A well-meaning brother came to minister to me. He shared a “mini-sermon,” explaining why God allows suffering. I appreciated his intention, but it did little for me.
Why? Because I was not struggling with the “Why?” question. My faith was not taking a hit—but my patience was! (Turns out it wasn’t malaria, but an intestinal parasite).
He missed the mark—all because he didn’t take time to find out where I was at spiritually. The real message I needed was to be patient (no pun intended).
I learned much from that experience. As elders, our goal in visitation is to help the sick or struggling Christian look to God for whatever their need is. The writer of Hebrews challenges us to “encourage one another” (10:25). But, what do I say when visiting someone to encourage him or her?
First, it is important to realize that encouragement is not simply trying to make a person feel good. Literally, the word means “to invite, implore, appeal to, entreat, comfort.” Spiritual encouragement, as Dr. Larry Crabb points out, involves “…the careful selection of words that are intended to influence another person meaningfully toward increased godliness.”
We must first understand where the individual is at in their spiritual struggle. For me, it was patience. For some, they may wonder if anyone cares. For others, there may be deeper questions and struggles.
How do we know what they need? Having prayed for divine guidance, we need to listen carefully to what the individual says.
Learn to ask good questions, like “What’s God been saying to you through this?”, “How can I pray for you?”, “How can I be of help to you?”, “Do you have any questions?” Of course, you don’t barge into the room, firing away like an interrogator. After initial “ice-breaker” conversation, carefully thought out questions will help move the discussion in a spiritual direction.
We want to encourage them to deal honestly with their struggles. David says, “Surely you desire truth in the inner parts…” (Psalm 51:6). It is possible to inadvertently hinder a person from being honest with their doubts and fears. For example, some well meaning statements may have the wrong effect: “I came to encourage you, but you have encouraged me.” We think this is an encouragement, and it may well be. But, it also may pressure the individual to make a “good show” while struggling inwardly, for fear he may be seen as weak in faith (who wants to be seen that way?).
Consider the struggles of David (as well as the Lord) in Psalm 22:1, Moses in Exodus, Jacob in his wrestling with the Angel of the Lord. And don’t forget Job’s masterful recollection of his intense turmoil with God! God can handle those honest wrestlings of the heart. The question is, can we as elders? Only then can we begin to encourage them at the right level.