Not presumably because you were taught to do that in your pastoral theology class! Nor because that’s what you saw an elder doing when one of your relatives was sick! Nor because you just like saying comforting things to other Christian people!
The far better reason to do it is because it is the means of grace that God has appointed for Christian people to be strengthened in their trials, particularly in deeply distressing times of suffering and sickness. When we minister in this way, with careful thought and prayer, from a heart full of gentleness, kindness and love, great blessing often flows to both reader and receiver.
Of course there are many other things people do to make things a little easier for a loved one or friend in their dark hours of need. You can show them kindness by purchasing a thoughtful card or writing a letter or buying them a present. You can try to cheer them up by saying perhaps you will be cured (which experience and medicine indicate may be a little falsely optimistic at best). You can share some humorous comments which may engender a wry smile or elevate their mood temporarily – but inappropriate humor will often sound quite hollow. Or you can offer some other temporary solace by distracting them by thinking on more pleasant thoughts or happier days and times. Most of these things are useful in their own place, at the right time, but are not what the soul really needs most in the valley of the shadow.
I was reflecting on this matter of sickbed solace a little at the weekend – about why we do these things – what are the theological convictions that under-gird the practice of comforting believers with God’s promises? It is because His mighty Word, takes our minds off earthly things, and causes faith to take hold of the realities themselves.
To use an illustration, think of a vacation in the destination of your dreams. Perhaps a mountain cabin, situated on a lakeside, bathed in golden rays of sun and surrounded by bird song. Long mornings fly fishing, long afternoons in a canoe and long evenings round a camp fire, with your family circled round.
Now even as I have been writing, and I’m sure as you’ve been reading, you’ve already begun to dream, of what that might be like (if mountains & lakes aren’t your thing, please ponder a seascape, skiing, or something more cultured, like a tour of museums of Europe). By the fifth line of the illustration, my heart was already sighing, as with pleasure I could feel my heart going out to my beloved wife and three children – I was taken away from the desk, and transported in my thoughts, to another place and time: if it had been a bad day (which it wasn’t), or I had been afflicted in some way, it would have momentarily lifted me from my gloom and stirred gladness in my soul. I guess you could call it fanciful thinking, or even day dreaming, but I savored every moment, and felt a tear begin to well up in my eye!
Those, of course, are only things of earth, and fairly ephemeral at that – yet still I was able to linger and savor, and taste and touch those make-believe ‘glory days’ in my heart. I really did feel as if I was sitting in the sun, swimming in the lake, hugging friends and family, as my face got hotter and hotter gazing into the camp fire flames!
This is just a poor, faint, unspiritual illustration of the heavenly realities that believers take hold of by faith when they rest on the truth of God’s Word. It is the kind of thing mentioned in Hebrews 11.1 where it says:
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Or as the NKJV has it, and as Thomas Manton (I think if I remember correctly) explains it, “faith is the substance of things hope for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Faith so seizes upon the realities of unseen things, that they become present to the believer, as if they were already in their possession. To cite an example, it is as if they can see the Good Shepherd of Revelation 7.16-17.
“They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Already, can you not see him walking a few steps ahead, and guiding you his little lamb? Do you not look up, from among the gamboling, fleecy, flock, above the backs of your woolly friends, to watch his turning, from time to time, to check that the flock are content and keeping up? Do you see the outstretched arm with the piercings in the wrist, as he points the flock he leads, with his kind, shining, loving face, to streams of bubbling, crystalline, water? Is it not now as if your spiritual thirst and hunger are erased and gone forever? Do you not feel your heartache gone and your gloom driven away by light as you feel his nail pierced hand, gently resting on your cheek, to wipe away all tears from no-more-sorrowing sheepish eyes?
In such a way, by the powerful voice of Christ, just for a few, brief, moments, or maybe hours on end, with a joy that is from above, those facing death are lifted beyond their bed, to a happier, holier, heavenly, frame that leads them to the Lamb.
We could say the same thing about promised forgiveness of sins! The same principle would work with the Pilgrim Psalm 121! We could read ‘The Lord’s my Shepherd’ and by the end feel hunted down and overtaken by goodness and mercy in hot pursuit, as we are smothered in God’s love, every single remaining step.
It is this method of reading promises of comfort to the afflicted which is the Lord’s own means, by His Almighty voice, in the power of the Spirit, of filling up our hearts, with the things that now surround and the glories that lie ahead.
In a similar vein, Paul says, about the God of All Comfort’s promises, in 2 Corinthians 4.16-18:
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
This, of course, is God’s own work in the soul. We can’t produce it, yet we are channels for it. It comes by the light of His Word, in the power of the Holy Spirit. This illuminating vision is to be earnestly sought, by those who read, for those in need. So ask, seek and knock for the light to shine within – to make reader and receiver more heavenly-minded and empowered to ‘live the dream!’
So if you are down, why not day-dream of your log or lakeside cabin! But when you are dying, what will sustain you and your family and brothers and friends, is believing in the Word, read by ministers of God.