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Our dear sister in Christ Joni Eareckson Tada has recently described suffering as “splashovers from hell.” I could not agree more. The years 2020–21 have been years from hell for my family (and COVID was not the issue for us). As I begin to write this article (in September 2021), our disabled daughter, Jessica, is once again in the hospital. Sadly, in these strange COVID times, I cannot even be with her. Her hospital permits only one visitor per day, so my dear wife, Mary, shoulders the burden this time.
Have I told you how much I hate hospitals? In our years as parents, we have made innumerable trips to hospitals—long stays for surgeries, sicknesses, emergency journeys for injuries. And as dean of students at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando and as a pastor, I made many more trips to visit others. Some were happy visits for the birth of a child. But more than once, even that visit turned dark when a physician arrived, saying, “We have discovered a problem in your newborn child.” Whenever I could, I took a colleague with me for moral support. I hate hospitals.
Of course, I have deep, lasting gratitude for my many friends who serve as physicians, nurses, therapists, and so on. We are glad for the many followers of Christ we have met along the way, and I celebrate the new appreciation we have for those on the front lines of medicine.
But in this fallen and broken world, one of the most profoundly significant blessings we can render to another is simply to be with that person. Three times in the first chapter of Lamentations, the writer laments that there was “none” to bring comfort (vv. 2, 17, 21). How awful. But as Paul opens 2 Corinthians, he mentions the comfort of God and the comfort we can bring to another no fewer than nine times in the first seven verses. And that idea of comfort contains the concept of “coming alongside” someone in his time of need. Your physical presence with the sick or bereaved is the greatest gift you can offer.
Of course, in the time of Jesus, one did not have to travel to the hospital (though you might travel to a place like the pools of Bethesda, where many sick and afflicted gathered). The sick were everywhere, and very often they were brought to Jesus.
Not so in our day. We now warehouse the sick in hypersterile environments so large that one must park in outlying structures and walk thousands of steps just to get to the sick. It takes effort and can be a pain in the neck. For reasons of logistics and time, we too easily talk ourselves out of care for the sick through our presence.
But there it is. We are called to come alongside the sick and the broken, to bring the comfort we have received from God. But let’s be clear: the comfort we bring is our presence more than anything else. I will never forget the well-meaning Christians who visited and could not stop talking and felt obligated to quote Romans 8:28 (as if we had forgotten that precious truth). Yes, there is a time and place for that, but it is usually later, downstream from the crisis moments of suffering, of fear of the moment. We much more remember and appreciate the pastor or dear friend who came and simply wept with us and said nothing. It brings tears of gratitude to my eyes just thinking about it years later.
So how do you comfort the sick and hurting? First, be like Job’s friends at the beginning: just shut up (pardon my candor). Sit, weep, and be quiet. Your physical presence, your human touch or embrace, is far more potent than your words in such moments. What if (as happens too often) your sick or bereaved friend screams, “Why?” The best answer in that moment is to say: “Yes, that is the question, and it’s a good one. But let’s leave that for later. Let me hug you right now, and let’s just weep together.”
Second, if you must use words, use God’s words—not words of theological precision but words of comfort. Texts like the good ol’ Psalm 23 or Jesus’ words from Matthew 11 or John 14. Allow God’s Word to bring comfort. Our words too often fail.
Third, never say, “Let me know if there is anything I can do.” Don’t add to the sick or bereaved person’s burden by making him reach out for help. Here’s where the Nike advertisement brings truth: “Just do it.” Show up when needed. Take some food, mow the lawn, clean the house, or care for the children. Don’t ask when it might be convenient—just do it. Your active presence will bring comfort to the sick and needy. Show your brothers and sisters in Christ that you care enough to sacrifice your time and treasure to serve their needs.
Fourth and finally, follow the scriptural model. James 5 says to bring some oil (a little olive oil works great) and anoint the sick in the name of the Lord. Pray for the goodness and grace of God to overflow in this hurting soul—and if you’re not sure how to pray, use God’s Word to guide your prayer.
Again, in our strange COVID times, comforting the sick can be tough. We now live in a culture recently trained to fear the sick. Too often there are restrictions on visitation. But the Christian tradition is replete with people of faith walking against fear to comfort the sick. Perfect peace drives out fear. Just do it. Comfort those who are weak and sick. Embody the peace of Christ with your physical presence. Zoom doesn’t cut it. Human touch is everything.