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Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Theology of Chronic Illness?
Lately I've been thinking about the theology of chronic illness; that is, the spiritual side of chronic mental and/or physical illnesses.

Two years ago I married someone who has lived with a (non life-threatening, noncommunicable) chronic physical illness for about a decade now. In many ways we're very fortunate: Drew has a mild form of this disease, he's able to work full-time, and so far his condition hasn't worsened over time. But we still live with restrictions on how much Drew is able to do over the course of a day; some days or weeks there's only enough energy for him to go to work. Other days or weeks are better, of course, although we don't know today how he'll feel tomorrow or the day after tomorrow or next week.

When I was a kid my mom struggled with the spiritual ramifications of her using her asthma medication; for a time she believed that doing so would prove her lack of faith in God, that if she managed to acquire enough faith she would be healed. It never happened and she's since moved on from that belief. Years later, someone who shared similar beliefs told me that I'd be cured of a fairly serious (though not life-threatening) allergy I have if I had enough faith. I didn't believe him, but that conversation has aroused some questions that I still grapple with in my mind.

I don't wonder why people develop chronic illnesses, but I do wonder what our response to the issues surrounding chronic illness should be as Christians. While I believe that God can and does heal, it has been my experience that most of the time humans are left to muddle through both mental and physical illness without divine intervention in the matter. It seems to be a luck of the draw more than anything else.

I'm particularly curious to hear from anyone who has personal experience with this issue, although of course all comments will be appreciated . :)

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posted by Lydia at 7:49 PM ¤ Permalink ¤


24 Comments:


  • At 1/16/2007 10:34:00 PM, Blogger Amy

    I actually grew up in a church heavily influenced by the faith movement. I also grew up with a brother who had severe allergies and asthma. Over the years as my brother was prayed for and there was no change, my parents got tired of the questions about their faith.

    My husband has diabetes (insulin dependent). My brother now suffers from chronic pain as a result of a car accident. Both situations stink. But God meets us in the midst. He has not changed the situation, but I do know that God has walked with us and provided strength. It doesn't make life perfect by any means, but I'm not sure that's the point.

     
  • At 1/17/2007 05:45:00 AM, Blogger Sally

    I have loads of experience of living with chronic illness, two of my sons are insulin dependent diabetics, one has a major congenital heart defect and I live with depression.

    I have learned that God works in and through all of these conditions- learning to trust and rely upon a God who loves us in the midst of difficulties and in the midst of sometime critisisms from "helpful" Christians about lack of faith and unresolved sin has been a part of my journey.

    God promises to walk with us through flood and fire, not to snuff out a smouldering wick... he promises treasure in the darkness and strength to bear difficulties...

    we fear pain and brokeness, but Jesus came to bind up the broken hearted, healing does not always come in physical form... and we remain living with the tensions and the challenges of that!

     
  • At 1/17/2007 11:12:00 AM, Blogger Michele L

    I have not had experience in this area. I respect your difficult journey's. As a flip to the Faith/chronic illness connection, I offer this. I personally have been healthy most of my life. I have had many years of doubt, and "faith" crisies, and yet have not "struggled" with illness. I personally do not believe God decides to just push challenging circumstances on people randomly. What would make my doubts and struggles in Faith more "forgivable" than someone elses? I do believe in healing, and that God can do what God will do. Unfortunately, I think the ideas behind "you need to have MORE faith" in order to "be healed" is just not helpful and limits the magnitude of God. I also feel it is just another way to play the "in/out, favored/not favored" game that is played within church realms.

    These situations are hard to understand, and painful. Sometimes we just don't know why things happen, and I don't think we can speak for God in these instances...to say you are not healed due to lack of faith. Sometimes people without faith end up healed and sometimes people with abundant faith are not...

    I also feel all people are God's children, and I can't say that we would choose for one of our children to continually suffer over another...just because.
    God is Love! I just can't believe anymore in the "child abusing" God, that was portrayed to me as a child.

    Please don't let others opinions drag you down. Your faith(or lack thereof, in their opinion) is not their business, and completely out of line, if not cruel to someone dealing with illness in their life. We should be encouraging, compassionate, and loving.

     
  • At 1/17/2007 01:25:00 PM, Blogger Deb

    My thought has been that it is not necessarily what we learn when the illness is 'over' as much as what God teaches us while we are 'IN' it.

    My asthma limits my environment at times and my energies. I've learned that if someone is burning scented candles or is wearing perfume that seems like "Eau Du Ragweed" that I have to find nice ways to tell them... I've learned that when I am starting to get sick with a cold that I get adequate rest or I'll head straight to bronchitis (do not pass GO). I've learned to consider how dependent I am on God for everything, not just breathing, but my very heart beat, the safe travel down slippery roads or dodging lightning bolts on a hike...

    I've learned to accept others and be patient with their perhaps less visible "infirmities" (mental, emotional, spiritual) since I am so obviously in need of kindness to be extended to me.

    I've experienced God's supernatural equipping to sing when I could not talk or play flute when I was wheezing -- because He asked me to be faithful in worship. I've accepted His sidelining me to rest when I was not able to do so.

    Make sense? Not really, in the human or "earthly" sense. But that's how it seems to be lived out in my zip code...

    :)
    Deb

     
  • At 1/17/2007 05:16:00 PM, Blogger lydia

    Thank you for your comments and personal stories thus far, everyone.

    The last month or so in particular has been a real struggle. Winter is a rough time for Drew....and it's been a long one this year. We suspect that he may have Seasonal Affective Disorder as well as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but only the latter has ever been officially diagnosed.


    I've learned to accept others and be patient with their perhaps less visible "infirmities" (mental, emotional, spiritual) since I am so obviously in need of kindness to be extended to me.

    Yes, I've learned/am learning that lesson well.

     
  • At 1/17/2007 05:16:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Monroe

    Deb, beautifully expressed.

     
  • At 1/17/2007 06:08:00 PM, Blogger Julie

    This is one I have dealt with as well. As some of you know, I was born missing the lower half of my left arm. The doctors could find no reason at all for why it happened - nothing to blame on my parents. But at various points in my life I've been told by people in the church that if I had enough faith, God would grow my arm. And there were points, like in late elementary school, where I truly believed that. Now I find it absurd. Not that I doubt God's ability to do the miraculous, but I just don't see why God would need to do so. This is part of who I am, I wouldn't be the sum of my personality without it.

    I've come more and more to be content with people the way they are. Not that I don't think people change, but that the quirks and packaging of a person are to be valued in an of themselves. (yes somethings are evil, or unhealthy, or harmful to others - but not as much as we often try to believe). So I'm not a fan of plastic surgery nor of medicating one (a childs!) personality away. So when people tell me that with enough faith I could be different, or that in heaven I will be different, or that when I was pregnant I should be praying everyday that my child would have ten little fingers and ten little toes I really just question them. I want to be me, not some version of who they think I should be.

     
  • At 1/17/2007 07:41:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Monroe

    Amen Julie. My daughter has six fingers, and the doctors wanted me to have the "babies" cut off, and I'm so glad I didn't do it (I almost did!) She gives us "six" instead of five, and is very affectionate toward her "baby ones." She has asked about why she is the only one in her class who has six, but only in a curious way. Perhaps because I have steered pretty clear of really fundamentalist crowds for a while, I haven't really had to deal with people accusing me of not having enough faith to get her down to the "proper" amount of fingers!

     
  • At 1/17/2007 08:12:00 PM, Blogger juniper

    I have lived with depression most of my life. It seems mostly to be chemical. I have had people say assorted stupid things about having faith or understanding my position in Christ or whatever and if I did, I would be "cured." I believe God does heal people. I don't pretend to understand how or why. My cure came through medication for which I really do thank God. When I hear people suggest that a lack of physical healing (which must, of course, occur just as they say it should) is equal to a lack of faith, my blood boils. Its unkind to say the least. It smacks of the arguments by Job's friends -- there's something wrong with you so you must be doing or have done something wrong. Dingleberries!
    This is doing to others as you'd have done to you. I could go on and start talking about how Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith, but I'd probably be out on a theological limb.

     
  • At 1/17/2007 09:41:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Monroe

    Dingleberries! I like that :)

     
  • At 1/17/2007 09:44:00 PM, Blogger Helen

    Julie, I didn't know about your arm until I met you last month. Since then I have been impressed by all the things you manage to do - posting on blogs, looking after your child, helping Mike with the new church - which are harder for you than for most of us.

    I really wish we could rid the world of the idea that if you had enough faith you could just grow the rest of your arm.

    I hate it because it piles guilt on people who already have the challenge of living with their illness or whatever other challenge/suffering is in their life through no fault of theirs.

    Back to the original question: what should our response be? How about "Is there any way I can help you out?"

     
  • At 1/17/2007 09:59:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Monroe

    Helen, I like your response. It seems that there are no systematic theologies that explain everything or get people healed. But there is always the call to love -- and love is the only thing that really lasts forever anyway.

    I have struggled with anxiety/depression on and off throughout my life and watched many others cope with life's circumstances (including the genes we get dealt) in various ways. My understanding is that suffering can either make us bitter or compassionate, and I echo everyone's thoughts that I want to choose compassion, although it is not always simple or easy.

    I do wonder why God sometimes heals miraculously and sometimes allows great suffering...why not a consistent divine ethic? But in the face of the mystery, there only option I glimpse besides cynism and despair is worship and compassion.

     
  • At 1/17/2007 10:51:00 PM, Blogger Cary

    When my little brother battled (and died from) cancer, we dealt a lot with people's bad theology. God does not give us diseases. We live in a fallen world. Can He use horrible situations to teach us, to shape us, to further His Kingdom, etc? Absolutely. Does He still use miracles to heal? Definitely. But He has also given us medical knowledge and lots of talented doctors and nurses who have been gifted by Him. If He uses those professionals to bring comfort or possibly healing, is that any less of Him working than if He simply took away the illness through supernatural means?

     
  • At 1/18/2007 04:11:00 AM, Blogger Helen

    Thanks Jemila.

    Cary, I'm so sorry you had to deal with the bad theology at the same time you were grieving the loss of your little brother. :(

     
  • At 1/18/2007 07:37:00 AM, Blogger MTR

    Count me as one male who thought this was an excellent post! :-)

    POsted about it on my blog:http://fromthemorning.blogspot.com/2007/01/point-made.html

     
  • At 1/18/2007 07:51:00 AM, Blogger View from the Trekant

    Fascinating thread. I'm an MD with a handicapped child, so I've sat on both sides of the exam room, so to speak.

    I wrote about how a chronically ill lady impacted me the other day on rounds on my blog - her desire to witness to me really caught me off guard.

    You have to wonder why there are some that are given dramatic healing even after years of illness (like to lady with the issue of blood or the blind man) and others that Jesus left as they were. I don't think it has to do with some simplistic assessment of whether or not one is worthy or has enough faith.

    My daughter believe is miracles but her disability remains.

    God knows where each of us is meant to be at any moment and will meet us there.

     
  • At 1/18/2007 08:48:00 AM, Blogger MTR

    I sound like a jerk... Commented on the wrong thread. Oops.

    :-(

    I mean to comment on the "why men should not be ordained" post.

     
  • At 1/18/2007 08:58:00 AM, Blogger Julie

    mtr - no problem I do that all the time!

    view from the trekant - welcome to the blog and thanks for your words.

     
  • At 1/18/2007 10:13:00 AM, Blogger lydia

    No problem, MTR. Life happens. :)

     
  • At 1/18/2007 05:13:00 PM, Blogger Shannon

    Ari,

    I have a little experience in this. When I was 8 I was diagnosed with Meniere's disease. It's an inner each disease which causes an inability for fluid to not metabolize. This is put simply of course. Anyway, I struggled with this disease until a year and a half ago. 25 years of it. I prayed for God to heal me along with everyone I know. He never performed the miracle healing. But He allowed something to take place, I believe. I was feeling incredibly bad for several weeks and my sister talked me into going to the doctor for a physical. Come to find out I had high blood pressure. He prescribed medicine for me but the high blood pressure medicine he prescribed contains a drug that is most prescribed for the treatment of Miniere's. Since I began taking this medication, my blood pressure is under control and I have not had a "spell" in over a year and a half. This is truly amazing because I was having spells at least 1 time a month. I don't pretend to understand God and why He does what He does all the time, but I do believe God worked this out for me. For which I'm truly thankful!

     
  • At 1/18/2007 06:30:00 PM, Blogger medium guy

    My grandmother's dementia due to an Alzheimer-like pathology gradually worsened over a course of 12 years and I felt bad for her and my mother, who was responsible for her caretaking. Looking back, it was very difficult knowing that on any given day, you could logically and rationally only look forward to tomorrow as being "at least as bad, if not worse." I can vividly remember the rotting food in her refrigerator we cleaned out after she took up residence in a nursing home [no, not a pc term like "assisted living" or "care facility" - this was the 1980's, and it was an honest to goodness nursing home]. I also remember the day her speech went from part rambling and stuttering but mostly understandable to repeating a few meaningless phonemes over and over. As a 14 year-old when we visited, my task was to help her eat meals, which I actually enjoyed doing because I could connect with her even if we couldn't communicate verbally [and my Mom would comment on how it had come full circle, that she had fed me when I was a small child, so now I was returning the favor]. And when we would enter the room, she would be mindlessly mumbling, but then when she saw us she would clearly light up and mumble the same sounds, but loudly and excitedly. Seeing her get excited and happy to see us was for me worth everything else. Then I remember the day she failed to recognize me, or at least to be able to communicate that she did. It was at that point that I felt I had lost her. I know my mother is anxious that she will suffer a similar fate, and I'm not sure how best to try and ease her worries about that.

     
  • At 1/19/2007 07:17:00 AM, Blogger Jamie

    Oh boy. This is one that I have experienced very recently in my life. My youngest daughter was suddenly diagnosed with grand mal epilepsy last March. I couldn't believe the responses that I got from good Christian friends. I have posted on this exact thing multiple times on my blog, as I have struggled to understand not only people's reactions, but where to find God in the midst of watching your child struggle with an illness.

    At the end of the day, I have come to the place, like Job, that I say,
    "Who am I to question God?" or demand healing, or pretend that I understand why we are struggling with this particular illness.

     
  • At 1/19/2007 05:41:00 PM, Blogger lydia

    I know I've been pretty quiet in this discussion. To be honest, I wasn't sure quite what to say.

    Although I really like the profound sense of peace I felt emanating from so many of your comments.

     
  • At 1/22/2007 06:53:00 AM, Anonymous agma

    I have two inherited conditions: hearing loss and chronic migraine, shared by one or both of my siblings. A few years ago I got fed up with taking crap from Christians about it, b/c I knew if they were dishing it out to me, they were doing so to people with less resources to cope. Now they have to confront their bad theology in my face, at least for a moment.

    "Really? I committed such terrible sins before I was born that God altered my DNA as punishment? I was so faithless before I was conceived that I was destined to suffer?"

    For such are the assumptions Christians make about me & God.

    The response I covet from other Christians more than anything else are hugs and prayers. I have been dealing with this my whole life; I really don't need to know that your uncle's neighbor's girlfriend's nephew's best friend can't eat peanuts- that's not my deal. I know how to take care of myself by now. I praise God for the miracles of modern medicine. What I want from you is for you to be the arms of Jesus for a moment.

    Oh, yes, and to speak up if I ask you to! ;)

     

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