Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
We concluded our last article by discussing the question of the relationship between the parishioner’s sickness and his sin. We noted that there are instances where the connection between the sickness and the sin must be pointed out. The drunkard who suffers from cirrhosis of the liver needs to know that his sickness is the result of his sinful, excessive drinking. In other instances, where the relationship between the illness and sin is not clear, we advised the elders to leave the whole matter to the parishioner and the Lord. If the sick person himself opens up concerning this question, the elders can deal pastorally with him.
But the above is only part of the answer to the why of sickness. If Christ bore the wrath of God on account of our sins and if, therefore, the punishment for our sins has been removed in the way of Christ’s perfect satisfaction of the justice of God, why must the child of God still suffer the effects of sin? Why must he still suffer sickness?
The answer, at least in part, is that God chastens those whom He loves and scourges every son whom He receives (Heb. 12:3-11). God does this chastening by various means, and sickness is one of those means. Also by means of sickness the Lord causes us to “number our days and apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Ps. 90).
But it is also true that, because of the victory of Jesus Christ over our sin and death, God uses sickness to work together for our good. Sickness has a sanctifying effect on the Christian (Rom. 8:28). This is the viewpoint of our Heidelberg Catechism when it asks, “Since then Christ died for us, why must we also die?” (Q. 42). If Christ’s death is the death of our death, why must we still die? The answer is, “Our death is not a satisfaction for our sins, but only an abolishing of sin, and a passage into eternal life.” Sickness is part of the process that leads to the “abolishing of sin, and a passage into eternal life” through the death of the child of God.
These truths must guide the elders in their work of visiting the sick.
Turning now to the practical aspect, the question becomes, “How ought a visit with the sick be conducted?” There are three rules or practices by which the elders ought to be guided. 1) The elders should not visit the sick unless they are called by them or by their loved ones. If the elders visit the sick even when not called, others will expect the same. This obviously can lead to difficulties, since the elders are not always aware of who is sick or of how serious the illness may be. 2) But when the elders are called, they must promptly respond with a visit. Especially is this important if the person is critically ill. This may occasionally mean making a sick call at 2:00 a.m. or at some other inconvenient time. 3) Elders should make clear to the congregation that they are available at any hour of the day or night and that they want to be with them and minister to them in their times of crisis.
In connection with rule three above, there is an important word for God’s people to remember. They must not bother the ministers and elders whenever they experience some little ache or pain. Generally speaking, for example, minor outpatient surgery or a routine tonsillectomy do not warrant calling upon the elders for a visit. Let God’s people use their sanctified good judgment in this regard. In the larger congregations the elders, and especially the ministers, are much too busy as it is. They should not be called unless the illness or injury is serious.
Let the elders, when making the visit itself, be very careful about what they say. Undersigned knows of an instance where a member of one of our churches was comatose and on a respirator. The person was being taken from his room to another floor of the hospital for a test. His elder happened to get on the same elevator. Upon seeing his parishioner, the elder remarked, “He looks like warmed over death.” The parishioner, though comatose and unable to talk, heard that remark and was deeply hurt by it. One more example of this sort of thing happened in Pine Rest Christian Hospital (a mental health facility) in Cutlerville, Michigan. An elder (not from the Protestant Reformed Churches) came to visit a deeply, clinically depressed parishioner. Meaning to encourage the woman, the elder said to her, “Depression is not so serious, you know; no one ever died from it.” The poor lady replied, “True, but I wish I could.”
The elder, when making the visit, should be his natural self. He needs to avoid over-bearing solemnity. He ought to strive to be Christ-like. That is, the elder should demonstrate as much as possible the care, the concern, and the compassion of the Great and Good Shepherd of the sheep.
Elders must listen to the sick person so as to determine his/her specific need. The elders must take seriously what the sick say. They must never minimize what to the sick person is an important or troublesome problem. Elders must not dominate the conversation at the sickbed, but rather let them guide it so as to keep it on a spiritual level.
Let the elders be reminded, in this connection, of the two main activities which must take place at every visit of the sick, viz., the bringing of the Word of God and prayer! The Word of God must be brought to the sick. No matter the various and specific circumstances of the sick, they all need the Word!
Elders must bring the Word of God briefly, pointedly, and simply. Briefly. The elders must not read twenty-five or more verses at the bedside of the sick. Let them keep the passage brief. Just a few verses will suffice. Pointedly the Word must be brought. By this we mean that the elders ought to explain a verse or two as it applies to the need of the sick person. And the Word must be brought simply. A sick visit is not an occasion for elders to launch into a long, complicated, profound, and doctrinal exposition of a passage. Simply the Word must be brought. One or two simple truths must be laid out for the comfort and encouragement of the sick.
The elders must always pray when they visit the sick. Even under the most adverse conditions, they must pray. Also in noisy emergency rooms, with phones ringing, doctors and nurses bustling about, and people moaning in pain, the elders must pray. The need of the sick must be brought to the throne of grace where they will obtain mercy and find grace from God through Jesus to help in their need (Heb. 4:16). God gives His grace and Holy Spirit only to those who with sincere desires continually ask them of him and are thankful for them (cf. the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 45). And, to cite no more, Scripture commands the sick to call for the elders of the church and let them pray over them the prayer of faith (James 5:14, 15).
Bringing the Word of God and praying over the sick calls for careful, prayerful preparation. The elders need to know, as much as this is possible, what the specific need or needs of the sick are. They must select appropriate Scripture passages in order to address those needs. The elders must briefly explain those passages. If need be, they ought to jot down a few notes. The elders must think about the prayers they are to offer over the sick.
The elders should keep the visits brief, but must never leave the impression that they are in a hurry. The elders are not coming to the sick to socialize with them. They are not coming to talk about the weather or world affairs or what have you. The elders visit the sick in order to bring God’s Word to them and to pray with them. That’s the purpose of these visits. Five to ten minutes ought to be sufficient to accomplish this purpose. In addition, the elders, and all of God’s people for that matter, must not forget that the sick are weak. Physically, and often emotionally too, the sick are weak. This means they cannot endure a lengthy visit of thirty or forty minutes or more. It is much better and much more effective that the elders visit the sick more frequently than that they stay too long. This is especially important for those who are very seriously ill or recovering from major surgery.
We conclude this article with a few practical suggestions which this writer has found helpful in his own ministering to the sick among God’s people. Avoid making sick calls during visiting hours, both at hospitals and at nursing homes. Doing this enables the elders to visit the patient privately and without a great many distractions. It is often wise to phone the hospital before making the sick visit to be certain the patient will be in the room and not undergoing tests, therapy, etc. It is also the better part of wisdom for the elders to get on good terms with the hospital staff. Respect their rules and regulations. Be friendly and courteous with receptionists, nurses, doctors, and other staff people. Ask permission before entering restricted areas such as intensive care units.
Ignoring these suggestions often makes for tension if not outright hostility between the elders and hospital personnel. The latter can “make life miserable” for the elders. Implementing these suggestions will make the elders’ visiting of the sick much easier. Hospital staff usually recognize and respect the rights of pastors and elders to visit their parishioners. Hospital personnel have a right to expect Christian courtesy from the clergy and elders of God’s church. And when they get that, they are all the more willing to help the elders do what they are called to do when they visit the sick, viz., bring them the Word and pray for them.
to be continued….