Ministering to the Chronically Ill
by Ingrid Lawrenz, LICSW
Lisa was only 43 years old, but she felt 80. Doctors finally had given her a diagnosis for her chronic pain. She was relieved to know it wasn’t all in her head, yet the prospect of an incurable condition was very hard to accept.
She was obsessive about reading new articles and books and researching her condition on the Internet. She tried every “cure” that was suggested, but nothing helped for long, and she had to fight feeling like a failure. Her husband had a hard time accepting she wouldn’t get better and struggled with some of the “cures,” such as turning the fuse off at night in their bedroom so no electrical fields would jeopardize proper polarization of the magnets his wife wore all over her body.
Well-meaning friends, who suggested more prayer and healing services, made her ashamed that she wasn’t spiritual enough, so she stopped telling most people about her true struggles, because it seemed the more people she told, the more isolated she would become.
Our society doesn’t deal well with chronic illness - an illness that is present all the time. Even in our churches, we want quick fixes and answers to our prayers. We don’t know what to do with someone who is suffering long-term, so we avoid them or blame them for not taking better care of themselves. As a result, we miss the fire-tested wisdom and character of people who have identified with Christ in some agony of this sinful world. Romans 8 says, “All creation groans.”
And so, Lisa’s misunderstood life continued with built-in hardships. She had to turn down some social get-togethers, but others started to decide for her and quit asking her and her husband to social events which made her feel like an outcast.
Only people in the church who understood suffering brought her comfort. She also found it encouraging having a “thorn in the flesh” where she could more fully understand the pain Christ went through for us, and that He knows and empathizes with our pain. Holding on to the hope of God’s healing power, while accepting not being healed and moving on with plans in life was the most difficult balancing act Lisa had ever faced.
Healing no longer meant just the absence of suffering, but peace, trust, and intimate sharing in Christ’s pain. It was the knowledge of being loved by those closest to her simply because of who she was, not because of what she could do. Healing also involved seeing the world differently - at a slower pace, noticing the beauty of the simplest things and sharing a special knowledge in prayer for others hit by disaster or illness.
What is it like to have a chronic illness like Lisa’s?
Though chronic illness varies by the intensity of the impairment, common experiences still exist:
- The person feels alone in the pain.
- The person grieves the many losses the impairment has caused.
- The person experiences the interpersonal tension others have in not knowing what to say or how to act around her.
- The person wants her own identity - not the identity of the disorder.
- The person feels ashamed of what she can’t do and the burden she is to others.
Suffering and illnesses should make us appreciate what we have. They show us how much we need God and how fallen this whole world is. Even nature groans. The Bible promises, “…in this world you will have trouble.”
Chronically-ill people, like Lisa, are really the same as anyone else. We need to let them be normal members of the church family. We all need a strong sense of belonging, and to experience God’s love, tenderness, and forgiveness. Chronically-ill people need to mature in having God’s perspective on this world and eternity. Let’s help them feel their true value so they can receive and give love and use their spiritual gifts to God’s glory.
How You Can Minister to the Chronically Ill
Draw the person out. Enter her world and seek to understand.
Open up their world
Share your life - the mundane, the humorous, and your burdens.
Encourage their spirit
Pray with her, read Scripture, e-mail a helpful quote.
Ask their advice on life issues
They’ve been through a lot.
Don’t avoid them
Include her. Let her say “no” to invitations or to leave events early, if need be.
Don’t always talk about the illness
Keep this in mind, especially if you see her often. Talk about the news and church issues.
Set limits and boundaries
So you don’t burn out, set limits on the amount of care-giving time you have. For example, if the person calls often, tell her that you only have five minutes to talk. Be willing to do what you can for her, but keep it reasonable so you can continue to be her friend.