By Kathryn Butler. Original article found here.
When I was nine years old, my parents encouraged me to play the clarinet or flute, “like the other girls did.”
I remember their words circling through my mind as I leaned forward in my chair to examine the neat rows of flutists during band practice. I admired the willowy sweep of their arms, and their fingertips poised over the keys like a clutch of butterflies. Then, the bandleader raised a finger, and I snapped to attention. He signaled for me to blast the refrain of “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” on my trumpet.
My predilection for brass over wind continued into adulthood. I studied biochemistry at a women’s college, attended medical school, and pursued specialty training in surgery, a field in which male practitioners outnumber women four to one. After residency, I sub-specialized in trauma surgery. I opened chests, got bloody, and returned dying kids to their mothers. I taught, wrote papers, edited books, and spoke at national meetings. In the halo of my success, my husband decided that when we finally had children, he would stay home.
But God had other plans.
My Son’s Fragile First Seconds
Jack careened into our world after forty hours of induced labor and an emergency Cesarean section. When I held him in my arms alone for the first time, he tore the floodgates to my heart wide open.
But as I adored him, his breathing paused.
In the still silence, I began to count the seconds.
I rubbed his sternum. Pressed my call button.
His skin mottled to dusk color.
Panic gripped my throat.
I covered his supple face with the foul yawning of my mouth, and blasted hot air into his lungs.
“Breathe Jack, breathe!”
Rubbed his sternum again.
I forced another blast, shoving air into delicate windpipes meant to coax breath like a quiet stream.
He eeked out a cry, barely discernible at first. Then his wail intensified. His color ruddied. Two nurses rushed in and whisked him away in a mess of blankets. I collapsed into the pillow, and sobbed.
A Question of Calling
Jack spent two nights in the special care nursery, tangled in monitors. In a short time, he reached for the bassinet lights with his eager, pruned fingers splayed wide. That outstretching continued at home, first from his crib, then during his wobblings in the grass, his ventures in the frothy skirts of the sea, and finally as he rushed to embrace me whenever I returned home from work. I would stumble into the house with my shoulders groaning and my mind overburdened, and he would flail toward me, his gangly arms seeking, his face tipped heavenward, cheeks hot, eyes wild.
Jack did just fine. I, on the other hand, never recovered. Ten years after I first slipped into a white coat and welcomed an identity I wore everywhere I went, I questioned my compass. For years I had convinced myself that, as a doctor, I sacrificed moments with friends, family, and my husband for the greater good. The call to heal the sick and tend the injured superceded all else. The Lord heaped blessings upon me, and I hurled them back in the name of “service” to him.
I’m a woman surgeon, I would snap. You made me this way. I have a legacy to carry on.
The Power of a Mother’s Love
After Jack was born, and once his sister followed two years later, God exposed the artifice of my worldview. I never anticipated the fierce, visceral, heady, unruly, terrifying love I would have for my children. The allure to minister to them in every moment, to guide them and teach them in the Lord’s ways, was palpable — rich with fiber, depth, and magnetism.
As the 70-hour workweeks marched on and robbed me of first crawls, first words, first discoveries of frogs and the ocean, I measured my daily activities against my imperatives as a mother.
The harried days, the teaching, and the hours in the operating room, once so important, paled in comparison with my call to shepherd the children with whom God entrusted me. When my daughter, not yet nine months old, burst into tears as I lifted my backpack to leave for an out-of-state conference, the Lord drove the point home.
Without intention, I had established for my infant a truth claim about knapsacks and mothers that reduced her to tears. What was I also teaching her about God, her heavenly Father?
Lean In or Opt Out?
The Internet is replete with commentary on Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook), Ann Marie Slaughter (President & CEO of New America), and the “Opt-Out Generation.” As intriguing and complex as these discussions appear, for Christians, debates about “having it all” run askance of the point. The real question is, are we leaning in to our careers or opting out to stay at home in order to have it all for his glory, or for our own edification?
In my case, my worldly success arose not from dedication to Christ, but from my own pride. The scalpel, the lecture, and the accolades they earned me served as objects of worship. My motivation — to help people — was honorable. But as I relied upon it to justify my existence, my relationship with my career mutated into idolatry.
Opting out was a step toward communion with God.
When we consider our roles as professionals, mothers, teachers, mentors, entrepreneurs, writers, academicians, and athletes, we must not only celebrate the gifts God has granted us as individuals crafted in his image, but also consider how to use these talents for his service, rather than for our own self-aggrandizement. Cradled in sin, we are born with a proclivity to pursue things that glorify ourselves, rather those that glorify God. Our task is to counteract this inclination, by delighting in our blessings and devoting our time and efforts toward Christ-focused service.
How do we ensure that we pursue our work in faith, in a capacity honoring toward Him?
Whom Do We Glorify?
When I resigned from clinical work, many colleagues, friends who had witnessed my struggles in preceding years, applauded me. Others, incredulous, barraged me with questions about my decision. Peers scrutinized my every claim. Mentors urged me not to “waste” my education.
Their accusations reminded me of the remarks Mary suffered when she anointed Christ. According to the world, she, too, had “wasted” a precious gift (Matthew 26:6–13). We know that when we serve Christ, we waste nothing.
However, when viewed against Western ideals of success, the worldly ramifications of our decisions can stir up crushing doubt. The question, “whom do I glorify with this task?” serves as a barometer for our focus in such scenarios. Too often in our careers, the answer is “ourselves.” When this occurs, we must adjust our trajectory back toward God.
R.C. Sproul writes, “If we are serving God without joy, there is something wrong with that service.”
Christ assures us that our joy will be complete in him (John 15:11). Such joy is steadfast, deep, everlasting. When we seek after the approval of the impermanent world, rather than yearn for Christ, we loosen our embrace on the joy that comes only from abiding in him.
The prospect of abandoning a secure position with excellent prospects for advancement terrified me. I spent many nights agonizing that despite the Lord’s call, my decision to leave medicine was reckless or irresponsible. Such fears are normal and expected, but reflect our own limited understanding, rather than an enduring faith in the Lord. God is sovereign over our lives, and whatever doubts we have, we may trust that he knows the path, and is in command over all.
Christ has already overcome, and so we have nothing to fear. From Proverbs: “In his heart a man plans his course but the Lord determines his steps” (Proverbs 16:9), and “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your path straight” (Proverbs 3:5–6).
Hope in Christ
“Yes, but what will you do in twenty years when your kids go off to college?”
Friends repeatedly ask this question. The premise rests on an understanding of personal satisfaction as the chief aim in life. For such well-meaning friends, hope depends on identity through accomplishment.
What I have learned over these years of motherhood is that our hope rests not in our own effort, but in the resurrection of Christ. From 1 Thessalonians 1:3: “We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Christ died and rose victorious over death and sin to free us, so that we may have the hope and fulfillment that comes from living in him.
When we embrace this precious truth, we know the peace and joy that comes from abiding in Christ. Humbled, not a little frightened, we free ourselves to race forward with arms outstretched, face tilted skyward, trumpet blaring at our backs.