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Supporting Those Who Are Sick: What to Do and Not Do

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Supporting Those Who Are Sick

What to Do and Not Do

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When someone we care about is suffering, especially over a long period of time, he or she needs our compassion, moral support and often physical assistance. God is “full of compassion” and He certainly wants us to have “compassion for one another” (Psalms 86:15 Psalms 86:15But you, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious, long suffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth.
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; 1 Peter 3:8 1 Peter 3:8Finally, be you all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brothers, be pitiful, be courteous:
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). A good definition of compassion is “a deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.”

Let’s consider some key scriptures. John wrote that we “ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” Then he pointed out that wishes and words are not enough when we can do more to help. We should be willing to sacrifice time and “this world’s goods” in order to love “in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18 1 John 3:16-18 16 Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But whoever has this world’s good, and sees his brother have need, and shuts up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwells the love of God in him? 18 My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.
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).

Who did Jesus say will “inherit the kingdom”? He said it will be those who helped “the least of these My brethren” by giving people needed food, drink, hospitality, clothing and visiting them in whatever “prison” holds them (Matthew 25:34-36 Matthew 25:34-36 34 Then shall the King say to them on his right hand, Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 For I was an hungered, and you gave me meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in: 36 Naked, and you clothed me: I was sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me.
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, 40).

We may at times have the opportunity to help with health-related needs, such as when the Good Samaritan gave first aid to an injured man (Luke 10:27-37 Luke 10:27-37 27 And he answering said, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. 28 And he said to him, You have answered right: this do, and you shall live. 29 But he, willing to justify himself, said to Jesus, And who is my neighbor? 30 And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. 33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, 34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said to him, Take care of him; and whatever you spend more, when I come again, I will repay you. 36 Which now of these three, think you, was neighbor to him that fell among the thieves? 37 And he said, He that showed mercy on him. Then said Jesus to him, Go, and do you likewise.
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). In the parable, the Samaritan was a wonderful example in following through, as he also sacrificed time and money for the stranger.

Clearly the Bible places more emphasis on works than words, especially when physical help is needed. James warns that merely wishing them well with sympathetic words (“be warmed and filled”) is insufficient when it is within our power to give physical help also (James 2:13-20 James 2:13-20 13 For he shall have judgment without mercy, that has showed no mercy; and mercy rejoices against judgment. 14 What does it profit, my brothers, though a man say he has faith, and have not works? can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, 16 And one of you say to them, Depart in peace, be you warmed and filled; notwithstanding you give them not those things which are needful to the body; what does it profit? 17 Even so faith, if it has not works, is dead, being alone. 18 Yes, a man may say, You have faith, and I have works: show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that there is one God; you do well: the devils also believe, and tremble. 20 But will you know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
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).

Don’t know what to do to help? Just ask. “Please tell me what can I do to be of help. I would really like to help.” If the person doesn’t have a ready answer, bring up possibilities. “Would it help if I read something to you or ran an errand for you?” “May I bring you any food, drink or a damp wash cloth?”

There are people who need help but who would never suggest anything, even if you ask. However, if you are watchful, you probably can notice something that needs doing or something the person could use. However, be sensitive to avoid doing anything that would make him or her uncomfortable. Be alert to the boundaries the person has; what one would appreciate might seem invasive to another.

Power of Words for Good and Bad

What should I say? What you say doesn’t need to be anything special or lengthy. What is always important is being an attentive listener . Some of us are tempted to be Mr. or Miss Fix-it, inclined to quickly suggest a “solution,” rather than mostly listening.

Instead of trying to be a self-appointed savior, “rejoice with those who rejoice [over each bit of relief and good news] and weep with those who weep [over set-backs and suffering]” (Romans 12:15 Romans 12:15Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.
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).

But don’t neglect visiting and encouraging the sick because you are afraid of making mistakes. Pray for God’s guidance and then “let us encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25 Hebrews 10:25Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as you see the day approaching.
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, NIV).

The Bible, especially Proverbs, has much to say about the potential power of words for either positive or negative effects (see also James 3). Whenever you have the opportunity, speak words of love, wisdom, comfort and encouragement. “The mouth of the righteous is a well of life… Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones” (Proverbs 10:11 Proverbs 10:11The mouth of a righteous man is a well of life: but violence covers the mouth of the wicked.
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; 16:24).

Perhaps the most encouraging thing you can say is to let the person know you are praying for him or her and even that you plan to fast for the person.

Regarding the harmful effects of words, this article is focusing only on unintended harm—words that hurt or offend someone even when we have good intentions—so that we all can become wiser, more aware and more careful.

Consider a few common mistakes people make while trying to show sympathy. Saying, “I know how you feel,” can actually be discouraging, unless you have been through a truly similar trial. (Even then, we do not truly know how the person is “feeling”!) Trying to empathize by relating your lengthy “war stories” isn’t comforting either. A sick person has enough to deal with, without hearing potentially depressing stories.

Be alert to how tired the ill person is. Typically, sickness itself is tiring, as are medical tests. Even wonderful visits with one’s closest loved ones are also tiring. Don’t wear the person out by staying too long. A sick person generally needs lots of rest.

Be positive and cheerful, but avoid telling the person to “cheer up” (Proverbs 27:14 Proverbs 27:14He that blesses his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, it shall be counted a curse to him.
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).

It can be difficult to know if the person wants to talk about serious matters or if he or she would prefer lighter conversation. Let him or her set the tone and respond in kind. Watch the person’s eyes and expressions to perceive if your words are causing discomfort or if they are bringing relief.

Blaming and Shaming the Suffering

Throughout history, people have superstitiously assumed that the sick and injured are being punished for some sin. (Those who have never suffered from a serious illness or injury are more likely to think this way.)

Yet the Bible is full of examples of righteous people suffering from all kinds of health problems and other trials.

Upon seeing a man blind from birth, Jesus’ disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1-2 John 9:1-2 1 And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. 2 And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
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). Sadly, they assumed that his lack of sight was a divine punishment for sin! Jesus answered, “Neither…” (verse 3, emphasis added throughout). Jesus had to combat this judgmental attitude throughout His ministry.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite neglected to help the injured man (Luke 10:31-32 Luke 10:31-32 31 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
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). Perhaps they were selfish and coldhearted. And did they assume that the injured man was being punished by God and that he therefore didn’t deserve help? If so, they would have felt smugly justified in their decision.

People who suffer tragedies are assumed to be “worse sinners,” but Jesus emphatically said, “I tell you, no!” (Luke 13:1-5 Luke 13:1-5 1 There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And Jesus answering said to them, Suppose you that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? 3 I tell you, No: but, except you repent, you shall all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen, on whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think you that they were sinners above all men that dwelled in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, No: but, except you repent, you shall all likewise perish.
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). It’s wrong to assume that a person’s suffering is the result of sin and to assume that the greater the suffering, the worse the sin.

For example, in Jesus’ day it was common for the people to blame, disdain and shun all lepers, assuming they were cursed by God. Jesus shocked people by touching the untouchables, talking with the outcasts and healing those considered unworthy. He focused much attention on the “little” people (“the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind,” minorities, women, children, etc.), which was revolutionary at that time! (Luke 14:13 Luke 14:13But when you make a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind:
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).

Every child of God is important to Him and should be important to His other children! “The members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it” (1 Corinthians 12:25-26 1 Corinthians 12:25-26 25 That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. 26 And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it.
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). Members whom we think are weaker often need more attention than others do, not less attention (verses 18-25).

Don’t neglect or give up on anyone—even if the person has spiritual problems. The Good Shepherd taught that when a lamb went astray, it was more important to take time to search for and rescue it than to stay with the 99 that did not go astray (Matthew 18:1-14 Matthew 18:1-14 1 At the same time came the disciples to Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? 2 And Jesus called a little child to him, and set him in the middle of them, 3 And said, Truly I say to you, Except you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever shall receive one such little child in my name receives me. 6 But whoever shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense comes! 8 Why if your hand or your foot offend you, cut them off, and cast them from you: it is better for you to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. 9 And if your eye offend you, pluck it out, and cast it from you: it is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. 10 Take heed that you despise not one of these little ones; for I say to you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven. 11 For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost. 12 How think you? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, does he not leave the ninety and nine, and goes into the mountains, and seeks that which is gone astray? 13 And if so be that he find it, truly I say to you, he rejoices more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. 14 Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.
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).

He illustrated sacrificial love by washing the disciples’ feet (John 13). Then He said, “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (verse 15; also 1 John 2:6 1 John 2:6He that said he stays in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked.
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). ( He said to wash feet, not to speculate about how their feet got dirty. )

Job and His Friends

The book of Job teaches us much about what not to assume or say. Job understandably complained that his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, were “miserable comforters” (Job 2:11 Job 2:11Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that was come on him, they came every one from his own place; Eliphaz the Temanite, and Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite: for they had made an appointment together to come to mourn with him and to comfort him.
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; 16:1). He said, “How long will you torment my soul, and break me in pieces with words?” (19:2).

However, of all Job’s supposed friends, at least these three cared enough to visit Job and spend considerable time with him “to mourn with him, and to comfort him” (2:11).

These three friends seemingly had good intentions. But their understanding of God, especially why God allows suffering, was largely erroneous. They probably thought their speculation and criticism was constructive, but they only further discouraged Job.

Eventually a fourth acquaintance, Elihu, pointed out where Job’s views and the views of his friends had been wrong (chapters 32-37). Finally, God spoke and profoundly painted the spiritual big picture for all of them (chapters 38-41).

Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar had mistakenly assumed that Job was being punished for disobeying God’s laws and deserved all the punishment. They also assumed in their simplistic theology that God always rewards good and punishes evil in this life, with no exceptions. They saw no purpose for suffering other than retribution and punishment.

Job’s friends had good intentions to give comfort, but instead gave him added mental and emotional distress. We all need to ask ourselves, “If I had been Job’s friend, what conclusions would I have drawn from his calamities and what would I have said?”

Avoid Speculating, Judging or Preaching

When a person is going through a serious trial, he or she is already wondering why and “why me?” Even if the sick person asks you these questions, don’t assume you have the answers or start guessing. Especially don’t start guessing about what sins the person might have committed!

True, sin causes suffering, but many other factors cause suffering as well. Only God knows the full picture. We must not assume anything. And if a sin or mistake is clearly involved, it isn’t up to friends to point out the obvious.

Don’t assume that an ailing person lacks faith! Typically, a person in a health trial is fervently reaching out to God. Serious and/or chronic trials can actually strengthen one’s faith. The Bible is filled with examples of suffering people who had great faith in God, such as in Hebrews 11.

Death is certainly not evidence of a lack of faith. Everyone dies of something eventually. Facing death courageously and serenely with one’s hope fixed on the resurrection is beautiful in God’s sight. “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints” (Psalms 116:15 Psalms 116:15Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.
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).

A related error is for people to assume that an ailing person is suffering the consequences of breaking principles of healthful living. (“If you had been eating what I eat, you wouldn’t have gotten this sickness.”) All of us are usually partly to blame for our health problems, but usually many factors have contributed—some known and many unknown.

Genetically, we all have different strengths, weaknesses and predispositions to health problems. Diseases may result less from one’s recent lifestyle than from the accumulated effects of one’s whole life, starting from conception. Parents and many other influences have been partly responsible. Many environmental and nutritional factors affect us and it is impossible to know them all.

When anyone is going through a trial, the person of course should examine and judge himself or herself for possible sins and mistakes (1 Corinthians 11:28-32 1 Corinthians 11:28-32 28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. 29 For he that eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. 30 For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. 31 For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. 32 But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.
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). However, that’s a personal matter; it is not the responsibility of friends to examine or judge the person! We need to offer a shoulder to cry on, not a finger to accuse with.

When we read of Jesus healing a person, we never see that Jesus lectured the person on his or her physical mistakes—what he or she should have been doing healthwise. Jesus focused much more on spiritual matters than health matters, and focused on healing rather than blaming. Our focus should be similar.

It’s helpful to remember that our loving God only allows His saints to suffer when the trials will benefit them spiritually. God compares the spiritual trials of His people to the refining and purifying of silver (Psalms 66:10 Psalms 66:10For you, O God, have proved us: you have tried us, as silver is tried.
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; Titus 2:14 Titus 2:14Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify to himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.
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).

To those with health problems, especially long-term ones, be a good listener, an encourager and a helper. In so doing, we “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2 Galatians 6:2Bear you one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
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). With this labor of love, we contribute to the healing process.

Part 2 will cover advice—to give and not to give. UN