Meaningful Hope for Christians with Chronic Illnesses

By Cecil Maranville


THROUGH THE AGES people have sought comfort from the Psalms, finding their messages as soothing as a loving touch. For a person dealing with chronic physical or emotional pain, the Psalms present another level of comfort. In this article you will read an overview of those songs which relate to chronic pain, fatigue, depression, disability and anxiety.

If you possess a strong belief in God and also endure a chronic illness, you probably have struggled with your faith. Why hasn’t God made you well? Without doubt you have prayed for just such a miracle, as have friends and family. The fact that your physical pain remains month after month -- or even year after year -- may well have caused you heavy discouragement.

It is easy to assume that if one seeks to live by God’s will and loves Him, God will always relieve that one’s physical suffering. Yet, there you are -- or someone you know and love -- still bound by pain, disease or disability. Does the lack of physical relief mean that there is something wrong spiritually?

I would like to take you on a brief survey of the Psalms of the Bible to challenge that assumption. Many of us regularly read the Psalms for comfort and encouragement, but I wonder how many have noticed that several of these beloved songs speak about people of faith who suffer from chronic illnesses.

First, think about this...

BEFORE LOOKING INTO THE PSALMS, let’s lay a little groundwork from two

Does the lack of physical relief mean that there is something wrong spiritually?

references from the second letter to the Corinthian Christians. In the first chapter, the Apostle Paul assures his readers that they -- these are Christians, remember -- have the opportunity to experience spiritual comfort from God when they endure troubles. Therein lies a concept which is foreign to many: Christians can have troubles. Enduring or chronic ones.

You have to experience trouble before comfort means anything. Try a simple, perhaps silly, experiment to illustrate the point. Pick up a small child who isn't upset or hurt, and begin to pat him or her on the back, softly speaking reassurances that everything will be all right. The child is likely to think you are a little strange! Do the same actions for a child who has fallen and gotten scraped, and comfort becomes meaningful -- and appreciated.

You see the point. We all want to experience the comforting love of God, yet would rather avoid needing that comfort. Comfort, however, is meaningless if we have no need for it.

Within these scriptures are three plain messages: (1) Christians experience trouble; (2) God is fully aware of their suffering (why do we sometimes have difficulty in realizing there are no secrets from Him?); (3) instead of always removing that trouble, God sometimes chooses to give only spiritual comfort. That is a different course of action than many expect from God.

If physical relief were the most important task for God to attend to, He would certainly provide it! Of course, God does not bring troubles on us, but neither does He spare us completely from accident or disease. The health of the spirit is sometimes not attained, or even thought of, until the health of the body is lost. We have to conclude that spiritual comfort is therefore more important than physical comfort.

Think about that statement.

The Indisputable Value of Hurting

PAUL ALSO DRAWS OUR ATTENTION to the understanding that suffering Christians gain about others with all types of physical and emotional pain. Have you ever been offered comfort by someone who never had any

You have to experience trouble before comfort means anything.

experience with the trouble under which you were buried? Have you ever been offered comfort by someone who had been buried just as deep as you?

Which one offered more meaningful comfort? Which one would you seek out

if you had to choose a helper again? It's obvious that there is great training value in enduring troubles. Christians are supposed to gain experience with all kinds of difficulties, work their way through them with the comfort of God and people, and then pass along sympathy, empathy, caring and comfort to other people who hurt.

Many people can provide support to those wrestling with the challenges of illnesses. Obvious acts of kindness include listening, reading aloud, providing or preparing meals, doing household chores, sending cards and many more that you can name. But genuine comfort is often communicated beyond the words and actions through an attitude of understanding.

That depth of understanding comes only by having been through a similar challenge. It is priceless training, equipping the Christian to extend faith to those who truly need it.

In the fourth chapter of II Corinthians, Paul draws an analogy between mortal men and jars of clay which hold a valuable treasure. The less you value the clay pot, the more you concentrate on what is inside of it. By contrast, the beautifully ornate container of a treasure becomes an item of worth in itself, and can distract attention from the true treasure inside.

His point is crystal clear. The spiritual health of a man is a treasure. His physical condition may be like crumbling old clay, but that will only highlight the infinitely greater value of a spiritually healthy mind, the inner treasure.

Psalmists with Chronic Illnesses

WITH THAT INTRODUCTION, we'll move into the Psalms. People through the ages have sought comfort from these ancient songs, finding them as

It is healthy to take a look at oneself to see if any conduct needs to change. But it is unhealthy to beat oneself up looking for some evil cause of your illness, because often there is none

refreshing as a cool cloth on a fevered brow. For a person dealing with chronic physical or emotional pain, there is a multi-faceted message. What follows is a brief sketch of those songs which relate to chronic pain, fatigue, depression, disability and anxiety. Prepare to be surprised!

Psalm 6: Notice the vocabulary with which the chronically ill can so easily identify -- "I am faint." "My bones are in agony." "My soul is in anguish." "I am worn out from groaning." "All night long I flood my bed with weeping." "My eyes grow weak with sorrow." Sober thoughts of the possibility of death are seriously weighed. The song concludes with an uplifting sense of hope and relief of mind.

Psalm 8: Here's a contrast between the frailty of man and the majesty of God. As Paul later wrote, when a man is frail, he can understand that contrast more clearly. That is a healthy mental or spiritual perspective.

Psalm 10: The author felt alone, helpless, overwhelmed by trouble and grief. All too familiar to one who has chronic pain! Once again, he is able to find bolstering for his spirit -- not necessarily for his body.

Psalm 11: This author writes of God being a "safe place" for him, like a bird that can take to the air and fly high above any threat. These are comforting, releasing thoughts.

Psalm 13: This author felt abandoned, struggling with his gloomy thoughts and unable to make sense of his awful trials. He was depressed every day. The song ends with him recapturing a confidence that things will be all right. He's cheerful and even feels like singing! These are thoughts of coping. It doesn't mean the difficulty ended.

Psalm 23: This classic song speaks of "walking through the valley of the shadow of death," or alternatively, "through the darkest valley," without anxiety! It declares a person can be restored, refreshed in spirit, while greatly challenged physically.

Psalm 25:16-17: This writer expresses his loneliness, depression, suffering and stress overload in the context of drawing spiritual courage.

Psalm 31:7, 9, 10: In these few verses, we glean a picture of a person who is anguished or torn up, overwhelmed both mentally and physically. Note the chronic nature of the affliction, lasting a period of years. His choice of words, "my bones grow weak," graphically portrays chronic fatigue.

Psalm 32:3-4: Here's yet another chronic ailment which causes the author's "bones to waste away" -- another description of fatigue. So is the analogy of chronic illness sapping his strength like oppressive summertime heat and humidity that can drain anyone's energy.

Psalm 34:4, 6, 8, 15, 17-19: This person is burdened with many anxieties and fears -- "complexes" we might say today. He has multiple trials and feels like he needs a safe place to crawl into and get away from everything. His troubles, too, are chronic. Note how he feels brokenhearted, "crushed in spirit" -- how descriptive! We are told in plain language that a right-living man can have many troubles.

Psalm 38: This song is incredible! The subject has wretched health, is chronically fatigued and overwhelmed by a sense of guilt at the same time. [He directly associates immoral conduct with his physical problems. Sometimes diseases are caused by immorality. It is healthy to take a look at oneself to see if any conduct needs to change. But it is unhealthy to beat oneself up looking for some evil cause of your illness, because often there is none.] He tells of festering, unpleasant sores, depression lasting days on end, searing back pain and of being without any kind of support group. What did he do? He prayed -- that is, he went after the one kind of health he could have, a healthy mind.

Psalm 41 speaks of God's special concern for the physically weak, and how the sick person is sustained while on his sickbed. "Bed of illness" perhaps implies a chronic illness. Here is an indisputable demonstration of how God can and does strengthen the mind, while He sometimes allows the body to weaken.

Psalms 42, 43, 57 & 63 all have messages about chronic illness, similar to those already analyzed. But there are still some unique messages in other songs.

Psalm 72:12-14 speaks of strengthening and encouraging the mind of the helpless, the afflicted (by disease or other troubles) and the victims of violent crimes.

Psalm 77 is a record of sleepless nights, long hours of self-analysis and growing discouragement. The author speaks of the positive use of meditation to get back to strong spiritual health.

Psalm 84 is a beautifully written poetic expression of the restful, healthy result of a strong spirit.

Psalm 88:15 mentions a person who has been sickly with a life-threatening illness since childhood. He is both fatigued and depressed. For some reason, he has neither friend nor relative to comfort him. Soberly, there is no positive upswing in mental outlook at the end of this song. Could it be a message that sometimes there are l-o-n-g periods of trial?

Psalm 102: This person sings of enduring a prolonged difficulty. He's stressed out. The days blend together without meaning. His bones "burn with pain." His appetite is gone due to discouragement, and he's reduced to skin and bones. Sleep patterns are poor, and he cries often. Yet even he has an unquenchable positive outlook on the future.

Psalm 119: The powerful, uplifting message of this song is a favorite of many readers of the Bible, but perhaps they have missed the chronic illness language. "I am laid low in the dust." "My soul is weary with sorrow." "My comfort in suffering." "Before I was afflicted." "It was good for me to be afflicted." "My soul faints with longing for your salvation." "My eyes fail, looking for your promise." "I say, 'When will you comfort me?'" "I am like a wineskin in the smoke [shriveled up]." "I have suffered much." "Trouble and distress have come upon me." "I rise before dawn and call for help." "My eyes stay open through the watches of the night." "Look upon my suffering."

Psalm 22: These are the deeply personal thoughts of a physically tormented man. He is sleepless, hopeless, abandoned by friend and family alike. His energy is drained. His joints ache, his courage is melted, and he has generalized pain. He concludes with a positive swing in attitude of mind to a sense of hope. But once again, it is in the mind that the hope has come -- not the body. Many see this as a prophecy of the sufferings of the Messiah, which ended in His physical death, even though His mind was healthy and strong.

Because of its special significance, I saved Psalm 22 for last. If the perfect Son of God could suffer physically, can there be any argument with the fact that any right-living man or woman may also endure unrelieved pain? Jesus said of Himself that His purpose was to bring relief for those in need of physical health, but also for those in need of spiritual health. Lacking full understanding, many people -- even religious ones -- assume the two types of relief are equal in importance. That's an incorrect assumption. The supernatural restoration of physical health often served only to demonstrate that it is possible to obtain an infinitely greater treasure, the health of the spirit.

There is no biblical justification for the idea that all people of faith are quickly relieved of all trouble or suffering. There is a solid promise that God never leaves His people, even if they feel alone, and that they can always find peace of mind or health of the spirit.

Sick isn't Synonymous with Sin

THINK ABOUT THE REMARKABLE personal stories of servants of God which

Jesus said of Himself that His purpose was to bring relief for those in need of physical health, but also for those in need of spiritual health.

we've analyzed here. We read of people who felt like they needed a safe place to crawl into and hide from overwhelming problems; frustrated, discouraged and depressed people; some who struggled with anger; many who were fatigued and stressed out, with aching bones or joints, and sleepless nights. In short, we learned of many servants of God who had chronic illnesses.

I hope you are able to draw much encouragement by reading and identifying with these heart-rending personal stories of the intimate thoughts, hopes and fears of right-living people with a chronic illness.

And I hope that two things are abundantly clear: (1) a person can have a sick body and at the same time be "in good standing" spiritually; (2) regardless of poor health -- and maybe even because of poor health a person can find mental and spiritual health through God.

The life experience of countless Christians, past and present, tells you that is true.

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