Among the many labors of the pastor is the important duty of visiting the sick as prescribed in the call letter. Likewise this function is not one that belongs exclusively to the office of the minister, as is sometimes thought, but is rather implied in the office of the elder in general, who is called to “serve all Christians with advice and consolation.” (Form of Installation) It might even be said that in a certain sense this work is also part of the office of the deacons who are called “to administer relief to the poor and indigent not only with external gifts, but also with comfortable words from Scripture.” (Form of Installation) Not infrequently the poor are poor and in need of the assistance of the deacons because of sickness and other afflictions. Let them then be visited and comforted not only in their poverty but also in their sickness and such visitation does not have to be limited to a call by the dominee.
Sick visiting is more than a traditional custom. It is a spiritual practice sanctioned by holy writ and necessitated by the very nature of physical illness and its possible effects upon the soul and spiritual attitude of those afflicted.
In James 5:14 we read: “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” This passage has more than one interpretation. Some claim that it speaks of those that are physically or mentally ill. Others hold that the apostle refers here to those that are spiritually sick. We favor the latter interpretation and that for more than one reason. Without discussing the passage in detail we may point out the following:
(1) The word here for “sick” is often used in Scripture with reference to suffering spiritual afflictions.
(2) In the preceding verse James speaks of bodily affliction and, consequently, there is no need for this to be repeated.
(3) In the following verse he speaks of those for whom the elders pray thus: “And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.” This does not apply to physical illness but certainly indicates that the affliction of verse 14 is spiritual, necessitating resurrection and forgiveness.
(4) Finally, the fact that those thus afflicted (in distinction from vs. 13) are not able to pray for themselves but are instructed to call the elders would support this view.
It is evident then that those who are spiritually afflicted have need of the visitation of the minister and elders. The conclusion, however, is unwarranted that only those need be visited and that those who are in physical affliction do not have to be visited. There are other passages of Holy Writ that point to the necessity and practice of visiting them. Job was visited in his afflictions by his friends and acquaintances. Frequently in His ministry Christ, upon request, went to the homes of the sick. His own words, recorded in Matthew 25:35, 36indicate that He would have His disciples do likewise, for He said: “I was an hungered and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger and ye took me in; naked and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me; I was in prison and ye came to me.” And when He is asked, “But when did we this?”, He replies, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction is part of the essence of true religion. Those that are physically led in ways of suffering have need to be visited as well as those that are spiritually ill.
This necessity springs from the very nature of sickness which is the potential of death. This does not mean that all sickness is fatal nor even that we immediately think of death the moment we become ill but it does express that sickness is the evidence of the working power of death in our bodies. It belongs to the breaking down of this earthy tabernacle. It reminds us that our life is but a vapor and that our breath is in our nostrils: Today we appear strong and vigorous and in good health and tomorrow we lay helpless upon our bed, clenched by the power of disease which breaks down our frame. We are like the flower of the field which today is and tomorrow it is withered and gone. All the sickness, pain and suffering of our present life points unto death. And death, let us not forget, is the manifest token of the holy wrath of God against sin for “the wages of sin is death.”
This reality is frequently the occasion of serious misunderstanding on the part of the people of God when sickness and death come their way. It is not uncommon to find a child of God in sickness interpreting this experience as a visitation of God’s wrath upon him personally for some sin or sins committed. Losing the conscious joy of their salvation in Christ, they become deeply disturbed over all their sins and fail to find redemption from them. They judge that their illness is the token of God’s wrath upon them for their sin. Pretty soon the conclusion is drawn that they have even committed the unpardonable sin for which God visits them in their suffering. Their physical affliction becomes the occasion of deep spiritual torment. They have need of the word of God directing them to the way of life, comforting and reassuring them of the truth that “whatever evils God sends upon His children in this valley of tears, He turns to their advantage for He is able to do it, being almighty God, and willing, being a faithful Father.” (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 26) They need to be instructed to be “patient in adversity; thankful in prosperity; and that in all things which may hereafter befall them, they place their firm trust in their faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate them from His love; since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.” (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 28).
Furthermore, it is not an uncommon experience that intense suffering and prolonged illness create discouragement and incite rebellion in the hearts of the people of God so afflicted. This is only the natural tendency of the human nature. All incentive becomes lost. The soul becomes downcast within us. We fail to see the wisdom of God’s ways and to understand why this had to befall us when so many others all about us apparently enjoy health and strength. It is hard to bear the burden of our afflictions with patience and the grace of resignation to God’s ways with us is not always evidenced in us as it should be. Again our need is the word of God to lift us up, encourage, comfort and lead us that we may walk humbly with our God.
In this the minister (and the elders) have a wonderful but difficult calling. It is not easy to place yourself in the position of those that are afflicted and to see all things from the viewpoint of the sufferer so that they can be dealt with as a co-sufferer with understanding. Yet this must be done if they are to be led to the true and only comfort in life and death. It is often difficult to know when one in sickness has need of a pastoral visit. There are some who think that the dominee must come for every little ailment, however minor it may be while others need to be on their death-bed before the elder or minister is informed. It is proper that those who feel the need of a pastoral visit request him to call but frequently this is not done and the minister must use wisdom and discretion lest, on the one hand he intrudes where he is not needed or, on the other hand, he neglects those who do need his instruction from the word and prayer. It is also difficult to know how frequently the sick ought to be visited. No hard and fast rule can be made for each case and circumstance must be judged in its own light and the highest welfare of the patient sought. Various practical problems confront the pastor in the performance of this labor.
Requisite to the performance of this work are all the spiritual qualifications of the minister of the word. He is not a doctor of medicine nor should he pretend to be. His concern is to help the suffering ones bear their afflictions in the right frame of mind and attitude toward God and to help them to see that as the beloved of the Lord, all things, afflictions and sufferings included, do indeed work together for good to them that love God and are called according to His purpose. He must call on them to minister unto them that redemptive knowledge.
To do this He must love the sheep. He must have a deep, sincere concern for them. He must prepare himself in visiting them so that his call may be beneficial toward them. F.R. Wayne said:
“Whenever it is possible, give special study to the case of each patient. Think of the sufferer in your own chamber before you visit him in his. Settle in your mind beforehand what subject to suggest to him in conversation; not so as to bind yourself to that and that alone, but so as not to leave the subject to chance, and so as to bring the patient according to what seems to you his requirements, through an instructive series of definite lessons to his heart and conscience.”
And, the pastor must bring the word of God. Out of the word he points them to the realities of life and death. From the word he directs the afflicted ones to Christ, who took our suffering upon Himself, who bore our griefs, who destroyed the power of death forever and who even now uses death as His instrument to bring us, His people, into the glory of everlasting life. In Him is our only hope in the midst of all the miseries of this life. He is our abiding consolation wherewith His people are comforted in the valley of tears and sorrows. And blessed are the feet of them that bring these tidings of peace even unto those that lie in the midst of suffering!
Other labors of the pastor are also worthy of mention. He is called to engage in family visitation, he officiates at marriages and funerals, etc. These duties we will not, however, discuss in this connection but reserve them for the present and take them up, D.V., in connection with other articles of the church order.