Most of us take life for granted: our job, financial security, friendships, recreational opportunities, physical strength, appearance, self-identity, future goals, dreams, independence, choices. We may even believe that we are entitled to some of these things. But when health fails, each of these aspects of life are either lost as well, or are altered beyond recognition. Chronic illness affects everything in life and everyone close by. It begs the question, “Can any good come of suffering?”
Sometimes, it is only when we lose something that we realise how much it meant to us. We tend to take for granted the gifts of God. Also, we tend to categorise something as a blessing or a curse based on the world’s standards. Yet as Christians, if we actually believe the message of the gospel, we have another way to measure what is of value, and who is of value.
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
Unfortunately, some who experience chronic illness, as well as some of their loved ones, presume that the illness is a curse to be shunned. Consequently, their attitude, and eventually their entire life, becomes limited to smallness and bitterness. They (or others) assume that they are unloved by God, passed by, and their existence has therefore lost meaning. However, the Bible’s various stories of suffering suggest otherwise.
“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12)
“Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights, and hunger; . . . dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” (2 Corinthians 6:4-10)
In a fallen world, it would appear that suffering in one form or another is to be expected. Is it then to be endured stoically, with a sense of resignation and grim rigidity? Or is it possible to learn from our pain something of importance that can be learned in no other way? Adversity, though a harsh medium, can be an unexpected vehicle of grace. We are invited to experience Jesus uniquely in the midst of our suffering.
“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4)
Chronic illness, for both the ill person and their loved ones, is suffering. Family and friends often feel helpless to stop the suffering. They often view the illness as temporary, or solvable, as a way to manage their own anxiety and heartache. Often, this is expressed in subtle ways, but it adds pressure and a feeling of being misunderstood or alienated in the person with the illness.
The need for a listening ear
People with a chronic illness need a listening ear. They don’t want others’ pity, or to have their identity defined by the illness. It’s not who they are; it’s only part of their life. Someone simply asking, “What does this mean for you?” and truly listening to the response, is helpful.
People with a chronic illness also appreciate it when someone asks, “What would be useful to you?,” instead of making assumptions without understanding the situation from the recipient’s perspective.
The benefits of journalling
Spiritual questions are often a significant part of the adjustment process. As the reality that the illness is not temporary sets in, “Why me?” is a common question. Journalling can be a useful way to reflect and process the grief. And it’s important that friends and loved ones allow the person who is suffering to “be wherever they’re at” in the process.
Many sufferers testify that, through the process of grappling with the hard questions and grieving their losses, their faith matures and their relationship with God deepens. They often come to regard their illness as a gift that frees them from self-reliance, independence of God, and living by the terms of their capabilities. As they realise how much they need God on a moment-to-moment basis, they often progress through a stage of humiliation, leading to humility, as they ask for and receive help from others.
Learning to let go
Grief is ongoing over the long term, as new losses and changes must be faced. Friendships and family relationships change. Priorities change. Along with the limitations and suffering, choices must be made about how to live with new realities. Learning to let go of expectations is huge, as is learning to choose the important battles and not sweat the small stuff.
There will still be melt-downs, pain, frustration, relational rejections, and wishing for life the way it used to be. But the goal, in spite of the suffering, is to live life richly and fully, with new meaning and purpose. Best of all, to live in close fellowship with a God who understands, and is there to meet with you in your suffering.