I was recently listening to an interview with an MD on treating chronic illness. He mentioned that one of the exercises he prescribes to his patients is to keep a journal of symptoms, improvements, relapses, and any changes made to diet and lifestyle. Besides this being a helpful tool for the doctor to know what is working, his reason was because when a patient is feeling ill, they have a hard time remembering that they have made any progress. And when a patient has a good day, they have a hard time remembering that they are sick and need to care for themselves with rest and nutrition. The journal was to work as a tool for keeping the patient on the right track, and to give them encouragement because they could see the progress however slow.
Chronic pain and chronic illness can cause us to forget all kinds of things. We forget what it is like to be well. I remember having a cold as a child, and I could not remember what it was like to breath through my nose, although I’m sure the cold lasted only a week. Sickness brings short-term memory loss. More importantly, we forget that we have God on our side. When Moses sent the men to scout Canaan before moving in, most of them returned in fear of the fortified cities and giant men. They allowed the reality of the situation to cloud their faith. But, as Joshua and Caleb pointed out, they forgot the key factor. Strong walls and strong men are nothing compared to the strength of God. David knew this when he stood across from Goliath. He knew that without God the odds were not in his favor. In illness, we can easily fear the future. We can fear what doctors tell us . They are looking at lab reports and medical files and comparative illnesses. They are looking at what they believe to be reality. But doctors often do not factor in God’s strength. Even when facing the reality of a chronic or incurable illness, God is on our side. Even if we have to live through all the horrifying symptoms and procedures, God is on our side.
Chronic illness brings with it plenty of fuel for discouragement and despair. Besides the fact of suffering through the physical pain, the fear that the pain will worsen is frequently present. The pain itself can drain courage out of you. James says that testing our faith brings patience, and patience bring perfection. If we do not have the wisdom to understand the test then we must pray for God to open our eyes. James found a direct link between suffering and joy. My husband often tells me that emotions are like nerves. Our experiences cause emotional reactions, just how physical contact causes nerves to react. James is saying that the emotional reaction to the experience of suffering should be joy. But that is not a natural reaction. The natural reaction to suffering is despair, which is why we have to pray for wisdom. We have to pray for the wisdom to feel joy when we suffer. We have to pray for the Spirit to do His work in us so that we can see the joy in suffering.
The most intense frustration with chronic illness is the limitations that it places on your life. Often illnesses stand in the way of doing the things we love the most, sometimes they even stand in the way of performing basic work that we would otherwise be content to do. Illness can stand in the way of building and maintaining friendships, and of accomplishing goals and plans. The Westminster Catechism says that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. If that is our purpose, and we believe God to be all sovereign over our life, then accepting His will to lay in a sick bed is following His calling. I think we often talk about “our calling” like it is our life-work. But our calling is really just doing whatever God has put right in front of us each day. If chronic fatigue is right in front of you, then God has called you to glorify Him and enjoy Him on the couch. We don’t have to be discouraged over canceled plans or goals, because God’s will for our days will be whatever He does with them. Sickness brings with it a stressful panic for relief, for healing, for finding the right doctor or medication. God has counted every single hour of the illness, and in Him we can find the peace to live through illness with patience. He knows when and how relief will come, and He will always bring it at just the right time.