Last May on a study tour in Israel I snapped my radius (main arm bone) in two. In this rather jolting fashion my husband and I received the undesired privilege of an unexpected tour of an Israeli hospital ER and floor. A doctor in our tour group stayed with us until my arm was in a cast then rejoined the team while we stayed the night at the hospital. What a comfort he was! (By the way, the skill of the doctors who set my bone so impressed my stateside orthopedic surgeon that he sang their praises at my every subsequent appointment. If you plan to break your arm outside of the U.S., I suggest doing so in Caesarea, Israel.)
While I wouldn’t put a foreign hospital high on your list of travel attractions, it was a learning experience, adding nuance to “study” tour. For example, we observed the number of visitors with other patients–two, four, five–hanging around for hours. Just outside the hospital, a few patients held court with eight to ten visitors staying until well after dark on a summer night. It seemed to us that, for them, being in the hospital is a social event. In contrast, my husband and I were consigned all night to a no-frills hospital room in a foreign country cut off from family and friends, surrounded by foreign languages, with almost nothing to do but sit or walk the halls–all alone. If just one familiar face had stepped through the door to come sit with us…what that would have meant!
The incapacitation of the sick, injured, and aged creates difficulties, hinders or prevents normal activities, cuts people off from social contact, and may be discouraging or frightening. Visiting the sick can demonstrate love, convey encouragement, contribute prayer, reinforce faith, be the means of alerting others in the church to needs otherwise unknown, and provide us with opportunities to give grace to the sick and his or her family. It is one way we can “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). It is one way to love one another.
If you’ve never visited the sick, the idea may make you uneasy, especially at the thought of visiting someone you don’t know well. You’re not alone. I’d like to help, so in a series of posts I plan to look at the practice of visiting people who, due to physical incapacitation, are in medical facilities or home as shut-ins. Why would you visit? What are the behavioral expectations in the patient’s room? What if you’re not silver-tongued; what do you say? How could you serve the Lord Jesus and your church family by visitation?
While I don’t plan to cover every topic that could be discussed, the series will answer many common questions and, hopefully, help you in your efforts. I’ve put ideas together from a variety of sources which are listed at the end of this post in addition to what I’ve learned as I’ve applied the counsel from those sources. Future posts will include a short easy plan for getting started, basic room etiquette, how to minister in conversation, and what you might say in place of some common statements better left unsaid. Primarily, I’d like to encourage you to participate in this avenue of ministry.
What might keep you from visiting? Perhaps if we uncover and answer some typical reasons for avoidance it might ease your discomfort and energize you to visit someone so as to minister the grace of Christ to him or her.
Possible reasons some people avoid visiting the sick
One reason for avoiding visitation is discomfort with unfamiliar roads and location. Your first or second trip to the location may require navigating unfamiliar roads and congested traffic, missing turns, hunting for a parking space, and wandering through a parking garage. If you don’t get lost on the drive, you might in the facility. In one hospital, I’ve been lost trying to find the room, then lost again trying to backtrack to the parking garage–all in one visit. And the next visit. I’ve come to expect it at that hospital. No worries, nurses are great at giving directions with a smile!
The unfamiliar atmosphere can make people uncomfortable. There are unfamiliar sights, like all kinds of equipment, long plain halls, people dressed in scrubs, and patients not exactly dressed for a photo shoot. Sounds are unfamiliar–beeps, coughs, clanks, moans, cries of people in pain. Smells may be both unfamiliar and unpleasant.
People might be uncomfortable with unfamiliar behavioral expectations. If there is no chair, where do I sit? Do I hug the person or do I generally avoid touch lest I cause pain? Dare I pray with the patient when the family members are present? What if the nurse is in the room?
Sometimes people are afraid they might say the wrong thing. “How are you?” seems a bit unsuitable; in a hospital patients aren’t “Fine.” Are there questions we shouldn’t ask? Will we seem uncaring if certain questions are not asked? A future post will address conversation. Meanwhile, don’t let this fear stop you from going to comfort another.
Sometimes people don’t want to be reminded of their own vulnerability to illness or pain. For example, visiting in assisted living facilities reminds me that I may one day live in such a facility. I don’t like that thought and it would come to mind far less often if I simply avoided going to any.
Many people don’t want a reminder of death. We know intuitively that illness can be a precursor to death. If the reason a Christian refuses to minister to another person is avoidance of the fact of death then the avoider has an unbiblical view of death.
Many may regard visiting the sick as the pastor’s job and leave it to him. Perhaps you don’t know the fellow church member well so it seems like it isn’t your responsibility. While visitation is a part of the pastor’s shepherding responsibility Ephesians 4:12 says that it is the saints–us John and Jane Doe church members–who are to be doing “the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ.” Pastors already have such a heavy load equipping us to do that ministry. We can help our pastors by doing some visitation for them. Think how much such work might encourage your pastor.
Some simply don’t take the time. We’re busy. We have other things we want to do. I’ve thought, “It’s a forty-minute drive to the hospital with another ten minutes to find the room, all for a five or ten minute visit–that’s an inefficient use of time.” By whose measure? Who owns time?
The best reason to visit
I am not intending to lobby for altruism. Social activism in good deeds is extremely popular these days, but it isn’t Christianity. Mere altruism is humanism, service to other people on a purely human level. Anybody from any religion can do that and feel good about himself. Anybody can (and should) do his duty as a family member, friend, neighbor, or clergyman. Doing an unselfish act does engender good feelings, but if that all it is then we have our reward–good feelings toward Self.
People may visit out of love for the patient–a very good reason. People’s motivations are mixed bags, so we may have a variety of reasons for going. Whatever our reasons, if the glory of God is not the dominating theme then even our good reasons are insufficient. One, it fails to fully minister to the patient. Without the desire to exalt Christ there is no motivation to share the gospel, to minister His Word, to draw the sufferer’s attention to Christ. By default we leave God out of it; conversation remains on an earthly level. Two, it fails to credit God. Good deeds without the gospel defaults the credit for goodness to ourselves.
The best reason to visit others is for love of our Savior and, because of that, love for the person. True love for another doesn’t settle for only earthly relief exclusive of the One who is their only hope for eternally satisfying comfort and joy. And because we love Christ, we want to see Him be the One to receive glory for our good deeds–“do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). He receives glory when we love one another by helping each other love Him better.
Go and visit
Philippians 2:3-4 says, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself. Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”
Think of the patient in his bed. He doesn’t feel well, doesn’t feel comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings, is frustrated at inability to do what he used to do, may be bored, may be worried, misses his family and feels helpless to solve his problems. All day long those who enter his room are doctors or nursing staff, people there to help but all unknown and busy with other cares. Now apply Jesus’ teaching “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” Put yourself in the patient’s place. Then imagine hearing a knock on the door and looking up to see someone other than staff stepping through the door, someone coming just for you–what a lift! How much more so if that person helps you think on the beauty of Christ.
Please consider incorporating visitation of the sick into your service to your church. A card conveys love and encouragement–do send them. A phone call is better than nothing–do call. But a visit is best. Go and visit.
Sources that have helped me:
Brian Croft, Visit the Sick: Ministering God’s Grace in Times of Illness. Zondervan. https://www.amazon.com/Visit-Sick-Ministering-Practical-Shepherding/dp/0310517141/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1476714055&sr=8-5&keywords=brian+croft
Ernie Baker, in a conversation on visitation. Dr. Baker is a professor at The Master’s University, author of Marry Wisely, Marry Well, and active in Peacemaker Ministries.
Phil Manly and Jon Scott, “Manners in Ministry to the Sick and Dying,” lecture at Grace Community Church, Series Sundays in July, 7/5/2015, https://www.gracechurch.org/sermons/11098