“I just want to go to heaven.”
I studied my friend David’s face. We’d discussed hard topics before, in similar hospital rooms with curtain dividers and tray tables littered with Jell-O cups. This time, however, as the sorrow in his eyes deepened, the conversation felt different.
“David, you mean you’re ready to go to heaven?”
“No, I’m not ready. What I mean is that I don’t know if that’s where I’m going. I just keep asking God over and over to forgive me. I’m so scared.”
I hugged him, and felt the rattle of his breath through his inflamed airways. We prayed together, and I reminded him of God’s love for him, and his forgiveness in Christ. David nodded, but didn’t answer, and we lingered for a moment in silence. The cures had run out, and in the desolation of illness, only prayer was left. Only God could heal what medical gadgetry couldn’t touch. Only Christ, bleeding upon the cross, knew such suffering, and lent meaning to it.
Glimmers of Grace
My friend’s struggle isn’t unique. Stays in the hospital tear us from our spiritual disciplines, and confront us with hard questions about life, death, suffering, and God’s faithfulness. We may readily sing God’s praises in church, but when we can’t breathe, or when pain seizes us, or when yet another procedure fails to cure, his presence can seem remote. We may yearn for the solace of Scripture, but medications fog our minds, and the words swim on the page. We long for the assurances we’ve sung in hymns, but when procedures, needles, and disability replace our spiritual rhythms, promises of God’s love evade us.
The body of Christ is uniquely poised to help in such moments. Jesus calls us to love one another not with the pastel sentimentality of greeting cards, but with robust sacrifice (John 13:34). When the vision of a sister fails, we must be her eyes. When a brother’s concentration falters, we must guide him through the Word.
Jesus calls us to love one another not with the pastel sentimentality of greeting cards, but with robust sacrifice.
“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:4–5). When illness and suffering in the hospital churn up doubts, the compassion of brothers and sisters can point back to Christ, to our hope that endures no matter what circumstances tear us from the routines we hold dear.
How do we love our neighbors in the hospital, and be the hands and feet of Christ when suffering stirs them to wakefulness?
Five Ways to Help
1. Remember God’s Love
Loving one another requires us to come alongside those who know Christ, and to remind them of his love when the shadows descend. This practice of remembering is one all of us need, corporately, so that when calamity strikes, we may hold tight to who God is: our loving Father, the author of life, compassionate and merciful (Ex. 34:6; Ps. 22:3; Acts 3:15). We need to remember, to nourish our souls with the truth of what he has done: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4–5). Showing others the love of God begins with cleaving to its reality ourselves, through study of his Word.
Cover your sick friend with prayer, without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17). Pray with him. Pray for him. Assure him that you regularly lift him up to our risen Lord, who makes all things new (Rev. 21:5). Bring him daily before the throne of grace, and ask how you might do so every time you visit. Pray the Holy Spirit might give you words to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), and to encourage in the darkness.
3. Practice the Ministry of Presence
On some days, a friend may need to work out his worries with you. On others, he may simply appreciate a companion to sit beside him as he watches TV. In all cases, aim to follow his lead and to support rather than to fix. Be available, listen to what he says, and offer sympathy. Be with him because you love him for the unique, wonderfully made image bearer God fashioned him to be. Treat him as a brother in Christ rather than as a project.
4. Infuse God’s Word into Visits
When selected carefully, Scripture can buoy those sinking into despair. Psalms and hymns wield restorative power. This is not the time for lengthy exegesis and Bible study, but short passages that highlight God’s grace and our hope in Christ can lift a friend in a hospital gown. Offering to read Scripture is especially important for those whose illness doesn’t allow them to read the Bible on their own. Bring audiobooks of the Bible for when you leave. Offer to sing well-loved hymns together, or record a playlist. Help an ailing friend harbor the Word in his heart.
When selected carefully, Scripture can buoy those sinking into despair. Psalms and hymns wield restorative power.
5. Reaffirm Your Friend’s Identity in Christ
Don’t let illness subsume your friend’s identity. Treat him as you always did before he fell ill. Joke with him as you always would. Discuss mutual friends, favorite memories, the ordinary stuff of life. Never speak to him as though illness has changed who he is, but rather reaffirm that through faith in Christ he is renewed. Remind him that he is blameless before and treasured by the Great Physician, who heals the world through his wounds.
Hope to Endure
The weeks that followed our discussion brought my friend more and more hospitalizations, setbacks, and moments of pain. Yet by God’s grace, as brothers and sisters prayed with him, reassured him of God’s love, and reminded him of key passages from Scripture, the Lord reminded David of his identity: one redeemed in Christ, from whose grip no disease, wound, or poor prognosis could wrench (Rom. 8:38–39). “I’ve been in a dark place,” David told me, a week before he went to be with the Lord, “but God’s shown me how near he is. And I know that because of Jesus I’m forgiven.”
May all of us have such eyes to see and ears to hear when illness seizes us, mind and body. And when our capacities fail, may the body of Christ be our vision and our hearing, and boldly, through love for neighbor, step forward to guide us back toward the light of the world.