Being an associate pastor, I am often called upon to visit the sick, a portion of my ministry that I enjoy immensely. It affords me the opportunity to give words of encouragement to the suffering, and more importantly, it is an excellent time to give people the gospel.
Our Lord had tremendous compassion for the sick. It takes little reading in the New Testament to come across example after example of Jesus healing someone. Jesus also showed a great deal of compassion for the emotional needs of people. When Lazarus died, the Bible tells us in John 11 that Jesus wept. Why? Not for Lazarus—He knew He was going to raise him. I believe it was because the people who surrounded Him were hurting emotionally.
Over the years, I felt I had developed a compassion for hurting people. I knew what Scriptures to give people to encourage them. I knew all of the standard verses preachers use to try to help people make some sense of why they are suffering. I knew the feeling of leaving someone’s hospital room with the self-assurance that I had just comforted that person. However, due to my own recent illness and subsequent surgery, I now know that I had done more for my own self-esteem than I had for the suffering person.
As soon as surgery was scheduled, people began to comfort me. Many of my pastor friends called me to express their concern and to let me know they were praying for me. I was told to place my trust in God and that everything would turn out fine. I had told people the exact thing many times before. I believed what they said, and I knew God would take care of me. However, none of this really comforted me. I could not understand why this was happening, and I was afraid.
I had always considered my faith to be strong, and I had often wondered about Christians who seemed to worry so much instead of placing their trust in God. I did not realize it at the time, but God was about to put me in school and teach me some sorely needed lessons about compassion and my faith.
Lesson number one: When people are in pain, they appreciate the fact that someone cares. Job’s friends were a comfort to him until they started talking. Sometimes just the mere presence of someone is a tremendous comfort in itself. Taking the time to spend a few minutes with a man or woman when someone he or she loves is in surgery shows compassion—as opposed to the pastor who breezes in, has prayer and breezes out. We are all busy, but we should not be too busy to show our people we care. Some people need more pastoral care than others do. It is up to us to know our congregation well enough to distinguish between the two. Sometimes just being there is what is most important. When words are spoken and Scripture given, we should be careful to listen to what we say. Nothing is less comforting than someone who sounds as if he is giving a rehearsed speech.
Lesson number two: You cannot necessarily be saved whenever you decide you are ready. For four days while I was in the hospital, I was on morphine. When I was conscious, my mind was racing from the drug, and I could barely think clearly long enough to put together a sentence, let alone pray for salvation had I needed to. For this reason, if for no other, we need to stress to people the urgency of accepting Christ while there is opportunity, and not waiting until they are, what they consider, ready.
Lesson number three: A member of my church came for a visit and prayed for me. He told me just to have faith. Have faith? I was a preacher of the gospel! Have faith? Of course I had faith! Then the Lord spoke to my heart and I realized that I did not have as much faith as I thought. I believe that Christians take their faith too much for granted at times. I know I did. I had always considered my faith strong and unshakable. It is amazing how easy it is to have unshakable faith when nothing is shaking it. In fact, I had even found myself comparing my faith to other people’s. On a Sunday afternoon, lying in a hospital bed, God showed me that even faith could be a source of pride. We can get arrogant in it and wonder why other people’s faith is not as strong as ours. But pride is pride, no matter what the area, and God tells us several times in Proverbs alone how He feels about pride.
Lesson number four: On the Sunday morning after my surgery, I awoke with pneumonia. For the first time in my life, I felt I was going to die. My chest was heavy and my breathing labored. I was afraid and in a great deal of pain. The doctor mentioned ICU and a ventilator. People kept telling me to trust God. Lying in that bed, struggling to breathe, I realized I did not really trust God. I had always thought that I did, but when it came down to the wire, I was mistaken. I had trusted Christ as my Savior many years earlier. I knew that if He did take me home, I was heaven bound. However, I discovered that it is easier to trust Jesus as Lord of your soul than it is to trust Him as Lord of your life. When the fear of dying threatened to consume me, I saw that I had put my trust in the hands of my very capable surgeon instead of the Master Physician. For the first time in my life, I saw that there were areas in my life in which I had trusted man instead of Jesus. I am thankful for the lesson.
Lesson number five: After a week in the hospital I was released. However, due to a complication, I was placed under the care of a home health nurse. For three weeks after coming home, I was unable to do even the simplest of things. I had to be bathed, dressed, and helped with things I had always done for myself. I had to depend on others in a way I never thought possible. Depending on someone other than me was a trial for me, and for those unfortunate enough to be the ones taking care of me . . . namely my wife. Once again, God showed me an area of pride in my life that I did not realize existed. Not being able to put on your own socks is a humbling experience. This was a bitter lesson for a man who thought of himself as self-sufficient. Now this man knows just how God-sufficient we all are.
Lesson number six: Five weeks after surgery I was feeling good and healing well. On a Monday evening I called my pastor, Glenn Hill, and told him that I was ready to come back to work on the following Monday. The next day by lunch I was back in the hospital with an extremely high fever. Despite the best efforts of the doctors and nurses, the fever climbed higher, and the doctors did not know why. It stayed at 104 and above for three days. Again I thought I was dying, and the medical staff did little to alleviate this fear. This time however, I believe I handled it better and trusted God to heal me. Five days later I was released with the doctors never knowing what had caused the fever. Still, I was depressed because it was another setback. I had been ready to return to work and was extremely disappointed that now I was looking at several additional weeks before I could. This time I believe God was teaching me the most difficult of all lessons for me to learn . . . patience. I understand now better than ever that our timetable is not always the same as God’s. It is something we are still working on, God and I. I still do not have patience down completely yet, but with God’s help . . . I will.
It may seem to many of you reading this that I was too untrusting and proud to be a preacher. You may be right. God had to use something to teach me how to be a better one. I have noticed that God uses the most unlikely people in His ministry. I am thankful that He called me, flawed as I am. I am also thankful that He loves me enough to take the time to teach me some very valuable lessons in order to make me more Christlike and a better preacher of His gospel.
Search your life for areas that are a source of pride or areas in which you do not fully trust God. I imagine that if you look deep, you will see a few similarities between your life and mine. Prior to getting sick I thought I was strong in my faith, compassionate, humble, and patient. It took God allowing me to suffer to see the true picture. It was worth it.
At the time of original publication Marty Goggins was an associate pastor of Shenandoah Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.
(Originally published in FrontLine • January/February 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)