Failing Faithfully: The Futility of Medicine (Scholar’s Compass)

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Photo by Edu Alpendre

It was stunning news. I listened with disbelief as my colleague described how a patient of ours, in whom we had uncovered a host of serious diseases over a few years, was now newly diagnosed with cancer after an incidental scan. In addition, his social supports had been eroded and I thought about what it would be like for him to die from a vicious terminal disease while alone and homeless. He would not be the first patient for me to watch die in such a way.

To be a physician is, in many ways, an exercise in futility. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. describes it as a “duty dance with death,” and how can one argue otherwise? It is not as if we fail some of the time or even most of the time. Every human suffers. Every human dies. If we define the success of a physician as the alleviation of suffering and the postponement of death, then every physician, though occasionally and transiently triumphant, is ultimately a failure.

Such an ecclesiastical view is not attractive and certainly not a great advertisement for the profession. But, as jarring and morose as it is, it honestly exposes our metrics for success. For what “success” in life is truly significant and eternal if life itself is so easily frayed and terminated?

I once read an article about “Emerging Adulthood”, a proposed new stage of human development following adolescence in which young adults that are still forming their identities (and often are still students, unmarried, and childless) hesitate or delay making life-changing choices because they fear both failure and the suboptimal. They may hesitate to commit, whether it be to a major career decision or to a relationship, because they cannot envision “it” lasting for the rest of their lives.

And why not? If life occurs but once, if youth and vigor can only be expended on a finite number of pursuits, would it be so wrong to buy into the mantra of YOLO? If you only live once, why not hold out until you make it the best run possible? Why not savor every opportunity, maximize every liberty, and foster every gift? Is this not what “being a good steward” means?

But the phenomenon of Emerging Adulthood exposes an operational paralysis in our most vibrant and earnest demographic, and in it we see hints of how destructive the lie of utilitarianism can be. If success in life is distilled into a summation of our achievements (whether financial, relational, or spiritual), what happens when we do not succeed in every way?  Do we act as if failure is tantamount to sin? Here, perhaps, the failure of physicians can bring some wisdom.

The chapter “Failing Faithfully”, written by Christian physician and ethicist Dr. Justin Denholm, opens with this observation and criticism:

“You are a person with many gifts and a calling for your life. You have the opportunity to succeed in your chosen field and to glorify God with your influence. Your competence and intelligence will attract people to faith in Christ. If you were to turn away from using your skills and abilities to further your career, you would not be a faithful steward of what you have been given.”

I don’t know how you felt as you read these words. I’m convinced, though, that what you’ve just read is perhaps the most dangerous paragraph I’ve ever written. Every word in it has been said to me and many others; maybe you’ve heard these things as well. The more I reflect on them, though, the more convinced I am that they are dangerous words with potentially disastrous consequences–the more so because they contain some element of truth.

This series of reflections and exchanges with Dr. Denholm will explore what it means to fail in a world that idolizes success, and to recognize that the true values of calling, gifting, and ambition reside not in what we can achieve, but in the object of our desire and affection: Jesus Christ, and Him crucified, resurrected, and glorified.

After all, what other message matters?

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. – 2 Corinthians 2:14-17

Further Reading

Denholm, Justin. “Failing Faithfully: Christian Reflections on Ambition, Influence and Success.” Faithful is Successful: Notes to the Driven Pilgrim. Nathan Grills, David E. Lewis, and S. Joshua Swamidass, eds. Denver, Colorado: Outskirts Press, 2014. 95-108.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. New York: Dell, 1991

Wikipedia Contributors. “Emerging Adulthood.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.


[Originally published on the ESN blog.]


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