Who Can Do Any Good?
Gordon H. Cook, Jr.
I was reading Scripture to a person who was unable to respond in any way, and praying that God would gently wake her from sleep. When hospital staff entered the room, they looked at me as if to say, "What can you do for her?" How do you comfort a person in a coma?
She died a couple of weeks later, without so much as a word. My chaplaincy instructor, who had encouraged me to work with this patient, sensed my frustration. He asked me whether God had answered my prayer. Then he quoted these verses from Second Corinthians, gently suggesting that it is God who comforts even when we cannot: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God" (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
This was not the first time that these verses have been quoted to me. Fifteen years ago, I was struck from behind by an automobile while riding a bicycle with a youth group. As I recovered, I received a call from a former pastor. He read these verses and challenged me: "For what ministry is God preparing you?" At the time I had a headache! It was too much to think about. Over the years, his question has led me to training in hospital ministry and hospital chaplaincy and, more recently, hospice chaplaincy.
Paul's description of God as "the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort" is unique to this letter of comfort to the troubled saints at Corinth. God is both the highest expression and the ultimate source of that heart of mercy or inward compassion that moves us to respond to the hopeless suffering of another person. In the same way, Paul suggests that all comfort ultimately finds its source in God.
Many today seek to provide compassion and comfort to others. But their psychological and mystical approaches are no substitute for the heartfelt compassion and abiding comfort that comes from God. God has expressed both most clearly in the person of his Son. The ministry of true compassion and comfort is a distinctively Christian ministry and must be grounded in the person and work of the Savior. Without Christ and his perfect sacrifice, there would be no comfort for sinners.
Paul tells us that it is God who comforts us in all our troubles. Here in New England we have an expression, "between a rock and a hard place," that pretty well summarizes the Greek word thlipsei ("troubles") in 2 Corinthians 1:4. God comforts his children in all those tough places of life.
If this was difficult to learn with regard to the person in a coma, it was much easier to grasp in another situation. I once visited a very quiet woman in a crowded ward and was offering a good Orthodox Presbyterian prayer. Suddenly she shouted out, "I'm healed! You have the power! You've healed me!" I could have crawled into a crack between the floor tiles. I had no problem assuring this woman, and everyone else in the room, that it is only God who can provide real comfort!
Paul also affirms that God's gift of comfort in our lives prepares and calls us to comfort others when they experience trouble. How has God comforted you in affliction? As a hospital chaplain, I have enjoyed a unique opportunity to observe ministry with patients.
What is comforting and what is not? Here are some of the things that I have learned:
- Prayer is often more effective than mini-sermons.
- Listening with sensitivity may open more meaningful ministry than offering lots of counsel.
- Speaking the truth in love includes observing confidentialities.
- A little empathy goes a long way.
- Illness and hospitalization often raise serious spiritual issues. Direct the comfort of God's word to their issues, not your own.
- Let the people in the room see God's love in you, not your theological prowess.
- Make several short visits rather than one long and tiring one.
- Read familiar passages from Scripture.
- Offer prayers that address the real needs of the patient. Pray for the other patients in the room as well.
- Remember, Christ is the ultimate expression of God's compassion and comfort. We cannot save others. Only Christ is the Savior!
God does not call everyone to chaplaincy. Yet we are called to give a gentle and respectful answer to those who ask us to give the reason for the hope we have. We offer the good news of Christ, not to people as we would like them to be, but to people as they really are. We are called to share that comfort which we ourselves have received from God. Who can do any good? By God's grace, Christ can!
Mr. Cook is the pastor of Merrymeeting Bay OPC in Topsham, Maine. Reprinted from New Horizons, November 1998.