5 Lessons from Ephesians on Caring for the Sick & Distressed

A hospital bed with symbols representing people caring for one another as displayed in Ephesians 2–4.

Caring for the sick and distressed is a God-given opportunity to show love and good works in God’s presence, by his power, and in collaboration with others.

Mutual care was a vital way members of the earliest churches related to one another. Likewise, Paul includes care for others as a key theme throughout his writings. One such place is his letter to the Ephesians.

A number of the themes Paul describes in Ephesians illuminate the reality of caring for others. Paul speaks about God’s love and good works, our call to share with those in need, and how God by his grace enables us to do so. These truths inform how we understand and carry out good works to help those who are struggling.

Synthesizing these themes from Ephesians, we define Christian care as practically taking our part in God’s good works of love by his power and within teams of support. Or as I often restate this: “Do good, as you can, with everything you have, in the love of God.”

In Ephesians, Paul provides us a workable approach to caring for one another. He attends to God’s initiative in drawing us into the care of his people, addresses our motivations, and takes into account both our limitations as well as God’s transformative power. Paul focuses on concrete actions at the time and with whatever people, personal, and structural resources we have available. He does not overwhelm us, expecting us to take on the full picture of what we might fact (e.g., a psychosis diagnosis or the breakdown of a marriage) muster global resolutions to distress. Rather, his instructions remain tightly focused on tangible next steps, keeping care within our reach.

In the following article, I provide five important principles of Christian pastoral care from Ephesians 2–4:

  1. Caring for others is a normal part of God’s good plan for everyone involved
  2. Christlike care must witness to God’s renewing love and wisdom
  3. God strengthens our inner spirit so that we may be able to care in ways that go beyond our natural capacities and personal histories
  4. Christ’s transforming love for us motivates our care
  5. The best care takes place within community and the wider body of Christ (the church)

1. Care for others is part of God’s good plan for everyone involved

God calls all Christians to care for the sick and distressed. At numerous points in our lives, God may deliberately involve us in caring for people who are experiencing illness or affliction. All believers are called to good works.

For we [all] are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph 2:10).1

God has brought each of us into a life of good works that he designs as right for us and for those for whom we care.

Since the new life into which we’ve been called is a life in community (Eph 4:1–6:9), these “good works” involve our care for others. Our new life in Christ entails a deep awareness and empathy for each other in good and hard times. As one part of the community of Christ suffers, we all suffer with them; and when one part of the community is honored, then we all rejoice (1 Cor 12:26). God designs for our good works to occur alongside life’s ups and downs, as part of our suffering and rejoicing with one another as we journey together toward heaven.

One outcome of our salvation from sin and selfishness is that it produces selfless care for others. God’s gift to us of new life in Christ means that we may become a gift to one another. Care for the sick and distressed, in other words, is not an “optional extra” in the Christian life. Rather, it is normal and essential to it. Each of us is called to care when another suffering. Inevitably, circumstances will arise in each of our lives when we will be called to care for others, and we need to have our eyes open for those moments.

One outcome of our salvation from sin and selfishness is that it produces selfless care for others. God’s gift to us of new life in Christ means that we may become a gift to one another.

In his story of the good Samaritan, Jesus shows us that the good works God has prepared for us often meet us in the course of our everyday experience. The Samaritan powerfully exemplifies the ideal response to this God-given opportunity to care for another: as noted above, “Care as you can, with what you have, by the love of God.”

The good Samaritan does not need to go out of his way to find someone who is profoundly sick and unwell—“half dead” (Luke 10:30). So don’t worry. We will not miss out on opportunities to care for others. God can bring them to us. God brings this beaten man into contact with the Samaritan during his ordinary routine. God orchestrates this moment. God knows who is involved and what good works are possible. Notice how God works in both lives involved: he deliberately places the assaulted man on his path, and likewise deliberately brings the Samaritan into the path of this victimized man. In other words, care for the sick and distressed involves good works that God prepares for us to do. He plans them.

Care requires compassion. When the Samaritan sees the wounded man, he instinctively responds as any follower of Jesus should: “he took pity on him” (Luke 10:33). Paul promotes this attitude towards others when he says, “be kind and compassionate to one another” (Eph 4:32). Compassion ought to serve as our default attitude towards others, both other Christians, but also non-Christians. When we adopt this perspective, we will not miss those opportunities God gives us for good works.

Good works are good for everyone involved. Care for others not only benefits those who receive the help, but also those who extend it. In providing care for others, caregivers grow in Christlike character. For instance, by responding compassionately to the beaten man, the good Samaritan becomes an even more compassionate person than he was before. By offering care to this man, his kindness and compassion are exercised and developed. Therefore, in addition to the good works the Samaritan does by caring for the beaten man, God also works good for the good Samaritan as he grows in virtue as a result of the encounter. Caring for others is a normal, expected part of God’s good plan to work good for everyone involved.

Our participation in God’s care for others also includes an emotional dimension: we may experience peace and joy as we extend God’s influence through care. As Paul says, God’s kingdom consists of “peace, righteousness and joy in the Spirit” (Rom 14:17). This peace and joy provides as serenity in the midst of the sadness and grief that so often accompanies caring for others through hardship.

2. Christlike care witnesses to God’s loving wisdom

God reveals his wisdom as those he saves through Christ extend care for others. Paul provides this insight:

His [God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Eph 3:10–10)

What God accomplishes in the church through Christ serves as a revelation of his wisdom. God shows his wisdom by involving the church in works carried out in the character, power, and presence of Christ. Therefore, Christian care ought to be guided by the question: Will our care show the Christ-focused wisdom of God? Will it reveal Christ’s character, power, and presence?

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As we care for others, we show God’s wisdom. These good works that God has prepared for us to do (Eph 2:10) display his good judgment. God’s marvelous and sometimes unforeseen plan is that we all receive grace “as Christ apportioned it” (Eph 4:7). This “grace” refers to the capacities Christ gives the members of his body to serve in various ways. Each part of Christ’s body works towards supporting one another’s growth in love.

From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Eph 4:16)

God’s way of offering care to the sick and distressed ordinarily comes through people supporting each other. This is God’s way, his wise way.

In addition to showing God’s wisdom, caregiving also demonstrates God’s love as everyone involved becomes more loving. The “whole body” develops and flourishes “in love, as each part does its work” (Eph 4:16). We grow in love towards others so that they too may grow to become more loving towards others. Therefore, the goal of Christian care for the sick and distressed is not limited to its psychological and social aspects; it includes the spiritual goal of becoming increasing loving like Christ.

The manner of our care also matters. Our care must reflect the affectionate wisdom of God. God’s wise way involves sacrificial love, as modeled by Jesus’ own costly charity for others.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Eph 5:1–2)

Jesus sets the pattern for the kind of love to which we are called. In love, he sacrificially freed us from the spiritual sickness and distress from which we could not heal ourselves. As care-providers, we aim to “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us” (Eph 5:2). We care as those who have put “on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24).

Practically speaking—and this is admittedly hard to do—this often means offering, organizing, and providing care with sensitivity to avoid negative reactions in the midst of very difficult situations. The struggles involved in caring for others can easily lead us to “bitterness, rage and anger” (Eph 4:31), whether directed at care systems, groups of people, or even select persons involved. Care for the sick therefore involves attending to our attitude. We must be “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph 4:32). By doing so, we will be better able to show God’s wisdom and experience its transformative power. Practically speaking, these attitudes also likely contribute to positive coping behaviors and correlate to better health outcomes.

3. God strengthens our inner spirit as we care for others

God strengthen us to carry out good works for others that we could not do on our own.

Caring for the sick and distressed can be very daunting. For example, I recently had a conversation with a dying friend. I found it nearly overwhelming as painful kind of sadness seemed to flood my life for many days afterwards. During that time, I felt incapable of caring for anyone else because I had nothing more to give. I worried I was going to sink beneath grey waves of grief.

On another occasion, I struggled to deal with a relative’s complex and draining paperwork. It seemed too big and way beyond my abilities. I knew I had to help, but I felt so overburdened. It seemed insurmountable. I had no inner energy or inclination to care anymore. As someone who usually wants to participate in God’s care for others, this was a particularly difficult place to find myself.

At times like these, I have been deeply encouraged by the fact that God can strengthen us to care for others. In Ephesians 3:14–16, Paul prays,

I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being.

The truth that the living God gives me strength sustains me even when I feel weak, tired, and unable to care for others.

Paul’s prayer is especially helpful for those of us who are worn down by life’s trials and feel we have little left to offer. Paul himself had been through appalling illnesses, interpersonal conflicts, personal losses, and even torture. Yet these things do not undermine his understanding of God’s good parental concern. Paul perseveres, not because he is a “high-capacity person” able to carry on when the rest of us cannot. Rather, Paul perseveres in ministry despite great difficulties because God himself strengthens his inner spirit. Paul experiences the love and presence of the Father in his inner spirit.

Paul prays that God would also strengthen this small Ephesian church in their inmost selves may so that they may be channels of his gracious and surprising healing—for each others’ good and God’s glory.

Paul refers to this inner spirit, or inner person, in 2 Corinthians 4:16, where God renews and enlarges this inner person even though the outer person is wearing away.2

The inner spirit is our fundamental self, our identity and capacity. In Jesus’s words, the inner self is the “inner room,” the heart, where we most deeply experience the love and presence of God. It is where we experience intimate prayer with our Father in heaven:

When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matt 6:6)

Paul describes how God restores our inmost being through his gift of the Spirit (4:16): we receive the love of Christ (4:17). Paul prays that these Christians may be strengthened at the core of who they are by the power of the Father’s might, channeled to believers via the Holy Spirit.3

As Paul says, God strengthens “with power through his Spirit in your inner being” (4:16). The Spirit’s presence and power strengthens us with stability and resilience.

The presence and power of God’s Spirit within us may heal and refresh our soul so that we may no longer be weighed down by life’s wear and tear. The Spirit may also renew our wounded natural faculties as he heals those pained, depressed, and angry areas of our self—those aspects of ourselves that often flood our whole sense of self and purpose. In essence, the Holy Spirit may grant us a renewed spirit of “power, love and self-discipline” (2 Tim 1:7) so that we are no longer afraid to be open to God and others.

Such renewing of our own inner spirit is critical if we are to care for others. Many of us carry unhealed wounds, even ones we may not be able to recognize. Yet they hinder our energy for God and our capacity to care for other people.4

God can heal deep unacknowledged places of pain within us that we cannot conceive and which we often cannot name.

Therefore, before we are able to care for others, the Father’s strengthening Spirit opens us to the possibility of experiencing God’s own safe and non-abusive presence. Openness to God’s care for our inner self can have tremendous effects on our spirit, mental health, and relationships. Once we have begun our own process of healing, we may be helpfully involved in the healing stories of others.

Once we have begun our own process of healing, we may be helpfully involved in the healing stories of others.

Such profound transformation is possible with God. At certain points in our lives, we may find it hard to imagine or hope for. Yet Paul assures us that it is so. In fact, such is the life-giving power of God that Paul prays from his own experience:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! (Eph 3:20–21)

4. Christian care is energized by Christ’s own presence and love

Christ’s own love for his people is what energizes Christian care for the sick and distressed. Christ’s personal love for us and presence within us motivates us to care for others. His loving presence renews us to care for others in ways we might not have otherwise.

We have already noted that care stems from two gifts:

  1. God calls us into his good works,
  2. and he strengthens our inner spirit to do them.

Now we encounter a third gift: Jesus’s transformative life and influence within us.

In Ephesians 3, Paul writes that God strengthens our inner spirit so that we may receive the presence and love of Christ, thereby become more loving towards other people. Notice how receiving Christ within ourselves is the key to being strengthened. Paul prays that,

The Holy Spirit opens us to receive Jesus Christ’s presence into the very core of our self and our capacities, what Paul calls the heart. Jesus calls us to cooperate with his presence and work within us: we receive him by faith as well as the responsibilities he gives us. Filled with his presence, our care for others flows out of a profound appreciation that we are loved by Jesus. Paul prays that

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Christ’s love for us is so great that it touches every register of who we are: the spiritual, cognitive, biological, emotional, and psychological. The magnitude of Jesus’s love is so grand that it is beyond head knowledge (even though it includes that). His love cannot be reduced to words alone. Because Christ’s love is an affection that can be sensed, experienced, and known, it has an impact that can be seen and noticed over time. It encloses and supports our new life, establishing and rooting us in God’s own life. It thereby enables us to love others, bring God glory, and share in Jesus’s joy.

Filled with his presence, our care for others flows out of a profound appreciation that we are loved by Jesus.

Jesus explains how being rooted in him leads to love for others, including care for the sick and distressed.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit … This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples … I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. (John 15:5–12)

The proof of the grandeur of Christ’s love is the powerful impact it has on our lives and our love for others. This is what Paul means when he says that, as an extension of knowing Christ’s love, “you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19). Being “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” refers to being fully alive to God’s love as we love him and respond in love to others. We express the love we have received from Christ by caring for the sick and distressed.

Interestingly, many of the caregivers I know do not need to be taught to show Christ’s love by their actions. One does not need to explain to them that their care stems from their own experience of God’s love. Having been loved by God, they simply extend that love by caring for those who are struggling. The best way to grow in love, becoming the loving person we are meant to be, is to put our faith into action.

Importantly, putting our faith into action is the best way to grow in love and thus become the loving person we are meant to be. So, the fourth principle for Christian care from Ephesians is that Christian care is motivated by God’s active, present, and transformative love. Our motivation to care flows out of our own vital experience and knowledge of God himself. We are not motivated by performance indicators, money, or any personal benefits; rather, the “love of Christ compels us” (2 Cor 5:14).

5. The best care takes place within wise communities of care

To provide the best care, we must be people of “righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24) who are able to recognize the sort of care that’s needed for a given situation. Though we may want a hospital system or church to provide the entirety of one’s care, both are required in many instances.

The best way to care for the sick and distressed is a team approach, involving both secular and Christian caretakers. My work as a nurse always involved clinical teams. This same team principle applies as we include Christian care in the lives of the sick and distressed.

Medical teams involve people with varying degrees of expertise and experience—physicians, nurses, and allied health—all working within evidence-based systems and pathways for care. In a clinical setting, we may work within a system of care involving various departments, each operating with high standards of professionalism.

Christians at times find themselves working in both the medical field and the body of Christ, which also has high levels of specialty and ethical standards. Such Christians, therefore, participate in two team systems of care: the secular health system and the church.

Paul uses the analogy of the body to explain Christian networks of care. This healthy body, “joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph 4:16).

The body of Christ is an organic union of people who all contribute to the body’s well-being by each member doing its part.

Recognizing that care is available in both of these spheres (the secular health system and the church), we encourage people to receive care in both. The biological, psychological, and social aspects are treated in hospital systems, whereas the psychological, social, and spiritual may be best dealt with in church settings.

But distinguishing the two also helps us clarify where to seek help for given conditions. For example, psychosis needs a biologically based medication regime that the church may offer through its own hospital networks or through referring people to secular hospitals. The Christian community needs wisdom to recognize how best help when overlap exists between these networks of care.

Naturally, the church can provide its own specialized services, such as those offered by pastors or people gifted with mercy (Eph 4:11; Rom 12:3–8). The church’s best resource is its God-empowered people. For instance, see how Paul describes Titus’s care for the Corinthians:

Thanks be to God, who put into the heart of Titus the same concern I have for you. For Titus not only welcomed our appeal, but he is coming to you with much enthusiasm. (2 Cor 8:16–17)

This passage shows that God may direct his people to care for one another beyond geographical or social barriers.

However, we must also acknowledge the limitations to the kind of care the church can offer—and there is no shame in this. Best-practice care means being people of “righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24) who rightly seek out the best care for a given condition. This means recognizing what care is right for a given situation.


Ephesians’ perspective makes a tremendous difference to how we understand our involvement in caring for the sick and distressed. Though I find both caregiving (and receiving care) challenging at times, the letter to the Ephesians has refreshed my expectations for these seasons. It brings awareness that God deliberately and usefully involves us all in care for others. God wants us involved in care. He has not made a mistake. Christlike fingerprints may be seen on our hands as we extend them in care. And fortunately, we offer care within a supernatural and medical network that goes beyond our limited capacities.

I am grateful to be involved in caring for others. It is where the loving, empowering presence of God has me today.

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  1. All biblical quotations are from the NIV, unless otherwise indicated.
  2. Frank Thielman, Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 230.
  3. Thielman, Ephesians, 229–30.
  4. As Bessel van der Kolk points out, “all trauma is preverbal … Trauma victims themselves become literally speechless—when the language area of the brain shuts down.” Bessel Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), 43, 244.
Written by
Scott Harrower

Rev. Dr. Scott Harrower is a former nurse who teaches theology and mental health at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. He has authored multiple books on how Christians may recover from trauma, and teaches regularly on these topics.

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