CHRONIC ILLNESS and a Healthy Mind

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“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up the sky like pulverized bones.” ― Haruki Murakami

My insides are turned inside out; specters of death have me down. I shake with fear, I shudder from head to foot. “Who will give me wings,” I ask— “wings like a dove?” Get me out of here on dove wings; I want some peace and quiet. I want a walk in the country, I want a cabin in the woods. I’m desperate for a change from rage and stormy weather.” (Psalm 55:4-8)

Throughout a long and happy marriage (just coming up to thirty years together), my wife and I have battled through a storm of chronic illness. We believe in a God of healing, and have experienced extraordinary interventions in that way, and yet we have to acknowledge that healing is not a guaranteed result. God simply cannot be treated like a vending machine where you slot in your prayer request, and receive the answer you select for yourself.

Sometimes, we have even had to suffer the advice of friends saying that our faith was not adequate or that there was sin in our lives (both true, in my case), and that that was the reason for the lack of healing. Now I have long and considered responses to both those perspectives, but for now, let’s just say that I find them a little simplistic. I derive a lot of strength from the rugged faith-building adventuresomeness of someone like John Osteen, but I also do from Joni Eareckson Tada. The first preached a robustly confident healing message, but the second has spent her whole adult life in a terribly confining chronic disability.

Why hasn’t God made you well?

If you possess a strong belief in God and also endure a chronic illness, you probably have struggled with your faith. Why hasn’t God made you well? Without doubt, you have prayed for just such a miracle, as have friends and family. The fact that your physical pain remains month after month—or even year after year—may well have caused you real discouragement. Joni’s first book was entitled “Joni: The unforgettable story of a young woman’s struggle against Quadriplegia & Depression.” It’s the last two words in the title that somehow catch in my heart. It’s the side effect of chronic illness that so grinds you down.

And if it’s hard to live, it’s also hard to watch.

It is easy to assume that if one seeks to live by God’s will and loves Him, God will always relieve that one’s physical suffering. Yet, there you are—still bound by pain, disease or disability. Does the lack of physical relief mean that there is something wrong spiritually?

Or is God using my condition for some reason I don’t yet see?

In 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, Paul assures his readers that they—these are Christians, remember—have the opportunity to experience spiritual comfort from God when they endure troubles. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”

This is a strange idea to some: Christians can have enduring and chronic troubles. You have to experience trouble before comfort means anything. What would be the point of comforting someone who wasn’t hurt or upset? They’d just think you odd! But for a child who has just fallen and skinned their knees, the comfort becomes meaningful—and appreciated. You see the point. We all want to experience the comforting love of God, yet would rather avoid needing that comfort. Comfort, however, is meaningless if we have no need for it. Paul makes a couple of simple points.

First, Christians experience trouble

God is fully aware of their suffering. Why do we sometimes have difficulty in realizing that there are no secrets from Him? Instead of always removing that trouble, God sometimes chooses to give only spiritual comfort. That is a different course of action than many expect from God. Of course, God does not bring troubles on us, but neither does He spare us completely from accident or disease. The health of the spirit is sometimes not attained, or even thought of, until the health of the body is lost.

So doesn’t that mean that spiritual comfort is more important than physical comfort?

Second, Hurting has value

Paul also draws our attention to the understanding that the very ones who have suffered are those who can help the most. You have to experience trouble before comfort means anything. Christians are supposed to gain experience with all kinds of difficulties, work their way through them with the comfort of God and His people, and then pass along sympathy, empathy, caring and comfort to other people who hurt.

People can provide support to those wrestling with the challenges of illnesses. Obvious acts of kindness include listening, reading aloud, providing or preparing meals, doing household chores, sending cards and, well, almost anything…. But genuine comfort is often communicated beyond words and actions through an attitude of understanding.

In 2 Corinthians 4:7, Paul draws an analogy between mortal men and jars of clay that hold a valuable treasure. The less you value the clay pot, the more you concentrate on what is inside of it. By contrast, the beautifully ornate container of a treasure becomes an item of worth in itself, and can distract attention from the true treasure inside. His point is clear. The spiritual health of a man is a treasure. His physical condition may be like crumbling old clay, but that will only highlight the greater value of a spiritually healthy mind, the inner treasure.

A treasure trove of consolation

There’s a key point to make, but I honestly do not make it in a glib or a facile way. It’s this: If physical relief were the most important thing for God to grant, He would certainly provide it.

Many read the Psalms for comfort and encouragement, but few notice that several of these lyrics speak about people of faith who suffered from chronic illnesses. People through the ages have sought comfort from these ancient songs, and for a person dealing with chronic physical or emotional pain, there is a powerful message. So here’s a brief glance at some of those songs. Notice that spiritual comfort was available, even when physical comfort was delayed.

Chronic pain  

Psalm 6: Notice the language with which the chronically ill can so easily identify: “I am faint…my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish…I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping…My eyes grow weak with sorrow.” Sober thoughts of the possibility of death are seriously weighed. The song concludes with an uplifting sense of hope and relief of mind.

Psalm 8: Here’s a contrast between the frailties of man and the majesty of God. As Paul later wrote, when a man is frail, he can understand that contrast more clearly. That is a healthy mental or spiritual perspective.

Fatigue and depression

In Psalm 10, the author felt alone, helpless, overwhelmed by trouble and grief. In Psalm 13, the author felt abandoned, struggling with his gloomy thoughts, unable to make sense of his awful trials. In Psalm 23, the classic song speaks of walking “through the valley of the shadow of death,” without anxiety! It declares that a person can be restored, refreshed in spirit, while greatly challenged physically.

In Psalm 25, the writer expresses his loneliness, depression, suffering and stress overload in the context of drawing spiritual courage. In Psalm 31, we glean a picture of a person who is anguished or torn up, overwhelmed both mentally and physically. Note the chronic nature of the affliction, lasting a period of years. His choice of words, “my bones grow weak,” graphically portrays chronic fatigue. Psalm 32 echoes that picture of fatigue: “my bones wasted away,” describing a condition that saps his strength like oppressive summertime heat.

And so it goes on. Dozens of the Psalms tell the same story, of those “crushed in spirit” reaching out for and finding spiritual comfort in the midst of physical turmoil.

Disability and anxiety

Look for example at Psalm 119: “I am laid low in the dust” (verse 25). “My soul is weary with sorrow” (verse 28). “My comfort in my suffering” (verse 50). “Before I was afflicted” (verse 67). “It was good for me to be afflicted” (verse 71). “My soul faints with longing for your salvation [rescue]” (verse 81). “My eyes fail, looking for your promise. I say, ‘When will you comfort me?’” (verse 82). “I am like a wineskin in the smoke [shrivelled up]” (verse 83). “I have suffered much” (verse 107). “Trouble and distress have come upon me” (verse 143). “I rise before dawn and cry for help” (verse 147). “My eyes stay open through the watches of the night” (verse 148). “Look upon my suffering” (verse 153).

Physical Suffering and the Coming of Messiah

Psalm 22 takes us in a new direction. These are the deeply personal thoughts of a physically tormented man. He is sleepless, hopeless, abandoned by friend and family alike. His energy is drained. His joints ache, his courage is melted, and he has generalized pain. He concludes with a positive swing in attitude of mind to a sense of hope. But again, it is in the mind that the hope has come, not the body. While likely reflective of real-life experiences of an earlier servant, this is also a prophecy of the sufferings of the Messiah, which ended in His physical death.

We’re reminded again of the fact that Christ both suffered and learned from suffering. He is the archetypal “Sufferer” and also the Comforter. When (in John 14), Jesus speaks of the coming of the Holy Spirit, he describes him as “Another Comforter.” One like me.

But in its simplest analysis, if the perfect Son of God could suffer physically, can there be any argument with the fact that any right-living man or woman may also endure unrelieved pain? Jesus said of Himself that His purpose was to bring relief for those in need of physical health, but also for those in need of spiritual health. Lacking full understanding, many people—even religious ones—assume the two types of relief are equal in importance. That’s an incorrect assumption.

The supernatural restoration of physical health often served only to demonstrate that it is possible to obtain a greater treasure, the health of the spirit.

There is no biblical justification for the idea that all people of faith are quickly relieved of all trouble or suffering. There is a solid promise that God never leaves His people, even if they feel alone, and that they can always find peace of mind or health of the spirit.

Sick isn’t synonymous with sin

Regardless of poor health—and maybe even sometimes because of poor health—a person can find mental and spiritual health through God.

***

Lord, you give me no easy answers, but in my present condition -right now- I ask you to change the way I think about where I am.

I first ask that you take this cup away from me, but if not, that you give me the daily strength to drink it, and to seek your face the more for grace in every trial, that I may offer others the comfort with which you have comforted me.

And I pray for those lost in this storm (in Murakami’s words) “closing [their] eyes and plugging up [their] ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walking through it” that today they may find in you “a walk in the country,…. a cabin in the woods… a change from rage and stormy weather.”

Through Jesus and His Cross.

Amen

 

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One Response to CHRONIC ILLNESS and a Healthy Mind

  1. Kate Dean says:

    Thank you Ken. Very useful and comforting.

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