One of the results of sin is that we hide. We hid from God when He came looking for us that first evening after we sinned (Genesis 3:8). We have been hiding ever since. We try to hide our sin from God. We try to hide our sin from others. And we try to hide it from ourselves. We are in denial about our sinful condition which makes it very difficult for us to receive the help we need. As every health care professional knows, we can help someone only when that person realises that he or she needs help and is open to being helped. Which is why Christian doctors and dentists and other health care professionals hold such a critical place in God’s purposes. We meet people at times when their humanity and their need are most exposed.
There are few places where the human condition is as exposed as the waiting room of the emergency department at a hospital. Young and old, rich and poor, men and women, people of all races — wait in pain and anxiety. Whatever lives they may lead elsewhere, here they are just human and in need. There are few places as honest as the doctor’s office or the dentist’s clinic. Here we hear stories that others never get a chance to hear. Of course there are attempts to hide here too but sooner or later, if the pain is bad enough, we get to hear some semblance of the truth. If the need is severe enough, patients tell the truth to themselves as they tell it to the doctor.
I have the privilege to serve as the chaplain of the Singapore Christian Medical and Dental Fellowship (CMDF). At their recent Annual Dinner I reminded my colleagues of the unique ministry opportunities they have in their professions. We are in one of the few professions that allow us to walk with people at times when they are most aware of their humanity and their brokenness and their need for help. Therefore we have the unique opportunity of being Christ’s representatives to people at moments when they are most aware of their need.
I not advocating that Christian doctors and dentists verbally confront patients with the gospel as the only expression of Christian service. (When I was a dentist I heard too many jokes about how our patients have to listen to our gospel presentations when we are working on their teeth, especially when we are drilling. I have a feeling this practice violates both the laws of God and the laws of the Dental Association.) There will be times when this should and must happen but I believe our first duty to our patients is to minister to them in the compassion of Christ. Experiencing the compassion of Christ through the compassion of the doctor, the patient encounters the Christ of the gospel. If they know God cares they will be more willing to care when we verbalise the gospel.
And because we care for our patients we will want to be as competent as we can be. Once a surgeon asked me:”If you desperately need a surgical procedure, would you choose a surgeon who was caring or one who was very competent?” Christian medical practitioners do not have the luxury of such questions. We are called to be both compassionate and competent. Indeed it is precisely because we care for our patients that we strive to give them the best care possible. But medical care bereft of compassion is not Christian. To be Christian is to love God by loving neighbour (Luke 10:25-28).
Perhaps we are better able to show compassion when we remember our own humanity and our own need for Christ. I remind myself and my colleagues every chance I get, that the distance between ourselves and our patients is not as great as we may think. We too are part of a fallen, broken humanity that needs grace and needs God. And doctors are as good as anyone in denying our wounds and our failures. Indeed it is well recognised that doctors make the worst patients.
Instead of hiding our own wounds we need to embrace them as the necessary prelude to allowing the Master Physician to heal us. We therefore stand with our patients as fellow wounded humanity in need of God. In the term popularised by the late Henri Nouwen, we are “wounded healers.” Writing about pastors, Nouwen says:
Since it is his (pastor’s) task to make visible the first vestiges of liberation for others, he must bind his own wounds in anticipation of the moment when he will be needed. He is called to be the wounded healer, the one who must look after his own wounds but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others. He is both the wounded minister and the healing minister … (The Wounded Healer, New York: Image Books, 1979, 82)
Paul would agree. He learned the hard way that “He (God) comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others” (2 Corinthians 1:4a NLT) and that God’s power works best in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9a). Christian medical practitioners need to constantly bear this in mind. We still live in a world where many see doctors as godlike shamans, a world where professionalism is often defined as elitism, and in monetary terms. We are only wounded healers, both recipients of grace and its bearer. It is a high calling.
… ministry can indeed be a witness to the living truth that the wound, which causes us to suffer now, will be revealed to us later as the place where God intimated his new creation. (Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 96)