I can recall hearing the words “chronic illness” being spoken from a stage twice in my lifetime. Once was during a worship service during my orientation to Wheaton College in 2016. The other was also at Wheaton College, this time from my own lips as I shared about my illness in chapel the following year.
Since chronic illness is so infrequently discussed publicly, it leaves many people who are chronically ill dangling alone with unaddressed theological, emotional, and intellectual questions. For me, many of these questions centered around how the existence of chronic illness could possibly fit together with the love of God.
It wasn’t until spring of my sophomore year at Wheaton when I began studying systematic theology that I entered a safe space in which I could ask and deeply work through these questions.
A Glimpse into My Story
I have been chronically ill for nearly a decade – I started to develop my symptoms when I was 10 years old. The past nine and a half years have been a long and painful journey of doctors’ appointments and symptoms that have at times pushed my endurance to its limits. I am officially diagnosed with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), although since there is no test for IBS and my symptoms often vary from a typical experience of IBS, I cannot be completely sure of this diagnosis. However, having any diagnosis – even if its accuracy is tentative – is helpful in the chronic illness world because a diagnosis can give you access to the accommodations you need.
People often ask me what it is like to be chronically ill. The answer to such a question is long, because chronic illness affects virtually every aspect of my life. I once wrote a 25-page description of some of the ways my illness affects me to help a few of my closest friends understand better. I’m currently writing a book reflecting on my journey thus far with chronic illness and the ways I have seen Christ through it.
But here’s an attempt at a shorter answer: I am in near constant abdominal pain. I have a list of 12 dietary restrictions I must abide by to avoid having flares. I am frequently nauseous for most of the day. My body is usually too exhausted to push through a whole day without a nap. I often have headaches and I’m generally dizzy. I’ve had portions of time in which I was bleeding internally. I have random joint pains. I wrestle with brain fog and confusion that makes it difficult to think.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of my symptoms, but hopefully it provides a snapshot with which to imagine my life.
Christ is with me through it all.
I’ve tested negative to so many illnesses that I’ve lost count. I’ve passed out or fallen to the ground from lightheadedness enough times that it no longer startles my roommate. I’ve missed dozens of social occasions to stay alone in my room, managing pain or resting my fatigued body. I’ve had flares of pain so severe I wondered if I ought to go to the emergency room. I’ve advocated for myself more than almost any person I know. I’ve put in four times as much work as most of my classmates in order to combat my confusion and achieve the same grades.
I’ve cried more tears than I can keep track of.
God holds them all.
A decade of deep suffering has led me to ask a lot of hard questions. Does the existence and persistence of my chronic illness prove that God is not love? I wholeheartedly believe that God could fully and instantly heal me at any moment in this life. I am fully confident that one day he will completely heal me when we are given our new, resurrected bodies following the return of Christ.
If God can heal me, why doesn’t he? Surely, many have concluded, such a God who could heal but chooses not to cannot be a God of love.
In fact, the testimony of my life proclaims the exact opposite.
Chronic Illness and the Love of God
Looking to the cross and to the resurrection illuminates how God relates to any type of suffering, including chronic illness. God shows us he hates sin, death, and evil because he gave himself fully to destroy it for us. Jesus Christ sacrificed himself in love, bore the death I deserved, and defeated the death I could not defeat myself in his resurrection.
This is the most basic truth of my life: the Triune God loves me so much and so deeply that he became incarnate in the Son to live in my place and confront the death that plagues me though my illness. Since chronic illness is a form of experiencing the effects of death on this world, Christ’s defeat of death frees me from slavery to chronic illness.
Certainly, this freedom may mean in some cases that God will physically heal the body in the here and now. However, the hope offered to the chronically ill through Christ’s self-giving love runs far deeper than merely physical healing in this life.
Merely physically healing! Perhaps only those who have suffered under such an illness or stood close to a loved one who has will understand the gravity of the statement that God’s love for us so outweighs our present suffering that we may refer to physical relief in this life from our current suffering as “merely” physical healing.
A gift I experience because of my chronic illness is that I know in a manner that is deeper than some how much God loves me, because my illness reminds me of it all the time.
How can that be? Shouldn’t my illness remind me that God doesn’t love me?
Though at first glance it may seem counterintuitive, the moments I experience my daily pain and suffering are the very moments I am reminded to look to the cross. In fact, my pain almost forces me to look at the cross, giving me no choice but to cling to it desperately.
Since Christ’s self-giving and loving sacrifice on the cross was a display of God’s true character, I have a near-constant reminder of who God is: “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Thus, when I experience my daily pain and suffering, I am reminded that God is love.
Knowledge that our God is a God of love is one of the most valuable gifts a person may receive on this earth. It is for the strength to comprehend this love that the apostle Paul prays for so earnestly in Ephesians 3:14-19.
When a believer knows that God is love, and that this love is for us, a wellspring of hope begins to burst in their soul. Such an eruption of hope and joy following a deeper understanding of the love of God is the experience of my own life. The assurance of God’s love for me is a blessing that vastly outweighs the joy present-day physical healing could ever bring.
So yes, my chronic illness causes me to experience unusual, horrible, detestable amounts of pain and suffering. Christ frees me to hate this suffering and invites me to join him in fighting against it. However, this unusual, horrible, detestable pain does not defeat the notion that God is love.
Rather, it emphasizes all the more that God is love – and this is reason for abounding joy.
Joyful, I write this in the midst of my pain and suffering today and I encourage you, brother or sister, to “rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4) with me, for our God loves us and he has overcome the world!