I am no expert in ministering to people in suffering. It is a privilege to be with the sick and dying, but it can also be scary, hard work. I have great respect for chaplains, calling pastors, solo pastors, and other believers who spend a lot of their time comforting the sick and suffering with the gospel.
As you minister to the sick and dying–and we all will have opportunity to do so–here are some things to keep in mind.
1. Be patient. Ask lots of questions. Don’t assume you know what they are thinking or feeling. Ask them.
2. Ask direct questions. I have found especially with older generations that they don’t respond well to some of the “jargon” questions like “how is your walk with the Lord?” They are not used to thinking of Christianity in these terms. Ask more direct questions like “How is God helping you?” or “What Bible verses or hymns have come to mind?”
3. If you can sing, open up a hymnal and sing some songs. If you can’t sing, try anyway.
4. Avoid questions that can be answered with a yes or no questions. If you ask, “Is it hard being sick” you may not get very far. Avoid leading questions too. For example, “Is it a great comfort to know that Jesus has forgiven all your sins and you will spend eternity with him in heaven?” may be good theology, but it’s not exactly a question. Better to just state that truth and ask a real questions.
5. Learn to live with your own feelings of inadequacy. No one knows exactly what to say in these situations. It usually feels a little awkward at first. But don’t let that keep you away. Be bold, and be yourself.
6. At some point I think it is appropriate to ask very specific questions, especially if the person is avoiding the harsh realities of the situation. You may have to say something like “There’s a chance you may not get better. Are you scared of dying?” Obviously, you don’t lead with this question as you visit the little girl having her appendix taken out, but in other situations you can’t avoid talking about death. Well, actually, you can avoid it (and you may want to), but you shouldn’t.
7. Don’t fall into the trap of talking only about all the medical jibber-jabber. Most people will start out by giving you the medical play-by-play. That’s fine and probably therapeutic. But don’t try to be their doctor. Move past talking about prescriptions, treatments, and the new medical vocabulary everyone is learning. Get to the gospel and the soul.
8. Don’t interrupt. Ask follow up questions. Be slow to correct their thinking. If they need to be challenged, do it after they know you care and take their feelings seriously. Nothing is more discouraging than a friend or pastor who quickly corrects all fears and immediately shines up all your struggles.
9. Remind people of things you know they already know. We forget. We doubt. It helps to hear others tell us the same truth one more time.
10. Open the Bible. Read the Bible. Teach the Bible. If our theology doesn’t help when people are sick and dying, what good is it?
A Few Scripture Suggestions
Verses to give assurance:
- Romans 8:1 (no condemnation)
- Romans 8:28-39 (nothing can separate us from Christ)
- John 11:25-26 (I am the resurrection and the life)
- 1 John 1:9 (if we confess our sins God will forgive us)
- Ephesians 2:1-10 (by grace we have been saved)
- Luke 23:39-43 (thief on the cross)
Verses to sympathize with hurting people:
- Psalm 40 (stuck in the miry clay)
- Psalm 42 (as the deer pants for water, so my soul longs for you)
- Romans 8:18-27 (whole creation is groaning)
- Hebrews 4:14-16 (Jesus as our sympathetic high priest)
Beloved passages that are almost always appropriate:
- Psalm 23 (the Lord is my shepherd)
- Psalm 46 (God is a refuge)
- Psalm 103 (God’s compassion and mercy)
- Matthew 6 (God’s care and do not worry)
- Romans 8 (mercy, suffering, hope, assurance)
I also recommend the Heidelberg Catechism, especially questions 1 and 2.