She was frail as a sparrow.
Her legs were like pencils and her ill-fitting teeth barely kept up with her mouth as she spoke. But on asking how she was as she lay in her bed, Gracie’s china blue eyes twinkled mischievously as she beamed and chirped: ‘I’m packed and ready to go, pastor!’ And indeed she was and she did, as a few days later the Lord gathered up another of his jewels. It had been my immense privilege on my visits to seek to make her transition a little more comfortable.
I would frequently receive the same message: ‘Gracie’s fallen again.’ I knew the cause of the fall before I called on her, of course. Those legs were just not built for speed. However, I lost count of the times I returned from visiting her thinking the same thought: ‘Just who ministered to whom there?’ Once more I would be reminded of the eternal dimension to this work of ‘visiting the sick’, and the blessing that God grants to those who go in Jesus’s name.
Bible teacher and author Warren Wiersbe rightly states that ‘Ministry takes place when divine resources meet human needs through loving channels to the glory of God.’1
We all no doubt feel our utter weakness and inadequacy when it comes to thinking how we could possibly be of any real benefit or blessing to someone in pain or discomfort. We naturally function better on those bright days when the sun is shining and the air is filled with a sweet fragrance. Not so much when all seems dark, the air stale and pain is etched upon the face of the one we are visiting.
But ‘A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity’ (Proverbs 17.17) and so, in our felt weakness and uncertainty, we go in faith to be someone’s friend, brother or sister in their time of need.
My prayer is that God might open a window into the sick room for a beam from heaven to shine in upon the troubled scene as we visit in Jesus’s name.
Who should visit the sick?
You are a busy, conscientious pastor with a firm view on the primacy of preaching. You have a biblical conviction that you must ‘give your attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word’ (Acts 6.4). That is right and true, and yet there is something disturbing about the servant of God who informs his church that he sees his calling is to preach to the flock, but not to visit them.
There is something that happens within the heart of the pastor when he visits the sick that gives a dimension to his pulpit ministry which could be gained in no other way. A dimension which, if missing, causes even the soundest preaching to have a distant, metallic ring about it. It is a cutting indictment – yet containing too much truth to shrug off – that ‘some men love preaching more than those to whom they preach’. May that never true of you, dear pastor.
It was said of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, whom so many of us would look to as the model pastor, that: ‘He would visit the sick and grieving, often for many consecutive days, praying with them, reading Scripture, and encouraging them in their walk. At the end of one such full day he wrote, “O how sweet to work all day for God, and then to lie down at night under his smiles”.’ This no doubt was one of the factors that contributed to his unique power in the pulpit and his influence among the people under his care.
It has been encouraging to see a recognition and return in recent years of the importance of setting apart men (with the necessary gifts of course) within the fellowship as elders to jointly govern Christ’s church as a pastoral team.
For those of us who have witnessed the sad outcome over the years of good men who have burnt themselves out, nobly perhaps but unbiblically, by a ‘one-man’ mentality, this is a welcome return and can only be of blessing to both pastor and people. To be sure, it is important to recognise that there will be a ‘first among equals’, the man who is equipped with particular gifts and to whom is due financial support and care (Timothy 5.17) – this man we fondly call ‘The Pastor’.
Yet to expect him to carry the burden of shepherding the flock single-handed is both unreasonable and impractical, especially in the context here, of visiting the sick. And of course, pastors too are sheep and themselves stand in need of shepherding.
You may work out your own system in the church concerning the ‘who’ and ‘how’ of visiting those who are unwell, but of course you first need information! It is surprising just how many in the church expect the elders to possess some psychic gift which enables them to know when they are sick! One simple yet effective way – if you have midweek home groups – is for the members to keep on the alert for any within their group who are unwell. They can contact the leader, who in turn can alert the pastor or elders of anyone requiring a visit. This also helps drive home the vital message that, as the body of Christ, we ‘should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it…’ (1 Corinthians 12.25, 26).
The function of a deacon should never be seen as one merely ‘taking care of the fabric of the church’ i.e. taking care of the ‘practical’ matters while the elders take care of the ‘spiritual’!
In the early church, Stephen – generally recognised as one of the first church deacons to be set apart – was ‘full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 6.5). Surely just the kind of person you would like to have visit you when sick! Deacons are well placed to coordinate provision for the inevitable practical needs of those who are sick, have just given birth, or for any other area of need that may arise.
The provision of lifts, meals and visits falls within this remit – and this is in addition to pastoral visits from the eldership. Another significant advantage in having deacons visit is that some churches have women in the role, which works well especially for visiting lone females.
We live in an increasingly individualistic and self-centred culture and sadly many, even within the church, seem to be seeking freedom from any commitments that may impede their ‘free-spirited’ agenda.
However, the Scriptures teach plainly that there can be no such thing as a ‘Lone Ranger’ Christian. All who claim to be looking to Christ as Saviour are interconnected as members of one body with Christ as our Head (Romans 12.5; Ephesians 4.15,16). This is the reason why the King will say on that day, ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these…you did for me’. (Matthew 25.40). When Saul maliciously persecuted the church, he was actually persecuting Christ (Acts 9.4) and when we minister to one of the body, we minister to the head. The New Testament is packed with ‘one another’ verses that forcefully remind us that we each have a duty lovingly to care for one another.
Even the busiest may find a way to encourage when hearing of one who is unwell. Letters, cards, telephone calls, assurances of prayer – all are apt if visiting is not possible or appropriate at that time. Love always finds a way.
The loving concern and compassion we are to show in visiting the sick is to be without any limitations or boundaries of church, colour, class, sexual orientation, belief or non-belief. Perhaps the best known and loved of the Lord’s parables is that of the Good Samaritan. Jesus left us no ‘wriggle room’, expecting us to be frontier breakers, ministering to those who might consider us as enemies with an overflow of grace and mercy that comes from heaven itself. Who is my neighbour? Everyone outside of the square foot of earth I occupy!
Equipped for the job!
It is plain when we look at the gospel of God’s love for a fallen and dark world to see how he has fully equipped us for this incredibly important work. We have a tender heavenly Father who sends us into this broken world he so loves. A Saviour who, by his death and resurrection, provides all that we need in order be messengers of forgiveness, comfort and hope. And we have the Holy Spirit who empowers us and provides all the compassion, strength and wisdom we need for the task. Clearly, we have no excuse not to go!
1. On being a servant of God p.3. Thomas Nelson Publishers 1993
This article is an edited extract from I was Sick and you Visited me by Mike Mellor, recently published by DayOne.