, friends and work, our private study and our need for daily prayer become supremely relevant.
There is one other critical element to growth and maturity, in the area of medicine as well as in the life of a Christian. One of the most important learning tools during the third and fourth years of medical school is the opportunity to work with many attendings, residents, and interns. This period of mentorship allows the student to see what works and what doesn’t. It is one thing to read an article in a medical journal about how to break bad news to a patient and family, it is quite another to watch dozens of different physicians share this information with real individuals. Good mentorship is perhaps the single most important ingredients for creating good physicians.
Christians have one supreme mentor and that is Christ. Although we often regard Jesus as primarily a historical figure, the reality is that Christ promised to never leave us. We are not on our own, desperately struggling to live out a life based on words in a book, following the wishes of a God who is far away in a place called “heaven.” Jesus reassured us of this when He said prior to His ascension, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20), and He described this “being together” as triggering a transformation in us when He prayed to His Father, “I made you known to then, and I will continue to do so, in order that the love you have for me may be in them, and so that I also may be in them.” (John 17:26). When we are in daily contact with the living Christ, we will experience the same eternal, perfect love that the Father has for the Son. And then, we will ourselves begin to live out the love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Paul says we are called to “imitate God,” which means we are to “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:1-2). And according to Peter, when we submit our lives to Christ and are placed “in Christ,” God enables us “to participate in the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4).
It is growth in knowledge of the character of Christ that sanctifies the soul. To discern and appreciate the wonderful work of the atonement, transforms him who contemplates the plan of salvation. By beholding Christ, he becomes changed into the same image, from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord. The beholding of Jesus becomes an ennobling, refining process to the actual Christian. He sees the Pattern, and grows into its likeness, and then how easily are dissensions, emulations, and strife adjusted. The perfection of Christ’s character is the Christian’s inspiration. When we see him as he is, desire awakes to be like him, and this elevates the whole man; for “every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure. (R&H, August 26, 1890)
As our minds become imprinted through the intimate relationship we experience with Jesus who is God in human form, we become transformed and equipped to go out into the world, meeting others as Jesus met them. Although we will fail many times just as I did when faced with the diabetic patient who was in a hypoglycemic coma. But yet we are never alone, never without support and encouragement to reflect Jesus to those around us. The highest ideal of a physician is to serve and to save others, not self. Likewise, the highest ideal of Christians is not to serve self and to “get to heaven” but rather to reflect the character of Jesus Christ.
1. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, pg 26