Sick People

I was recently asked how I intentionally minister to those who are lost, weak in the faith or hurting.  It was a great question – a question I’ve had to think through deeply and refine repeatedly since becoming a pastor.  One of the most interesting things about this question is just about everyone has an answer for it.  As a matter of fact, this question usually beckons a very emotional and impassioned response from most of the Christians I interact with.  The people I speak with possess very strong convictions, opinions, family influences, presuppositions, etc. related to the issue of helping those who need spiritual and/or physical healing. Perhaps this is because every person I speak with about this issue can readily identify someone in their family or immediate circle of influence in need of some type of healing.  It might be a pagan husband completely disinterested in spiritual things, rebellious adult child who’s walking away from God, brother with a substance addiction, sister who can’t hold-down a job or good friend going through a divorce.  Every Christian I speak with has at least one heartbreaking relationship — often several relationships — with a person in their family or social-circle who is in desperate need of healing … present company not excluded.

I devoted some deliberate study-time, over the past year or so, to refine my own ideals and approach to helping people who need healing (spiritual, emotional and physical).  My study resulted in two guiding principles that are related to helping people who unquestionably need some form of assistance and healing in their life. I tried to keep these principles general enough to apply to most of the situations I’ve heard about or experienced personally.

Principle # 1: Empathy is always Christ-like

Matthew 9:36, 14:14, Mark 6:34 and Luke 7:13 all contain the phrase, “He felt compassion.” The pronoun refers to Jesus and the verb “splanchizomia” (felt compassion) originates from the noun “splánchnon” which the KJV translates as, “bowels of mercy.”  The closest modern-day idiom to “splanchnon” might be the phrase “gut-wrenching.”  Jesus experienced a gut-wrenching empathy for broken people who needed healing.

Empathy is a divine characteristic exhibited by Jesus throughout the course of his ministry. Empathy is very powerful quality for us to emulate but we need to understand it as more than just an emotional gesture offered by people with bleeding hearts.  Empathy is an expression of dignity; it demonstrates to people that we recognize their human experience. Like Jesus, we recognize the factors and influences that have contributed to (not caused) their situation of brokenness. Empathy shows that we recognize the hardship, temptations, failures, discouragement, naivety, imprudence, family or origin, etc. that all contributed to the pain and hardship being experienced.  Empathy recognizes that there are countless variables with varying degrees that feed the sickness.  Empathy does not negate justice or due process, it augments it.  Empathy does not ignore folly or justify sin, it is simply a gut-wrenching expression that offers grace and dignity to a hurting people, who are deeply valued by God, even when those people are being dumb and sinful.

A few months ago I met with a desperate mom with an adult son who was addicted to heroin. She came to me because her son’s life had deteriorated to the point where he was involved in extremely dangerous and criminal behavior. She had decided that contacting a pastor was better than contacting the police, which was part and parcel to a much deeper pattern of dysfunction and enablement. After listening to her situation I soon realized that this mom was beyond just complicit – she had become a full-blown accessory to his lifestyle. But, I listened nonetheless.  I listened to this mother’s anguish over her child.  I listened to her talk about him as a little boy. I tried to envision her going to his little league games or throwing him birthday parties.  I tried to envision the hopes and dreams she once had for her little boy. I thought about the meta-story (the overall picture) of this mother and her son beyond just the addiction, dysfunction and enablement.  When I was able to step-back and look at the big picture it moved me to offer this mom dignity and grace.  It compelled me to empathy.  It moved me to recognize her pain notwithstanding her bad decisions.  I felt a sense of deep compassion (splanchnon) for this sick and hurting mom.

Principle # 2: We can only offer

I’ve found that it is profoundly important to diagnose whether or not people want healing. This is important because the sad fact is there are many people in our society who need healing but have no desire for it whatsoever.  They may appear or even say they desire healing but their motivation and actions speak contradiction.  We must understand this reality if our goal is to minister to the needs of a person beyond what is spoken or seemingly obvious.   Most people are acutely aware of what they want but far less acquainted with what they need.  In other words, every sick person wants “help” – at least as they define it – but not every sick person wants healing.  It is incumbent upon the church to conduct efforts and speaks messages that promote true healing rather than thoughtlessly respond to what a person appears to need or even indicates they need.

There’s a great example of this in John chapter 5 when Jesus is in Jerusalem.  It’s during this trip when Jesus visits the Pool of Bethesda. In this narrative Jesus does something peculiar with a man who had been crippled for 38 years.  In verse 6 John writes, “When Jesus saw him [the cripple] lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” This is very peculiar exchange when we consider the obvious.  Not only is Jesus omniscient God but the text indicates he had been told that the cripple, “had been in this condition for a long time.” This fact is confounded even further when we notice that the man was sitting outside of a well-known and popular pool of healing in the city of Jerusalem for nearly four decades.  The need for healing seems to jump off the page.  Any one of us, in Jesus’ situation, would have probably assumed that this man wanted to be healed … and, if we had the ability, we probably would have tried to help him no questions asked.  However, Jesus – who is all-knowing God and had been told about this man who had been sitting outside of the well-known pool of healing for 38 years – does not immediately heal him.  This speaks volumes about how Jesus viewed and approached people who needed healing.  Jesus did not assume this man wanted to be healed even though every visible variable indicated he did want healing. Rather than assume, Jesus asks this man a profoundly important question: “Do you want to be healed?” I have found this question to be a hugely important step when trying to diagnose people who need healing. Jesus knew what this man needed healing but he waited to hear if this man wanted it.  There’s no question that weak, poor and hurting people need healing. The question is: do they want healing.  Jesus only offered healing to people who desired it … he did not force healing on people.

There are many people who are desperately searching for healing within our churches and communities and the church must absolutely mobilize for these people.  However, there are also many people who are searching for ways to support or prolong their sickness as well, and the church must navigate this too.  We must recognize that in spite of our efforts people posses an uncanny ability to remain sick if that is what they ultimate want. We cannot force healing anymore than the Jesus Christ did.  This means we must do a better job of diagnosing people.  We must be thorough, diligent and earnest as we try to identify which people are actually looking for healing and which people are not.  We must offer efforts and messages of healing understanding that not everyone desires what true healing involves.  The sad reality is that some people simply want to stay sick … and there’s not much we can do to change that.  We can and should offer help to everyone but we cannot force everyone to embrace efforts and messages that will bring them life and goodness.

Please do not grow weary of showing empathy or conducting efforts and speaking messages of healing to people, even if your effort and message is rejected.

-Matt

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About Matt Brecht
Lead Pastor of NorthPointe Church

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