No Pain, No Gain – Chronic Illness and the Christian Church

thorns

Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,

My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.”

2 Corinthians 12:7 (The Message)

As I write this, I have the flu. I think I am on day six of it. Every once in a while, I get up to get water or crackers and notice that the sun has made an entire rotation around the earth since the last trip to get water and crackers. And one week prior to getting sick with the flu, I had a freak allergic reaction and infection from a spider bite. And three times previous to that in the past month, I have had debilitating migraines. I have a lot of horrible migraines, for which there are harbingers of auras, sensitivity to sound, and numbness of my face (always disconcerting, that one.)

I get sick a lot. My immune system is not terribly strong, and I have a lot of pain and inflammation issues. If you saw me, you might see a healthy middle-aged person, a little fluffy and dented,  but well. Illnesses don’t always show on the outside. Oftentimes, the erosion is on the inside, where you cannot see.

Some of my dear friends also suffer from ‘invisible illnesses’ – ranging from bi-polar to nerve diseases, diabetes to chronic fatigue. They are health issues that are chronic – meaning more or less constant. Many of them are followers of Jesus Christ, such as myself.  Chronic illness reminds me of alcoholism, in that I seemed to serendipitously end up as a member of a club I didn’t choose to join.

I do, however, get to choose my membership in the body of Christ, which needs to better deal with some of the realities on this planet – chronic illness being one.  I am not the only Christian who has felt awkward about her health problems in the Church proper (not my particular church, which kind of ‘gets it’ on the level … but the church in general.)

Many in the Christian community don’t really know what to do with chronic illness – of that I am convinced.

I believe in miracles all day long. I believe that signs and wonders abound every single day. Nothing is impossible for God – nothing! He can rearrange every cell in my body to work in perfect alignment. He does it for people all the time. Knowing that can make it especially frustrating to suffer.

But the reality of the matter is that some of us will not get the healing we imagine this side of the Kingdom. People suffer in innumerable ways all of the time, and die from disease every day. That’s the reality.

Our bodies are indeed the Temple of the Holy Spirit, but I don’t for a minute believe that God only takes up residence in the Taj Mahals among us. Jesus was not put off by hanging out where there was great pain and suffering – in the alleyways. In bodies like ours.

He can heal me, and one day he will. Until that day, one question usurps the pain, the fatigue.

“Do you trust me?”
Do I trust Him even in the debilitation and pain?

Either I believe that all things work to the good or I don’t. Either I know that His grace is sufficient, or I don’t. On especially painful days, it’s harder to come to terms with that.  If Jesus was not spared pain, why do we imagine we deserve to be spared the experience?

Sometimes we do not get healing that the world recognizes as whole. When Christians insist that you become healed in a specific way on an ongoing basis, a number of things happen to the sufferer, the church, and  most awkwardly, the world as it observes us.

And this makes us all uncomfortable. Let’s bring this thorny issue  into the light where we can deal with it.

The sick believer isn’t believing/praying/wanting wellness enough

Let’s be honest. After your friends have prayed for the same healing for you over a period of months or years, you might start to believe that you are just a dud. I know I have felt like a dud many, many times. The whole “believe harder” angle is so damaging, because it places the miracle out of God the bestower, into you the believer. And nothing we do or do not do causes the heavens to release power. It is all in Christ Jesus that we receive. It is our job to receive what is released – and when you are suffering, accepting and receiving can seem a whole lot harder than turning water into wine.

The sufferer feels embarrassed/ashamed that they have not been restored in the way they’ve prayed.

It’s no fun being run down or in pain. It sucks, badly. If you are healthy on a regular basis, praise God! Please don’t tell sick people, “Wow, you are sick again?” or “I never get sick.” I think I speak for chronic illness sufferers everywhere in saying those comments are not at all helpful. Ultimately, we end up lying to those around us who ask “So how are you feeling?” with the f-word. “Fine.” After all, who wants to hear the same story over and over? It feels shameful, but it shouldn’t. If we cannot be transparent in the church, where is it safe to do so?

If I don’t get healthy, my witness is damaged

This is a pretty persuasive lie, because it makes common sense. Who wants a piece of what I’ve got, if I’m sickly? Over and over again it has been confirmed to my spirit that the world needs to see faith in imperfect lives. Because all of our lives are imperfect, and nobody can relate to perfection. You are going through what you are going through, that is your reality.

“If it hasn’t happened by now, it isn’t happening” is never true

I will never stop asking for healing. I will never stop interceding for my friends who are dealing with chronic illnesses. As chronic as these conditions are, they are ultimately temporal. And God wastes not one single hurt I go through. He can use it all, and He can take it all away. What the devil means to use for destruction, our Father can easily use as a means to love. That’s a fact.

God is not punishing us

God is love in its purest form. He is not sadistic. He hurts that you hurt. His plans are much bigger than the pain. That is the foundation of my survival, because it is truth.

You don’t need to ‘get well’ so that ‘God can use you’

What kind of propaganda is that? Stop saying that, church!

If I am supposed to do a thing, but I cannot because I am sick, then I am not supposed to do the thing. My illness is not keeping God from doing HIS thing, which is the main thing. He equips me, and He knows my innermost being and what it is capable of. That’s the thing about it.

Run the race He has set before you. You are not responsible for running the courses set for others.

Jesus is not afraid of catching my ick

Although migraines are not contagious, it is easy to fall into thinking He is staying far away. But he is present in the pain, He doesn’t run from us when we are in the valleys.

I think about the paralyzed man who was healed by Jesus in a common setting – the one who was told to pick up his mat and walk. This is so easy for God to do – to enable that! Why would he not allow us all to pick up our mats? Why are some of us barely dragging our mats behind us? I cannot begin to understand.

I’m inclined to believe it has to do with the Bigger Picture. For the sake of the whole purpose have had life breathed into these bodies – so that someone else can be blessed by hearing “I know what you are going through, you are not alone.” If suffering comes at the price of one other person knowing that God is to be trusted even through the circumstance of pain, it is somehow more tolerable.

Until I get my full healing, I’ll tell you what Jesus does for me – He gets down on the mat with me and loves me to pieces. That’s what I think the church should do. Pray, always! But also bend down to the hurting people where they are – and love them to pieces in the midst.

We don’t always get restored the way we want, but we always have comfort available to us.

We should stop selling Christianity in a slick package that promises a specific healing

Guess what? People see other people get prayed for that still suffer and die all the time. It’s the circle of life thing. Christianity is so much more than surface healing – so much deeper than tissue and brain matter and physical vitality. It is relationship with the Creator….. SO much MORE. And so much better.

Never stop praying in the Spirit. But get down on the mat and love people where they are.

I know for a fact that other people have gone through pain before me,  so that they could impart that same message to me. So, in a way, I am grateful for the pain of others.I am glad  I can pay that forward. When I have a finite amount of energy  every day, and I can either use it to raise my fist to shake it at God – because I don’t understand this! Or, I can raise it to praise Him. I am about 50/50 with the fist shaking and worship through the pain at this point. But I’m getting better at the latter.

Love the sinner, hate the sin. Love the sufferer, hate the pain. Jesus does.

Come to me, all you chronic pain sufferers, and I will give you rest.

Come to me all you whose minds are tortured with mental illness, and I will give you a soft place to fall.

Come to me, all you exhausted souls, and I will give you my Shalom.

Not a single other human being on this planet might know how much you are hurting, what your body and mind are going through. But God does. Make room on your mat for Him until you can get up and run that marathon.

Are you weak and sick? Then you are strong!

… It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness.

God Himself inhabits our puny, struggling flesh as if it were the most beautiful temple in all the land. Because it is.

Rest in Him.

9 thoughts on “No Pain, No Gain – Chronic Illness and the Christian Church

  1. Amen! I am living with a life threatening illness and can relate to everything in your article. Well written and true.

  2. I have severe arthritis (degenerative joint disease). Before I was 40, I was told I already had 80 yr old knees and both had to be replaced. So they were. But the degeneration continues throughout my joints. And people ALWAYS ask if I was an athlete and think that must be why I’ve had bilateral knee replacements. I get the same look every time I say no I just have bad joints, that one that contains pity but also says I am defective. And with the disease comes chronic pain and with the chronic pain comes depression. But I know God still loves me and he hears my prayers just as he does for a healthy person. And I believe God led me to find this blog at a time when I felt so alone and isolated. So those of us who suffer on the inside know that God watches over us with special love and we therefore have a special grace. Prayers for you and your health Jana. Your writing brings God, solace and comfort to many. P.S. sorry for the extra long comment :).

  3. Hi Jana,
    I thought FINE was Freaked-out Insecure Neurotic Emotional but now I’m thinking it is Forgiven Indebted New Embraced. Thank you for the awesome writing (again).

  4. Thank you, Tina. And prayers for you and your health worries as well. And no worries whatsoever for your comment’s length, dear one. THANK YOU for sharing aspects of your journey as well. I’m go grateful for your readership. HUGS!

  5. Bless you bless you bless you for that message — so many are hung on on expecting (demanding?) material blessings and healing in this lifetime. God is good, and He is sovereign; if we hold on to both of those truths, we may come to grips with the fact that we may never understand His purposes, but we can still trust them. Sometimes He chooses to provide miracles — perhaps as a foretaste of what’s to come, but there will always be suffering in this world. Some of it makes us better and some of it just is.
    One minor point — you said “God is not punishing us” — I agree that every time we suffer we should not think that it means God is punishing us, and there are people who needlessly agonize over what they must have done to deserve their suffering. Also, sin usually comes with it’s own built in punishment (“consequences”). Still, sometimes on occasion, He does punish us.

  6. Yes. Sin usually comes with it’s own built-in punishment, that is certainly true. Thanks so much for reading, and for leaving this awesome comment. God bless you!

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