Wesley on Visiting the Sick

A Means of Grace

In his sermon On Visiting the Sick, John Wesley begins by calling his readers to look upon the act as a means of grace.

He explains that the means of grace “are the ordinary channels which convey the grace of God to the souls of men.” They include works of piety, such as hearing and reading the Scripture, receiving the Lord’s Supper, public and private prayer, and fasting. And they include works of mercy, such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, relieving the stranger, and visiting those who are sick or in prison. Here, Wesley follows Jesus’ Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:31-46.

That just sounds like a sweet thought until one realizes exactly what Wesley is saying. The means of grace are not add-ons to the Christian faith that earn you brownie points in heaven or offer you a richer spiritual experience on earth. The means of grace are not optional.

The walking herein is essentially necessary, as to the continuance of that faith whereby we are already saved by grace, so to the attainment of everlasting salvation.

Those who don’t use God’s ordained means of grace “lose, by a continued neglect, the grace which they had received. Is it not hence that many who were once strong in faith are now weak?” Ultimately, those who do not avail themselves of the means of grace “according to their power and opportunity” are in danger of hearing the Lord say, “depart into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels”.

Wesley wants to establish at the outset that visiting the sick is serious business.

Developing Christian Character

It may be obvious what visiting the sick does for the sick. For the visitor, it cultivates both the love of God and the love for one’s neighbor. Those who visit the sick are more thankful to God for their own health and strength. They grow in grace as they develop sympathy with the afflicted, a good will and an affectionate heart. In other words, their character becomes more saintly. Failing to visit the sick has the opposite effect. In one of the most scathing paragraphs of the sermon, Wesley writes.

One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is, because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is, that, according to the common observation, one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it; and then plead their voluntary ignorances an excuse for their hardness of heart.

Being Present

As a means of grace for the caregiver, it is important that Christians be personally present with those for whom they care. Caring for the sick should be done in person whenever possible, Wesley insists. There were some, it seems, who wanted to discharge of their responsibility to the sick by contributing money or sending a physician to care for them. Money and medical care are important, Wesley acknowledges, but these things do not fulfill one’s personal responsibility.

To send them assistance is, therefore, entirely a different thing from visiting them. The former, then, ought to be done, but the latter not left undone.

How to Visit the Sick

Who are the sick? Wesley includes those suffering from both mental and physical afflictions.

By the sick, I do not mean only those that keep their bed, or that are sick in the strictest sense. Rather I would include all such as are in a state of affliction, whether of mind or body; and that whether they are good or bad, whether they fear God or not.

This act of kindness should be done simply because Christ demands it, not because of any characteristic of the recipient. The purpose is to bring glory to God and benefit our neighbor.

Wesley then describes how a visit should take place. He first addresses the attitude of the visitor. Even the simple act of visiting the sick depends first of all on the power of God. Christians must realize that they are, by themselves, insufficient for the task. They must seek God’s strength, wisdom and understanding.

Whenever, therefore, you are about to enter upon the work, seek his help by earnest prayer. Cry to him for the whole spirit of humility, lest if pride steal into your heart, if you ascribe anything to yourself, while you strive to save others you destroy your own soul. Before and through the work, from the beginning to the end, let your heart wait upon him for a continual supply of meekness and gentleness, of patience and longsuffering, that you may never be angry or discouraged at whatever treatment, rough or smooth, kind or unkind, you may meet with. Be not moved with the deep ignorance of some, the dullness, the amazing stupidity of others; marvel not at their peevishness or stubbornness, at their non-improvement after all the pains that you have taken; yea, at some of them turning back to perdition, and being worse than they were before. Still your record is with the Lord, and your reward with the Most High.

In most settings today, chaplains take a somewhat different approach to visiting the sick in body, mind or spirit than Wesley next describes, but I think most of us can resonate with the words in the preceding paragraph. Transference, counter-transference, resistance, and all sorts of modern counseling concepts are there.

Meeting Needs, Solving Problems

As for the visit itself, Wesley suggests beginning with “inquiring into their outward condition. You may ask whether they have the necessaries of life; whether they have sufficient food and raiment; if the weather be cold, whether they have fuel; whether they have needful attendance; whether they have proper advice, with regard to their bodily disorder.”

These questions are not just conversation-starters. Wesley intends the visitor to find solutions to these problems. If you can’t provide what they’re lacking yourself, Wesley says, turn to other people to help. Don’t give up until the problem is solved.

You might properly say in your own case, “To beg I am ashamed;” but never be ashamed to beg for the poor; yea, in this case, be an importunate beggar; do not easily take a denial. Use all the address, all the understanding, all the influence you have; at the same time trusting in Him that has the hearts of all men in his hands.

Personal, Hands-On Care

The visitor, however, is not just a problem-solver. The visitor is a caregiver.

You will then easily discern, whether there is any good office which you can do for them with your own hands. Indeed, most of the things which are needful to be done, those about them can do better than you. But in some you may have more skill, or more experience, than them; and if you have, let not delicacy or honour stand in your way.

Wesley offered as an example members of the French royal family who regularly visited the Grand Hospital in Paris.

And they not only take care to relieve their wants, (if they need anything more than is provided for them) but attend on their sick beds, dress their sores, and perform the meanest offices for them. Here is a pattern for the English, poor or rich, mean or honorable! For many years we have abundantly copied after the follies of the French; let us for once copy after their wisdom and virtue, worthy the imitation of the whole Christian world.

Helping people move, eat, bathe, clothe, dress their wounds, use the toilet: these are the lowly offices which Wesley is describing.

There’s not much in Wesley about non-judgmental listening, being a non-anxious presence or letting the patient set the agenda. There’s not much directly aimed at what we might call emotional health. In fact, Wesley has a different agenda, one which he thinks all Christian visitors should follow. Meeting the patient’s needs and caring for them with one’s own hands sets the stage for what comes next.

These little labors of love will pave your way to things of greater importance. Having shown that you have a regard for their bodies, you may proceed to inquire concerning their souls.

Spiritual, Evangelistic Conversations

Wesley then outlines what I assume is his own approach to an evangelistic conversation. His conversation starts with what, I believe, were for him words of encouragement.

Have you ever considered, that God governs the world; — that his providence is over all, and over you in particular? — Does anything then befall you without his knowledge, — or without his designing it for your good? He knows all you suffer; he knows all your pains; he sees all your wants. He sees not only your affliction in general, but every particular circumstance of it. Is he not looking down from heaven, and disposing all these things for your profit?

It would take some time to unpack the theology in this paragraph.

With this opening, Wesley can then proceed toward the goal of leading people to deeper, saving faith in Christ.

  1. If the patient has thought about how God might be with them in the midst of their affliction, do they know anything more broadly about “the general principles of religion”? Wesley specifically means the Protestant Christian religion as practiced in 18th century England, not religion in general.
  2. If they know something about Christianity, do their lives look Christian? You should “lovingly and gently” try to find out how the person has been living, Wesley says. Is the person “an outward, barefaced sinner” or do they have “a form of religion”?
  3. If the person is outwardly religious, are they also inwardly religious? Do they know the inward power of worshipping God “in spirit and in truth.” Are they born again? Are they pursuing the way of holiness? If not, explain these things to them. “When he begins to understand the nature of holiness, and the necessity of the new birth, then you may press upon him ‘repentance toward God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.’”
  4. When patients “begin to fear God,” the visitor should give them a small booklet explaining the Christian faith in more detail. Wesley calls them tracts, but they were not the small cartoonish pamphlets handed out on street corners or left surreptitiously by water fountains. For the most part they were copies of Wesley’s sermons.
  5. On the next visit, ask the person if they’ve read the book, and then discuss it with them.
  6. Close every meeting with prayer. (Presumably, prayer for full and final salvation. In this sermon, Wesley doesn’t explicitly mention prayers for healing or deliverance from affliction.)

My own approach to discussing God with the hurting people is somewhat less directive and confrontational than Wesley’s. In my case, the context demanded it, but I’m also a chicken. My conscience often accuses me of my many failures in leading people to a living faith in Christ Jesus.

Practical Education

In addition to teaching the sick about Wesleyan Christianity, visitors should give the poor whom they visit some practical advice.

It would be a deed of charity to teach them two things more, which they are generally little acquainted with, — industry and cleanliness. It was said by a pious man, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Indeed the want of it is a scandal to all religion; causing the way of truth to be evil spoken of. And without industry, we are neither fit for this world, nor for the world to come.

Contemporary social interpreters would have fun with this paragraph, but Wesley’s point is important. Simple education often plays a role in helping those afflicted in body, mind or spirit. There are practices which generally lead to better outcomes, before, during and after affliction.

Who Should Visit the Sick

Wesley concludes the sermon by asking who should perform this task, and his answer is everybody: men and women, young and old, rich and poor. Curiously, Wesley never addresses the question, “laity or clergy.” Perhaps no one in Wesley’s era expected the pastor to visit the sick, but the work Wesley describes is clearly not confined to the ordained. Remember, visiting the sick is a means of grace.

All, therefore, who desire to escape everlasting fire, and to inherit the everlasting kingdom, are equally concerned, according to their power, to practice this important duty.

Two of Wesley’s paragraphs in this section deserve attention.

Rich Christians

First, concerning the “rich in this world. Wesley says that they have both the time and the money to make visiting the sick a regular daily practice. It should have an fixed place on their daily calendar, so that they don’t neglect it. Then a very class-conscious Mr. Wesley describes the results.

Being superior in rank to them, you have the more influence on that very account. Your inferiors, of course, look up to you with a kind of reverence. And the condescension which you show in visiting them, gives them a prejudice in your favor, which inclines them to hear you with attention, and willingly receive what you say. Improve this prejudice to the uttermost for the benefit of their souls, as well as their bodies. While you are as eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame, a husband to the widow, and a father to the fatherless, see that you still keep a higher end in view, even the saving of souls from death, and that you labor to make all you say and do subservient to that great end.

The sick will be so awed by rich Christians’ acts of charity that they will all the more gladly listen to the presentation of the gospel.  Or at least that’s what Mr. Wesley believes.

Christian Women

Next, concerning women. Should women also “bear a part in this honorable service?” Of course they should, but some men might object.

Indeed it has long passed for a maxim with many, that “women are only to be seen, not heard.” And accordingly many of them are brought up in such a manner as if they were only designed for agreeable playthings! But is this doing honor to the sex? Or is it a real kindness to them? No; it is the deepest unkindness; it is horrid cruelty; it is mere Turkish barbarity. And I know not how any woman of sense and spirit can submit to it. Let all you that have it in your power assert the right which the God of nature has given you. Yield not to that vile bondage any longer.

You can sense Wesley’s passion around this issue. Keeping women in the shadows and subservient to men is “horrid cruelty” and “Turkish barbarity” and “vile bondage”. Men and women, Wesley notes, are both made in the image of God, and there is no difference between them in Christ Jesus. Both are “candidates for immorality” and both are called by God “to do good to all men.”