For National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week, September 12-18, 2011: Did you know that most chronic illnesses are invisible? That is, you can’t tell by looking at someone that they suffer from lupus, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, etc.
Eleven years ago, I ran a children’s Bible club, served on the board of Tampa Bay’s (then) largest homeschool co-op, started and ran a local curricula lending library, published a newsletter and website and volunteered in my church. Within months, my busy life screeched to a halt when I was hit with a debilitating neurological disease that forced me to bed for about four years.
As my strength declined, my friends dropped off. One friend came to my house, declared that God wanted me well and I was somehow thwarting his plan, then never spoke to me again. I figured if God wanted me well, he could have arranged that. One man said I should ask God, “Why me?” I answered him, “Why not me? This happens. Why shouldn’t it happen to me?” A woman told my five-year-old daughter that her mommy was sick because she didn’t pray enough.
In time, I got better. I can’t say that God healed me, in the true sense of a miraculous healing, but I thank him for sparing my life and giving me strength again. I still live with a list of invisible after-effects, including chronic migraines, fatigue and insomnia.
I usually only mention my chronic illness to a trusted few. But once in a while, when I miss a scheduled activity, or hesitate to commit to a long day or to an early morning, I offer the reason why. As often as not, when I mention my illness, Christians treat me as if I am either lazy or a hypochondriac. I look fine. I’m functional. Surely I couldn’t really be that sick.
In spite of Biblical examples to the contrary (Elisha, Job and Timothy, among others), some people insist that God doesn’t want his children to ever suffer physical illness. I think they’re scared. Maybe they’re wondering, “What if God lets me get sick? What if my plans shatter, and I have to start over with a different life?”
Holding on to the belief that it could never happen to them comforts frightened people. Frightened people, however, cannot comfort others. They cannot encourage the lonely individual isolated by pain. They cannot reassure the fearful child of a sick parent, or lend a hand to the overworked caregiver of a sick spouse. They cannot love in the way that God calls us to love.
Are you frightened? Love casts out fear. Instead of trying to pinpoint the reason that someone suffers, what if you take a deep breath, start fresh, and change your focus? What if, instead of placing blame, you find a way to include the ill person in your fellowship, to refresh the caregiver, to bolster the children? What if, instead of offering advice, you offer ways to lighten the load?
To find out how you can practically love those who live with chronic illness or pain, and their families, visit the National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week website. And if you are in the one out of every two Americans who lives with a chronic illness or pain, pop on over to find others who understand.