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Evidence-based Spiritual Life

By Dr Alex Tang


Excellence in private practice. As I reflect on my own practice and that of my friends and colleagues in private practice – some in big well equipped hospitals and some in shoplots, I am aware that the key element in the practice is not how well equipped is the center or how attractive the 5 star appeal of the accommodation. The key element is the private practitioner himself/herself. So excellence in private practice can only be found in the private practitioner. 

The current thinking is evidence-based medicine. From the many comments and discussions in the BMJ and New England Journal of Medicine, many doctors seems to be against the idea but the administrators are pushing it through and I believe we will be affected by it. What we have always done will be called into question and we will have to justify some of our pet treatment regimes.

What about an evidence-based spiritual life ?1 How do we know we are growing in Christ ? Are that evidence that we are not stunted in our growth. Taking the approach of evidence-based medicine, let us conduct an evidence-based medicine survey. We shall consider 9 questions because of time constraints.

1.      Am I happy with whom I am becoming ?


Everyday I get one-day closer to who I will ultimately be. Am I satisfied with who this person I will be ?

Last Tuesday I attended a Christian Leadership Seminar in Singapore. This seminar was conducted by Bill Hybels and his team from Willow Creek Community Church, USA. In 23 years, Bill has built a church for 18,000 people from 3! He asked an important question during his last plenary session “Leadership for the long haul “; Did the leaders finish well ?


As we look around us, how many of us can finish well ?

Will we be faithful to the end ? We have to keep asking ourselves the same question. Will we finish well  

We must be sure that our profession does not consume our person. It is important that we be more that what we do or have. We must not be defined by our job titles, our power or influence in society, our affluence or our success. Too often I have seen that when my friend leave their job or retire, they found that they are empty inside. If we become puffed up thinking that our patient cannot live without us, just close your clinic for six months and see if they still remember you.

At times we think that as Christians, we should be willing to sacrifice ourselves, our wellbeing and sometimes our families for our calling, in this case our medical practice. Actually we are called to sacrifice, not be a burnt offering !


2.      Am I becoming less religious and more spiritual ?

The Pharisees were religious; Christ is spiritual.

Much tradition is religious; relation in Christ is spiritual.

The difference between religion and spirituality is basically a matter of control. I define religion as an experience I can control, while spirituality is an experience that controls me.

Eugene Peterson, Professor of  Spiritual Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada has this to say:

By religion I mean the efforts that we make to keep things together in somewhat orderly fashion,to maintain some sense of responsibility before God.

   By spirituality I mean the work of the Holy Spirit in making Jesus alive in us, inciting us to acts of love and compassion, blessing us with his gifts, bringing us to our knees in repentance and up to our feet in wonder.

   Religion is mostly a matter of what we do; spirituality is mostly a matter of what God does.

   My own practice has been to keep my involvement in religion to responsible minimum – my participation in spirituality ( in the Spirit ) extravagantly maximal.”1

Recently I have been studying the works of Henri Nouwen. He was a Roman Catholic priest who used to teach in the Universities of Notre Dame,Harvard and Yale. In the last years of his life, he spent it at L’Arche Community called Daybreak in Toronto. There he lived and looked after a severely retarded man called Adam. Through his experience, he came into a deeper understanding of God. We can get much insight on Christian Spirituality by reading his works.Examples of Henri Nouwen’s writings are ‘The Wounded Healer’ and “Making All Things New”. Other authors writing on Christian Spirituality are Richard Foster and Thomas Merton.


3.      Does my family recognize the authenticity of my spirituality ?

I think this is the acid test of our spiritual life. They see we whole. I would like to believe- and must believe – that if I am growing spiritually, my family will recognize it. If not there is something wrong somewhere.


4.      Do I have a quiet center to my life ?

Osward Chambers said,

In our Lord’s life there was none of the press and rush of tremendous activity that we regard so highly, and the disciple is to be as his master “.

There is an important difference between the fast track and the frantic track. It is not God’s will for me that I be frantic.

There are times when in our occupation that we are just overwhelmed by our job. The patients are demanding, the relatives are demanding, the phones are ringing, the ward are calling and you have a crisis situation at home.

“ When in trouble, when in doubt,

run in circles, scream and shout.”

Often, I need to hear the command, Psalms 46:10  “ Be still, and know that I am God.” Peace is the evidence of God.

5.      Have I defined my unique ministry ?

Do I know what I can do effectively ? The need is always bigger than any person can satisfy, so my call is simply to handle the part of the need that is mine to do. You have to know what you are called to do. Are you a pastor ? Are you a doctor ? What are your gifts. If you are not a pastor, then don’t try to act like a pastor and do his job.

Defining your unique ministry will enable you to say no. Unless you know the things you are supposed to do, you will end up doing many mediocre things just to please others. Definition and discipline are essential.


6.      Is my prayer life improving ?

I  have been reading Richard Foster’s “Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home” and “Prayers from the Heart”. He has really opened my eyes to the many forms of prayers. I am familiar with the spontaneous free form petition prayers that we often do alone and in church. Foster opened my eyes to the richness in praying with the psalms and with the written prayers of two thousand years of Christian devotion.

 Foster wrote ,”These prayers come to us from varied cultures and span the centuries, and yet they all speak with the same voice of heartfelt devotion to God. When I pray the prayers that they prayed so long ago, I am somehow drawn into the ‘communion of saints’”1.

I do not know when I am fully a man of prayer, but I can perceive progress if I am making it. Progress, not perfection, is all I can hope for in my spiritual growth.

One test of my prayer life is this : Do my decisions have prayer as an integral part, or do I make decisions out of my desires and then immerse them in prayer ?


7.      Is my ‘spiritual feeding’ the right diet for me ?

I have stopped calling my quiet time ‘a devotion’ but rather, ‘ a feeding time’, for it is when my soul get fed. It took me a long time to discover what I believe to be a healthy diet uniquely fitted to my needs.

Each one of us is different, and so are our needs. What works for one may not work for another. But what is common is that we all need to eat. Some of us eat to live, others live to eat.

Currently I am reading from a few sources. Each source is providing something I need, either in prevention,maintenance or development. This includes the Bible, a New International Commentary, various authors and sermons of great preachers of the past. I try to read all the works of an author in chronological order. It helps me to see the development of their thinking and spiritual growth. I have read Francis Shaefer, C.S.Lewis, Billy Graham, Philip Yancey, Eugene Peterson ad Henri Nouwen.

I am also a graduate student at the Malaysia Bible Seminari, working for my Master in Ministry. I find it tremendous satisfying in making life difficult for my lecturers. “Iron sharpens iron”

I use the various modules as jump off points for my reading and explorations. I use the assignment as an opportunity to write position papers. When I have to write down my thinking, it helps to clarify and crystallise my thoughts.


8.      Is obedience in small matters built into my reflexes ?

Again Eugene Peterson:

“ The life of Christ emerges from within the actual circumstances of our seemingly very unspiritual lives – the daily stuff of ordinariness and accidents and confusion, good days and bad days, taking the humdrum and the catastrophic both in stride”

If  I do not make all the small decisions according to my belief, how then could I make big decisions. It is in our daily life that we are continually challenged. In the small things – how much we charge our patients, do we recommend the treatment with the patient’s best interest or ours.

9.      Do I have joy ?

Romans 15:13

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit”.

Joy is promised to me. Do I have it ? If the relationship with Christ is right, I do. Joy is perfected in the full belief on the total sovereignty of God.

God loves me and I do not have to work for him to earn his love. I work as a result of his love. He lets me work in order to mature me. That brings joy. Even my dry periods produce perseverance, which is pleasing to God.


Evidence-based Spiritual Life

·        So now do we have any idea about our own spiritual life ? Are we suffering from Failure to Thrive ?

·        Are there any evidence that we are growing ?

·        Are there objective data that quantified our growth ?

·        What further action need to be done to improve our spiritual growth ?


The challenge, my friends , is to continually assess and renew our spiritual growth. It is so easy to be religious; in the Christian circles we easily accept anyone who know the right words and phrases. We can be so caught up in our own religion that we forget being spiritual is what it is all about.

                                                                                                                                                      Soli Deo Gloria


1 Fred Smith Conducting a Spiritual Audit ( Leadership, Winter 1998)

1 Eugene Peterson The Wisdom of Each Other (Grand Rapids,Michigan: Zondervan 1998)

1. Richard Foster’s Prayer Treasury ( Includes Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home & Prayers from the Heart ) New York:Harper Collins



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