The Blessing of Visiting the Sick
In 1892, John D. Wells delivered three lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary that were transcribed and subsequently published in a little booklet titled, The Pastor in the Sickroom. This book is one of those unique little volumes that every man preparing for ministry should read. It is also one of those volumes that every minister should read through several times throughout his ministry. Sadly this is one area of ministry has received very little attention throughout church history.
I am writing this post because, over the past three weeks, I have spent more time at various hospitals (visiting congregants and the family members of congregants) than I have spent in almost every other year of ministry combined. It has been one of those seasons in which it seems as though everyone is getting sick all at the same time. The sickness of beloved congregants and their loved ones is one of the things that is often far from the mind of those of us entrusted to preach the Gospel. We have our plans, our agendas and our goals--reading, prayer life, teaching, preaching, outreach, writing, hospitality, exercise, family time, etc.--and visiting the sick usually does not factor into what we have planned for ourselves in ministry; nevertheless, visiting the sick is one of the greatest privileges and blessings of pastoral ministry. While there are many other benefits that accrue from pastoral visitation of the sick, here are three benefits of which I am reminded when I am carrying out pastoral visitation to the sick:
1. God calls us to be servants. Visiting the sick and the dying reminds us that we have been called by God to be servants to those in need. There is no glory in the hospital room. There is no public adulation--no praise of man by the bedside of the sick. There is no room for boasting when you are sitting by the side of those who are fearful for the outcome of their sickness. There is no place for self-promotion in the public square. Ministers--especially those gifted in preaching, teaching and writing--need this reminder. Your gifts may by praised by those who see you in the pulpit, but are hidden from the public's site in the sickroom. Our Savior spent a large portion of His earthly ministry in the presence of the sick--healing and comforting those who were experiencing the misery of life. He who did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many, teaches his ministers to also serve those He came to redeem.
2. Our lives are all exceedingly fragile. One of the unexpected benefits of visiting the sick is that we are reminded of the frailty of our own lives--not only of those whom we visit. Whenever I am in the hospital, I am reminded of the brevity of my life and of the many infirmities with which I am subject to on account of the fall of our first parents. While the minister goes to care for those in their hour of need with prayer and the Scriptures, he is often the recipient of the blessing of being reminded of his own frailty and the brevity of his own life. I often picture myself in a hospital bed and am grateful that the Lord brings to mind that I am only dust and ashes.
3. We are utterly dependent on the Lord. Whenever I visit those with serious health issues, I realize anew that I am utterly dependent on the Lord to heal those at whose bedside I am sitting. No amount of training, compassion, empathy, knowledge of Scripture, prayers, etc. will bring the healing that God alone can give. He certainly appointed prayer and the word as means of healing our spirits and bodies, but has not promised to answer every prayer according to our petitions. Our compassion and empathy may provide momentary help to those who are sick, but it is no means of healing physical infirmities. Only the Lord, in His wisdom and mercy, can heal those who are sick. The same principle is true in preaching; however, I find it to be more easily seen in those moments of mental and physical infirmity. We see this played out in the account of Jesus healing the demon-possessed, convulsing boy (Luke 9:37-42). When Jesus was up on the mount being transfigured, several of the disciples were at the foot of the mountain attempting to heal this man's son. After Jesus had come down, the boy's father said, "I implored Your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." Jesus then healed the boy and said, "This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” The point is simple: Only God has the power to heal the sick. We must learn to utterly depend on Him and His sovereign will when we are visiting the sick.
While it is the duty of all Christians to visit the sick, it is especially the responsibility of elders and deacons in Christ's church. As we seek to fulfill our Lord's call for us to care for those with mental illness or who are in physical distress, may we also see His hand of providence in bringing to our minds the valuable lessons He is seeking to teach us. There is a reciprocal benefit to pastoral visitation of the sick when we do so with an eye to God's sovereignty and the biblical truth about ourselves. When we purpose to visit those with physical infirmities in order to call on the Lord for them, to bring them the precious truths of His word and to walk beside them with compassion and empathy, the sick are comforted, we are edified and God is glorified. May the Lord give us grace to enter in on this work willingly and joyfully, knowing that our God has called us to do so.
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