Follow God to the Lonely and Hurting

The children in front of us had been found in gutters, dumpsters, alleyways, and other deserted corners of the city. Most of them were born with physical or mental disabilities — burdens that felt too heavy to parents already buckling under poverty. So they were left for dead.

Our team had traveled to Africa’s horn primarily to train a group of local pastors, but one of our team leaders also coordinated a visit to an orphanage. We rocked infants, laughed with toddlers, encouraged the staff, and prayed over the heads of these abandoned children.

On our way out, the staff gathered to thank us for coming. At first, their gratitude seemed a touch over the top — certainly more than our short visit had warranted. But I began to understand as one man shared a brief but startling sentence: “No one ever visits.”

No Visitors

No one ever visits. A world of activity rushed past the orphanage every day — shop owners, teachers, farmers, businessmen — but no one ever visited these children on the other side of the wall. Left behind at birth, they were still being left behind by neighbors too busy to notice.

Since returning home, I’ve wondered about people around me who might echo the words we heard at the orphanage. What neighbors, what church members, what relatives are watching hordes of people pass by while they quietly ache for a visitor?

Westerners may not walk past many orphanages, but we constantly walk past people who feel forgotten, neglected, and desperately lonely: the depressed, the disabled, the socially awkward, the grieving, the elderly. Though often surrounded by people, many of the most hurting rarely receive a visitor. They rarely find someone who will not merely brush by with a smile, but will stop, sit, and linger for a while. Someone who will climb down into the miry bog of their complex problems and place a tender hand on their shoulder.

When was the last time you strayed from your circle of family and friends, set aside the to-do list, and simply visited with someone needy?

Visiting Disciples

Of course, we could think of a legion of reasons for why we neglect to visit the most broken among us. Their issues are thorny and ingrained, with no quick fixes. Their pain can drain our emotional reserves to the dry bottom. Demands already lean into us from all directions — the needs of our own souls, the problems of our family and friends, tasks at work or school.

Nevertheless, Scripture repeatedly describes the people of God as a people who visit. According to James, visiting sits near the center of sincere spirituality: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). And according to Jesus, visiting is one of the indispensable marks of his sheep: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For . . . I was sick and you visited me” (Matthew 25:34–36). Disciples of Jesus not only preach, sing, pray, and serve. They visit.

But if we cannot escape the Bible’s summons to visit the needy, neither should we try. Our Father’s commandments are not burdensome chores (1 John 5:3); they are glad invitations into the abundant life Jesus promised (John 10:10). And that includes visiting.

Among the Bible’s many incentives for visiting the hurting, consider just one: when we visit, we imitate our Father and give the needy categories for grasping what God is like.

Imitate Your Father

Most fundamentally, Christians visit the needy because God does. The God of the universe is a visiting God, a God who is never too busy to knock on the door of the lowly and come in for a while.

He may oversee the orbits of distant solar systems, but he is still mindful of man, even the smallest of them (Psalm 8:2–4). He may sit enthroned “in his holy habitation,” but he still befriends the orphan, protects the widow, and settles the solitary in a home (Psalm 68:5–6). He may be “God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God,” but he still takes up the cause of the afflicted and, like a tender nurse, binds up the brokenhearted (Deuteronomy 10:17–18; Psalm 147:3).

As Zechariah praised God for the coming of the Messiah, he said, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68). When God came down to earth, he came to visit — to dignify the outcasts (John 4:7–10), to feast with the despised (Mark 2:15–17), to touch the leprous (Matthew 8:2–4), to hear the forgotten (Luke 18:35–43), and to raise the broken children of Adam from the dust of death.

When we visit the needy, we are reflecting the image of our visiting God. We are joining Jesus on the roads of love. We are following at our Father’s heels.

Show Them God

Visiting gives the hurting categories for grasping what God is like. When we visit, we take God’s promises and give them a body — our own body. We take God’s testimony about himself and bring it into living rooms and coffee shops and front porches. And as we do, we help desperate people believe that God might actually be as good as he says he is.

When we listen to a depressed twentysomething with steadfast patience, we are embodying God’s invitation to come and pour out your heart before him (Psalm 62:8).

When we befriend an autistic neighbor and labor to understand his peculiar world, we are displaying, on a small scale, God’s intimate knowledge and care for him (Psalm 40:5; 1 Peter 5:7).

When we engage in a conversation with a socially awkward small group member, not looking for an escape, but pressing in with creative questions, we illustrate the warm welcome Jesus offers to us in the gospel (Romans 15:7).

When we pursue the grieving, not only in the weeks after the loss, but months and even years later, we act out God’s ongoing healing and comfort on a miniature stage (Psalm 147:3; 2 Corinthians 1:3).

When we visit the nursing home to hear the stories (even if we’ve already heard them ten times), we become a flesh-and-blood symbol of God’s promise, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

Little Ambassadors

Of course, God can use his word to communicate all of these truths about himself in the absence of visitors, and he often does. But God loves to carve his people into little images of himself, and send them out as ambassadors of his character. He loves to bring his children into rooms where visitors rarely enter — whether in an orphanage in Africa or in the kitchen across the street — and reveal himself through hands and hugs and mouths and ears.

Every day, we walk past people who could say the same words I heard at the orphanage: “No one ever visits.” As we visit the hurting, consistently imitating our Father and speaking his word, our aim is not simply to leave them saying, “Someone finally visited me,” but to leave them with the holy sense that, through us, God himself has visited them.