Presence & Absence

A couple weeks ago I wrote about a vital ministry skill, knowing how to take a punch, being able to minister to someone despite the hurt they may inflict on you in the process.

What’s on my mind this week is another ministry skill that’s sometimes hard to come by: a commitment to presence and an understanding of absence. Or, more broadly, knowing and practicing the power of presence with the hurting as well as knowing and practicing the helpfulness of absence. This is really two skills but to be helpful to the hurting we need to understand a little of both.

The power of presence 

Because we are made in the image of a Triune God, we are not intended for loneliness. We were made to thrive by the enjoyment of marriages and friendships and other blessed relationships. This is why one of the most powerful things you have to offer those who are hurting is simply your presence. The mere presence of someone who cares, separate from anything helpful they may say, is a heavenly type of ministry.

Job’s friends knew this. Despite all their foolishness, at least they were with him, sacrificially putting aside their jobs and families to sit with him while he wept.

Jesus knew this. Do a study on the phrase “with him” in the gospels, just to see how much emphasis our Savior put upon being with his disciples. He was not content to sit in a room and write a bunch of letters to these future leaders. No, He knew it was vital that they learn from the example and power of his presence as well as His words.

Paul knew this. When he wanted to plant a church or minister to a hurting church, he had to be with them. Like Jesus, he was not content to share the gospel, but knew that shared lives were a vital ingredient to gospel faith and hope (1 Thess. 2:7-8). Paul understood the power of presence that he seemed to hate it when his letters would have to suffice (Phil. 2:25).

So if you want to help the hurting, understand that the truths of the gospel must often be coupled with the power of your presence. This isn’t to say that letter writing and blog articles cannot serve a great purpose, but it is to recognize that God uses whole people (body and mouth, presence and words) to minister to the hurting more often than not.

Many times my pastoral ministry to people in times of hurting has consisted of little more than brief Bible reading, short prayer, some poor attempts at humor, and some silence. Even our silence is made powerful by our presence. If you’re both going to pray about something, might as well do it together. If they’re going to be sad, go be sad with them. If they’re going to struggle with God over unbelieving children, struggle together. You don’t always have to have the answers.

How else can we “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep” than by being with them? (Rom. 12:15)

On the other hand…

The helpfulness of absence 

Here comes the really tricky part: knowing when to leave, or even when to not go in the first place. While the Scriptures show us repeatedly the ministry potential of our presence, it also instructs us to be careful not to overspend that account.

Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor’s house, lest he have his fill of you and hate you. (Prov. 25:17)

Many pastors (yours truly included, I’m sure) are notorious for not knowing when to stop talking. I can’t remember how many times seminary professors instructed us after our sermons: “You drove right by several exits on the highway…next time, take the first one!” It’s fascinating to me that we who might be considered “professional communicators” often fail to see the power of brevity and silence. How many sermons have been ruined by the last five (unneeded) minutes, we may never know.

But over ten years of ministry, I have slowly learned that silence and/or absence are sometimes what is most needed and most helpful.

Sometimes I am not the right person to visit the hurting. Perhaps another elder is much closer to them. Perhaps they are introverts and have already had their fill of well-wishers for the day. Perhaps our relationship has been strained lately so I would be wise to find someone else to encourage them during hurting times.

Sometimes I need to visit but keep it brief. A busy hospital room is a very bad place for an extended meditation on Psalm 23. Instead, I’ve learned to read a brief portion of God’s Word, pray briefly but earnestly, express my love and concern, and then hit the bricks.

Sometimes those wanting to provide encouragement and ministry are simply getting in the way of real life. Just like my freezer can only hold so many loving casseroles, so my heart probably can’t tolerate the weight and relational energy of a dozen loving visitors.

But please note the “sometimes.” As much as it might frustrate many of us, there are no rules for when we should be present versus when we should be absent. So let me finally share a few pointers in sorting this out:

  • Pray. Ask God to lead you, to make you sensitive to the needs of others.
  • Be humble. Understand that in this moment you may not be the amazing help you think you are and that someone else may be more needed right now. Make way for them.
  • Know your place. What is your relationship with them? Lifelong friends? Then stay a while. New pastor? Tread carefully: better to be invited to stay than resented for staying too long.
  • Ask others close to the situation. (I do this a lot.) “Do you think this is a good time for me to visit them? How long should my visit be?”
  • Perhaps most difficult: read the room. Whether through success or failure, learn to evaluate the dynamics of what’s actually happening. The best way to grow in this rare skill is by evaluation with others whose wisdom you respect.

May God bless each of you as serve the hurting. It isn’t always easy, but it is heavenly.

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