How Christians Can Respond to the Chronically Ill

One of my favourite stories in the Bible, probably for obvious reasons, is when the woman with chronic menstrual issues pushes through a throng of people surrounding Jesus, saying to herself, “if I can just touch the hem of his cloak, I’ll be healed.” She was desperate for healing, which resonates with me deeply. She was also incredibly brave – as she couldn’t stop menstruating, she was ritually unclean and was forbidden from mingling with society, let alone touching a rabbi. So she was also socially isolated and, I suspect, depressed and taking quite the hit to her self-esteem. Uniquely (to my admittedly less-than-professional biblical knowledge), she doesn’t ask Jesus for healing. She touches him, filled with unshakeable faith, and his power flows out of him and heals her. Her courage and faith heal her. It’s a story that thrills and inspires me, because I can so strongly imagine what she felt, and I can aspire to have her conviction.

What I mean to say with my long-winded introduction is that the Bible, and Jesus (who commends the woman) have a place for the chronically ill and the beaten down. Unfortunately, sometimes the church doesn’t. It almost always comes from a place of goodwill, but it still hurts when they get it wrong.  I’ve been mostly lucky in my church – things that have hurt me have been things said by well-meaning people in general conversation, rather than directed to me, but I draw from the experience of many people in writing this, and they have all been wounded by it. That’s why I want to talk about how churches and Christians in general can be more welcoming to the chronically ill.  Below I offer three don’ts and three dos as to how Christians can achieve that goal.

1) Don’t resort to platitudes

This is a good tip for anyone when responding to the chronically ill (or anyone enduring any sort of suffering, from anxiety to grief), but I think Christians are the worst at it because we have an entire book of handy phrases neatly packaged up in the form of the Bible.  Many of those verses are great, but they all have a time and a context, and usually they aren’t appropriate to say to us.  Here’s some examples that I don’t think are helpful:-

  • Verses about God’s ways being higher than our ways so we can’t know the meaning of things;
  • Verses about there being a time and a season;
  • Verses about God’s healing;
  • Verses about how suffering is to teach lessons.

There are probably others, but those are the main culprits.  The reasons that these aren’t helpful is that we know God’s ways are higher than our ways.  Telling us that is not comforting.  I adore the poetry of Ecclesiastes,  but telling us that there is a time and a season is not helpful to the chronically ill because our whole lives are going to be the time and the season.  We know the verses about God’s healing, but the healing itself is not being shared with us right now.  Finally, the idea that we might learn something from our intense pain does nothing to counteract the, you know, intense pain.  It would have to be a truly mind-blowing lesson to be anything close to worth it.

2) Don’t tell us that we are Christianing wrong 

Some Christians take the view that either:-

  • We sick because we sinned; or
  • We aren’t getting better because we aren’t praying hard enough.

Wrong.  Wrong and unbiblical.  Just as we aren’t matyrs who suffer to learn great spiritual truth, we’re also no worse than anyone else.  We all sin.  We don’t all have chronic illnesses.  Job was one of the most righteous men in the bible, and he lost his home, his family, his wealth, his friends, and his health in two devastating attacks.  In John 9, Jesus specifically said that the man born blind was not blind because of any sin he or his family had committed.  Bad things happen to good people and vice versa.  We are not cursed or unclean or any more sinful than you.  We’re just sick.

Likewise, God doesn’t necessarily hand out a free healing to those who get enough stamps on their loyalty prayer card.  Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12 that he begged the Lord to heal “the thorn in his flesh,” and the Lord refused.  Is anyone honestly going to suggest it was because Paul, possibly the most influential Christian in history, lacked faith?  Sometimes – often – God doesn’t heal.  I don’t know why, but I do know that it isn’t the fault of the person begging for healing.

Saying these kind of things isn’t just unhelpful and inaccurate, it’s damaging.  If people believe you when you say this, they are going to feel inadequate, rejected by the church and by God, and you will deal a horrible blow to their faith.  Stop it.

3) Don’t publicly pray for us unless we request it, or force us into group prayer sessions

It is nice to be remembered in people’s prayers, but please don’t pray for us in the congregational prayer without at least checking with us that it’s ok.  Some people aren’t “out” about their chronic illness.  Some people just don’t want to be the centre of attention, or have unnecessary attention drawn to their illness.  It can lead to embarrassing and intrusive questions at the end of the service that we may not want to field.

Likewise, being drawn into a group prayer session, or even a one-on-one prayer for healing can be embarrassing.  It creates this expectation of healing, and if it doesn’t work, you run the risk of people doing something from point 2.  If the sick person is fine with it, go for it, but please make sure that they are actually fine with it and don’t feel pressured into it.  If they say no, or seem uneasy, please drop it and ask if you can just pray for them on your own.

4) Do make church accessible (not just for the chronically ill)

Have an ambulant toilet (near the other toilets, not down a corridor, through an office and behind a locked door that you need an elder to open).  Have spaces for wheelchairs.  Have nice cushy seats for people with pain.  Have braille on the toilet door.  See if a church member speaks Auslan and is willing to interpret, or project the points the pastor is making onto a screen.  Make your church camps, getaways, meetups and breakfasts at times and locations that sick people can attend.

For me, the biggest thing is good seats.  I cannot sit on the usual school chairs and benches most churches provide without a lot of pain after a very short time.  Having some comfier chairs at the back of the church – not out in the foyer so I have to watch through the doors! – can make the difference between me being able to go to church and not.

5) Do offer practical assistance

It’s all well and good to pray for someone.  Indeed, God commands it.  He also praises people engaging in practical acts of service.  Perhaps you could cook them a couple of freezer meals, or ask if they need any help around the house, or check if they need a lift to and from church on Sundays.  Those are all small things that could make a huge difference.  Just don’t make a big deal out of it – treat your sick fellows like everyone else in the church.  We should all be serving each other in whatever way we can.

6) Do represent the sick and disabled

Whether by having sick/disabled people on the ministry team or praising them for their courage and strength in sermons, represent us in the church.  Don’t glorify us or turn us into inspiration porn, but preach on that woman with the menstruation problems.  Preach on the lepers and the blind.  Show that Jesus loved the sick and disabled too, and show that we are people, not just parables.  Keep us human, and keep us involved.

 

That’s my list of quick tips for the inclusive Christian.  Do you agree with these points?  What do you wish your church would do to make it a more inclusive space?  What good things is it already doing?  Do any of my readers from other religions or groups have similar experiences?  Let me know in the comments.

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