A Theology of Chronic Illness

Why me?

I think everyone who has ever had any kind of illness asks, “why me?”

At first, my answer was that everyone gets injured sometimes.

Because I became chronically ill as a high school student, my chronic illness was mistaken for sports injuries.

But when none of the typical treatments worked and then a doctor accused me of faking for attention, I really began to wonder “why me?”

It became apparent that many of my symptoms weren’t responding to physical therapy or medications or even alternative modalities.

I was stuck with this.

Why Do I Have A Chronic Illness?

I wrestled with why I had a chronic illness. I felt that I didn’t deserve to have to deal with the pain or the limits. It didn’t see fair that my health forced me to say no to things I wanted to do.

As I earned a Bible degree during my undergraduate studies and then a Master of Divinity during Seminary, I was able to apply what I was learning in the classroom to my own life circumstances.

So let’s address why chronic illnesses exist.

We Live In A Broken World

The first reason why chronic illnesses exist is because we live in a broken world.

Even if you aren’t a Christian, I think we can all agree that there’s something wrong with the world around us—from natural disasters to mass shootings. We all have this sense that things are not as they ought to be.

As a Christian, I believe that this is because Adam and Eve’s sin, as recorded in Genesis 3, affects all of humanity and all of creation. Paul affirms this in Romans 5.

Everything, even down to our cells, and how they are supposed to function, is compromised.

There is no guarantee in a broken world that our bodies will function as they ought to. Sin affects our bodies so they break and they dysfunction.

That sounds really depressing, but this leads me to why I am a Christian.

Thank God He Did Something About Pain

God’s response to this broken world is to send His son Jesus Christ to save us. We can’t save ourselves.

And God didn’t create a world and just let it deteriorate from sin.

The first step in God’s plan to restore all things is through Jesus, who is fully God and fully man.

Jesus experienced our pain too.

Jesus came as a man to live a perfect human life so that he could die as a sacrifice on our behalf.

His payment is not merely to forgive my sins, but to forgive the sins of the entire world and to make all things new again.

God has done something about the pain in this world because he is a God who cares.

As humans, we can suffer through no fault of our own.

We can be the victims of pollution and toxic exposures or we can be handicapped from natural disasters.

In the same way, we can suffer as a consequence of other peoples’ sin. The pollution of our environment, rooted in the greed of others, can have adverse effects on our health. The laziness of parents to raise healthy kids can lead to adult illnesses.

But Jesus Christ promised he is coming back again to reverse all of these things.

My Sinful Tendencies Contribute To My Illness

At the same time, in my own situation, I acknowledge the ways my sin has contributed to my chronic illness.

I’ve shared another post about how I struggled with the sin of gluttony and gave into food temptations.

I am prone to self sabotage by indulging in foods that are bad for me and harm my body.

At first I didn’t know better.

But when I knew better, I still wasn’t able to do better until I did some deep soul searching in therapy with a licensed counselor.

For me, food became an idol I turn to for comfort, instead of turning to God.

Over the last decade, I’ve worked hard to learn more discipline and to grieve my food losses so that I’m better able to stick to my best diet.

Still, I struggle to be obedient to protocols and recommendations of doctors.

It is my own internal, sinful tendencies that can hold me back at times.

Nevertheless, I can forgive myself because I know that there is forgiveness through Jesus Christ.

I am gentle with myself and view myself through the eyes of compassion when I mess up and ask God for the strength to continue forward.

So I see the reasons why I have a chronic illness as a combination between the fact that we live in a broken world where there is no guarantee for perfect health, and that I am prone to contributing to my health problems by making poor decisions.

So how do I navigate chronic illness in the meantime?

How Do I Respond To A Chronic Illness?

Living with a chronic illness is terribly difficult.

It’s expensive and emotionally draining.

After dealing with it for more than half of my life here on earth, I have learned a few things along the way that I hope you can glean from.

Live Faithfully Within My Limits

I used to have big dreams of keeping up the perfect house, being an energetic mom, and being the best performer at work.

Having chronic illness shattered that.

One of the hardest things for me to cope with is that my chronic illness says no for me a lot.

No, I cannot stay out late at this event because the fatigue will be crushing for 3 days after.

I wish I could go on a hike with you, but my joints feel like they have shards of glass, and the pain will make me nauseous and unable to move the next day.

In the midst of that, one of my biggest epiphanies is that I put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself and take on responsibilities that aren’t mine.

I tend to offer myself to solve other people’s problems because I want to be liked. For example, I would offer to help departments with projects that weren’t under my job description because I wanted to be seen as helpful.

There’s so much that I want to do and I’m decent at a lot of things.

But just because I’m good at something doesn’t mean I should do it.

The main thing I want you to take away from this section is:

God’s call on my life takes into account the health issues he’s allowed me to have.

God isn’t expecting me to take a 3 mile walk and he’s not asking me to do things that are pushing my bandwidth.

Jesus says, his yoke is light. What this means is that the harness that an ox wears is customized for its body so that it won’t rub anywhere and it won’t cause blisters or sores.

God has customized His call on my life to the limits that my health puts on me. This doesn’t mean life will be easy though.

This brings the overachiever in me great comfort.

So I can strive to be more like Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit within the confinements of my chronic illness.

In this season, it means loving my husband well. It’s doing my job well and not taking on extra projects because I want to be liked.

Grieve My Limits

Nevertheless, a big part of living faithfully is not skirting around the grief of chronic illness.

It’s incredibly frustrating to not be able to do simple tasks for myself. Or knowing that if I do something myself I will pay for it and not be able to do as much in the following days.

It’s been pivotal for me to name the things that I have lost because of my health and bring them before a caring God.

Some of the highlights are:

  • Loss of the fantasy self – Many of my dreams for who I thought I would be at this age will never be realized.
  • Loss of mobility – I’m unable to move like a typical 30 something person, and if I try, it causes me a lot of pain.
  • Loss of relationships – My limits mean lost opportunities to connect with people through hobbies and other activities.
  • Loss of productivity – I’m not able to be as productive as someone who has their full health. (But I did write a post about the efficiency hacks I’ve learned).

Whether or not you are Christian, I encourage you to name the things that you have lost out loud or in a journal. It’s incredibly healing to acknowledge them, especially if you’ve been in denial.

Celebrate The Small Wins

Only after grieving what I’ve lost, then I’m able to genuinely celebrate the small wins. I find it really insulting when people hyper focus on the positive.

In the Bible, the book of Psalms is filled with poems that begin with naming all of their lament and it’s only after the laments are they able to praise God.

Here are some of my small wins:

  • Lost the excess weight – I learned what diet helped me feel satiated without triggering my symptoms.
  • Reversed four autoimmune diseases – Diet along with lifestyle and supplements calmed my immune system.
  • Identified my migraine and headache triggers – So I only have them once or twice a year now instead of multiple times a month.
  • I’ve learned so much about myself – through the pain and suffering.

Even though I hate being chronically ill, it’s true that suffering is the most efficient teacher. It expedited my journey and forced me into the loving arms of my savior.

Remember That I Get A New Body

But more than that, my ultimate hope is in the fact that Jesus Christ, who is fully God, came as a man and died on the cross for my sin. He is restoring all things.

And part of that is a new heavens and new earth, where I get a new body that is fully healed.

The pain and suffering that I deal with right now is not forever.

How do you cope with chronic illness or chronic pain?

More Hacks For Living With Chronic Illness

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