Visiting the sick is an important pastoral responsibility and privilege that is being marginalized in these days of the pastor-as-CEO. I have much to learn in being effective for the Kingdom of God in these providential moments of ministry, and would be willing to listen to anyone willing to give some time-tested advice on the subject. When Dr.’s Tom Schreiner, Donald Whitney, Bruce Ware, and Ray Van Neste all recommend that advice, I am ready to put everything else on hold in order to listen up. This is why I was so happy for the chance to read Brian Croft’s Visit the Sick: Ministering God’s Grace in Times of Illness this morning (90 easy-to-read pages, including 4 Appendices).
Chapter 1 is entitled”Biblical Considerations.” Croft opens up with a good reminder of how sickness and death fit into the great storyline of God’s redemption as presented in Scripture. Croft draws attention to two great themes which emerge from such a study: God’s sovereignty over sickness and healing, and that God calls his people to care for the needy and afflicted. Such bedrock truths lay a necessary foundation for the way we think and speak about sickness among our people.
In the second chapter, Croft moves to a number of “Theological Considerations,” in which he urges those visiting the sick to consider the only true source of comfort for our hearers. He explains: “We may be effective practically and wise pastorally, but if our care is void of the hope of the Gospel and the promises in God’s Word, any hope or encouragement will be an illusion.” (31) He goes onto speak about the importance of having deliberate conversations that move to spiritual matters, while still taking into account the condition of the individual: their level of pain, consciousness, etc. Two of the best principles are the most obvious: read pre-selected passages of Scripture, and fill our prayers with the explicit message of the Gospel. “We should see every visit as a divine appointment to make the saving power of the Gospel known, whether through prayer or proclamation.” (35) Most of all, we simply want to direct their attention to the promises of God and the God of those promises: “It is essential that, when we leave, we can have peace that we have left more of God’s character and promises than our own wisdom and thoughts on their minds and hearts.” (36)
Chapter three is dedicated to “Pastoral Considerations,” helping visitors (whether actually pastors or not) to think like carefully about showing care. These suggestions include preparing yourself for a possibly uncomfortable or even shocking sight in a hospital room, leaving a note when the individual is out of the room, working at being a better listener than a personal problem-solver, and watching your time. I have thought about the brief section on time-management ever since I put the book down. He quotes Alistair Begg as saying, “It is always better that people should feel our visit has been too short than too long,” and notes that most suggest keeping a visit to five-ten minutes.(42-43) This is certainly a needed reminder for those of us who can be rather socially oblivious, particularly in settings where the individual is experiencing great suffering. In my own limited experience, however, I would add that this should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, because it often appears that one of the greatest sources of discouragement for the sick is feeling lonely and isolated. In these settings, the most caring act is at least the willingness to stay and simply take up time with the individual. Again, this certainly seems to be case-by-case.
Croft closes his book with a brief discussion of “practical considerations,’ from basic social etiquette to navigating one’s way through the sometimes-unfamiliar world of a hospital.
His appendixes are immensely practical, including a checklist for quick consultation before making a visit, ten FAQ’s about visitation, a sample of a conversation turned from small talk to the Gospel, and a brief message on sickness by the imminently clear-thinking J.C. Ryle. For further reading, Croft points to a few resources from which he has drawn, including the incomparable Richard Baxter’s Reformed Pastor and Spurgeon’s Autobiography and All-Round Ministry. One book which appears to have influenced him greatly was written by the nineteenth-century Scottish pastor David Dickson, The Elder and His Work, from which he gathers a number of rich quotations. This appears to be worth investigating for pastors.
I am grateful for Bro. Croft’s work in stimulating my thinking and warming my heart to this precious task of caring for souls in times of illness. May God give us much grace in this labor.