Caring for the Caregiver

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Throughout history, poets and scholars have attempted to define love. In one of its most challenging descriptions, the Apostle Paul states that love “endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). Paul’s words on love in 1 Corinthians are often read at weddings, but few people comprehend the demands of a love that is tested by prolonged or incurable illness. In that context, caregivers are a unique model of Paul’s practical definition of love.

The experience of caring for a loved one is as unique as the illness or the experience of dying itself. Innumerable books and articles continue to be written for caregivers precisely because each caregiving experience is as unique as each individual relationship between caregiver and loved one.

The unexpected is the new normal, but there is a way to prepare for the unexpected.

When God commanded Joshua to lead the Hebrews across the Jordan into the Promised Land, He didn’t provide the new leader with a daily battle plan. He did, however, let Joshua know of His constant presence in life and death: “I promise you what I promised Moses: Wherever you set foot, you will be on land I have given you… I will be with you as I was with Moses. I will not fail you or abandon you (Joshua 1:3,5). In like manner, Jesus sent the disciples in the general direction of “all nations” with the specific promise to always be with them: “Jesus came and told His disciples, ‘I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20).

We do not know the future, but we know who holds the future. Jesus is the same today, yesterday and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8). His abiding presence and unchanging promises sustain us in the midst of ever-changing terrain. A Christian caregiver’s first responsibility and primary relationship is to God. Attending to soul care is necessary for a caregiver to continue to give care. The essentials of Christian discipleship—prayer, Bible study, fellowship and worship—are all the more important for any person providing lengthy care to a fellow sojourner.

Motivation Is Everything

Understanding why you have chosen to care for someone can also be very helpful. Why we do something is as important as what we do. Our hearts, more than our actions, are the truest test of who we are: “The Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7).

When asked about their role, some caregivers may reply, “It’s the right thing to do.” Others may say, “I’m repaying a debt of love.” An adult child often says, “She took care of me when I was young.” Others might see the example of such care as a model for younger children in the home. Some find the care of a loved one thrust upon them because no one else is available. Motivation reveals our truest self. Reflection on the reason or reasons why we do something is key to doing it well. Knowing and reminding ourselves about the “why” of caregiving can provide renewed strength in the midst of mental, emotional and physical weariness.

Thinking about the future God has in store can help us deal with day-to-day challenges. Focusing on heaven reminds us that we are destined for a time and place where suffering not only ends, but is entirely forgotten. “Look, God’s home is now among His people! He will live with them, and they will be His people. God Himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” (Revelation 21:3-4). Reading Scripture or books that speak about eternity serve as a tiller for a trouble-tossed soul, steering us toward our eternal harbor. In this sense, heavenly mindedness actually increases our earthly good. Scripture teaches that all creation groans in expectation of the redemption of our earthly bodies (Romans 8:19-23). Such anticipation doesn’t ignore the truth of what is happening; it provides an accurate picture of reality. After all, humans are the key and model for God’s design in all creation. According to Paul, who was no stranger to suffering, this hope for such a divinely orchestrated future actually saves us both daily and eternally. “We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as His adopted children, including the new bodies He has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (Romans 8:24).

Source of Strength

Sadly, caregiving can isolate a person, which can then disorient his or her thinking and emotions. God deemed Adam’s aloneness “not good” (Genesis 2:18). The exercise of naming the animals made our first parent very aware that he was alone and reminded him of his need for Eve (Genesis 2:20-22). Just as God lives in eternal community, He has called everyone to live in fellowship with other people. Jesus intimately understood the stress of caregiving and sent His disciples out to minister in pairs so they could support one another. Much of the early church’s strength amid persecution originated in their constant fellowship. And Paul reminds believers that one of heaven’s greatest joys is that “we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). That fellowship can be found in church gatherings, hobbyist groups, interaction with neighbors, family and friends. Every caregiver can benefit from such nourishing, replenishing relationships.

Like community, rest is not a selfish endeavor. It is essential to a caregiver’s health, which has a direct bearing on the person for whom we are caring. God did not rest because He was weary, but as a model for all creation. Rest gives us the time and space to “think on what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8), qualities essential to holistic health. Ultimately, rest implies trust in the Lord—that we and those we love are His divine responsibility. Life without rest is an attempt to be God, and no human can bear that infinite weight. Know your limits and live within them. Eat and sleep well, exercise regularly and do something else for yourself.

No Greater Love

The greatest encouragement in caregiving is Jesus Christ Himself, the ultimate Giver of care and the Bible’s quintessential definition of love. God did not simply watch His creation fall and suffer, He entered into it. He endured all the trials and temptations we suffer. And Jesus uniquely understands both roles. Before He died on the cross, angels cared for Him in the garden. He knows what it means to give and receive care. As such, caregivers and care-receivers can learn from His loving, humble example. His life provides our model and motivation. His Spirit provides our means. The fact that He cared and suffered makes both caring and suffering meaningful and worthwhile.

Looking for a definition of love? Jesus described it in terms of caregiving: “Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13). This makes every caregiver someone for whom Jesus cares.

Reggie Weems, DMin, PhD, has served as senior pastor at Heritage Baptist Church in Johnson City, TN since 1991. His books include “Help! I’m Living with a Terminal Illness.”