The Ministry Of Presence

Dr. Stephen Davey, Wisdom For The Heart

Isn’t it interesting that some of the best lessons about life are learned in the face of death? One young man in my flock learned some profound lessons in such a situation.

He and his friend had been dropped off by a small Super Cub airplane in the wilderness of Alaska to hunt moose. They were experienced hunters and had all the gear they would need for their hunt, including a satellite phone that they decided to rent and bring along at the last minute. On their last day of the hunt, he spotted a bull moose and fired off one round. The moose did not go down, but instead, started toward him. He reloaded his shotgun and fired, then felt intense pain. He looked down and noticed the gun had literally broken in half; one half had crashed back into him, severely lacerating his face and crushing one of his eyes, out of which he still cannot see.

After the accident while going through intensive surgery and recovery, still wondering about his ability to see, he wrote a list of questions. He sent a copy of these questions to me. These are questions that would produce life lessons in the face of suffering and a close call with death:

  • What am I doing?
  • Where am I going?
  • What does God want me to do?
  • What does God have in store for me?
  • What should I do with God's blessings?
  • What should I do with God's trials?
  • Will I become resentful?

    In reading his questions, some questions surfaced in my heart and mind: How do you answer someone who asks such profound questions? How do you begin to become a part of God's solution in the life of someone surrounded by sorrow? How do you minister to someone who is facing death?

    I want to encourage you that everyone in the body of Christ qualifies to be an expert assistant to the suffering. You do not have to be brilliant, persuasive, articulate, or experienced. You can be involved in what I will call, "The Ministry of Presence." Through the ministry of presence, you can bring comfort to the hurting—without ever being ordained or certified. You do not have to be anything but available to be a wonderful tool in the hand of God.

    This ministry happened in the life of Job when he was surrounded by sorrow. Three of Job’s friends heard the news, which took some time to reach them, and contacted one another, which took even more time in order to correspond back and forth, and they agreed to come together to encourage Job. One author said that if you had one friend who would drop everything and come running that would be wonderful, but to have three friends like that is truly amazing.

    We have no idea how long it took Job’s three friends to find him. Perhaps they first came to his home and asked for him. Maybe it was one of the remaining servants of the now windswept and desolate estate who points the way to the city dump. Perhaps it was Job’s wife who led them to where Job was sitting in the ash heap of the town garbage dump. The Hebrew text implies that it was not as much that these men doubted it was Job, as simply that this man sitting on the ash heap did not look anything like Job.

    "How can this man be the same man we last saw?"

    "It’s true," their guide must have said, as he pointed at him from a distance, "that man with the skin open and running; that man scraping away at himself; that man moaning in unspeakable pain, suffering from fever and nausea, whose beard is now tangled and matted, and whose eyes are sunken and encircled with dark bands; that man whose clothing is tattered and caked with blood and dirt, that is Job, your friend."

    Later in the book, Job’s friends make some foolish statements, but in this scene, they demonstrate remarkable wisdom.

    They Identified With His Sorrow
    Job’s friends thought, "If Job’s hair and clothing is dirty, we’ll get ours dirty too. If he’s sitting in the ash heap of the town dump, we’ll sit here with him. We won’t worry about the stares or who comes to watch."

    They Joined In His Grief
    We are told that these friends came to "sympathize" with Job. The word in Hebrew means much more than a quick hug. "To sympathize or console," in this text, means literally, "to shake the head or to rock the body back and forth as a sign of shared grief." It was no longer Job crying alone—it was now four men crying together at the city dump.

    This is true religion. False religion says, "Be warmed and filled." True religion puts on overalls, swings a hammer, writes a check, and cooks a meal. True religion is seen in three friends sitting down at the dump, in the ashes, surrounded by rotting garbage, with Job!

    They Showed Respect For His Grief
    Job’s friends are mourning the death of his children and servants with Job. They showed up, and they showed respect for his grief. Have you ever noticed that no one is ever invited to a funeral? Invitations are never mailed out. Friends do everything they can to simply come—and if they cannot come, they send flowers, notes or cards to communicate to the sufferer, "Listen—count me in. I want to show my respect and awareness of your grief."

    They Allowed Him To Speak First
    Do not miss this; underline it in your mind. "The best way to help people who are hurting is to just show up. Say little or nothing . . . do not try to explain everything; explanations never heal a broken heart.

    They Earned the Right To Speak
    To exercise the ministry of presence, you do not have to have anything figured out. You can be positively inspiring in your silence, but you might err when you speak. You may have heard the anonymous quote, "I have often regretted my speech, but never my silence."

    Before we leave this profound scene with three eminent, dignified, wealthy, revered men sitting in the dust with Job, their beaten, weary, suffering friend, let us try to learn some practical lessons regarding this ministry of presence.   It is a ministry without a word.

    1. Reject the view that simply quoting scripture will eliminate sorrow.
    The Bible is sufficient for our need, but Proverbs also talks about the timely use of it (Proverbs 15:23; 25:11). You do not walk into the presence of a Job and say, “Hey, guess what I read this morning in my quiet time? Man, this verse was perfect for you. Oh, by the way, I got you this coffee mug with a smiley face on one side and a picture of the cross on the other.”

    The Bible is not a band-aid. Do not go around sticking that favorite verse of yours on suffering believers, believing it will somehow eliminate their pain. Scripture is not aspirin for your suffering friends. Do not say, “Here, take two of these with a cup of tea in your new smiley face mug and call me in the morning.”

    Physical injuries take time to heal—so do injuries of the heart. What the sufferer needs is the truth of Scripture demonstrated in and through your life, as you minister to them with your presence.

    2. Refrain from the temptation to say something profound.
    You might think you have to come up with a spiritual nugget in order to help or that you have to be able to summarize the work of God in a sentence or two. The truth is that suffering often exposes us to the mystery of God—not an explanation from God (Rromans 11:33; I Cor. 2:16; Proverbs 25:2).

    We are running around trying to glorify God by explaining the matter, while He intends to be glorified by concealing the matter. We have to learn to say, “I don’t know what’s going on.”

    Applying this as a pastor can be a little challenging. Imagine someone calling me, pouring out their story of suffering, and then, asking for an explanation. How well is it going to go over for me to say, “Man, I haven’t got a clue. I am completely stumped!”

    You may know the end of the book of Job, but let me remind you that while Job demanded an answer, God responded with His attributes; when Job wanted an explanation, God revealed His reputation; though Job wanted a premise behind God’s actions, God declared His power through the action.

    3. Refuse any expectation of eliminating grief by your insight.
    You do not eliminate sorrow; you share it, and by sharing it, you lighten the load. Reject the idea that mature believers never grieve; that deep Christians do not cry. If that were the case, then Jesus Christ was shallow (John 11:35).

    4. Resist the perspective that you must speak in order to express love.
    When the Lord finally showed up at Lazarus’ grave, He could have preached a sermon on His love for Lazarus; He could have made sure everyone knew how much He cared for His friend. Yet, when all He did was weep, the Jews saw this and without hearing Him say a word, they said, “See how He loved him” (John 11:36).

    Joseph Bayly authored a book entitled, The Last Thing We Talk About. Joe and his wife Mary Lou lost three of their children. They lost one son following surgery when he was only 18 days old. Their second son died at age five from leukemia. They lost a third son at age 18 after a sledding accident. He writes,

    I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly; he said things I [already] knew were true. I was unmoved, except I wished he’d go away. He finally did. Another came and sat beside me for an hour and more; listened when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply and left. I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go.

    We do not have to be brilliant, articulate, biblical scholars; it is true that the greatest ability as a friend is availability. Just show up—and you exercise the ministry of presence.

    Dr. Stephen Davey serves as the senior pastor of Colonial Baptist Church as well as the president of Shepherds Theological Seminary. Stephen’s Bible teaching ministry, Wisdom for the Heart, also translated into Spanish and Portuguese, is broadcast on five continents and throughout the United States. Stephen lives in Cary, North Carolina with his wife, Marsha and their four children; Benjamin, Seth, Candace and Charity.
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