ComfortingPatientI want to start by introducing you to my chocolate lab, Ellie. She is likely the sweetest and most gentle dog you’ll ever meet. As a matter of fact, her temperament is so pleasant my wife and I named our first born after Ellie, hoping that our daughter would somehow inherit the traits of her namesake (please don’t tell my wife I’m advertising this). What you really need to know about Ellie (the dog) is that she was born to retrieve. From a young pup, it was evident that retrieving was in her blood and because she showed so much promise, I decided to capitalize on her talent and train her to be a retriever. Training a dog to properly retrieve is very difficult as she must first learn the importance of obedience. The commands, “sit, stay, heel, right, left, back, okay!” began as chores that she initially begrudging obeyed but as time progressed, she realized that obedience always led her to the prize. That was one of the first lessons Ellie taught me about faith.

She is now proficient at everything from hand signals to whistle commands and will retrieve anything and everything from Canadian geese to the newspaper. Much like all labs, she gets excited with meeting new people, food, other dogs, and food. But nothing makes her tail wag as fast or as hard as when I pull out her retrieving bumpers. She literally goes berserk! Nothing brings her as much joy as retrieving! And even though I’m always impressed by her excitement, it should not surprise me. This is what she was created to do. It is in her DNA. This is her purpose. My conclusion is the reason retrieving brings her so much joy is because when she is following her master’s commands and doing what she was created to do, she is fulfilling her purpose.

As a first-year ophthalmology resident, I remember the initial novelty and excitement of finally getting to do what I was always meant to do – become an ophthalmologist. After years of college, medical school, an internal medicine intern year, and much anticipation, I had finally reached my calling. Now that I’m in the midst of it, I find that every day I am met with the excitement of learning something new as well the humbling truth that many of my answers still sound something like, “I don’t know.” So, for the past 6 months each day has been consumed with the singular focus of mastering the knowledge and skills required to become an ophthalmologist, the singular focus of fulfilling my purpose. To be quite honest, I constantly feel overwhelmed by my new load of responsibilities and am constantly busing myself with doing more. And, why shouldn’t I? This was what I was created to do, after all. This is my purpose.

But when I step back and inspect myself, I’m reminded of the time in Luke 10 when Jesus visits Martha and Mary. Martha is busy with her work, constantly trying to do more whereas Mary is juxtaposed as sitting calmly at Jesus’ feet and simply being in His presence. I wonder if Jesus would say to me, “Max, Max, you are anxious and troubled about many things but only one thing is necessary…” I wonder this because although I have learned so much and feel so physically and emotionally stretched working towards fulfilling my purpose, I still feel so empty and lacking the joy I thought ophthalmology would provide. I have noticed that even my successes have only brought forth momentary and fleeting senses of accomplishment, notions so easily destroyed by time or simply by the weight of the next task. I wonder if Martha, in all of her busyness and work, thinking she was fulfilling her primary purpose, perhaps felt similarly.

But if the lessons Ellie has been teaching me are correct and true joy is found in fulfilling one’s purpose, then is it possible that being an ophthalmologist is not my purpose, not what I was created to do? We are given talents and opportunities and asked to use them wisely, but if I do these things without understanding my true purpose, I have bought into the world’s cheap trick that this career will fully satisfy. Is becoming an ophthalmologist my sole purpose? No. But being an ophthalmologist with purpose is something different entirely.

Ellie is a dog and she knows she is a dog. She knows she’s a specific kind of dog, that is, a retriever. She is fully aware of her identity. Mary knew she was a sinner saved by grace. She knew that she was a daughter of the king. Mary knew who she was. Both Ellie and Mary have an understanding of their identity. Because they have a correct understanding of who they are, they understand their purpose. And because they understand their purpose, they are able to experience true joy. For Ellie, she experiences this joy when she has a dead bird in her mouth. For Mary, she found her joy in glorifying God and enjoying Him forever. There has never been an instance when Ellie has not shown complete joy and contentment when she’s retrieving (maybe only when I put up the bumpers), and more importantly, Jesus tell us that Mary’s “good portion will not be taken away from her.” This is true joy, a joy that does not flux with accomplishments or failures, celebrations or sorrows. It is not found in a profession, a title, or a diploma. It is the substance of true fulfillment, an infinite portion for what our infinite souls crave. It is indestructible.

So what is indestructible joy? It is not momentary or fleeting or something that can be changed or altered. It is permanent and concrete. It is the fact that God loved us so much, even while we were still sinners, that He sent His only son, Jesus, to die on the cross for our sins. He paid the price we could never pay. He rose from the dead, defeating death and sin past, present, and future securing our salvation in Christ alone. Our identity is founded in this Gospel truth. Our identity shapes our purpose. Knowing who He is, who we are in Him, and therefore our purpose brings us joy. The birth of Jesus, His death on the cross, the resurrection – Indestructible Joy.

I think it is absolutely possible to live out our true purpose and experience true, indestructible joy in our everyday work. I think it will look differently for each person and frankly, I’m still trying to figure it out. To help myself, I try to think often of someone who I believe knew his identity, obeyed his master, lived out his purpose, and understood indestructible joy. I try often to remember the words of Dr. Brindley when he’d tell me, “we are to honor God by serving people. Let’s go to work.”

-Max Su, MD