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.

Hating Pain, Loving God

One of the challenges presented to Christianity most often is the question of how a good God can allow people to suffer.  That’s a question that entire books have been written about, so I’m not going to answer it.  What I am going to talk about is why I’m still a Christian despite what I’ve gone through with endometriosis.  This post isn’t intended to be an attempt to convert anyone or to lecture on how all you sinful types need to clean up your acts to be magically healed, nor is it an attempt to ignore the realities of chronic illness and suggest faith will magically make it ok.  It will not.  This is just my personal experience on having faith in the midst on a chronic illness.

I’ve already talked about my experiences with endometriosis here.  They aren’t great, and I can see how someone going through that may well feel that no loving God could put them through that.  I have often wondered, “Why me?  What did I do to deserve this?”

I suppose whether I deserve it really depends on your view of justice.  I mean, overall I’m not a bad person, but I have my vices.  I think rude things about people, and far too often those things make it out of my mouth in the form of gossip.  Thinking bad things may be a victimless crime (although the Bible makes it clear that’s it is still totally wrong and you need to change your mindset if you do it) but gossiping definitely isn’t.  I also covet my neighbour’s possessions on a regular basis, and haven’t always respected my parents.  I’ve missed opportunities to give or help, sometimes deliberately, even when I could have done it.  So, I definitely haven’t done anything that would suggest I warrant a perfect life.

However, that’s not how Christianity works.  Jesus made it very clear that even good lives were going to be full of suffering; in fact, those the modern church considers the very best Christians, such as Paul, went through some truly horrific experiences.  Most of the disciples were jailed, killed or both.  Just look at Job as an example of a really good man, loved by God, enduring some bad stuff (spoiler: literally his entire family dies).  Meanwhile, Herod, who ordered the massacre of Jewish children and babies (recorded also by the Jewish historian Josephus) lived a long, wealthy and powerful life (although did apparently die an excruciating death).  Anyway, the moral of the story is that what you go through in life is not a reflection of what you deserve, so I can rest easy that my pain is not connected to any action or failure on my part.

So, God didn’t cause my suffering.  On the other hand, He hasn’t stopped it either, despite many prayers from my family and even my heathen husband.  I trust that God has the power to heal me, so not doing so is an active choice.  Why?  I don’t know.  I’m not God (thank goodness.  Sounds like a horrible job).  The Bible is also very clear that we often won’t know God’s reason, and that’s fine; it’s part of having faith.  Maybe there is a lesson I am supposed to learn from it that will transform me into a better person and a better Christian.  More likely, I think, is that this world is not a fair place, and part of the burden and challenge of our lives is dealing with that.  I don’t think it is a test to see how well I cope; it is just what it is.  We all face different problems.  Mine happens to be endometriosis.

And even though I don’t have hope for the immediate future that everything is going to magically get better, I do have hope for my long-term future.  Very long-term.  As in when I die.  One of my favourite Christian authors is C S Lewis, and I love his quote from The Great Divorce:

That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. ..And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here…the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven.

Revelations 21:4 seems to agree: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”  

In my last post, I wrote that the lessons I have learned from endo are not worth the pain.  Heaven doesn’t make it “worth it” either, because heaven is not the consequence of having endured the pain well or something.  It releases you into a a blissful, healing glory so intense that every pain you have every suffered is wiped away.

So, I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong, and I don’t think God is being deliberately mean by not healing me.  He does answer my prayers in other ways, by giving me strength, courage, and patience when mine is failing.  Moreover, I think that when I cry, He is crying with me.  This is the God that loved the world so much that He sent his own son to die for humankind even when we had collectively turned away and abandoned him on a pretty regular basis since the beginning.  The God of Christianity is not one that revels in my pain or who is indifferent to it.  I believe in a God who is just as shattered as I am at what I have to endure.  In a perfect world, that’s not how He would have my life be, but this isn’t a perfect world.

One thing that the Bible constantly emphasises is how much God loves us, cares for us, and will not abandon us.  I particularly love Isaiah 43:2: “When you go through deep waters, I will be with you.” Even if everyone else in my life gets sick of me and kicks me to the curb, there is nothing I can do that will ever drive God away, and no suffering He is not willing to endure with me.  For more verses on God’s presence in our pain check out this very pretty list.

Finally, while I’ve used male pronouns for God throughout this piece, that’s mostly just because it is the habit of a lifetime.  I don’t think God is male or female or anything in between.  I think he embodies everything we could ever think about gender.  (Organisations like Junia and Christians for Biblical Equality get much more detailed and scholarly than me on that point).  Certainly, even in the Bible, He is not afraid to use “female” metaphors.  In Isaiah 66:13 He says “I will comfort you as a mother comforts her child.” (For a full list of similar metaphors check out the Women’s Ordination Conference).  This makes me feel much closer to God during the depths of a flare-up than it would if God could only possibly be male.  I don’t mean this to exclude transmen, who are absolutely males who understand endo, but cis-men are simply not going to – they can sympathise, but this is a pain they will just never experience.  It is a pain unique to uteruses.  While I don’t think God has a uterus, conceptualising God as not-male helps me think, “Yes, God gets it too.”

To summarise:-

  1. Endo is not a punishment from God;
  2. God is not causing my endo;
  3. God still answers my prayers in other ways;
  4. On entering into heaven, this will all be wiped away;
  5. God loves me, cries with me, and feels my pain.  

 

None of this makes my endo any less painful.  That’s not the point of it.  It just means that my faith is not made any harder.

If you’d like to read some far more coherent thoughts than mine by people who actually dedicate their entire blogs to this subject, head on over to The Glorious Table, Hope in the Healing, Emily Ryan (formerly Emily Lofgren), Life in Slow Motion, or Inkblots of Hope.

I would love to hear the thoughts of any other religious endo-warriors out there, regardless of what you believe in.  Have you had doubts about your faith because of your pain?  What keeps you strong in your dark moments?  Let me know in the comments below.  I’d also love to hear if anyone from another faith would like to consider a guest post about the interaction of their faith and their illness.