What is a Christian Doctor?
Five Characteristics that Distinguish Christian Doctors from Others
by Al Weir, MD
Today's Christian Doctor - Spring 2005
When I was a young man, I looked up to my father. I can still remember the smells of antisepsis when I walked the hospital halls with him, reaching up to hold his hand, amazed at this man who touched and healed. He was a man of dignity, intelligence, love—and a man like Christ to me. My goal in life was to be like him, a Christian doctor.
Then, one day I became one, a Christian doctor . . . and I was totally lost in direction. I was incredibly successful in my practice from the start, my office and hospital filled with patients whom I was competently serving. But in the rush and burden of practice I was disoriented. I wondered: What am I really doing for Christ?
Out of that disorientation, God clearly called and I followed that call with my wife and two children to Eku, Nigeria as medical missionaries. Once I was a missionary, I was confident that I could be a Christian doctor. Those years were the most fun of my medical career. I was needed without a doubt—incredibly interesting diseases everywhere: trypanosomiasis, tetanus, and malaria—patient after patient survived because I was there. We had a gorgeous flame tree in our back yard and a river we would walk to every day after work to wash off the tropical sweat. It was great! And then through an illness, God called us home to Memphis, Tennessee.
It was tough living back here; I was a man who had lost his mission. For years I begged God to send us back to the mission field and he refused. Seven years passed before God released me from that dream and placed another dream in my heart. In those seven years of struggle and prayer God showed me that there was a mission for me in Memphis, Tennessee if I would choose to follow it. That mission was called becoming a Christian doctor. I have been pursuing it ever since.
Each step on that mission has been challenging, exciting, uncharted, and dangerous. It is a complicated mission. Each step could have destroyed my effectiveness as a Christian. Each step could have brought a tremendous victory. I have many times faced both victory and defeat.
As a practicing oncologist, I see approximately fifty patients a day in my hospital and office and each day I face each of these questions — each day I succeed or fail in these challenges and each night I stand before God with a day I cannot recover. As I face these challenges and work among doctors who are either Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or apathetic about their faith, I ask myself: What really is the difference between a Christian doctor and all the others?
All doctors we know have passed their exams and have moved into the life of treating sick people or teaching others to do so. That is our job, our work; we are doctors. Many who are not Christian are moral, compassionate, and competent. But, something else has happened to us as Christian doctors. At some time in our lives, each of us has come to see that God came to earth in the person of a man called Jesus, and died for our sins, and rose from death to take his rightful place as the Lord of all creation. We saw this truth; we said that we would accept his gift of forgiveness and that we would follow him wherever he leads us. This has changed our lives — this has made us Christians. The interesting thing is this: When Christ changed our lives to make us Christians, he also changed the kind of doctors that we should become.
What in this world is a Christian doctor? The following five characteristics are distinctive of Christian doctors.
1. Christian doctors have a different understanding of time.
Christian doctors know that life is not for a few good years and then it is over. Life is everlasting. Often as an oncologist I face the tears of those who have lost someone they loved. If they are Christians, my message to them is: “One of the real tragedies of our lives is that we must be separated from each other for a time before we can be together forever — but we will be together forever, someday soon.” Most of us as doctors wish to reduce the suffering of our patients because we love them, but all of us know that all of our patients will die someday. Whether it takes two years with cancer, thirty years with heart disease, or even if it comes in the blinding explosion of a plane crashing into their office building, all of our patients will die.
A patient of mine, Debbie, had breast cancer. One day, as I left her hospital room with great sadness, I wished her well. She said to me, sensing my heart, “Don’t worry doctor. If you don’t cure me with your medicines, then God will cure me when I get to heaven.” Debbie knew that life is everlasting and Debbie is now alive in heaven with God. As Christian doctors we know that life is everlasting. That does two things for us: (a) it gives us hope when we see our patients dying — life does not have to be over for them; (b) it hands us a challenge — we need to help our patients know God so they can live forever with him.
2. Christian doctors have a different understanding of reality.
Many of our colleagues feel that our life, our thoughts, and our dreams are nothing but biochemical reactions, limited by the laws of science . . . that our very lives are biological accidents. I once spoke to 150 medical students about stem cell research. “Don’t you ever let a professor tell you that you are a biological accident,” I said. “You were created by God with a purpose.” Unfortunately, many of our colleagues teach that reality is limited to phenomena that can be proved by science.
A Christian doctor is a good scientist. I believe strongly in the scientific method. I am a clinical professor of medicine at our medical school. However, I know that there is more to reality than that which we can touch or define by scientific laws. It was God who created all of the biochemistry that we discover. God allows us as doctors to learn his secrets of science so that we can help people in their suffering. Scientific truth is God’s truth.
There is also reality beyond that which science can prove. There is science and there is more than science. There is spiritual power in life beyond our scientific understanding. I first witnessed this spiritual power when I was a year old. I do not remember it but I witnessed it. When I was about that age, my brain began degenerating, turning to water and mush. My parents took me to the best neurosurgeons, the ones who knew the best science. They placed drains in my skull. (My children today like to poke their fingers into the holes in my skull where the doctors drained me when I was a small child.) After all of the best science had been attempted, the doctors gave up and told my parents that I would either die or become a “vegetable.”
They strongly advised my parents to place me in an institution where I could live out my short life and not disturb the rest of the family. My parents loved me enough to hold onto me.
One day they went on a journey, leaving me with my Aunt Eunice. My aunt took me to her small Christian and Missionary Alliance church. There she and her fellow Christian church members prayed over my little body. My parents returned and saw that I was beginning to heal. I became well and I have remained so from that time of prayer. Reality is science but it is also more than science.
3. Christian doctors have a different understanding of value.
What do we value in our life? There are many things on our list of values. Time is certainly precious. We have to arrange the stuff of life in some order so that we can be sure to gain the most valuable things first. We put some things on top of our list, the things that we feel in our heart are the most valuable, for these things are the ones we will most likely achieve.
What is on our list: knowledge, relief of human suffering, caring for our families, material possessions, respect, position, power, physical pleasure? All of these can be good things. The question is: In what order do we place them? There should be a clear difference in the prioritized value list of a Christian doctor and a list of a doctor who does not know Jesus Christ.
Several years ago, our CMDA journal, Today’s Christian Doctor, told the story of Dr. James Collier, an ophthalmologist who had succeeded in life. He had a priority list that he was pleased with, but God was not on top of that list. Then they discovered his lung cancer. His cancer was removed. He thought he was safe — but, then it returned and he knew that he would not be cured. Dr. Collier once again turned to God through Jesus Christ. He took his old value list of possessions, respect, pleasure, and knowledge and exchanged them for a new value list. Dr. Collier said, “I know that Jesus is all I have and all I need.” God became so wonderful to him that he said, “I would not let anyone take away my cancer if it meant missing this journey into God’s love.” Dr. Collier learned that the most valuable thing in life is knowing God.
Augustine said, “You have made me for yourself, oh God. My heart will ever restless be, until it finds its rest in thee.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer died in a Nazi concentration camp because as a minister of Christ he could not stand still before the evil of Nazi Germany. Bonhoeffer wrote, “The only man who has the right to say Jesus paid it all is the man who has left his all to follow him.” Both Bonhoeffer and Dr. Collier understood that knowing Jesus was worth it all.
4. Christian doctors live a life with a mission that is greater than themselves.
Psychiatrist Ernest Becker wrote in his great book Denial of Death that all men and women live in a great dilemma. He said that we all dream of great things. We see beauty. We acquire knowledge of science and history, and we are amazed. We imagine a great future for ourselves. As human creatures, we are able to dream these things and, because of these dreams, we are able to rise above the animals as little gods. But the scientific truth is that our dreams can never be fully achieved because we are limited by our biology. If we are gods, Becker says, we are “gods with anuses” and “gods who die.” Throughout Becker’s book the question is asked, “What worthwhile purpose can man hold onto if his life is limited to the scientific fact that death will take every dream he has and dissolve it into nothingness?”
Christian doctors have a different understanding of time — life is everlasting; a different concept of reality — there is a spiritual world as well as a physical world; a different concept of value — to be with God is better than everything. Because of these understandings, Christian doctors have a different mission in life from those who do not know Christ.
A teacher of the law came up to Jesus and asked him, “What is the greatest commandment of all?”
“The greatest commandment,” said Jesus, “is this — Hear O Israel the Lord your God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. And the second is this — love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater commandment than these.”
Within those words lies the mission of all Christian physicians:
- Know that God is One;
- Love God with everything that we are;
- Love our fellow man as much as we love ourselves;
- Work with God in bringing others to love him as we do.
Jesus lived as a model of that mission for the Christian doctor. Jesus did not wish to die on the cross. In the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed, “Father, all things are possible for you. Take this cup from me, yet, not what I will but what you will.” Jesus did not want to die, but he loved God more than life. Jesus was saying, “Whatever you tell me to do with my life, I will do it because you are God.” Jesus lived the mission of serving God.
Jesus also lived his life on earth touching and healing because he loved. The reward he received from the people he healed was the pain of the cross. Jesus is a model for our mission in this life. Christian doctors say:
“I am here to obey God, whatever he wants me to do with my life.”
“I am here to serve people with my skills as a doctor. I am here to ease their suffering because I love them. Like Jesus, I will not limit my service to those who can reward me. I will be a servant to my patients. I will be competent.”
“Because I love them I will point my patients and colleagues to God through Jesus Christ so that they may live a life that has hope and can last forever.”
5. Christian doctors have a different relationship with God.
The God of the universe comes to live in our hearts. God is here with us to give us peace in hard times. Peace comes from two things: forgiveness and trust. With forgiveness we can put our past behind us. With trust we can understand that our future is in the hands of a good and powerful God. God is here with us to pick us up when we fall. We are not perfect people. We make mistakes and we fall just like all human beings; but, as Christian doctors, we know that God is here to pick us up.
When I was thirty years old and headed for the mission field, I had a significant faith problem. Though I knew Christ and trusted in his sacrifice for my eternal life, I still would experience nights of fear when I would lie awake in cold sweats, afraid of the infinite nothingness of death.
During that time of mission preparation my wife, Becky, became pregnant with our second child. It was a blessing that turned into a disaster. Becky became so ill that nothing could stop her vomiting.
In spite of all the medical care we could access, she wasted away. I would often leave work early and rush home to brush her hair and comfort her...one day of suffering at a time. She finally became so weak that I had to carry her in my arms to the bathroom. She slipped into a deep depression and I thought she would die.
During one of our hospital admissions a caring doctor suggested an abortion and we agreed. We were broken. God had not come through and we had no hope. The night before the abortion my father walked into our room. “I know that you may never feel the same about me after I tell you this,” he said, “but I tell you because I love you. What you are planning to do is wrong.”
He left the room and I fell into Becky’s arms. We cried for a long time, but when the tears dried, we resolved to keep our child, no matter the cost. Catherine is now a practicing nurse.
I came away from that experience a different person. I remember falling hopelessly and then landing in the arms of God. I can to this day feel the comfort and strength of those arms.
Something else also happened to me that day. From that moment, my fear of death vanished. It was not a rational change in my mind that pushed the fear away; it just vanished. Somehow from within the comfort and security of the arms of God, I lost access to that fear and it has not returned.
Christian doctors have a different relationship with God. God is here for us with power and peace and a hand to lift us when we fall.
- Christian doctors have a different understanding of time: life is eternal.
- Christian doctors have a different understanding of reality: life is spiritual as well as physical.
- Christian doctors have a different understanding of value: knowing God is the greatest thing.
- Christian doctors have a different mission in life: We are here to love and serve God. We are here to love and serve people. We are sent into the world as God’s message of love.
- Christian doctors have a different relationship with God: we serve a God who brings peace and power into our life and who picks us up when we fall.
Each of us must choose whether he or she we will be a Christian doctor. I have chosen so for myself. And yet, even as I choose, I struggle. Many days I come home tired, after too many patients and too many meetings, to face a family I love and see too little of. I go to bed wondering what I really did for God that day.
I sometimes get fatigued with all the busyness of life, and sometimes I look at my Christian mission as a burden. And sometimes I hear this voice that says, “Just take care of your own and live the normal life—just take care of your own and live the normal life.” Sometimes that sounds good to me.
But as that voice whispers in one ear, the voice of God whispers in the other—and I know that I am a Christian doctor and I must not settle for normal life.
Sometimes it helps to have a battle cry that drowns out the voice of the world. I have chosen one for my life. It came from the heart of a woman named Maria Skobstsova, who lived and died in the twentieth century. She had a family—three daughters. She could have sought normal life but she heard the whisper of God and she dedicated her life to caring for refugees on the streets of Paris. She died in a German concentration camp for attempting to rescue the Jews of Paris.
Maria Skobstsova knew who she was and knew her reason for being. She once said, “I am your Message, Lord. Throw me like a blazing torch into the night, so that all may see and understand what it means to be a disciple.”
Some time ago I went to my farm, where I’m trying to grow fruit trees in a small ridge between two fields. This ridge is separated from the forest on either side by thirty yards of grass, safe from the kudzu vines that are devouring the forest. When I reached my trees I discovered with horror that the kudzu had somehow sensed their presence and had crawled across the grass and was wrapping itself around those trees. I spent two hours cutting and unraveling the vines that choked my trees. That choking parallels the story of our lives. The individual world of many doctors is complex and heavy—and normal life is wrapping its vines around them—like the kudzu around my fruit trees in Tennessee.
I challenge you to break away. I challenge you to follow the whisper of God and the battle cry of Maria Skobstsov: “I am your Message Lord. Throw me like a blazing torch into the night so that all may see and understand what it means to be a disciple.”
If ever our world needs Christian doctors to adopt this battle cry, it does now.
Our mission in CMDA is not a mission for Bristol, Tennessee, alone. It is a mission for you and for me and thousands of others—ordinary doctors in a crazy world, yet willing to take a stand day after day and show the world that we are Christian doctors.