By Mary Henderson
Ten years ago, I was in a wheelchair, barely able to lift my arm to brush my teeth or feed myself. I was in constant pain, hardly able to move or even talk. My husband and I were living as missionaries in Budapest, Hungary with our three children when my health took this sudden, unexplained dive downward. I had previously been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition for which there is no definitive treatment plan, and we had been living in Hungary for six years with fluctuating symptoms. But when my health crashed in 2003 to an all-time low, we finally gave up our dream of living overseas as missionaries. With great sadness, we moved to California where I could receive ongoing medical help. But back in the U.S., I already knew the hopeless reality: there were no clear-cut medical answers for my chronic illness.
And so, feeling worse than I’d ever felt in my life, with no hope of improvement offered, I had to somehow pull up my own bootstraps and begin the arduous, unmapped climb to the place where I find myself now…living a normal, healthy life, serving God full-time, exercising 45 minutes daily, and enjoying endless possibilities. My climb to health involved weeks, months, even years of research, consultations, medical appointments, and trial and error. I learned a lot, not only about my own illness, but about strategies and approaches that apply to all health recovery. As word spread about my dramatic improvement, people from around the world began to contact me, asking what I’d done to so vastly improve. I put it all in a book: Break Free: Journey with God through Chronic Illness to Health.
Here are five strategies I discovered for improving stubborn health challenges. They can also be helpful for any area where we feel stuck.
1. Decide to be determined. Decide to fight like a tiger. But what if you feel hopeless, un-motivated, and unsure of how to proceed? Proverbs 24:10 cautions us, “If you are slack in the day of distress, your strength is limited” (NAS ). When we’re tired and discouraged, we don’t have the luxury of coasting, because our strength will wane even more. But how do we obtain determination?
One way is to gain vision: What hopes and dreams do you have for your future which will be hindered if you don’t improve? In my wheelchair, I thought of my dreams that would never happen if I didn’t get better – being active with my children, involvement in treasured ministry, and living life! Thinking of these things propelled me forward to fight like a tiger to regain my health. Write down your hopes and dreams and put them in a place where you can see them daily to fuel your determination.
Another vitally important method of rallying your determination is to call in fellow-fighters to help you, which brings me to my next strategy in your health battle plan.
2. Get help. Help can come from many places and in different ways, but you need to enlist the help of others. You need companions in your fight. God has designed it this way: “But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor. 12:24-26). So make your needs known and ask for help! There is absolutely no way I could have gotten where I am today without the people who gave sacrificially to me in so many ways. There was Sally. We had only been surface-level friends when my illness started, but we became closer than sisters as she rallied to give me unending aid in my plight. Whether it was brainstorming for ideas for the next medical avenue I might pursue, or pushing me in a wheelchair through a mall to give me some “fun,” Sally was there or she enlisted others from our church to help. I also sought counseling to address the ongoing emotional struggle that accompanies and exacerbates chronic illness, which my church graciously helped to pay for. So pursue and make use of the wonderful body of Christ which God has provided to help its weakened members. You don’t have the luxury of being shy about asking!
3. Get rid of what is toxic in your life and add what is healthy. Detoxify and energize your physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational health. Toxins in any of these areas can pull down your physical health.
Here’s a list of things you might need to eliminate:
- Unhealthy foods
- Products with chemicals (lotions, cosmetics, cleaners)
- Harmful Attitudes (negative, aggressive, superior)
- Unhealthy Perspectives (being a victim, comparing, complaining)
- Relationship difficulty (seek mentoring or counseling)
- Limit your exposure to some people
- Depressing Media (news, magazines, books)
- Lose weight
And now some things to add to your life for energy, replenishment, and health:
- Healthy foods
- Vitamin and mineral supplements
- New alternative medical approaches
- Positive people
- Nourishing books and media
- Fun hobbies and activities
- Healthy spiritual input
Hebrews 12:1-2 admonishes us, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus.” So throw off everything that hinders and add what is good.
4. Try new things. “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland” (Is. 43:18-19). In your health battle, be open to new approaches. Do research, talk to others, be open, bold, and brave.
There were many times I had to plunge into new, unfamiliar territory: acupuncture,alternative health treatments, dietary changes, massage techniques, and more. If you don’t see improvement from something new that you try, cross that off your list and try the next approach that you’ve researched and think might be helpful.
5. Wrestle and Rest with God. Genesis 32 describes a picture of Jacob wrestling with a man representing God, all night, “until daybreak” until God finally blessed him. God said to Jacob, “You have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Often our health issues leave us puzzled or confused. We find ourselves questioning God, His goodness, love, and sovereignty. My deep suffering came as a big surprise to me because I’d always been in great health and enjoyed a close, sweet, and intimate relationship with God. In the beginning of my health crisis, I was spiritually strong, trusting God. But as weeks of suffering turned into months and finally years of seemingly unanswered prayer, I found myself asking, “How could God stand by and watch His dearly loved daughter suffer for years without intervening? I couldn’t do that to my daughter.” I’ve been encouraged to realize that wrestling with God about suffering is a theme He has included throughout Scripture. Job, the oldest book in the Bible, addresses it from many angles, and in the Psalms, God provides numerous models for crying out and struggling with Him in prayer. I’ve found that when you wrestle with God like Jacob long enough, praying and processing fully with Him “until daybreak,” something blooms more fully inside of you. You become new and improved! Mandie Ellingson said, “The difficulties of life are intended to make us better, not bitter.” And James told us that “the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (Jas. 1:4).
After many years of being bedridden with illness, missionary Amy Carmichael wrote about coming to a place of “contentment with the unexplained.” I’ve discovered that this happens by learning to rest in the integrity of God’s character. Wrestling with God has brought me to a place of resting in God. So I encourage you to ask Him the hard questions, along with asking Him for your next steps to find improvement. Then listen for His still, small voice, guiding you through the days, weeks, and months. He will speak through your thoughts, through others, and through His Word.
It takes hard work to improve a difficult health challenge when there are no easy answers. But I’m living proof that it can work and it’s so worth the fight. Don’t let chronic illness hold you back from the life and ministry you love!
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