A ministry of visitation and presence to offer spiritual care, guidance, and compassion in the wake of tragedy is not a new concept but is rather the practice of the Church from its Christological inception.

Mercy and visitation were especially modeled in the life of Christ. Jesus’ incarnation as a man to suffer alongside–indeed, in the place of–all of humanity exemplified mercy and compassion. In His earthly ministry, Jesus was constantly concerned about humanity’s broken body and soul.

Throughout Jesus’ Galilean ministry, He was constantly walking alongside the people, preaching the Gospel and healing the sick (Matt. 4:23, Mark 1:29-34, Luke 4:38-44). Harrison emphasizes the fact that Jesus had compassion for the people of Jerusalem, writing, “Mercy makes something happen. For Jesus splanchnizomai [σπλαγχνίζομαι], the verb form of splanchnon, is always compassion giving birth to action.”[1]

The compassion [σπλαγχνίζομαι] that Jesus had for His people was an example to all Christians of a gut-wrenching concern that drove Him to take action and help those whom He came across in need. An example of this compassion [σπλαγχνίζομαι] is found in the book of Matthew, when he recounts the feeding of the great multitude. “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion [σπλαγχνίζομαι] on them and healed their sick” (Matt. 14:13-14).

The gospels of Mark and Matthew shed some light as to why Jesus has σπλαγχνίζομαι, that is, compassion, on them, “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion [σπλαγχνίζομαι] on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things” (6:34).

This is the reason for Jesus’ compassion and action.  Only God Himself could fully comprehend and understand that this great multitude of men, women, and children was in need of not only physical care, but also spiritual; therefore, Christ took care of both.  He taught them and ministered to them, but he also fed them and provided for their daily needs.

We also see this compassion in the miraculous resurrection of the widow’s son, “Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him.  As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion [σπλαγχνίζομαι] on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’  And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother” (Luke 7:11-15).

Here σπλαγχνίζομαι is “to be moved as to the σπλαγχνα, the nobler viscera, heart, lungs, and liver, which are here conceived in the Hebraic sense as the seat of the affections. All the tender pity of Jesus for this stricken widow is revealed … He was filled with compassion for her.”[2] This compassion caused Christ to act. He knew that this widow had now lost her only son. She was now all alone in this world.  But, Jesus in His perfect σπλαγχνίζομαι raises the young man from the dead and returns him to his mother.[3]

Paul’s ministry was also an example of caring for people in every need. Paul gives a model for congregations and individual Christians to care for their members and for the unchurched community around them. Paul encouraged the Galatians, “Let us not grow weary of doing good … So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:9–10). Interestingly, C. F. W. Walther commented on this verse and explained that Christians in their daily vocation should care for all people in the community that have needs, even nonbelievers. However, Walther applies that the primary responsibility of the congregation’s funds is to care for its members.[4]

Paul not only exhorts others to give and serve but he actually spent several years of his life fundraising for the poor in Jerusalem and taking funds to help them out as they were going through a crisis. Paul traveled throughout the churches in Macedonia and Corinth to collect for the Christians in Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:1–4, 2 Cor. 8:1–9, Rom. 15:22–29). Mark Seifrid explains that Paul regarded the collection for Jerusalem “not merely as serving to relieve need (although it does do precisely that) but, more fundamentally, as bringing about common thanksgiving to God and interchange among the churches.”[5] In 2 Cor. 8:1–6, Paul uses the Macedonians as an example of Christian generosity, love, and charity for those in need despite their own extreme poverty.

The writings of James are also a reminder to Christians of how they are to treat one another. James exhorts, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well (2:8).” James is summing up the Old Testament law in a phrase of love toward one’s neighbor. If one is to be a Christian and bear Christ’s name he must be Christ-like in his love for others.

In one of the most controversial passages of Scripture James wrote,

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14–17).

It is not possible to be Christ-like and intentionally reject helping the destitute, especially if they are in the family of faith. Although helping the poor and destitute does not gain one’s salvation, charity and love are fruits of the Christian life and they are the natural outgrowth of being a Christ follower (Eph. 2:10). David Scaer explains that these verses speak to the very practical problem of the “deference to the rich and the criminal ignoring of the poor contradicted by God’s generous attitude to all men in Christ.”[6] Luther understood that love of neighbor was essential for pastoral care and Christian caregiving.

Martin Luther’s pastoral care for the traumatized can be read and analyzed in his nineteen pastoral letters that were written to those who suffered from despair, depression, and melancholy. Dr. Stephen Pietsch translated Luther’s letters and observed that Luther would weave recommendations of hymn singing, scripture reading, prayer, and that he would conclude with a blessing or commendation to God.[7] An example of this was in Luther’s letter to Mrs. Jonas von Stockhausen whose husband was in deep depression. After some advice, Luther wrote, “Then quickly repeat some comforting sayings from Scripture.”[8] Luther also wrote to Stockhausen’s husband Jonas, and after encouraging him with Scripture and sound advice, he concluded his letter with a blessing, “I commit you to our beloved Lord, the only Saviour and the true conqueror, Jesus Christ. May he guard his victory and triumph over the devil in your heart. May he bring us all joy through the help he gives you, and the miracle he does in you. For this we confidently hope and pray, just as he has commanded and promised, us. Amen.”[9] Luther also encouraged his friends, like Matthias Weller, to sing hymns during dark times,

“when you are depressed, and it is all threatening to take over, say: ‘Up you get! I must play a hymn to the Lord on my regal (it could be the Te Deum Laudamus or the Benedictus), for the Scriptures teach me that it pleases the Lord to hear a joyful hymn played on stringed instruments.’ Then begin playing the keys and singing along, as David and Elisha did, until your depressed thoughts go away.”[10]

Pietsch linked Luther’s care for the traumatized as part of Christian consolatio which stemmed from the medieval tradition of mercy to those in distress. Pietsch explains, “Luther wanted to lift up the duty of all Christians of all classes to comfort others as the mandatum Christi–a task commanded by Christ and related directly to his work. This duty is shared by all Christians, lay and ordained, and is part of loving and suffering with the neighbour.”[11] Luther viewed comforting others as part of the work of the priesthood of all believers, not as something that should only be done by church workers. After a disaster, it is important that fellow Christians know the right words to say and Scripture to use or at least to have a dependable guide.

In 1528, the Wittenberg theologians were grappling with consolation of the sick and dying. “Philipp Melanchthon was the first evangelical reformer to include a specific treatment of suffering in a church ordinance; he did so in his enormously influential 1528 Instructions for the Visitors.”[12] Ronald Rittgers,  states that in the same year, Andreas Osiander wrote Articles of Doctrine, which contained a statement about the adversity of ministry to the sick and dying during visitation.[13] Rittgers sums up Osiander’s five points of ministry to those who suffer as: 1) the sovereignty of God over evil, 2) the love or benevolence of God, 3) the Christian to take up his cross, 4) remember the presence of Christ in suffering, and 5) the educational nature that this suffering brings to the Christian.[14]  Additionally, Osiander believed that the devil had been causing more suffering and calamity upon Christians since Martin Luther rediscovered the Gospel.[15] In 1540, Lutheran pastor Jacob Stratner wrote a Kirchenordnung to minister to the sick and dying. No doubt the tragic plague of 1527 would have been influential on the writing of this church order. “The ordinance was sent to Wittenberg for comment, where Luther, Melanchthon, and Jonas approved its contents.”[16] Although, Stratner’s church order was helpful for visitation and even had a section for lay visitation[17] it was understandably focused on death and dying from sickness and disease, not natural disasters.


[1] Matthew C. Harrison, Christ Have Mercy: How to Put Your Faith in Action (St. Louis: Concordia, 2008), 41.

[2] R.C.H. Lenski, Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1961), 398–399.

[3] Other Biblical references that include σπλαγχνίζομαι are: Matt. 18:21–35, Matt. 15:32–39, Mark 1:40–45, and Luke 15:11–32.

[4] “While every single Christian should admittedly show mercy toward everyone, even toward strangers (even people of other faiths), he should first do this in such a way that he does it well ‘especially to those who are of the household of faith’ (Gal. 6:10); and, second, it should be kept in mind that the congregation’s charitable fund is not established so much for supporting the poor in general as the poor of the congregation. Therefore, as a rule, only the latter should be supported from it.” Walther, Pastoral Theology, 353.

[5] Mark A. Seifrid, The Second Letter to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans, 2014), 317.

[6] David P. Scaer, James the Apostle of Faith: A Primary Christological Epistle for the Persecuted Church (St. Louis: Concordia, 1983), 89.

[7] Stephen Pietsch, Of Good Comfort: Martin Luther’s Letters to the Depressed and Their Significance for Pastoral Care Today (Adelaide: ATF Theology, 2016), 16.

[8] Pietsch, Of Good Comfort, 277.

[9] Pietsch, Of Good Comfort, 279.

[10] Pietsch, Of Good Comfort, 287.

[11] Pietsch, Of Good Comfort, 17.

[12] Ronald K. Rittgers, The Reformation of Suffering: Pastoral Theology and Lay Piety in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 176.

[13] Rittgers, The Reformation of Suffering, 176.

[14] For a thorough explanation of these points, see Rittgers, The Reformation of Suffering, 177.

[15] “There was nothing new about the idea that Satan opposed the church and caused suffering and persecution, but reformers such as Osiander believed that such demonic activity had increased since Luther’s discovery of the gospel. The devil opposed evangelical Christians with unprecedented fury, because he knew that they alone possessed the weapon that would cause his doom. In light of this heightened demonic resistance, Osiander argues that ‘it is absolutely necessary for the servants of the Word dutifully instruct, console, and strengthen their people so that they will be able to know what to do in the midst of suffering and learn to overcome it with patience.’” Rittgers, The Reformation of Suffering, 176.

[16] Rittgers, The Reformation of Suffering, 170.

[17] Rittgers, The Reformation of Suffering, 171.