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Practical Advice for Comforting the Sick



By David Kowalski

Obedience to Christ will have us visit the sick. He commands it:

visit the sickThen they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ (Matthew 25:44-451)

Still, there is a difference between "doing something" and doing it right. The well-meaning are not always well-doers. I have been on both sides of visiting the sick – as the sick one visited and as the one visiting the sick. I have sometimes found it hard to do properly and have seen others do more harm than good during visitation. I believe the key word in well-done vs. poorly done visitation is “comfort.”

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

Sorry comforters are you all. Is there no limit to windy words? (Job 16:2-3)

Hospital visitation was the most awkward part of the pastorate for me. I had no problem speaking before crowds but never seemed to effortlessly know exactly what to do or say in these one-on-one visits. I did learn a few things over time as a pastor, but my most intense education has been as a sick person receiving visits from others. There are a few principles regarding comforting the sick that I think many, well-meaning, healthy people do not understand. I offer the eight principles below as guides for those who engage in this important ministry.

1) Observe hospital protocol. When visiting in a hospital, respect all time restrictions. It is also good to stop by the nurses' station before seeing the patient, as Paul Tautges observes:

ALWAYS stop at the nurse’s station to inquire if it is a good time to visit. Tell the nurse who you are and who it is you hope to visit. Then ask, “Is this an appropriate time for a brief visit?” If they reply, “This is not the best time,” then ask when a better time might be.2

2) Do not insult the sick. This sounds like a given but many people ignorantly do just this. It is an insult to the sick, for example, when you relate how your vitamin and exercise programs have changed your life, implying that the sick person will get similar results if they do the same. Implicit in this comparison is the charge that the sick person could probably get well if only they buckled down and disciplined themselves.

The one who delivers this implicit insult is thought by the sick to be boasting of how they overcame a problem like theirs (which the sick person is supposedly too lazy and irresponsible to overcome on their own). It is also not good to challenge a sick person to more rigorous exercise if it takes all of their strength just to get through a single room. They may already be doing the best they can, and in some cases a rigorous, exercise program is contraindicated. Let the doctor determine this issue.

It is also inaccurate and unkind to imply that the sick person could get better if only they followed the spiritual methodology some television teacher advocates. Keep the healing books at home. The sick person is not a spiritual dwarf in need of your rescue. They are just experiencing the common effects of the fall. Your day will come.

 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope  that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. (Romans 8:18-25)

Pray plainly for healing with them. Don’t be shy in your request. The sick person generally wants you to pray for more than just grace to get through and wisdom for the doctors (though it is good to pray for these things too). Prayer is a request and it is no sin to ask for God’s miraculous intervention. Be careful, however, to prescribe no metaphysical techniques, and show no disappointment with the afflicted person. Sickness is not failure.

Additionally, never assume that the sick person is doing poorly emotionally and spiritually. A suffering body does not necessarily indicate a sick soul. The sick will quite naturally be displeased with their suffering and may feel discouraged – but neither of these should necessarily be equated with depression. Say nothing to imply their displeased or discouraged feelings are wrong or unspiritual.

3) Though it may be acceptable to discuss what did or did not help you if you had the very same affliction yourself, do not offer medical advice if you are not a specialist in the sufferer's affliction. People who want to help sometimes fall into this trap, but the afflicted one has well-trained doctors to discuss treatment with. It is also a safe assumption that the ill have spent much time studying their malady. If you begin to seemingly pontificate regarding matters you do not understand you will probably only annoy the sick person and lose his or her respect -- even if you have read an entire article on Yahoo or had a cousin with a similar malady.

4) Do not give your opinion about medications. The doctor who prescribed the medicine and the pharmacist who dispensed it know quite a bit more than you do. At one time I sold high-end audio gear and had the privilege of working with some serious audiophiles who had studied, lived, and worked with high-end audio for many years. The occasional customer who "corrected" these people on the basis of what their brother learned regarding his car stereo or something they remembered from an article in Sound and Vision magazine only succeeded in looking foolish.

Likewise, laymen who try to correct doctors and pharmacists do not endear themselves to a sick person. Remember that the afflicted one was ill before taking the medicine. This is the only reason the doctor prescribed it.

5) Do not compare the sick person's symptoms to a differing experience of your own. One thing the sick find frustrating is that they have symptoms which are foreign in nature and degree to anything commonly experienced by others. To discuss these symptoms, however, they are forced to use the same terms the general public uses to describe lesser and different phenomenon. When the infirm speak to you of their fatigue, for example, they do not mean the same thing as the tired and out-of-shape feeling you had before you started on your wonderful, new, exercise regimen. I think points 2-5 above can be summarized in Brian Croft’s advice to those who visit the sick, “Listen, don’t solve.”

6) Realize that the sick person may be more ill than they appear. The sick person wants to maintain his or her dignity before others. Weakness is humiliating and most of us try to avoid showing it. Every time I visited with a person on their death bed, they bucked up for my visit and put on a cheerful face -- sometimes just days before their passing.  Be slow to declare them “so much better” just because they put on a smile and crack a joke.

7) Do not obsess with the ill over their illness but don't avoid the topic altogether. Speaking about subjects that interest the sick person makes your visit delightful, and a modicum of respectful talk about the affliction shows you care.

8) Do not visit for too long. Each visitation is different and length of time should be commensurate with the sick one's ability to socialize. The extremely ill should be seen for no more than five to ten minutes. Fifteen minutes is generally recommended for more moderate cases. If the individual is recovering from a minor procedure, a lengthier visit may be desirable, provided the person is not in so much pain that they do not feel sociable. Many of those home-bound due to illness may also be able to tolerate and even welcome somewhat lengthier visits, but one should not wait for obvious signs that the visit should end.

You have a blessed opportunity to represent Jesus to the sick. Be a good comforter.

© Copyright 2013, David Kowalski. All rights reserved. Links to this post are encouraged. Do not repost or republish without permission.

Written by David Kowalski

Notes:

  1. All Scripture references are taken from the New American Standard Bible.
  2. http://counselingoneanother.com/2011/08/26/qa-visiting-the-sick/

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This post was last updated: Mar. 2, 2013