As my psychiatry end-of-rotation exams loomed, I felt more unprepared than ever in Medicine.
I had worked hard, but just found this specialty particularly challenging – by far my weakest area.
Unusual circumstances didn’t help the situation. It seemed every time I planned a weekend of study to improve, a pressing issue would interrupt: a friend needing support, a family issue to mediate, a colleague wanting to discuss spirituality. Hard to concentrate on textbooks when life gets in the way.
To top it off, I was having immense difficulty learning at hospital – a perfect storm of circumstances reduced the number of doctors on the ward from five to two. Two doctors managing an entire busy psychiatric unit left no time to teach three medical students! Our course coordinators did schedule us a weekly tutorial with a fantastic teaching doctor at another hospital who showed us patients with conditions we hadn’t seen before… only to inform us after the very first session that he too was going on leave with no replacement!
With exams approaching, study time becomes a crucial commodity. Any med student will tell you how much work gets done in those last few days! One becomes desperate to maximize time efficiency and forgo their usual activities in order to cram.
My particular temptation?
Forgo my daily time with God.
Why spend time praying and reading the Bible when you could use it to get more hours of study and preparation?
The devil continued to whisper:
Look at your lack of knowledge. Surely you will fail and have to repeat!
How true these thoughts can seem in such times!
When we see problems approaching, how tempting it is for man to turn away from God as a solution and devote all of his time to a human solution.
But friends, how can we shake Jesus’ words from our hearts!
33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Jesus didn’t say – seek first my kingdom, except in times where you need that time and effort for other things. In such times, make God a lower priority.
He declared – never, ever let my kingdom be a second priority.
And he encouraged us with a promise – trust me on this, because if you set me as first priority, I will provide solutions for everything you are worrying about.
He declared – I am your solution.
MY DOUBTING HEART
Still, I doubted.
I wrote in my journal –
Can you reallyset apart one, two, three or more hours daily to seeking God in prayer and in the Bible, even in the midst of exams… and still learn enough to become a competent doctor… let alone get through exams?
In hindsight, such a question seems so obviously foolish!
For do we not call for help from a God who knows all things and does the impossible?
The Bible is clear about trusting in the Lord, and not on our own efforts:
4 You are my King and my God…
5 Through you we push back our enemies;
through your name we trample our foes.
6 I put no trust in my bow,
my sword does not bring me victory;
7 but you give us victory over our enemies,
you put our adversaries to shame.
3 …It was not by their sword that they won the land,
nor did their arm bring them victory;
it was your right hand, your arm,
and the light of your face, for you loved them [re-ordered for emphasis]
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help,
who rely on horses,
who trust in the multitude of their chariots
and in the great strength of their horsemen,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel,
or seek help from the Lord.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
This is what the Lord says:
“Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who draws strength from mere flesh
and whose heart turns away from the Lord…”
5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
6 in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
8 It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in humans.
9 It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in princes.
As I wrestled with these ideas, the devil whispered again:
Nathan, this isn’t just about passing exams. It’s about being a good doctor. Even if you manage to just pass… with all the time you are wasting on God instead of study, how can you hope to be anything more than a barely passable doctor. Patients will suffer – or worse! You’ll be at the center of those horror stories you hear about medical mistakes from incompetent doctors.
This thought was incredibly confronting, and I continue to wrestle with it. It touches on one of my great fears… graduating medical school as a reckless and incompetent junior doctor.
And yet… do we not have a God who can give supernatural power to learn and excel even when our time is limited?
Look to the Bible. God doesn’t promise to help us scrape through with a bare minimum pass. He promises to help us excel – even in our academic and occupational pursuits. He has done it for people before, and he will do it again and again.
In the Bible, Daniel and his three friends called upon God for knowledge and put him first. The outcome? Their academic performance was found ten times better than their colleagues who trusted only in human solutions.
17 To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.
18 At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. 20 In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.
SOME TRUST IN CHARIOTS
So as you look to the promises of God in the Bible, you are left with a choice:
- trust in the God who does the impossible and the promises of his Word, or
- neglect him, take things into your own hands and trust in whatever human strength you can muster.
Though I wrestled with my doubt, I could not ignore the promise of Jesus. How could I neglect his words, which have proven so true in every arena of my life so far?
So that Monday night in the week leading up to exams, I put my textbooks away as per my usual daily routine… and took out my Bible and journal to talk to God.
I wrote down a prayer:
Lord, I’m feeling so unprepared. But show me that your promise about seeking you first is true!
The situation was clear. My offering to God was my time. If God didn’t come through for me, I would fall.
As each day passed, though tempted to put God second after study, I put my foot down and set apart plenty of time for worship and prayer to God.
The prayerful week passed, a blur of study and time with God.
How did I feel on the day of exams?
Still nervous as anything!
So much so, that I asked my friends to keep me in their prayers:
I had still spend much time studying, but felt terribly uncertain of whether I could pass.
Would God really come through on his promise?
In the waiting room before my VIVA, my heart was racing. A colleague (and friend) was there – we were both clearly nervous. I asked if I could say a prayer for us. He nodded and we both prayed together in that waiting room – God help us! We will trust in you, and not ourselves!
My name called –
Nathan, you can come in.
I walked in and sat before the two consultant psychiatrists, recognising one who was notorious for being difficult during VIVAs…
* * *
How’d you go? my friends asked me.
They said they could see the relief on my face!
I couldn’t believe it.
By ‘coincidence’, the clinical scenario I was randomly assigned was almost identical to a patient I had encountered previously… during my very first tutorial with that fantastic doctor who then went on leave!
It’s difficult to express how such a little bit of clinical experience can make it so much simpler to recall and discuss in an exam confidently. Thank God!
The OSCE was the very next day.
And guess what? One of the exam stations was practically the very same clinical scenario… again!
Before I knew it… I was done and embracing my freedom, rejoicing at the ‘coincidences’! Driving home, I realised the same truth I have experienced again and again.
The moments before a trial when you are trying to put your faith in God’s promise can be terrifying.
But the moments after? Pure joy.
Some call it luck.
But to quote the artist Lecrae: “I don’t believe in luck; I believe in grace”
I’ve learned that when I put God first, and trust in him first, God delivers me from difficult situations. Coincidences happen. Study times seems more productive. Time lost seems to get redeemed in other ways. Friends teach you factoids that seem to come up in the exam. Favour in the eyes of the examiners. Any of this, and more happens. The promises of God become real experiences and outcomes and personal life stories.
Seek first his kingdom, and all these things will be given you.
I looked up the question I had written in my journal.
“Can you really set apart one, two, three or more hours to seeking Jesus in prayer and his Word everyday, even in the midst of exams?”
God kept his promise. My life was his answer.