Chronic Illness

Those with chronic illnesses often experience comprehensive alienation. They are alienated from their own lives because they can't fully participate in parenting or marriage or anything else that gives life. They are alienated from their own bodies, which seem to fight against them. They are alienated from others, who pass judgment when they don't understand chronic illness or how to respond well. They are alienated from financial security because of treatment expense and time away from work. Chronic illness effects every corner of a person's life, and those who seek God in suffering desire comprehensive restoration.

Those who come to God for his healing and compassion find many stories in the gospels of Jesus showing love to the chronically ill, but these can be frustrating to read.  Jesus didn't refuse healing to anyone during his earthly ministry, but there are many today who receive prayer for healing and remain sick. Faith played a significant role in the healing stories, so what is someone to think about their own faith if they receive prayer for healing and remain ill? The following questions are common:

  • If God loves me, why is this happening?
  • Is something wrong with me or my faith?
  • What should I do to engage with God?
  • Even if I'm not healed, where is God in my suffering?

When chronic illness becomes the central reality in a person's life and everything else seems to revolve around it, God's silence in the midst of pain can be the most excruciating experience of alienation. While there are no simple responses to any of these questions, we will look at each of them in turn.

If God Loves Me, Why Is This Happening?

While it is natural for you to want to know why this is happening to you, few of the most prominent figures in scripture were given the reason for their hardship when it was happening. Abraham was told that he would be the father of many nations at age 75, and yet he was never told why he would have to wait until age 100 to see the birth of Isaac. Before Joseph was second in command to Pharaoh, he spent many years in slavery and then prison in Egypt, and he was never told why this was happening. After David was anointed king by Samuel, he spent many years running for his life from King Saul before finally becoming king, and he was never told why. After reading these stories in full and seeing how God brought good out of the mess, many things become clear

  • God never abandoned them
  • Those years in hardship were not wasted because they were being prepared for what was to come - nothing in God's economy is ever wasted
  • There was never one single reason why they faced so much trouble - God was accomplishing many things at once
  • Where they ended up looked much different from where they started. God had no intention of "making it like it was before."
  • Their hardship wasn't just about them - the lives of others were at stake
  • God provided no escape routes for their suffering

In searching for the central "why" to our suffering, there will never be any easy answers. And yet, God is powerful, he loves you, and he can bring good out of this illness. It may seem like these years are nothing but a meaningless waiting period before something happens and "real life" finally begins. However, God is not bored or in a hurry waiting for your life to be restored, because he is after all of you.

Is There Something Wrong With Me Or My Faith?

Faith is important because God wants nothing less than your entire life. Not just the feeling of faith that surfaces every now and then, and not just the decisions you make day to day - he wants you to love him with your heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30). He is not waiting around for you to figure out the one thing you think will change everything, which can be called the "If I Just" game:

  • "If I just repent of all the sins I can think of, maybe he will respond to me."
  • "If I just do this sacrificial thing for God, maybe he will respond to me."
  • "If I just summon up enough faith, and stop having all this anger and frustration towards him, maybe he will respond to me."

The If I Just game places all the emphasis on you and your efforts, and it stands in opposition to the character of Jesus demonstrated in all of his healing stories. It also attempts to boil down the reason for suffering into a single overly simplistic answer. There may not be a silver bullet that will change everything, but that doesn't mean that you should do nothing.

What Should I Do To Engage With God?

There are a number of ways to respond to God in chronic illness.

Keep Coming to God

If you are so angry at God that you don't know how to talk to him without being angry, bring him your anger. If you are sad and confused and don't know what to say to God, tell him that you don't know what to say and keep coming back to him. He wants all of you, and this gives him exactly what he wants. 

Keep Looking For a Medical Solution

Don't limit God in the way he responds to your prayer, as his answer may come through medical treatment. Keep looking for a medical solution and be open to God providing suggestions through others.

Eat well and exercise

Your body may seem like your enemy at times, but it is important to commit it to God through exercise and good eating habits. Even if you only have the capacity to take a short walk every now and then, this can make a difference. 

Stay In Community

The importance of staying involved in a church community cannot be overstated. There is a tendency for chronically ill people to withdraw from church because of energy capacity and because they don't want to be a bother. It takes vulnerability to share the messiness of your condition with others, but shame and fear can cause you to isolate yourself in an unhealthy way. You were never meant to walk this road alone, and you need support from those who can care for you.

Read scripture in community

While it is important to read scripture on your own, it may be more important for you to do this in a bible study or small group. Depending on your illness, fatigue or distraction or frustration with God may make it more difficult for you to stay engaged with scripture. You need to hear other perspectives about the character of God and his work of redemption, and others need to hear from you.

Get prayer for healing in community

Jesus asked a man who had been invalid for 38 years, "Do you want to be healed?" The man could only answer by pointing out all of the obstacles preventing him from being healed in the only way he thought it could work (Jn 5:2-9). You may have given up hope years ago of being healed, or you may not even have a grid that God could or would do this. Jesus said,
“Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours" (Mark 11:22-24).

This is a striking passage because there doesn't seem to be any room for uncertainty. It can be difficult to ask for something this big because you may know people who were prayed for and remained ill, and you don't want to set your expectations too high and end up disappointed. Put your faith in who God is and not what you think he is going to do. He loves you, so ask him for healing and ask people in your church community to pray with you for healing. Even if you are not healed the first time, keep asking and keep receiving prayer.
14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven (James 5:14-15). 

Notice the last line from verse 15 above. When you are receiving healing prayer, ask God if there are areas where you need to repent and receive forgiveness. In Psalm 38, David was vividly aware of a link between his sin and his pain that was evidently physical as well as emotional: "There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin" (v.3). This doesn't mean that your sin is causing your illness, but it does give you the opportunity to ask for and receive God's comprehensive restoration.

Serve your church and community

You may not be physically capable of doing heavy lifting during the Sunday service, and you may not be in a place where you can lead in a ministry role, but you do have something to offer your church and community. Even if the work is administrative, ask how you can help and stick with it for as long as you can.

Where Is God In My Suffering?

1 As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him (John 9:1-3).
In the midst of your pain, how are the "works of God" already being displayed in your life? The entire story of the bible shows us a relentlessly redeeming God who is constantly meeting his people in their mess.  The presence of the Holy Spirit in you means that God is as close as he was before you were ill, and he is in the business of bringing life out of death.

Have you allowed the people in your church to care for you in your illness? God desires for us to experience his care through other Christians, so isolating ourselves from our church community can close us off from him.

How is God showing you what it means to be fully human? As you become vividly aware of your own limitations and weakness, do you have more grace with the weaknesses of others? As you become more patient with yourself, are you more patient with others? Do you find that you are no longer able to strive after that which God never wanted for you in the first place? This doesn't mean that you are being punished - it means that your pain is not wasted and God is doing a good work in the midst of it.

In learning what it means to be human, we have a greater appreciation for Jesus, who became human to show us what it means to be fully human. He came to his people when they were suffering under the control of the Roman empire, and in his crucifixion, he suffered more than any of us will ever know. In your illness, you put your faith in Jesus, who loved you as he suffered to save and redeem you.


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