A cardiac surgeon inspired me to pursue medicine when he saved my dad’s life.
My father suffered a heart attack just before my eighteenth birthday. I had watched him struggle with kidney disease for years, but I never feared to lose him until the day before his cardiac bypass surgery. He was ashen. When I hugged him goodbye, he seemed so frail that I worried he would slip away in my arms.
Instead, he returned home a week later with new vessels shunting blood flow to his heart. His recovery astounded me. As he clutched a pillow to his chest and laughed at Seinfeld episodes, I marveled at the palpable, altruistic way in which his physicians had helped us. They had returned a dying father to his family. I yearned to do the same for others.
School Is Not Heaven
Six years later, during my second year of medical school, the revelation of my father’s recovery seemed leagues away. The cutthroat premedical track of college, with its emphasis on GPA and résumé padding, had already fractured my idealism. I remember wincing when a fellow college student responded to a professor’s musings about quantum chemistry and poetry with the retort, “I just want to get an A.” Such comments robbed learning of its vibrancy. They diverted focus inward, rather than toward the luminous workings of God.
“As we immerse ourselves in the study, we must keep at the forefront of our minds not only what we study, but for whom.”
When I entered medical school, my discouragement worsened. In my naiveté, I expected an environment where selflessness would prevail. Instead, the spark that first propelled me toward medicine receded into memory, and I found no hint of it in the daily trappings of preclinical medical school. The campus throbbed with competitiveness. Rumors circulated of plots to acquire tests from previous years. The hallways hummed with whispered grade comparisons and slander. Insincerity and flattery cheapened conversations with professors. Students flaunted their credentials to enter the most elite specialties and spoke as if academic selectivity defined worth.
During those years before hospital training, my goals in doctoring seemed uprooted. Yet as I drowned in the deluge of material to commit to memory and panicked at my own failings, I also slid into idolatry. I, too, obsessed about test scores. How can I have a mediocre performance on a test, and then expect to save a life? I worried.
In my desperation, I sacrificed fellowship with loved ones for more study time. I sought out research positions to check off a box. I didn’t worry about my service to God, but about whether or not I could make the cut into a specialty that would achieve the elusive, revered “happiness” — happiness directed inward. A joy arising not from Christ, but from the meager accomplishments of my own mortal hands. Accomplishments that would pass away. Chasing after the wind (Ecclesiastes 2:26).
The ruthlessness of academia does not limit itself to medical training. All disciplines can corrupt the God-honoring aspirations of students through systems that reward ambition over charity, and egocentricity over humility. Law students with a heart for serving the downtrodden can buckle beneath the pressure of exams. Political science students, future missionaries, mathematicians, physicists, linguists, performance artists, and a plethora of others may respond to a vocational calling that is God-breathed, yet wrestle with perseveration upon grades, competitiveness, and withdrawal from life-giving fellowship.
Even when they labor in service to Christ, students strive within an imperfect framework that prizes narcissism. Our culture’s preoccupation with success traces its origins to the fall when Adam esteemed his own paltry capabilities above God’s mercy. Our challenge is to honor the Lord in this desolate landscape.
For Whom Do We Strive?
God intends for us to work. From the beginning, he charged us with stewardship of his creation. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). He blesses all of us with unique “gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Romans 12:6), and we find satisfaction in employing these talents for him (Ecclesiastes 3:12–13). When we embrace studies with diligence in service to God, we glorify him (Ecclesiastes 9:10, Colossians 3:23–24).
“When we labor for the Lord, we worship him in our studies. When we labor for a GPA, we idolize ourselves.”
The danger arises when our efforts veer away from the Lord. As we immerse ourselves in academic pursuits, we must always keep at the forefront of our minds not only what we study, but for whom. Paul says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23–24). Also, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
As we strive in our studies, we must set the trajectory upon God rather than our own self-aggrandizement. When we labor for the Lord, we worship him in our studies. When we labor for a GPA, we idolize ourselves.
Do Not Forfeit Your Soul
When we feel called to serve God in a specific career, we can so frantically yearn for the end goal that we sacrifice righteousness. We compromise our integrity for a perceived greater good. We excuse unscrupulousness.
A Machiavellian approach to studies does not serve Christ. Matthew 16:26 warns, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” God does not want our degree. He wants our heart. Our goals, however noble, cannot justify the deformation of the soul.
Remember the Lord of All
R.C. Sproul writes, “If we are serving God without joy, there is something wrong with that service.” God is Lord over all subjects. He gives us Shakespeare and amino acids, Latin declensions and differential equations. When steeped in the mire of looming deadlines, we must train our minds upon the magnificence of God’s workmanship.
As anxiety encroaches, let us wonder at the intricacy of each postulate, the beauty of each mechanism. Let us embrace our studies as opportunities for worship in and of themselves — as a window into the majesty of God’s work. When we exclaim, “How great are your works, O Lord!” (Psalm 92:5) rather than choke down material for a grade, our joy in the Lord pulses deeper.
God Is Sovereign over Your Studies
Contrary to popular thinking, academic achievement does not determine worth. Our value derives from our origin as image bearers of God and from our identity in Christ. However vital our choices seem, and however fervently our ambitions burn, God decides our vocation.
“God doesn’t want our degree. He wants our heart. Our goals, however noble, cannot justify the deformation of the soul.”
Throughout all, amid the exams and the competition, the grades, and the pressure, we rest in the assurance of God’s love for us. We seek to serve the Lord joyfully and to rebuff the idolatrous preoccupations of the day. “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established” (Proverbs 16:3).
We submit our fears of percentiles and grading curves to the one who made heaven and earth — the one who knew us from the womb, who gave his Son so that we might live.
Kathryn Butler is a trauma and critical care surgeon turned writer and homeschooling mom. She is an author of Between Life and Death: A Gospel-Centered Guide to End-of-Life Medical Care. She lives north of Boston and writes at Oceans Rise.