Chronic illness isn’t just discouraging and traumatic, it’s actually quite frustrating. Your plans get scuppered. You constantly feel your limitations. You want to do things and achieve things, but you can’t. Recently, Phil 1:12 has been a big encouragement to me. In this verse, Paul explains how his imprisonment has actually become an opportunity for the gospel. In other words, the restrictions on his life actually served to advance the good news. Wow! He has taught me that limitations aren’t just something we endure, or put up with, but they are, in God’s mysterious ways, the very means God uses for his kingdom. The suffering of his ministers is not a problem for God, but part of his mysterious plan.
Andy Mason writes: I’ve been a vicar on a council estate in central London for about 17 years, and have been married for 25 years. During that time, my wife has suffered from a number of distressing chronic conditions. Accordingly, life has, at times, been very unpredictable, very stressful and pretty traumatic.
Firstly, my wife has a particularly nasty kind of endometriosis (you can look it up), which has, over time, caused acute chronic pain. It’s the kind of pain that isn’t controlled by tramadol, or morphine. In fact, when it was at its worst, it couldn’t be controlled by a drip in hospital either. There have been times when I have literally carried her into A&E in my arms.
Secondly, in addition to endometriosis, she also suffers with vestibular migraines (you can look that up too). They are a form of migraine that doesn’t manifest itself in pain, but in acute, very debilitating vertigo and nausea. An attack can leave her, all of sudden, laid out on the floor wherever she happens to be. These migraines can come suddenly and without much warning, leaving us suddenly needing to change all our plans and get her home. I’ve had to collect her, physically, from work a couple of times when she just couldn’t move.
The combination of these chronic health problems, with their spontaneous hospital visits, have been traumatising for us both. They have understandably left emotional scars and lingering worries about what is coming around the corner. As you can imagine, these struggles have been even made harder by having young children – who themselves have some complex needs.
During these years of ministry I can see that there have been different seasons. Some have been better, some have been much worse. We have been very grateful for a number of medical interventions over the last few years, which have improved the pain significantly. However, they also have side effects that make other things worse. So, while certain issues get dealt, other problems emerge. Anyone who has been operated on understands the complexity of these kinds of interventions. Overall, I’m amazed that we’ve come through some of these situations, but the Lord has been faithful. Somehow, he has kept us going in the drama of it all.
So, how do you cope with chronic illness in the midst of life and ministry?! Well, everyone has their own story and I have huge respect for the particularities of different situations, medical problems and personal struggles. No one context is exactly the same. There will obviously be plenty of people reading this article who have, and are, facing awful struggles. The Lord will have worked in them and they will have a bucket load of wisdom that has been given to them. All this said, I thought I’d share some encouragements from our own life as a family.
Now, just in case you wonder, as you read through this: I’m not a cessationalist with regard to healing. I’m very happy to pray for healing and for others to pray for that. However, I’m also, on the other hand, not spiritually perturbed by the lack of healing we’ve experienced. I’m fully convinced that our hope is not in this world, nor is God’s ‘no’ a demonstration of a lack of love. Quite the opposite!
So, below are some spiritual principles that I’ve learnt along the way. These are just an excerpt, and not meant to be exhaustive. In sharing these principles, I’m in no way suggesting that they’ll help everyone else, but I can say that they have helped me. Of course, I still hope that they’ll encourage some who read this. Here they are:
1. Sickness Is Bad, but Dependence Is Good
Ill-health very obviously makes you weak and dependent, and my instinct has always been to escape it as fast as I can. Yet it’s ironic that physical ill-health produces much spiritual health through an assault on self-reliance. As Tim Keller said, ‘you’ll never find out that Jesus is all you need until you get into a situation where Jesus is all you’ve got.’ Dependence is great for your prayer life, and if you can bottle it then much good can be done.