1. The Doctor Himself

The Doctor Himself and the Human Condition by Martin Lloyd-Jones

I have found myself to some extent in difficulty when determining the subject on which I should speak to you. In the end, I have been governed by a medical dictum. It is a principle of which I am sure you all approve and to which you adhere in your own work. The rule for our action must always be that which is best for the patient. I am therefore going to speak about the doctor himself. I still know enough about the medical profession to be aware that the men belonging to it have certain particular temptations.

If I were asked to mention the most serious of these I would say that it is proneness to objectify everything, or in other words, to take a ‘detached view’. I suppose that this is to some extent inevitable. If a medical man were continually to allow himself to be affected emotionally by every case he meets, it is fairly clear that he could not continue long in practice. Breakdown would be inevitable. He therefore has to put up something of a protective barrier. He must not feel anything too deeply. He must protect himself and his own sensitivity against the assaults which are constantly made upon him by the troubles and worries of others – especially, perhaps, by the fact of death. While that is all perfectly understandable, it does however lead to a particular danger. It becomes a fixed habit of mind. The doctor has so objectified himself that he never faces up to himself and to his own life at all.

Somewhere in Pembrokeshire a tombstone is said to bear the inscription ‘John Jones, born a man, died a grocer’. There are many, whom I have had the privilege of meeting, whose tombstone might well bear the grim epitaph: ‘. . ., born a man, died a doctor’! The greatest danger which confronts the medical man is that he may become lost in his profession. Believing, therefore, as I do, that this is the special temptation of the doctor, I should like to call your attention to our Lord’s words in St. Luke 12:13-21. [2]

In this parable our Lord is depicting a man who prided himself on his worldly wisdom. He looked ahead. He was not one of those men who is easily carried away by his emotions. He was hard-headed, one who took the objective view of everything. He was also a man who was particularly proud of his foresight and the long view which he took of life. He had earlier made such perfect provision that at last the day had come when he was able to congratulate himself. All was well. The great day of retirement had arrived and he was looking forward to tremendous enjoyment of his new leisure. He was that sort of man. What, however, our Lord had to say about him was that he was a fool. This description may seem rather harsh and uncalled for. At first it sounds rather cruel. Yet our Lord justified what he said about this man most amply. He was a tragic figure, because he failed just at the point where he had always thought he was strongest. He goes down first in that very point where he thought that he was superior to other people. Of what can we convict him?

He was clearly someone who had never really thought clearly. He imagined that he had. He was of the opinion that he had worked out everything and considered every eventuality. Our Lord saw very plainly that he had not. His thinking up to a point was very fine, very sound, very clear, but the tragedy was that he stopped thinking at a most vital point. He had not catered for the fact of death. He had worked out a programme for the whole of his life and then made this fatal assumption that it would go on endlessly.

It is surely one of the most astonishing things about life that we all of us tend to fail to see the things that are most immediately before us. I suggest that this is one of the most remarkable things about the average medical man. He is face to face with the fact of death more frequently than anybody else. But does he see it? Does he apply the fact to himself and to his daily life? It is precisely at this point that objectifying of everything exerts its baneful influence. This habit which we unconsciously develop prevents our facing what is so obviously confronting us. We never even give it a thought. I am suggesting that a man who fails at that point really does deserve the epithet that our Lord applied to the man in his parable. He is a fool! I am, of course, fully aware that the average medical practitioner is a sensible man, a hard-headed man, and a man of the world. Whatever others may do, he does not take things as they appear to be. Yet there he is, I could say perhaps more frequently than one of any other profession or any other class, failing to see the one thing that is all the time staring him in the face.

You may reply: ‘We are not interested in death! We are interested in life and in health.’ Yes, but wait a minute! I listened last December to a series of lectures by a doyen of the medical profession. As he looked back across fifty years of Medicine there were three things of which he was particularly proud, and where he felt he had really achieved something. The first was eugenics, the second was the anti-noise campaign and the third was the Cremation Society. Of course, I suppose, a doyen of the medical profession is entitled to say that those three things are the most important in life! He would justify his interest in terms of what happens to an individual before he is born; his avoidance of noise when he is in this world; and the way in which his corpse is dealt with after he has gone. They certainly do make a big difference to a man’s life in this world.

I would, however, apply this identical argument in the very same way. Is there anything that tends to affect life more than death? The fear of death, the assaults which the fact of death makes upon a man’s life and upon his whole family relationships? Death, whether we like to admit it or not, is one of the most potent factors in life. Whatever your personal attitude towards this matter may be, it is surely indefensible to refuse to face this inexorable, inevitable fact of death. I ask, do you really face it? Do you go beyond that and ask, what is the purpose of it all, what is it leading to, what lies beyond it? What provision are you making? Our Lord taught that anyone who does not approach along those lines is a fool.

The second count which our Lord brings against this man is that he also has such a poor and unworthy concept of himself. Look at him – his barns are bursting with grain, they have become too small to take in all the wonderful produce of the estate and the sum total of all that he has collected. He now turns to himself and addresses his soul and says – ‘Soul, you have much goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.’ He congratulates himself. We should take special note of the fact that he is talking about his soul. What is his conception of his soul? His concept of the essentials of life seems to have consisted in the aggregate of the things which he possessed. As a man, I protest against such a view of what constitutes a man. Yet is not this view something which is all too common? I suggest that it is the major tragedy of life today. Men have lost the true concept of what a living man is, and have taken to thinking of themselves in terms of possessions and success. Need I further emphasize the matter? You are all perfectly familiar with it.

What is success? It is getting on, building up a reputation. There is nothing wrong in that of itself, but, if you make it the main thing in life, it is a tragedy. Making money, having a still

bigger and better car, getting this honour and that honour and gaining this or that social position may be all right in themselves; but surely a man has lost himself if that is his final estimate of his personality. Is that life? Is that real being? A man who is guilty of such an estimate is really debasing himself. Man is a creature who has been made in the image and likeness of God. He is not a mere reasoning animal. He is not a mere brain or intellectual apparatus. He is a being who was created for fellowship and communion with God. He is intended to be the lord of creation, bearing within him something which is imperishable. He is being meant for and destined for God.

My next count against this man is that, with all his wisdom, foresight, and self-protection, he had really made no provision for the future. So when the call came – and you are all able to reconstruct the symptoms and the unexpectedness of his angina, coming as it so often does upon someone who has never felt so fit in his life – he was on top of the world. Then suddenly came that fatal stab. The poor fool, who had prided himself on all the things he had done and the wealth he had amassed, found himself empty indeed. He was then compelled to take that great and long journey from which man never returns. He had made no preparation for it at all.

It is appointed that man must die and after death comes the judgement. Of one thing we can be sure, this tribunal will not prove just to be a post-mortem on what a man has left behind. It is an examination of what use he has made of the gifts which have been given by God. There is not a man among us but is responsible for the gifts which he has. God intends that all these gifts should be used to his glory. We shall be judged in terms of what we have done with the gifts he has entrusted to us. What use have I made of them? A man who is not prepared for such questions is a fool.

The final point in the story, which calls for notice, is that this man was such a poor judge of riches. He thought of riches purely in terms of material possessions. Yet, surely, our true riches consist in peace of conscience. A man who has ever faced his own conscience would gladly give the whole world for real peace of conscience. How can a man silence this inward voice? How can you comfort yourself when you know that you have done things which are so terribly wrong and when you know that God is eventually to look into them?

How can a man find peace? It is in the gospel of Christ. Here are the true riches – to feel that your life in this world has a purpose and that it is not merely ‘to get on’. It is the antechamber of eternal life. It is the knowledge that death is not the end, but that it will just lead on to the vision of God. Let each think this out for himself. The riches that God offers are made very plain in the New Testament and they need not be left behind when you die. They are most with you and are your comfort in death, when everything else has gone wrong. The true riches are God’s gift of ‘a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’, leading ‘to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, which does not fade away, reserved in heaven for those who are kept by the power of God’.

I seriously suggest to you that these are the things on which every doctor should reflect. On the present occasion you are met in order to consider the patient, his needs, his diseases, the problems and the cures. I have tried to counsel you as a one-time medical man and one who still loves the profession and the men and women who belong to it. I beseech you not to allow the profession to make you forget yourself, that you are a man, and not merely a doctor.


[1] Part of an address given at the Annual Breakfast of the Christian Medical Fellowship on July 15th, 1953, during the Annual Meeting of the British Medical Association at Cardiff.

[2] The parable of the rich farmer who died suddenly on the eve of a prosperous retirement.

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