Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name. — Psalm 86:11, ESV
As a Christian, I view “sacrifices” as expressions of what is in our hearts and minds. Sacrifices (or non-sacrifices) reflect our values. In practical daily living as a working adult, I find that there are five areas that shape my thinking of sacrifice in Christian discipleship.
The Psalmist asks the LORD to teach him His way so that he may walk in God’s truth. Christians are not called to be ascetics or to live in Spartan ways just for the sake of having nothing. As an adult bombarded with information, advertisements and much “coffee shop talk”, our first stop in growing as Christian disciples is to learn. Learning to sacrifice involves counting the cost and confronting the illusions. These are two sides of the same coin. More than just giving up, sacrificing actually helps us hone our values. To sacrifice is like a sailor trimming the sails to go faster, farther and in the right direction.
As a young graduate wanting to serve in a less-developed country, I had to count the cost. It is healthy to count the cost – to figure out how much you really need, what kind of house you should get, what your aspirations are, what is the cost of living, and how much health insurance is adequate coverage. Through the process, a heart that is taught by God’s Word will be able to differentiate the things we really need from the things we want.
The Bible does teach us to count the cost. Jesus counted the cost. But in counting the cost, we embrace the healthy part of making sacrifices – we confront the illusions.
We are brought up to think that some things are a ‘must’. Recently, I spoke to a young family. The father was offered a good job posting overseas. But they were very worried that their kids, who are only in primary school, will lose out and cannot catch up when they come back to Singapore in a few years.
I then asked, “What does catching up mean? Catching up with who? And for what?”
I shared with them about counting the cost and the possibilities of this overseas posting. Though the posting came with sound salary and terms, they had much hesitation. Their fears were based on what we are all supposed to do as we raise our kids in Singapore. Dad said, “Everybody has to do PSLE, and it is important to get good results to get into good schools.”
You and I have illusions too. While it is important to have good education, have we created an illusion for ourselves that everybody must do PSLE and get good results to progress? At the university level, we have to overcome the illusion that my life is determined by the “bell curve”. Learning about sacrifice starts with setting our hearts right before the Lord.
The good Lord nudges us to sacrifice as it could be His very way to teach us to confront personal as well as societal illusions; the learning and the uncovering of our illusions can be painful and frightening. Moreover, counting the cost and confronting the illusions is not just a matter of sitting down with a piece of paper, counting the cost, writing down the illusions, and then ‘Bang!’ – off you go.
It is often a journey – a journey where you go forward two steps and maybe come back one step. Very often it is the waiting that is really sacrificial.
Having graduated as a doctor in 1985, like the rest of my class, I was faced with five to seven years of postgraduate training. I was privileged to be granted a prestigious posting in anaesthesiology, working in one of the biggest hospitals in Singapore, learning a lot, working 12 to 15 hours daily and on weekends too. We were tired but we loved our work.
My wife and I (at that time we weren’t married yet), were keen on being tentmakers – using our vocations to work in other countries. We were encouraged by the examples of Christian lecturers like Dr Leon Dale who came to Singapore and supported the VCF in the 1950s and 1960s. We thought that was a good model for tent-making service.
We set ourselves to excel in our careers, preparing to move to a less-developed country to teach in a small university or college with the aim of discipleship in a campus context. It was a dream and we thought that it was a wonderful dream. We were privileged in Singapore to be able to do that.
My wife, an accountant, was given a scholarship to do her PhD in accounting in
Michigan, USA. She thrived in her programme and enjoyed it. But I found myself stuck. If I were to continue in anaesthesiology, I would be bonded for another five to seven years. I was already bonded for eight years because of a bursary I took as a student. If I were to add another bond it will be 13 years altogether. I doubt I would have left Singapore after that.
But that was not the limitation. The limitation was my capacity. I did not have the acumen to do a PhD and struggled with the medical postgraduate examinations. While my wife thrived on high intellectual training, I felt that it drained too much of my mental capacity. I am more of a hands-on person, preferring to do work rather than go for higher training.
Even though we embarked on postgraduate training, I found that I couldn’t continue on that path. My wife sacrificed her PhD pursuit – stopped it halfway – and came back to Singapore. We regrouped and decided we would go on a different route.
I learnt that sacrifice entails counting the cost, confronting the illusions, and coming face to face with our capacities and limitations; handling them in God’s time and purpose. The ego was bruised but the heart still in one good piece. And we count the cost not just as an individual, but together with our loved ones. This too is daunting.
Losing and Feeling Lost
Since I knew I was not going on the accelerated postgraduate specialist training track, I became more of a service person. I still continued in anaesthesiology for a while, administering anaesthesia to patients going for surgery. I enjoyed my work and thought I was quite good at it.
As a Christian doctor I had signed a form stating that I will not do abortions. When I signed that form, I always re-imagined the face of an old professor looking at me smugly saying, “You Christians sign this form to say that you won’t do abortions in government service but sigh, many so-called Christians somehow forget to object when they go to the private sector.”
It is sad to hear this comment but I was glad that there were also good examples of godly Christian doctors in government service as well as the private sector. We do need to shine more as light and be felt as good salt wherever the Lord puts us.
But in the hospital that I worked in, patients wait and heavy work piles up quickly day after day. In those days, at about 10 or 11pm there will be a list of abortions on the operating theatre’s notice board. Some women needed an abortion for medical reasons. Some just did not want the baby. Abortions are always sad.
One night, I was in the doctor’s rest area in the operating theatre zone with the duty team. We sighed when we saw the list of seven or eight women who needed “termination of pregnancy”, i.e. abortions. Among the team of doctors that night, only one did not sign the personal objection to do abortions. This non-Christian colleague said, “Well, I am going to hell … someone has to give anaesthesia to all these patients, and I will probably have to do this as all you guys have signed the form not to do abortions. So, I am going to hell. Pray for me you guys.”
As I listened I felt quite strange. I had signed the form not to do abortions. Sacrifice, that night, was a sacrifice of being lost in a world that is tough to handle.
Here was a very good colleague having all kinds of emotions – struggling, confused, angry, and a bit disappointed. I had these emotions too. The reality is that for whatever reason, there were patients who wanted abortions. They could get it lawfully as they were within the legal framework.
Before me was a tired colleague (we had all worked the whole day) who said she has to give anaesthesia to these women and she is going to hell because the rest of us aren’t going to do it.
I thought about it and later in the night at
11 pm, I joined my colleague and helped her to complete the cases. Of course, I tried to talk to the patients a bit. But they had all gone through counselling and had still made the decision to go ahead with the abortion.
I was confused – to me, I had made a sacrifice of my virtues and my values. But I have a friend beside me who felt the reality that something had to be done that night. Nobody could keep the patients for another few days. The rest of the team were either Christians or who had moral objections and had signed the form to not do abortions.
That night, without pride, with a lot of remorse and regrets, I gave the anaesthesia.
My friend looked at me and said, “Lai Yong, so why did you do this, why did you come down to help finish the list?”
I said, “Because I am a Christian. I cannot see you in this state – feeling that you are going to hell alone, and the rest of us are going to heaven because of our “saintly ways”. Because I value you, you are tired, we are all tired, and this is the reality. Patients need to be done.
This is a public hospital.”
That was that.
Thankfully I did not encounter this situation again. I did not have to be on duty with a team with such a long list of patients who needed abortions. That was a difficult sacrifice. I don’t even know who sacrificed. Me, my friend, the unborn babies, my values, my beliefs in the Bible?
Years later, when I was living and working in Yunnan, volunteer surgical teams from Singapore would come twice or thrice a year. A regular volunteer in these teams was my colleague who had to finish up the abortion cases that night.
This doctor would come to Yunnan again and again, with volunteer teams who came on their own expenses, bringing their own medication to serve the poor, and giving anaesthesia along with what we are doing. I wondered why they kept coming to serve the poor. I’d like to think that it was related to the friendship built because of that encounter when I so-called sacrificed my declared virtues. Perhaps that sacrifice bore fruit in other virtues, of loyalty or friendship. I am not sure. It can be a slippery slope. Two steps forward and one step backward. Christian discipleship is hard on the heart sometimes.
Lag phase – the sacrifice of waiting
After I discontinued my postgraduate training, I found myself being just an ‘ordinary doctor’. I took the opportunity to work in the Prisons Medical Unit – a posting that few wanted. I went partly as a Christian doctor seeking to serve and also for my own ‘ulterior’ motive. In the prison, a doctor has to handle more problems than in the ordinary medical clinic. We could not easily refer prisoner patients out – we had to handle many problems within the prison. I felt that working within constraints will prepare me for the mission field, make me a well-rounded doctor who could handle issues with limited resources.
Basically, I was waiting for my bond to finish so that I could go overseas to serve as a missionary doctor or tentmaker. Concerned classmates were asking about what I was doing in terms of my professional career path. I shared that I was waiting to go into a poverty-affected area overseas. When I met my peers at weddings and class reunions, they would look at me kindly and say ‘very good’, ‘it is so noble’, ‘keep us informed’, ‘we will pray for you’.
But waiting is so lame. What are you going to do now? There are three more years to go.
My friends were progressing and I felt stagnant. Some had specialist clinic sessions and we would refer patients to them. Who would refer patients to me? Unless they were prisoners? I found myself in the doldrums.
Sometimes I would joke with my classmates that since I work with the prison medical service, I know some gangsters, debt collectors and loan sharks. If they ever get into trouble with patients not paying I can refer them to people who can help them. That was a humourous way of trying to run away.
I did not do so well in waiting. It was a sacrifice that I did not expect.
Determined to work in a poverty-affected area since I was a medical student, my wife and I finally went into cross-cultural missions 10 years after my graduation (12 years in my wife’s case). It was a long wait.
When I went to Yunnan, I didn’t really speak much Chinese. So instead of getting to work with my accumulated medical skills, I had to listen more. Listening requires a re-orientation – it is sacrificial. It is a healthy sacrifice.
My colleagues worked with those affected by leprosy – folks who live as outcasts in remote mountain villages. Our team had a well-equipped jeep. We had a highly experienced British physiotherapist, a Swedish nurse and a Korean-American doctor who could do eye surgery to repair the damaged eyes of the leprosy affected person.
There was a particular man affected by leprosy. He was somewhat frail, partially blind, and had lost some of his fingers. The team asked him what he wanted them to do for him – to change a dressing, put medication on his cornea, or to give him food?
This elderly man sat the team down on a bench at the muddy courtyard and told them to wait. He ran back to his home – a hut that was just a simple shack – and brought out his erhu. He played his erhu for a few minutes. After a while he paused, and almost in tears he thanked the team for listening. “No one has listened to my music for many years. You listened. That’s all I need you to do.”
Christian discipleship will involve sacrifices. God asks of us for He wants to nurture our hearts. The prosperity gospel is deceptive. Legalism is also deceptive.
We are not into counting the gathering up or the giving away of material wealth or career potential. Sacrifice – a minding of our hearts and values – may help us see the face of Jesus Christ in clearer and more realistic ways.
The Son of God came to earth and limited Himself to be a man. He encountered difficult, thorny and ethical situations. He touched lepers (but did not sin). He talked to prostitutes. In those days all these were a ‘no-no’. He did it.
The sacrifices that our Lord did in listening to the pain of the world – these are the same sacrifices that we are sometimes called to do. To count the cost, to confront the illusions and to encounter the face of God in all these.
Written by Dr Tan Lai Yong for Perspective March 2018 ( FES newsletter)