As winter came and the days grew shorter and darker, another challenge confronted me – exams. Still coming to terms with grief, the prospect of the fast approaching mid-year medicine exams nagged uncomfortably at the back of my mind. I was very unprepared. After my sister passed away, I had taken time off university, missing many weeks of learning in the lead-up to exams. Studying was impossible during those weeks – I only had motivation to read The Bible and certainly not medical textbooks.
One morning, I met with one of the doctors who coordinates the medical school to discuss my situation. I asked if there was a chance I could be excused from the exams on compassionate grounds, but I was gently told that that wouldn’t be possible due to university policy. There was no way out – I would have to sit them. This floored me – I had been praying that God would make a way for me to be excused from exams, and the reality that I would have to face them sat uncomfortably in my stomach. On top of the grief, the possibility of failing the year and repeating the entire year flashed into my mind.
But the doctor encouraged me to ‘have a go’ at my exams. Even if I failed, if I still managed to get “20 or 30%” in my exams, my chances of not having to repeat the entire year would be a little better than if I flunked the exams entirely (though not a lot better). The risk of repeating the year was substantial – medicine is the only course that doesn’t offer supplementary exams if one fails, so failure of mid-years greatly increases the risk of having to repeat the entire year (if one fails mid years, their only hope of passing is if they perform very well in their end of year exams).
As I left the doctor’s office, still a little stunned at the fact I would have to sit exams, somewhere deep in my soul I knew that there was still hope. In the car home, I asked God to help me do the best I could. I would need it. I was struggling even to put pen to paper at that time, so just getting a 20 or 30% would be a victory for me. That day, I prayed “Lord, you can do all things. There is no way I can get through these exams without you – I am helpless. I need you, and you’re the only one who can help me”.
Struggling At University
However, when I finally did return to university after a few weeks off, the situation was still bleak. I could barely manage more than half an hour of study every few days (compared to the multiple hours of daily study expected by the university). Concentrating on medicine was near-impossible. Grief still paralysed me. Motivation was at rock-bottom and I often attended classes with no preparation and didn’t participate – even though class participation assessment went towards our grade. Medicine had become meaningless to me – which made studying for upcoming exams and classes impossible. Severe lack of motivation was holding me back.
But 2 and a half weeks before exams, things began to change. After weeks of praying and talking to God and reading the Scriptures, my heart began to shift. I was in the car one morning when I suddenly began to realise that there was still purpose in doing my absolute best with the duties set before me in medicine (I immediately wrote these realisations on my phone, and then fully articulated them here: Why I Study Medicine: Motivation, Meaning and Exams). Right there and then, I said to myself – I have to do this. The change was significant, and I had something new in my step. With these realisations, I started to braced myself to face the approaching challenge.
However, as I began to strategise how I could catch up, it quickly dawned on me just how enormous this mountain would be to climb. Time was now very short – there was only 2.5 weeks till the first of 3 exams on June 18, and I had to:
- spend the last week of term attending classes/lectures and working through the last case of the semester
- catch up on what I had missed during my time away (effectively 3 cases of learning – which all my colleagues had spent 3 weeks learning)
- revise every other case from the semester (11 cases in total)
Furthermore, after spending so many weeks doing nothing academically, being self-disciplined enough to get back into the ‘rhythm’ of study would be challenging to say the least. On my own strength, failure was inevitable. My only hope was in God, and I wrote in my journal on 29th May:
Asking God for help like this became the prayer of my heart. In prayer, my worries would dissipate and I would feel at peace. God had promised me during my previous exams in medical school that he would get me through – and the same sense of assurance came to me this time as well. In my time of prayer, I became convinced that God was promising me that he would get me through my exams (and on June 9, I wrote this promise on this blog – “I know God will get me through exams as in previous years”). With his promise, I felt a new courage to tackle the challenge of exams head on. As Paul says in The Bible, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31 NIV)
The 1st week went quickly. To my surprise, I managed to keep up with the last case of the semester which was a victory for me. But on the other hand, I was finding very little time leftover to attempt revising any of the cases I had missed. This just reaffirmed my realisation that I would not be able to do this alone without God. Thankfully at that time, I was also encouraged to keep going by prayers and support from some of my Christian colleagues at university.
When the 2nd week came around, things changed quickly and in unexpected ways. In the 2 week study break before exams, I suddenly found myself with a persistent determination and strength within me that I have never experienced before. I began working from 8am to 8pm at night, studying daily at the library, except Sundays. This was bizarre – I had never before worked for such long periods in my life. I had never even worked in the library before – I was used to studying in the comfort of my own home, often taking regular breaks to procrastinate. But now, I was more focused than ever and much less prone to becoming distracted. Others noticed – my girlfriend commented that she had never seen me work this hard. My parents were also puzzled as to what had come over me.
Perhaps more strangely, I began to genuinely enjoy working in the library for God. My mindset changed. Passing exams stopped being foremost in my brain – instead, doing the best I could for God became my principal goal and motivation. I began to cherish Paul’s advice in The Bible: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:23-24 NIV)
As days went by, I became constantly aware of a wonderful feeling within me of satisfaction – I was delighting in the realisation that God was helping me to run the race again and was changing something deep in me. My attitudes towards work and medicine were well and truly changing. Work was no longer just a chore – something to grind out in obligation to human masters – but it was now a privilege and a joy under God. This was big for me – something I carry to this day whenever I work. But perhaps more visibly, for the first time in months, I felt happy. Not an emotional happiness all the time, but a sense of…satisfied joy. I knew that something supernatural was occurring in me and that I was not alone. I realised that in my weakness and inability, God had become my strength. I was beginning to see what it meant in The Bible where it says: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” (1 Corinthians 1:27 NIV)
I was also surprised to find myself not alone in this time. Some other students began to meet with me at the library to study together, the first few times by coincidence, but eventually we began to intentionally meet together daily to share the workload. Some were old friends, but also some were acquaintances I had never had a chance to get to know before. This was a new experience for me – I have always worked solo in the past, but working cooperatively in the company of my colleagues was truly a joyful surprise given to me by God. What a blessing the encouragement and smiles and laughter of those around you can be, to both your soul, and your mind! I discovered that laughter is the ultimate stress-reliever and I found myself making new friends with some of these acquaintances whose friendship I cherish to this day.
I began to look forward to each day working with this new group of friends. Though my knowledge was still lacking, their company was invaluable in learning from them and I was amazed to see myself catching up. Seeing this turn-around, I thought to myself -, whether I pass or not, this is such a victory. As I look back at those times, I remember them with fond memories – definitely not the stressful exam period status quo that I often see around me. I was happy and at peace – every night I would come home, have dinner and pray and read the Bible for a few hours before bed. Everytime the temptation to entertain stressful thoughts or doubts would come, reading the comforting words of The Bible would take them from my mind and make me remember that God was in control.
Time flew by and before I knew it, exams were already upon me. Nothing was certain. I definitely did feel I had caught up a lot, but it had gotten to the point that I was delicately holding my head to make sure that no knowledge fell out! I had filled my brain faster than I ever have in my life, but had little chance to consolidate any of it. But though I lacked total confidence in my own abilities, I trusted in the promise of God. With moments to go before the call of “you may begin writing”, I calmed my nerves praying to God, knowing that it was all in his hands.
* * *
The exams themselves didn’t feel amazing either. For the first time ever, the medical school had changed the format of the exam to a shorter time-frame. I have never written faster (or messier) in my life! Everyone felt the time pressure, and I saw a few medical students crying after their exams, thinking that they had failed. I too wasn’t completely confident – but I felt at peace that I had done the best I could, and that God would help me through.
Days went by and with every exam I completed, my thanksgiving to God increased and the light at the end of the tunnel seemed closer and closer. Finally, when the examiners called out “pens down” at the last exam, I let out a sigh of relief and smiled up to God. No matter what the outcome, I was thankful that I had been given the strength to bounce back and give it my best, and that alone was God’s victory. We may fall and fail, but God somehow always manages to “work things to our good” – taking the things that are meant to harm us and using them for our good!
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him,who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 NIV)
Weeks rolled by. June was soon over, and in late July, I received my results. Medical students are marked on a scale where:
- A = above satisfactory competence
- B = satisfactory competence
- C = borderline competence
- D or E = failure
As I held my breath, I opened my results – Exam 1: B, Exam 2: B, Exam 3: B. All B’s! I had never been so happy to see such results – I was smiling ear-to-ear and shouted out aloud in my bedroom. It had all been worth it! This is what it feels like to stand at the summit of a mountain you once saw as impossible.
I praised God, remembering the conviction I had that God would get me through my exams – God always keeps his promises! Without the strength that he gave me that turned me from doing nothing, to studying almost 12 hours daily…and enjoying it – without this I surely would have failed. Even so, the exam results were only part of my joy. My joy was made complete knowing that God loved me and was so good to me! That he was faithful to his promises and that he would always give strength to me for every obstacle if I put my faith in him. The reality of the words of Jesus in The Bible had become embedded in my heart:
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33 NIV)
God had been so faithful to my prayer – so how could I not live the rest of my life in total faith in him? As long as we seek him and serve him first above all things, I have realised that there is no challenge in this world that he will not help us overcome – nothing is impossible.