Portrait of A.J. Swoboda

A.J. Swoboda

  • Pastor
  • Professor
  • Speaker
  • Writer
  • Community Architect

Location: Portland, Oregon | USA

Mar 30, 2012

The Good Doctor

My old man and I are both doctors. He’s one in medicine and I’m one in theology. Let’s talk for a moment about how the two are different.

One example comes to mind. If on some flight to Houston someone stands up on a plane all flustered and disheveled and screams at the top of their lungs, “is there a doctor on board?”, I’m not the doctor you’d want. You’d rather have my old man on that flight. Clearly. Now, sure, my dad doesn’t know koine Greek (what the New Testament is written in), or how Hebrew poetry is chiastically patterned, or how to craft a Good Friday sermon.

But let’s be honest here: a thorough exposition of the hypostatic union isn’t going help someone undergoing a massive heart attack. And explaining with great detail John Calvin’s theology of divine retribution isn’t going to make delivering a baby go any smoother. You want my dad for that stuff. You want me for some stuff. And you want neither of for some other stuff.

My old man and I are both doctors. But only one of us does heart attacks.

My dad tells me there’s major problems with the medical world. He has a term for it. Specialization. It goes something like this. There’s podiatrists for feet, and oncologists for cancer, and urology for bladders. Then there’s doctors for skin, for hair, for veins, even doctors for finger nails. You name it. A doctor for everything. But most doctors only do something as their specialty.

After finishing undergrad, pre-med students pack their bags and head off to medical school to undergo a three-year coffee-infused sleep-deprived seemingly endless boot camp on the complexities of medicine with a drill sergeant in a white lab coat who desperately needs some Altoids. Then, after taking a nap, the soon-to-be doctors decide what they want to specialize in.

There’s no such thing as un-declared at this stage. You have to do something.

Then, the newly minted doctors take an internship where they’ll learn the one special thing they want to be good at for the rest of their career. They call this residency, sometimes taking up to six years. Then they’re doctors in their specialty spending the rest of their life being really good at that one tiny little body part. Specialization is the practice of knowing one thing a lot and sometimes forgetting the whole thing. It’s seeing in hi-def x-ray the really miniscule minutia someone’s problems and not seeing the whole thing. It’s trading in your telescope for a microscope.

In the life of Christian faith, it is deeply important that we understand that if Jesus is the “good doctor,” he isn’t only a specialist. He doesn’t just do sin. Or just heaven. Or just chuch. He does it all. We minimize Jesus don’t we? Painting him into a corner and giving him this or that permission to do what we want. And he becomes, for us, a doctor who can do anything that we simply give permission to check our toes.

But Jesus isn’t a specialist. He’s a generalist. He does it all. Really well.

I know it may sound simplistic, but part of being church is learning to stop becoming a specialist of everyone else’s spiritual life. Jesus can see stuff we never can. The disciples are I the boat with Jesus with the wind, the waves, and probably a few wet shorts (Mark 4). Waking up Jesus, he looks at them and says: “Why don’t you believe?” I love the next line. And they were terrified.

It’s a terrible thing to know someone knows you. Too well.

Augustine said that God knows us better than we know ourselves.

And that is the case with others too. We didn’t create people so we don’t know how to fix them. Listen, specialists are important for some stuff. They believe they have found the actual dog that would be referenced in Scripture. A specialist found that dog. But pretending we are specialists spiritually for others in community can be dangerous. We aren’t the good doctor. We are bad doctors. We should all learn to “punish the specialist.”

So then, how do we help others?

Simple. Point to your doctor. Refer people. Send them to the one who got you healthy.

Christians are consults for God.

Being a Christian is like being a nurse in a waiting room: our whole job is to take people to the back room where the real doc is.




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Books I've Written

Living People I Read

Alan Hirsch

Allan Anderson

Amos Yong

Bernard Anderson

Dale Davis

Don Carson

Donald Bloesch

Donald Dayton

Donald Gelpi

Ed Dobson

Elizabeth Johnson

Eugene Peterson

Frederick Beuchner

Gary Babcock

Gordon Fee

Gregory Boyd

Harvey Cox

John Drane

John Goldingay

John Stott

John Zizioulas

Jim Belcher

Jürgen Moltmann

Karen Armstrong

Kenneth Bailey

Kevin Vanhoozer

Kirsteen Kim

Larry Hurtado

Lauren Winner

Mark Cartledge

Margaret Feinberg

Mel Robeck

Nancey Murphy

N.T. Wright

Paul Hiebert

Ray Bakke

Richard Baukham

Rodney Clapp

Robert Banks

Rowan Williams

Sallie McFague

Stanley Fish

Stanley Hauerwas

Thomas Schmidt

Timothy Keller

Walter Brueggemann

Zygmunt Bauman

Dead People I Read

Aimee Semple McPherson



Basil the Great

Charles Spurgeon

Charles Wesley

Colin Gunton

C.S. Lewis

David Bosch

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Sayer

G.K. Chesterton

George Eldon Ladd

Hendrickus Berkhof

Henri Nouwen

John Wesley

Jonathan Edwards

John Calvin

Joseph Fitzmyer

Karl Barth

Leslie Newbigin

Martin Luther

Michel Foucault

Paul Tillich

Raymond Brown

Robert Farrar Capon

Roland Allen

Simone Weil

Steven Bevans

Theresa of Avila

Vincent Donovan

Walter Hollenweger

William McClendon