It is difficult to know what to say or how to give spiritual counsel to those who are dealing with trials related to illness or death. What do you say to a saint who has just received the hard news that he or she is dying of a terminal illness? How do you counsel young parents who have lost an unborn child? What kind of encouragement can you give to a mother and her teenagers who are losing their husband and father to cancer? How do you continue to minister to an elderly saint with chronic poor health? What can be said to young parents who watch their children suffer from a debilitating disease? How do you counsel those who have been in a serious car accident and are at death’s door or those bereaved by the loss of a loved one who has recently walked through this door?
These are only a few examples of the sorrows that God’s sheep face in this sin-cursed world. In times like these, we cannot rush to see a grieving parishioner without earnestly seeking the Lord in prayer and asking for the Holy Spirit’s direction from Scripture. Thomas Murphy wisely observed:
It is no wonder that the youthful minister often trembles when he is summoned to stand by the bedside of a dying man and guide the soul that must soon launch out into eternity. . . . A man can scarcely be placed in a more solemn position than to be called to minister to the weak, the suffering, the dying, perhaps the self-deceived, the hardened, the ignorant and impenitent, or to the awakened whose minutes for finding pardon are almost closed. Who is sufficient for the solemn task of directing a soul that is tottering upon the brink of eternity, where a wrong word may be fatal or a right one may be the means of immediately opening the gates of endless glory?1
Who is sufficient for this calling? Who can adequately address the weak, the dying, and the ignorant? None of us are able. We depend completely on the Lord for strength and wisdom. It is true that this task is daunting and weighs heavily upon our shoulders. However, there is also potential for great joy and blessing in ministering to those who are needy.
Proper communication, compassion, and preparation are all important in this, the most important of pastoral activities. These are all covered in further detail in the full chapter in Faithful and Fruitful. For now, let us look at the application of this work.
For those new to the task, here are some helpful hints regarding hospital or home visits.2
1. When at the hospital, ask the nurses at the nursing station for any information that might be useful in order to help you decide how long you should stay.
2. Knock before entering the hospital room, or verbally announce your presence, and wait for permission to pull back the curtain. This will avoid awkwardness for you and the patient.
3. Behave normally when visiting. Don’t be overly jovial, but don’t be unnaturally grave or serious. Be yourself and let the Lord use your personality to minister. You might find it nerve-wracking to see those who are suffering. For example, it can be shocking to see the outward changes of appearance of those who are sick. But remain calm and at peace. Trust in the Lord. You are God’s servant. They are the same people with whom you have shared your life in various meaningful ways. Show the love of Christ to them.
4. Be conscious of the time. Visits need not be long. Usually those who are weak or suffering cannot bear to be visited for a long time because they tire easily. But don’t be rushed or end the visit abruptly either. Make the patient feel that they and their needs are important to you.
5. Be seated. Generally it’s not a good idea to sit on the patient’s bed. Find a chair to sit on if one is available. Usually there are chairs in hospital rooms for visitors. If in doubt, ask the nurses if there is a chair that you may use. At times, there may be no seat available, especially if the patient is in an emergency ward. In cases like these, it is appropriate to stand near the patient’s bedside.3
6. Don’t forget that the person is ill. Make sure that you talk about the seriousness of their illness if they desire to speak about it. Be prepared to encourage the person to seek the Lord and his purpose in their afflictions (Heb. 12:1–13; James 5:7–18). Be ready to speak about the hope of eternal life. Don’t talk merely about trivial and mundane things, such as sports or the weather. These types of conversations may naturally arise during the visit, but they are not as important as the person’s spiritual walk with the Lord.
7. Be prepared to discuss funeral arrangements if the person is facing the likelihood of death. Some of those near death have the presence of mind to speak about a text from Scripture that is important to them and/or particular psalms and hymns that they would want to have sung at the funeral. It is helpful to have some knowledge of what arrangements need to be made should there be a funeral.
8. Never leave a visit without bringing the suffering some spiritual nourishment from the Word of God, as well as carrying them before the throne of grace in intercessory prayer. This is always the main reason for the visit: to bring the Scriptures to bear in the lives of those who are suffering. Truly they cannot face this trial without the Lord’s face shining upon them through his Word. Don’t forget that you are the instrument that God uses to bring that comfort.
9. If family is present in the hospital room, minister God’s Word to them as well. Don’t pretend that they are not there; they also need comfort. A passage that you have chosen to read will also speak to them, especially if you include them in the visit. You may also have the opportunity to speak to extended family outside the room. Take the time to minister to them in conversation, prayer, and Bible reading.
10. Be prepared to minister to strangers, especially unbelievers. Often patients share their hospital room with others who may overhear your conversations with members of your congregation. Hospitals and nursing homes are filled with lost souls who have questions about the afterlife or who may be dying without the comfort of personally knowing the Savior. Be available to them if they ask for your help and seek your attention. By God’s providence, hospital visits can be opportunities to sow the seed of the gospel!
11. It is often best to find some time to spend alone with the person. This way you can speak to him or her more freely instead of being interrupted by nursing staff or other visitors. Some patients will have their consciences burdened by sin. This makes it necessary to see them alone so that you can direct their attention to Christ and the knowledge that joy and hope come with repentance. Only then can they face their pain with the sure knowledge that their sins are forgiven and their future is secure.
12. In some cases, it is wise to plan on reading longer portions of Scripture or summarizing a Sunday sermon that you may have preached or heard. Some patients may be in such a condition that they cannot speak but are still able to hear the Word, and doing such can be a source of great consolation to them. This was the practice of the Scottish minister Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813–1843); he would often preach an abbreviated sermon to those unable to speak. Also, if you bring along a fellow office bearer or your wife, you may want to spend time singing a few psalms and hymns. Those who cannot speak can still hear and be encouraged with a song of praise to the Lord.
13. In some cases a patient may suffer from dementia. We should never underestimate what they may be able to understand. Often those suffering from dementia can still remember old hymns and psalms that they learned as children. The Lord looks after his own sheep and knows their minds and hearts. Philippians 1:6 assures us that when it comes to salvation, God finishes what he starts. The Word of God is able to penetrate to the division of soul and spirit (Heb. 4:12–13). Therefore, we still need to minister to them. And it can be especially helpful to read familiar passages (such as Ps. 23).
14. Remember to encourage the rest of the congregation in their Christian calling to visit the sick and dying. Put reminders in the bulletin to encourage people to remember the sick and shut-ins by including a list of all the shut-ins and their residences. Visiting the sick or dying can be done by almost anyone (couples, small groups, young moms with a little one, families, singles). To those deprived of the privilege of going to worship services it is a great comfort when God’s people can meet for fellowship, singing, and prayer with them. Moreover, it is not only profitable for the bedridden and shut-ins, but also a huge source of blessing for the visitors!
15. Be prepared to minister, but also be prepared to be ministered to. As a pastor, I have benefited numerous times by the encouraging words of the saints in their trials as they respond to them with wonderful expressions of faith. They are often living testimonies to others of what it means to trust in the Lord’s sustaining hand in the midst of all their troubles. Some of them have gone to be with the Lord but the memory lives on in our minds. They have gone before us, have fought the good fight, have finished the race, and await the crown of glory (2 Tim. 4:7–8). Or as the words of that triumphant hymn state: “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.”4
May the Lord give us much wisdom and grace that we may fulfill our calling to minister to the sick and dying. We may be just clay vessels, but the Lord is pleased to use willing servants to bless those in the sickroom and at death’s door. Soli Deo gloria!
1. Thomas Murphy, Pastoral Theology (Dallas: Primedia eLaunch, 2013), 124.
2. Points 1 to 6 are adapted from Dr. Joseph Pipa’s lectures in his course “Reformed Pastor.”
3. Ed. Note: In many cases the patient will welcome the gift of appropriate physical touch, for example, holding hands during prayer. See Zack Eswine’s excellent section on the place of physical touch in ministry in Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 181–94.
4. Trinity Psalter Hymnal (Willow Grove, PA.: Trinity Psalter Hymnal Joint Venture, 2018), song 408.
Rev. Richard Anjema is the pastor of Providence Reformed Church, Winnipeg, MB, and a contributor to Faithful and Fruitful: Essays for Elders and Deacons (Reformed Fellowship, forthcoming).