Sharing the gospel with those about to wade through the river of death can seem daunting and at times inappropriate and unkind. The Clinical Pastoral Education movement ardently discourages ministers from discussing the cross, Jesus, and eternal life with those in the middle of a medical crisis. The group believes pastors should offer comfort through listening and through sharing encouraging thoughts that restate the patients’ beliefs, concerns, and desires.
While this pastoral trend towards therapeutic listening has a certain appeal because it keeps ministers from unnecessarily stepping on the toes of suffering and seems to picture God’s love, it actually hides the love of God from those who need it most.
Illnesses, car accidents, and natural disasters exist because of the fall. They are manifestations of evil. Christians should always seek to rescue, help, and comfort people who acutely feel the effects of the broken world. But sorrow and suffering are not random evils. They are often used by God to accomplish his divine will.
God afflicts the wicked with suffering because he desires their salvation. In 1 Samuel 5-6, the Philistines come to grips with this reality. They had defeated the Israelites and captured the Ark of the Lord. As the begin to celebrate this great victory, God pummels them with divine wrath. Their god, Dagon, is smashed to pieces. Their people develop tumors and begin to drop like flies. Mice overrun their fields. Because of their great anguish the Philistines realize that the God of Israel is the most powerful God.
C.S. Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia, wrote,
The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it. Now error and sin both have this property, that the deeper they are the less their victims suspects their existence; they are masked evil. Pain is unmasked, unmistakable evil; every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt
When life goes well, people are prone to ignore God. As Jeremiah 22:21 reminds us, “I spoke to you in your prosperity but you said, ‘I will not listen.” Pain gets the attention of the modern man and woman just as it got the attention of the ancient Philistines. But pain does not save. As Thomas Watson noted,
If pain and trouble were sufficient to repentance, then the dammed in hell should be most, for they are most in anguish.
Pain only knocks people off of their demigod thorns, revealing that someone else rules the universe. But pain does not fully reveal who that ruler is and how one can enjoy a peaceful relationship with God. The Philistines returned the Ark and escaped their pain. But they did not follow their cows into Israel and become followers of the one true God. The Philistines never found salvation.
Pastors have the amazing opportunity to supply the prophetic voice that the Philistines lacked. When a minister learns that a sinner is dying or hears that a less than faithful church member is approaching death, he should come to their bedside equipped with the gospel. The pastor should share the truth that Jesus has died to save sinners. As the Puritan Pastor Richard Baxter noted,
Even the stoutest of sinners will hear us on their death-bed, though they scorned us before.
The pastor should seize the bedside moment and share Christ with the dying, risking social scorn and a few bruised toes.
Is not the salvation of the wicked worth a little angst in the pastor’s souls? Did not Christ offer paradise to the thief on the cross? Can the faithful minister do any less?
Admittedly, pastors can abuse the suffering. The pastor can wrongfully offer salvation in exchange for physical blessing and peace. The sick and weak can be prone to do anything to get relief. The Philistines made golden tumors and mice. Pastors must offer Christ crucified and not some twisted gospel of self-interest where people come to God in order to get favors from him. God does not want to be treated as a genie bound to do the will of human flesh. God wants the sinner to repent and follow Him with his or her whole heart. Anything less is not real salvation and will not last. Watson rightfully notes,
A passionate resolution…raised in a storm will die in the calm.
Salvation ultimately has to be a work of God. And God often uses suffering to draw men and women to faith. Pastors should not hide the gospel when at the bedside of the dying. Rather as Baxter said, “it is time for us, while there is hope, to help him if we can.”
Pastor…Minister are you ready to help?