Ten Lessons from a Hospital Bed

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Recently, I spent thirty hours in the hospital. I won’t tantalize you with details, but you can tell by this article, I’m still alive. In fact, I feel good. I received good care, a clear diagnosis, some new medication, and permission to go on with my life as usual.

Not wanting to waste this experience, I’ve been thinking about lessons learned and benefits received. Maybe, if I list some of them, you will be helped when your own time comes.

All of these are things I needed God’s help with. I was surprised how difficult it was for me to focus on anything, and therefore, how vulnerable I felt spiritually. I’m used to fixing my mind on God’s truth — especially his promises — and fighting off the temptations of fear and anger. But when focus is hard, trust is hard. So, don’t assume as you read these that they came easy. They didn’t.

1. Don’t murmur about delays and inefficiencies in the hospital, when you are getting medical care that surpasses by a hundredfold what is available in 90% of the world.

Instead of focusing on the fact that your nurse isn’t responding, or the man in the next bed is snoring, or the intravenous is twisting, or the ice chips ran out, think about the fact that 150 years ago you would probably be dead. And, if not, you would be groaning in unrelieved pain with no morphine to help, and you would have no clue what’s wrong with you, or whether you were dying or not.

“Do all things without grumbling” (Philippians 2:14). Paul said that the effect of not murmuring would be that we shine as lights in the midst of a crooked world — including the needy world of medicine (Philippians 2:15).

2. Don’t let yourself be numbed spiritually by the ceaseless barrage of sounds, noises, television, and chatter that surrounds you in the hospital.

I was amazed at the ceaselessness of sound. Maybe it’s different for others. But for me, there was almost no let up. Not even in the middle of the night. The nurses were chattering. The helpers that came to serve my roommate at three o’clock in the morning conversed like it was midafternoon. Televisions blared continuously. Strange beeping or buzzing or humming was almost constant. I longed for silence.

This was a trial to my spirit. In the very moment when I needed to be still and know that God is God, my heart was off balance with distraction. This was a surprise to me. It took me off guard. I had to pray, and concentrate, and recite Scripture to myself to regain my spiritual stability. “Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me!” (Psalms 25:20).

3. Don’t default to the television.

The hospital makes this the easiest thing for you to do. There is a television for every bed. It’s as close as the button by your head. I don’t have a television at home, and the reason for that choice, and for this advice, is not the boogeymen of sex and violence. It’s the more subtle and pervasive dehumanizing banality of most television programming.

“Give yourself to reading or listening to or thinking about things that ennoble your soul.”

When I listened to what was on for the patient next to me, what appalled me was not the sensuality, but the emptiness of it all — the triviality, the silliness, the juvenile hollowness. Grown people were all acting as if life was vaudeville. And all this in contrast to the horrific condition of the man next to me. But even worse — in contrast to the magnificence and greatness and wonder of the human soul and its relation to the Creator of the world.

Don’t go there. Give yourself to reading or listening to or thinking about things that ennoble your soul, and put it in touch with the glory that it is, and the Glory it was made for.

“If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1–2).

4. Pray for the patients near you and, if possible — without undue offense — see if your roommate will let you pray for him, and tell him words of hope in Jesus.

I was not satisfied with my attempt at this with the poor man next to me. He was so miserable. But I did try. And before I left, I wrote in a book and left it with him, as I asked the Lord to bless him. I did the same for the nurse who served me so generously with a smile.

You are nowhere by accident. These are divine appointments. You have no idea what the simplest witness to Christ may bring.

“You will be brought before kings and governors [and doctors and nurses and patients] for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness” (Luke 21:12–13).

5. Realize that physical pain makes focusing on God’s promises more difficult and demands greater concentrating effort.

It’s not just the barrage of sounds that disorient our souls; it’s the pain. I don’t want you to be blindsided by this. The very thing we need God for can blur our vision of God.

“You have no idea what the simplest witness to Christ may bring.”

At this point, it is so important that you have in your heart some very simple, short biblical truths about God that you can declare to yourself. Long complex reasonings about God’s sovereignty and goodness won’t work in this situation, because the pain is too disorienting. It doesn’t allow the mind to work at full capacity.

What is needed is: “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Period. “Christ gave himself for me.” Period. “I will never leave you.” Period. “Nothing is too hard for the Lord.” Period. “Everything works for good.” Period. These are like white stones with your name on them. And you hold them in your hand as you groan and wait.

6. Reach out to a friend or family member to help you.

Usually the suddenness of a hospitalization leaves the patient disoriented and unable to think clearly about all the aspects of what’s going on. This was certainly true for me. Questions needed to be asked, and my mind was not at full strength.

I needed an advocate. My wife was there and full of good questions for the doctors. Doctors cannot think of all the things we might need to know in order to understand what has happened, and to live wisely in the days to come. We need help to ask all the right questions.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and to give your friend permission to ask everything that comes to mind. “We are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25).

7. Accept the humiliation of wearing the same unflattering gown everyone else wears.

This is good for all of us. Most of the time we have control over our outward persona. We can dress in a way that presents us as more dignified (or self-sufficient) than we are.

Picture the difference between the John Piper with his sports jacket preaching to thousands, and the John Piper with his blue and white, split-down-the-back hospital robe hobbling to the bathroom in his nonslip, brown footies, dragging the intravenous roller with him.

This is a great reality check. We are all weak, vulnerable, fairly homely, physical specimens, who are getting less attractive all the time. But thanks be to God, “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).

8. Let the pain and misery of your body, and of the people around you, remind you of the exceeding moral horror and spiritual ugliness of sin.

My understanding of Romans 8:18–25 is that it’s Paul’s commentary on the fall in Genesis 3. He is explaining the devastating physical effects on the creation of the moral evil that entered the world through Adam’s sin. This means that God subjected the world to physical futility and misery to make a point about moral and spiritual reality.

“Let your groaning remind you of the disease and deformation you have been saved from: sin.”

Paul says, “The creation was subjected to futility” (Romans 8:20). He refers to this “futility” as “bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:21). The horrors and upheavals of disease and calamity are not ends in themselves. They are a “groaning together in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:22). That is, they will usher in a new creation.

We all share in these groanings — horrible groanings in the case of the worst cancers and maiming accidents. For God’s children, this is not punishment. Christ bore that. This is the lot of every man to bear the physical sign of the horrors of moral evil. This physical pain points to how ugly sin is.

Let your groaning remind you of the disease and deformation you have been saved from: sin.

9. Let the self-revelation of Jesus as the good Physician be sweet to your soul, and preach to yourself that this light momentary affliction is working for you an eternal weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Christ is all-sufficient for every situation. In the hospital, he is preeminently a Physician. Matthew 4:23 says he was able to heal “every disease and every affliction among the people.” And at the last day, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Revelation 21:4).

We should ask him, without hesitation, for healing and for relief. We should trust him with the timing of his answer. But mainly we should realize with joy that, beyond all doubt, he has healed the deepest disease of all who trust him: the damning disease of sin. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31–32).

10. Pray that none of these hospital hours, none of this pain, none of these fears, none of these relationships, none of this life-altering season will be wasted.

Satan wants to make your experience in the hospital meaningless and empty and trivial. Don’t let him win this victory.

Pray. Pray as you go. Pray in admissions. Pray on the gurney. Pray in the bed. Pray in the morning and in the middle of the night. Pray without ceasing.

You will probably not be able to formulate long, well-articulated prayers. The mind and body are too embattled. The prayers you need to pray have been called “ejaculatory prayers” historically — short outbursts of the heart.

“Help me, Lord, to trust you.” “Have mercy, Lord, I need you. I can hardly think.” “Save me, Lord, from unbelief and sin.” “I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.” “Thank you for your mercy.” “Thank you, Jesus, that you loved me and gave yourself for me.” “Thank you, Father, that there is no condemnation for me in Christ Jesus.” “Use me, Jesus, to magnify your great worth.” “Satisfy me in your steadfast love, no matter what happens here.”

May the Lord use these ten lessons from my hospitalization to help you make yours fruitful for the glory of Christ.