How to Live in Hope Amid Chronic Illness
Many of us have had a moment in time when, with just one piece of news or a seemingly random event, our entire life trajectory shifts. My moment came on the day after my twenty-sixth birthday when I was diagnosed with an incurable chronic illness.
I was shocked to learn that the symptoms I had been reasoning away as part of my pregnancy were instead an indication that I was seriously unwell. Unless I received intervention in the form of medication, my quality of life would greatly diminish and my health would be in greater jeopardy.
It was big news to digest as as a new mom, cradling my six-week-old baby. I could barely understand my baby’s needs and now I needed to learn a completely new way to take care of myself. How was I supposed to do that? The newborn stage does not allow for much time for self-care. The whole situation had me spinning.
What had me really shaken was that I was a young and healthy person. I ate a healthy diet (but don’t ask me about my caffeine intake), exercised, had no vices, and was in my prime of life. How could this happen to such a person?
Yet sickness does not discriminate. Carefree and easy living are not the natural experience. Decay is simply part of our DNA.
Earth is Not Our Home
In Paul’s letter to the Philippian church, we are reminded that Christians are not made to thrive here. We are citizens of Heaven: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”(Philippians 3:20-21 ESV).
Our lives on earth will be uncomfortable at times. We try to make our experiences as pleasant as possible but we can’t avoid the taint of sin that clings to our world and our bodies. Our earthly bodies are fragile, weak, lowly: mortal. We must tend to our bodies by eating, drinking, washing, and moving in the effort to prolong our days.
Our fragility was felt more shrewdly in the civilizations prior to the current age with hygiene and modern medicine. We are only a handful of generations away from the harsh life our ancestors lived of high child mortality and low life expectancy. Now, we readily take for granted how easy our lives are in comparison. And as grateful as we are for modern medicines and scientific research on healthy living, none of it can stop the tick of time. Our days are numbered.
It was in God’s divine authority that I would become chronically ill. With sin’s presence in the world came sickness, both temporary and permanent. In Romans 8:28 it says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Therefore, I can trust that no pain is ever wasted when it is surrendered over to Christ. Because I believe in a good God, I can skip the egocentric “Why me, God?” and go straight to the humble “Use me, God.” (Not to say I didn’t have a moment of self pity. I am still human.)
God uses the chronic condition in my life to humble my haughty heart into its proper place. Each flash of pain causes me to yearn for my eternal home of no pain or tears. It brings me to my knees in dependence on Him. And when he delivers me with periods of remission, I am filled with gratitude for His mercy. It is a chronic reminder of my lack of control of the events that befall me.
This life is not to be held onto with clenched fists. Instead, life is a fistful of sand, slipping away and reuniting with the touch of the sea, where it belongs. My earthly body was made to fail but my soul will one day thrive in it’s natural habitat. Heaven is my true home.
Chasing what Matters
Believers in Christ should not feel at complete ease in a place where we are just drifting through. But we do, don’t we? We become attached to our homes and cars, jobs and vacations, titles and devices. We are so enthralled by our earthly treasures that we begin to find our identity in them. They become our source of calm when life gets messy. We content ourselves with shallow thrills and forfeit the fullness of joy that comes from being in God’s presence (see Psalm 16:11).
Sin surrounds us, pervades our every thought, distracts us at every turn, until we no longer see the light unless we go searching for it in the Bible. Heaven’s beauty begins to fade when we neglect to set our minds on spiritual things: “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:6 ESV).
To set our mind on the flesh means to be wholly concerned with the gratification of the self. To set our mind on the spirit means to have our thoughts and actions aligned with what the Bible teaches. Earthly things only serve our earthly bodies. And these bodies are but a mist (see James 4:14). Everything in this world is dying and will crumble with time.
The only surefire hope we have is in the immortal, everlasting, unfailing Creator God who has made a myriad of promises to those who have faith in Him. Yet as the verse above admonishes us to quit the flesh, it compels us to seek the Spirit.
We are given a solution to our problem. God has not left us to fend for ourselves. He has given us the Holy Spirit as a helper; a taste of home. The Spirit teaches us about God, as well as reminds us to go to him in prayer and quiet study (see John 14:26). We can feel a little more at home in a strange land by turning our attentions to Christ and choosing to live our life in obedience to him, singing in tune to Heaven’s song.
As one with a chronic illness, there is not much time for me to forget my humanity. Every time my condition flares I am acutely reminded of how imperfect this life is—of the pain it can hold, the suffering it can inflict, the fleeting nature of life’s course. I am quick to remember how powerless I am to help myself. My earthly pain leads me to draw from the one well that will never run dry (Isaiah 58:11). Every hurdle leads me to “the rock that is higher than I”; my refuge and strong tower (Psalm 61:2-3).
Right in the middle of it, through grimaces and tears, I go to God in prayer and listen to scripture on audio. I’ve learned that there isn’t anything distracting enough—no show on Netflix, nor feel-good song—that can comfort me the way God can. Those who belong to Christ need something more than what this world can offer because our heart’s cry is for our Abba, Father! (see Romans 8:15). We are searching for complete, lasting comfort and in that arena, there is simply nothing here that can deliver.
Redemption of our Bodies
I look forward to the day when my broken and failing body will be transformed to be like God’s glorious body. In Heaven we will be made new with no kinks or aches, flaws or flares. Better yet, our soul will be reunited with its maker.
You know how it feels to return home from a long trip? You walk into your house. It smells comforting and familiar. You take a huge breath of relief and blow away the stress of travel. Maybe your children or pets come bounding down the steps to greet you, all smiles and fanfare. Your heart feels content and your mind finally at ease. There’s nothing more to do but rest because you’ve made it back. You’ve made it home.
I imagine entering Heaven will feel this way times a million because it is our proper home and final destination. Pure peace, rest, and joy in the presence of Jesus, with no need for the sun because he will be the only light we need (see Revelation 21:23).
Our time on earth should be purposeful and valued. We should take each day as the gift that it is and use our time to serve God and live out the gospel. We may not even taste death; Christ may come again before that happens.
So let us eagerly await our Savior as the shore longs for the sea. Whether in feast or famine, in good health or in bad, may we not lose sight of our future promise and present hope. Look to the heavens; your home is waiting.
Rachel’s writing and other works can be found on her website: rachelgreeningwrites.com.
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