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I once heard a pastor quoted as saying that no one wanted to fool with going to hospitals, or visiting nursing homes, or dealing with death. Hospitals are full of the sick, nursing homes are tough places, and nobody wants to think about death. Derek Kidner writes in his commentary on Psalms that it is ironic that “the more a person needs human support, the less he naturally attracts it.”
In fact, there are plenty of reasons for not reaching out to and caring for those who most need our care and attention. For one, it can be hard to find the time. The simple ministry of being with and listening to someone takes time, and, usually, it is time that is unscheduled and unpredictable. And when we take the time, we often find ourselves lacking words to say and not knowing what we should do. We feel a sense of helplessness and inadequacy when we are confronted with someone in grief and loneliness and fear. Sometimes our efforts might be overlooked or the other person might never know or remember that we were there at all. Then there’s compassion fatigue. And guilt—the guilt of not doing more, of not doing better. And so we stay away.
But what blessings are we missing when we stay away? In his letter to the Philippians, Paul requests help from his readers, but he says that his chief concern is not their gift itself but the blessing that God would provide for them through their gift: “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit” (Phil. 4:17). The Philippians could have kept their resources to themselves, but they would have missed the opportunity to cultivate contentment, compassion, and generosity in their own lives. The same goes for us in our acts of ministry to the least among us. What better ways are there for us to grow in faith, to nurture godliness, and to learn how to face trials with courage than to walk with others in their times of need?
I was at dinner with some friends recently and someone asked the question, “What about your life now would have been surprising to you twenty years ago?” We all had slightly different answers, but we all agreed that we are far more “high maintenance” than we were twenty years ago. We require more for our comfort, and we think about our own health and well-being more often than before. In other words, we are often selfish. And we live in a culture that reinforces and promotes the very same thing—more choices, better stuff, and instant gratification. But what we need more of is humility, contentment, gratitude, generosity, and patience.
Serving others helps us develop those things. When we recognize our insufficiency in facing challenges that are too big for us, we are directed to God in faith and prayer. We are reminded of our need for humility and the need to trust Him for His all-sufficient grace. When we give our time and our hearts to others, we grow in our capacity to love and share with others. We learn to be thankful for God’s rich blessings in our own lives. And we see what it means to suffer and to face trials by faith. The best teaching on the Christian life is usually not found in books or even in sermons but in the lives of those with whom we share our lives.
Not to mention that when we visit and spend time with our brothers and sisters in need, we provide them with the opportunity to serve us and to go through their trials with dignity and purpose. As they recount God’s faithfulness in the past, or remember a favorite verse of Scripture, or look forward with hope to God’s promises, we can’t help but be encouraged by their faithful testimony and example. Almost anytime we give ourselves to those in need, we find that we receive more than we give.
Such is the beauty of the Christian life and of the call to love one another. Such is the way of the cross. The way of the cross is the way of sacrifice and the way of suffering for the sake of Christ, but it is also the way of blessing. As we minister in Christ’s name to the hurting around us, God works blessing—blessing to us, blessing to those who are suffering, and even blessing to a world in need of the good news about Jesus.
Think about some of those names that are unfamiliar to us and often overlooked in the New Testament—names like Epaphroditus and Onesimus and Onesiphorus. They are all commended by Paul for their simple ministry of going to him in his need, being with him, encouraging him, and providing for him in practical ways. And in doing so, they demonstrated simple but profound gospel ministry, and at the same time, they assisted in the advance of the gospel.
The call to visit widows and orphans in their affliction, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner—in other words, the call to care for the weakest and most helpless among us—these are not optional duties for the Christian life. They are the calling of every Christian, and they are the evidence of a life shaped by the gospel. Ministry to the “least of these” is worth “fooling with” because what may be “foolishness” to the world is, at the same time, the power of God and the wisdom of God for those who are in Christ.