Caring at Smoke Rise

Faith, Suffering, and Chronic Illness

When the doctor first diagnosed her with an incurable, chronic disease, Ginny, a beloved member at my former church, admitted to me that her first inclination was to “go home and just give up.” In the first few days of her diagnosis, she felt devastated, helpless, and alone. But after she sat alone and deeply sad for a while, she said a prayer for new strength, and she made up her mind to press forward through the pain.

To the amazement and inspiration of her church family, she somehow found a way to serve even as she suffered—a way to find wholeness in the midst of hurt. Over many years of chronic pain, fatigue, and weekly dialysis treatments, those who knew and loved Ginny discovered joy with her on her best days. She had an easy sense of humor and contagious passion for life that defied the underlying reality of her chronic illness. And on her worst days, (as she once told me) her suffering drew her closer to Jesus, “who suffered for all of us,” she would say.

For people suffering from chronic illness, the experience of healing isn’t always about easy solutions. Jesus told his disciples, “You will have suffering in the world.” John 16:33. As the Apostle Paul learned, we can experience wholeness in Christ even when we suffer a “thorn in the flesh.”

For some time now I have been receiving e-mail updates from a dear friend who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer more than three years ago. In his most recent e-mail, he described with stark honesty the depth of his suffering even as he continues to experience the power of a sustaining faith:

This cancer “journey” thing has been more than a nightmare. The initial strangely intense pain, that first “oh-oh” scan, followed by more tests confirming a worst-case diagnosis — with all that could mean — was devastation indescribable. Suffice it to say, in that moment (or series of moments actually) everything changed — a confident future became, “Wow, this may be it.” 

This is difficult to express in words. (cp Rom 8:26) When confronted with this disaster, I strangely felt closer to God rather than abandoned. To me it doesn’t make sense when my logical self really thinks about it. Though completely natural and even justifiable in this situation to say, “God, where are you?!” I instead found myself saying, “Oh, there you are.” Truly this is no boast on my part. A gigantic dose of humility and humiliation are among the “gifts” that cancer gives. I know well that I still am “chief among sinners” (1 Tim 1:15), yet God has shown me great mercy and peace in the midst of the storm of the last 3+ years.

Through the stories of friends and loved ones who discover grace in the midst of illness and suffering, we learn about a healing mercy that abides with us in all of life’s circumstances. How else can we turn to God, except from the depths of our longing and human need?

Beyond the sobering lessons we learn from the stories of those who suffer, the Christian journey calls us further still to share in the suffering of our brothers and sisters. Faith offers more than merely a far-off hope. If there is anything to be learned from the experience of chronic illness, it is the reality that hope is made for every day.

So let us not shy from caring for one another, as we count it our joy to live, love, laugh, and yes, to hurt with those who suffer from chronic illness. “For in the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; when we don’t know how to pray as we should pray, that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Romans 8:26.

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