"What Do I Say?"

            So far this year I have had an unusual amount of persons within my congregation who have and are experiencing significant health issues, especially cancer.  The church, of course, has a wonderful opportunity in such occasions to offer prayer, comfort, and encouragement.  However, oftentimes church members struggle with knowing what to say to persons going through such physical trials.  They may feel unable to truly say something helpful, so they do not say anything at all.  They might avoid going to visit someone in the hospital because they are too intimidated about the situation.  Even pastors and church leaders may feel so inadequate and small in dealing with some parishioners’ overwhelming pain and disease that they fail to say anything substantive.  This is a problem that does not really need to be a problem because we possess the words of God contained in Holy Scripture.
            Here’s the deal:  it is not really our words that bring health and healing to a person in need; it is God’s words.  Much more important than believing our speech is going to make or break a patient or victim’s health or happiness is our very presence.  Taking the time to be with someone in need and simply hold their hand and sit for a while can communicate more comfort and care than a bevy of forced words out of our mouths.  So, then, when we visit someone either at home or in the hospital our presence coupled with God’s Word are the vital tools of building encouragement into a patient’s heart. 
            Knowing the Bible is crucial to knowing what to say to a person in need.  Even the most shy among us does not need to put pressure on ourselves to come up with something to say when we are equipped with the Book of Psalms.  Whether it is reading Psalm 23 with its comforting promise of God’s provision, protection, and presence, or Psalm 91 with its grand vision of a God who shelters His people in a time of upheaval, the psalms offer us words to say that transcend anything we might come up with on our own.  More than once I have gone into a hospital room or a bedroom at home and simply spent my time reading Scripture after Scripture and allowing the Spirit of God to seep down into the fearful recesses of a person or a family’s innermost soul, bringing a sliver of light into the clouds of doubt and darkness that loom within.
            Another great fear of the one who would like to comfort another is whether they will be able to answer the difficult questions brought forth by the afflicted.  And, yes, they do often have questions of life and death on their lips, like an impetuous four year old peppering his mother with inquisitions for which she becomes exhausted over.  Yet, as human beings, we are not so grandiose as to have the answers to questions that only God glories to know.  “I don’t know” is a phrase that is not only perfectly acceptable to say, it may even be the best response to a large query.  Trying to drain all the mystery out of life by claiming to know the hidden places of the universe strikes me as, at best, hubris, and, at worst, leaves a person feeling more awful than they did before their inquiry.
            The only obstacles that stand in the way of our ministering care and compassion to a hurting person is our own self-made walls of excuses and fears.  If our presence and God’s Word are truly the best companions, then we can walk with confidence into the life of another and know that we are being conduits of grace to those who need it most. 


            If you are not sure about what kind of Scripture to use in a person’s life, every pastor on planet earth enjoys suggesting portions of God’s Word to use.  If you do not want to go alone to encourage another, there is likely a genuine follower of Jesus who would jump at the chance to be with you and assist in any way possible.  Too many hurting people’s pain is compounded by a well-intentioned person who simply says and does nothing out of a misguided belief that they have nothing to offer.  To feel ill or dying is to feel discomfort; to feel ignored is to suffer a terrible agony worse than death.  May God’s people use God’s Word to edify God’s people and transform God’s creation for God’s sake.

An Assault of Grace

Getting a phone call at 4:00am is rarely good news. As a Pastor I have had my share of them over the years and it has always meant someone is in trouble. A few years ago a young man gave us one of those calls. Something was wrong with his girlfriend (I will call her “Jane”), she was upset and hostile and could not talk to him. My wife and I got out of bed and came right over. Upon arriving we found a beautiful college-age woman sitting in the driveway crying uncontrollably. Coming up to Jane, she had the stale stench of beer and could not stand or talk, but could only heave great sobs of distress. We helped Jane up, got her into our car, and took her to our house. There Jane began to sober up and began telling her story: she had been at party near campus and got pretty drunk. At midnight she decided to go home, but made the decision to walk by herself across campus to try and make it back to her place. What happened next Jane could only remember in bits and pieces, and is perhaps every young woman’s nightmare….

According to the American Association of University Women, somewhere between 20%-25% of college women are raped sometime during their college career; 65% of these attacks go unreported; and, alcohol is involved in 75% of the assaults.  The Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault reports that 14% of women over 18 years of age are raped in their lifetime, and that over 17 million women nationwide have been victims of sexual assault.  Disturbingly, 11-15 year old children are the highest victimized age group.

When a rape occurs, the victim should get to a safe place, resist taking a shower, get medical attention immediately, report the abuse, and receive counseling as soon as possible. Certainly, Jane made some bad decisions: excessive partying, having amorphous relationships (did no one try and stop Jane from leaving the party by herself?), and sexual license that was occurring at that party.

How should we respond and help in such a situation? Jane is not the only victim I have worked with, and I wish I could tell you that all the cases I have seen have a happy ending. Unfortunately, I must say that I have seen far too many believers in Jesus only add to the hurt by pointing out the bad decisions made on the part of the victim, as if they were not a victim at all but brought the assault upon themselves. Even in situations completely out of the victim’s control, guilt is sometimes applied by probing what the victim could have done differently….

To put this in perspective, let me tell a hypothetical story. When my daughter was small she rarely walked, but ran everywhere she went. In public, I always had to hold her hand so she would not run off alone. As we walk down the sidewalk I tell her to hold my hand and not let go, but she pulls away and runs into the street, and is hit by a car. What will be my response? “Well, that’s what you get for disobeying me!” No! Instead, I will have the reaction of much tears and doing everything I can to get her the help she needs, while all the time assuring her that I love her and will not leave her….

The way to handle a sexual assault of any kind is to turn it around and offer an assault of grace. All ministry is grace, and the grace of God is the thing that heals. The way people change is not through pointing out their poor judgments or finding out what could have been done differently, but through the grace of extending mercy and help in time of need, no matter the circumstance. In the novel, Les Miserables, ex-convict Jean Valjean makes the decision of stealing from the priest who extended hospitality to him. When caught by the police and brought to the priest, the man of God responds in grace by saying that the items were a gift. What is more, the old priest chastises Jean for leaving in such a rush the night before that he forgot to take the two silver candlesticks. This act of mercy and kindness changes Jean’s life forever, and in turn, changes an entire town.

The cross of Christ is scandalous simply because of its radical nature of grace to all of us who are undeserving of it. So, if God can be gracious to people who are not even victims, how much more should we, as his followers, be about the kingdom business of extending vast resources of mercy and grace to genuine victims of abuse?

Are you prepared to respond to sexual abuse when it occurs?
–Have numbers in your cell phone of state and local counseling services, and of your local rape hotline.
–Local law enforcement is ready and equipped to handle abuse situations. The victim will most likely need help filing formal reports.
–Many colleges and county services also have a comprehensive referral list of services to help the victim.
–The police are ready to respond, even if the victim does not want to pursue criminal charges, through advising victims of their options and helping to create a safety plan for the future.
–Get to know all the services, agencies, and key people in your area.
–Teach and equip church congregations in the way of grace in ministry through using the Bible to comfort a victim with assurance that God is close to the broken-hearted. Resist playing arm-chair psychologist and instead demonstrate grace through your presence and reassuring words.