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When the Counselor Becomes Ill

Truth in Love 331

How should Christians respond when they become ill? How can they minister to themselves when they're facing temptations and trials?

Oct 4, 2021

Dale Johnson: Today on the podcast, I am joined with Pastor Dan Kirk. He is the senior pastor at Calvary Bible Church in Fort Worth, Texas. He’s married to his wife Chris of 35 years. They have seven children. Dan, you beat us by one, and you have six grandchildren and I can’t wait to hear about that. We’re not ready for that yet, but that sounds so exciting. You’re also a fellow with us here at ACBC, which means that you help us to do a lot of training and that you engage our people in supervision, helping them one-on-one, which I think is one of the most amazing things that we do. And, he also helps to lead one of our training centers down in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and it’s called A Center for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship.

Dan, I’m really excited to talk about this topic. Sometimes we talk about physical suffering or chronic illness and it’s really easy for us to talk about that in someone else’s life. It’s a lot easier for us, I think, to try and understand the Scripture and tell other people what they need to do when they have physical illness or some sort of chronic issue or some sort of physical suffering that’s happening, but you’ve experienced in a different way. Physical suffering that has happened even to you as a counselor. I want to think about this topic and try to think about it well. As biblical counselors, we understand certainly that not every single case that we deal with is predicated on a person’s personal sins. Certainly because of the curse of sin, right, our bodies physically decay. That’s a part of the truth that we hear from Scripture. But many times, this is about physical suffering. Suffering that happens because of the curse of the world. And so, we understand that for many years, several members of your family have experienced significant chronic physical suffering. Now, through those years, you’ve remained healthy. And so, you’ve been in a place where you can minister to them, certainly, but that really changed over the Christmas holidays this last year. Can you tell us about that?

Dan Kirk: Well, sure. But let me say, first of all, that I realize that my story is not unique. There have been a lot of people over the last year and a half who have gotten sick—sicker than I was, and certainly many have died. So, my concern here at the front is just to say that the point of this podcast is not to focus on my story. But rather, on how Christians should respond when they become ill. How can they turn to Scripture? Where can they get the comfort of the Lord? How can they minister to themselves when they’re facing the temptations and trials?

For me, this all came about at Christmas. Literally, Christmas day, 2020, only nine months ago, when COVID-19 was ravaging our country and I realize that it still is at some level, but back then, it was more scary, more fearful. There weren’t any vaccines. In God’s Providence, my whole family got the virus. It started off with me and I got quarantined and then my wife got quarantined with me and then all of my kids got sick, and we decided just to make it a week-long party and it was wonderful. We just spent a lot of time together leading up to Christmas day and then Christmas day came around and I remember sitting with my family opening gifts, it was a wonderful morning, and I had just finished opening up a couple of things the kids had given me. And, I began to cough uncontrollably and I had been coughing for a little while, and I’d already been diagnosed as I said, but the coughing really caught the attention of my wife. So, here we are, Christmas morning, and she looks at me and she says, “That’s it, we’re going to the hospital.” So there we went, we loaded up in the car, and away we went to the hospital for what turned out to be quite a ride in the local hospital here in Fort Worth.

Dale Johnson: I remember actually getting a phone call about your situation and even us as a staff praying for you and your family, and we sort of kept tabs. But, sometimes we forget in our physical suffering that we have a tendency, I think, to compartmentalize ourselves, our bodies anyway, and we say, “Well, you know, that was a physical thing, so Dan’s okay. We’ll pray for the Lord to heal him as he goes and is taken care of by the doctor.” I think sometimes in such difficult circumstances we forget that there are spiritual battles that are going on in that process when you’re losing faculties, when you’re losing physical abilities, or even the freedom that your body afforded you before. When you feel the pain, and the suffering of the sickness of your body, there are all sorts of temptations that arise. What were some of those temptations that you found yourself struggling with, even with this physical suffering?

Dan Kirk: Yeah, absolutely. Of course, I was tempted by a number of things, certainly fear. I’ve never been this close to death before and it was a little bit frightening. I was tempted with worried about my family. You know, what would they do if I didn’t make it? Because, you know, there were stories everywhere of people dying, even people that we know have died from this. In fact, shortly after I arrived at the hospital, of course the first thing they did was admit me into the ER and told my wife to go sit in the car, which she did, and then they took me to a semi-private room and I started coughing again. I was coughing so badly that I thought I was going to die. I literally thought I was going to die and my wife thought I was going to die.

That was a difficult, difficult moment. I mean, I’m used to counseling other people who were in the hospital bed, and now I can’t even get into the hospital to minister to people. But here I was isolated from my wife, without the comfort, care, and counsel that I would get from her, and really isolated from everyone. There were all kinds of temptations during that time. It’s really hard to even describe what it’s like being in a place like that knowing you’re going to be there for a long time and knowing that you’re going to be alone. And so, where is the Lord? And the Lord showed Himself mightily through this period.

Dale Johnson: You know, I think sometimes, even as you’re talking, I’m thinking about how much we sort of dehumanize some of our experiences. I think we do that. Certainly, when we read the Scriptures, we forget that you can hear some of this in the psalmist when the psalmist is walking through something difficult. And he has a question like from Psalm 42, “My soul, my soul. Why are you downcast within me?” You can sort of hear that wrestling in soul and, “I’m turning on my bed all night long. My bed is filled with tears.” You can sort of hear that wrestling. When you walk through it yourself, sometimes we have a tendency to sort of disconnect ourselves, as if, you know, what we’re experiencing is a little bit different.

We could read the story of people in the Scripture in a few minutes and we forget that their life was built in similar ways to ours. When they experience difficulty and suffering in the world, they’re experiencing some of those same emotions, some of those same temptations, some of the same frailties that you just described. Those are tempting moments: when you’re gripped with fear and you’re gripped with anxiety, even, of, “Lord, what is going to happen?” And genuine care for other people, knowing, “Okay, I’m secure in the Lord. But what about my family?” Those are real things that you’re now wrestling with and it is different when it’s you who’s wrestling through that physical suffering.

As a pastor you spend a whole lot of time counseling people; a lot, a lot of hours counseling men and women who’ve experienced difficult seasons of suffering, physical, and otherwise. But, here you were isolated with Covid-19. How did you do in counseling yourself?

Dan Kirk: Yeah, right, “physician heals thyself”, right? “Counselor, counsel thyself.” That was the only option, you know, no one could come and care for me, at least not from my church. Thankfully, there were some wonderful people in the hospital who try, but since I was alone in the room for the entire week, the main thing I determined was to remind myself that the Scriptures promise that no matter the struggle, I’m safe in His hands. That God is sovereign over all of this, and no good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly.

With the suffering of my children, which we haven’t talked about and won’t, early on in our marriage and when we were having children, Psalm 23 became extremely precious to me. I remember, I was in seminary when all of that was happening and I got to studying Psalm 23, and I know we all know this verse, but I wonder if we have felt the impact of it like this because, you know, you can quote it with me, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He leads me,”—listen carefully to this—”He leads me in the paths of righteousness.” I remember wrestling with that and opening up a Hebrew Lexicon searching for what are the paths of righteousness. What I discovered was that what the Psalmist is telling us is that whenever we are following the Good Shepherd we are always on the right path. This is the right path, the paths of righteousness, and notice that the next phrase is, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”—why? Because the Lord, my shepherd, Yahweh, is leading me exactly where He intends to take me for my good and for His glory. That was tremendously helpful for me.

And then another passage of Scripture that really encouraged me: Isaiah, 43:1. I guess, what I’m trying to say here is you have to minister to yourself by ministering the Scriptures. Here’s one that really gripped me: Isaiah 43:1, “But now, thus saith the Lord, ‘He who created you. Oh, Jacob,” and I would insert my own name. “Oh, Daniel, He who formed you, O Israel, fear not, I have redeemed you, I have called you by name and you are mine.” I can’t tell you how many times I quoted that and every time it led me to just tears of joy that the Lord would think of His people this way.

I was reminded so often of Psalm 119 and I remember David Brainerd saying in his life and diary that he prayed and he was experiencing tremendous suffering one time at the hands of some people who didn’t like him. And he prayed humbly before the Lord. He said, “Lord, I pray that you would not allow me to miss the benefit of this trial. And David did the same thing in Psalm 119, three quick verses here. Number one, “Before I was afflicted, I went astray. But now I keep your word. You are good and do good, teach me your statutes” and this is the one that is really most pointed, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” Brother, I can tell you that that week in the hospital and then the weeks after that of struggling with this illness did such good to my heart. It reminded me of Alexander Solzhenitsyn who, when he finally made it to America out of the Gulag in Russia, looked back and said, “Bless you, prison.” And I came out of the hospital saying, “Bless you, Covid, for how God used you to expose things in my heart that I didn’t know were there, to remind me of the tender mercies of the Lord and His sovereign providence even over my suffering. That was enormously, enormously helpful. I’ve never had to counsel myself like I did on that week.

Dale Johnson: If you want a picture, guys, of 2 Corinthians 10 when the Scripture tells us to take our thoughts captive, to learn how to do that and to do it well, and what’s necessary is what Paul talks about in Colossians 3, where he tells us to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts. And then he tells us to let the Word dwell richly in us. So, that in moments, where your heart is tempted, where your heart is drifting, and the circumstances seemed pretty convincing that you have the promises, that’s exactly what, Dan, you just appealed to were the promises of the Lord that He said He will be with us. And will He not be with us there in those moments of difficulty?

And here’s the beautiful thing that happens is the same wonderful counsel that we can give to those in the counseling room, that’s good for us and it ministers to our soul. And I think that’s one of the keys to being a wise counselor is learning how to utilize the Scripture to counsel your own soul, because you become convinced of the Word in a way that can’t be broken otherwise. You become convinced of the beauty of the Word, the power of the Word because you’ve seen experientially that God is faithful to His promises and that He settles your heart even in difficult moments. Now, think about how differently, maybe, that you will, and with passion, you’ll minister to those who are who are suffering in the future. Because you’re convinced of the peace of the Lord, no matter how that may have turned out, that He was walking with you in those moments. What a beautiful thing.

Now, I do want to bring this in. One of the things I do with my students in my class is when we talk about care and counseling I get them to answer several questions about some of their counseling encounters. I want to know how did they do in their response to the individual? What were the primary problems that they were hearing? One of the questions I always ask them is this question: I want to know, how can the church get involved in ministering to this person with this particular problem? I always want to know that because I want them to see that first of all, you as the counselor, you’re not the primary answer, you’re not the professional, you’re not the expert who is going to, you know, wave some magic wand and everything is going to work out okay. You’re going to be used as a tool, but as a minister of God’s Bride of the Word to be able to affect them, but the end game is not that they will be dependent on you forever. They need to be assimilated back into the body and we want to see the fellowship of the body to come together. So this is an important question, right? How do we get the church involved? This year’s annual conference theme is O Church, Arise. We’ve been talking about this a lot over the last year.

I wonder in a situation like this, how your church body arose to minister to you? to minister to your family when you were down and out?

Dan Kirk: Yeah, so that was a concern because I thought there’s no way, there’s no way our church is going to be able to really do anything to help me and I was wrong, you know, the people got together and they just started brainstorming. I couldn’t talk on the phone because my lungs are so bad. I could hardly breathe with the oxygen mask on and everything, but they got really created. They came up with the idea of having something called a park and pray. A park and pray apparently is where you gather a bunch of people during covid and you all get in your car and you drive to the hospital when you find out where your sick pastor is relative to the parking lot. They stood out there and they blink their lights at me and they called me on phone. They knew I couldn’t speak to them, but I could hear them praying and singing, and the parking pray idea, is something I’ll never forget. That was wonderful.

When I began to regain my appetite. Some of my friends here from the church on staff, would run over to Chick-fil-A and get my favorite salad and they would take it to the door and find someone in security or somebody who could actually get up to my floor and give it to a nurse who could walk through the covid ward and give me, you know, some good food that wasn’t, you know, hospital food. That was wonderful. That was so refreshing.

Because we really couldn’t talk on the phone, as I said, they really wanted to communicate love and grace to me. Praise the Lord for technology! Somebody went around and started making videos and then they would shoot them to me almost every day. There would be people that I would see from our church family and from my family back home. They would send me Scriptures, they would speak Scripture and I could see them and you could see the concern and their face and all of that. It was wonderful. Other people would text Scriptures to meditate on, others would send me recordings of them reading the Scriptures. I really was surprised at how many different ways they came up with to minister to their pastor and it really I think did something in the heart of a number of members of our church to help them to realize that there are little things that you can do that really mean a lot to those who are suffering some kind of personal illness.

Dale Johnson: Dan that’s incredible. Just to hear the beauty of the encouragement of the body, the way in which the body ministered to you, the way in which they demonstrated care. They didn’t have to muster or manufacture that in and of themselves. That was an overflow of their love of Christ. Their love for you, wanting to minister to you, wanting to comfort you when you were in a difficult situation, and how refreshing. How refreshing it is to be in a community that walks faithful in bonds of unity that are given to us by the spirit. Walking in love, which is a proclamation that we are the disciples of the Lord Jesus. This is what church is supposed to be about that. This is exactly the description of what church is supposed to be about.

Listen, on this day we are starting our annual conference, October 4th, 2021. Who would have thought maybe a year ago that we would actually get to be together, but we are together today in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Dan, these are the exact things that we’re going to talk about, the beauty of the church. And our role as counselors never separated from the responsibility to church to the beauty of the community. And for us as counselors. I love the way that you described this today, the things that we struggle with. We’re also prone to struggle whether that be physically or even in terms of temptation and the Word that we so well minister, ministers so well to us. I can’t wait for this week and all the things that we’re going to learn as we consider the Word, as we think about our responsibility to Christ and as we talked about the beauty of the church, in the way in which God has equipped that institution to be the care of souls of the broken.