The Problem of Chronic Illness
John Thropay, East Los Angeles, USA [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Chronic illnesses are health conditions that either have symptoms on a constant basis or flare up episodically. These include: diabetes, heart disease, pulmonary problems, hypertension, mental disorders, stroke, cancer, arthritis, AIDS, and obesity. Eighty percent of older adults have at least one chronic condition, and 50% have at least two.1 Chronic illness is currently the main cause of both death and disability in the USA.2 Medical science has made tremendous progress in ameliorating the physical effects of many of these diseases; however, they still can be a challenge to our spiritual, mental, and emotional health.
Chronic illnesses can lead to anxiety about future suffering, incapacity, and helpless dependence on others. It can force changes in lifestyle, how and where your time is spent, and how your independence and financial liberties may be affected. Cherished activities may need to be sacrificed or curtailed. Your life may need restructuring to adapt to new physical limitations, special needs, and new financial constraints, as funds are redirected to what can be expensive medications and treatment services.
The need for emotional endurance becomes paramount. Continued stress, anxiety, and sadness over time can produce depression. Depression should be addressed promptly. The highest risk for depression is during the first two years. Depression often leads to poor eating habits, lack of exercise, and inconsistent hygiene, and can lead to new or worsened symptoms, as well as accelerating one’s death. Thus, it may complicate your recovery from a chronic illness, and worsen your overall physical condition.3
Coping with the spiritual, mental, and emotional challenges of a chronic illness requires an approach that is realistic, but also positive. Adapting to your condition, or feeling good about the future, may seem impossible, at first, but it can be done. Christ, the supreme example, focused on the joy that was set before Him, Heb. 12. 2. Our Lord gives us all we need to cope, regardless of the situation. Our ability to apply it to our lives will vary from believer to believer. A Christian psychologist, or a spiritual elder, or a good friend, all of whom are hopefully knowledgeable in the scriptures, can sometimes assist. By coping successfully, you can comply more fully with your treatment programme, and achieve some sense of fulfilment in your life.
It is at this point of need that we would first take note of the timeless example par excellence, our Lord Jesus Christ. By virtue of His tremendous sufferings that spanned an eternity within a few hours, He is eminently qualified to guide us through the process. We will consider Him from the Garden of Gethsemane to when He said, ‘Into thy hands I commend my spirit’.
First, we notice His overall demeanour. He always stayed connected to others.4 Stay connected to others, no matter how deep the suffering! He focused his attention on essential items that were needed for Himself, and others, in the midst of his suffering. Psychologists, independently of the Bible, give recommendations for coping that are in concert with what Christ did. Christ’s actions are an excellent example as to how one can defeat depression, and continue to be fulfilled as a person, even in the face of death. Christ used His pathway of sufferings as an opportunity to serve others, and to glorify God; He never took it as a personal threat. To follow Christ’s example in this regard, do something for others. Volunteering for a worthy cause can be a great experience. It also can help you forget about your own problems, and increase your Christ-esteem.
‘Nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done’, Luke 22. 42
The prelude to our Lord’s sufferings was His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. His total acceptance before God of what awaited Him enabled him to glorify God in His sufferings. For us it would be an adjustment of attitude spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically. The glorious grace of God for sinful men could be revealed by Christ in a timeless way after His complete acceptance of whatever pain He would have to endure. In our sufferings, the grace of God that we share from Him with others will glorify Him in the hearts of others long after our death.
It is only after the Garden experience, with an adjustment in our attitude, that we can progress through the seven glorious steps of growth through suffering in imitation of our Lord. The first three sayings of Christ reflect His care for others; the last four sayings reflect His personal needs and desires, both physical and spiritual. We will consider them in their traditional harmonized order. Our sufferings are but for a short time; Christ’s sufferings for an eternity were compressed into an unfathomable six hours.
‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’, Luke 23. 34.
Forgive others, keep your heart open like a child’s, Matt. 18. 2! Don’t play the ‘blame game’, or take things personally. Understand the reality of the situation while at the same time avoiding jealousy, or envy. In our distress, we may become short-tempered. By the grace of God, forgive everyone, and everything. Paul could say, ‘Thy grace is sufficient for me’. Christ said, ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do’. Severe pain can cause stress and can make us short-tempered. Spiritual Christians, and great servants of the Lord, can become complainers, cranky, and intolerant of certain persons, and of their painful situation. Unfortunately, the persons that they hurt the most may be their caregivers, who are doing their best to mollify their sufferings.
Tell others not to worry about you, ‘Faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory’, Eph. 3. 13. Sufferings lead to glory! Paul was willing to simply suffer for Christ and to give the reward of his glory-sufferings to those who were concerned about him. Paul’s writings never changed in character during his final years of pain, rejection, and abandonment by his brethren, 2 Tim. 1. 15; and, of course, Christ’s character was never changed because of suffering, rejection, or abandonment. Forgiveness will bring a sweet savour of victory in the midst of your sufferings.
The wounded soldiers returning victoriously were surrounded by sweet-smelling incense upon their return from the battle front, 2 Cor. 2. 14. Those who could not forgive are likened to the victims of war, who followed behind in chains in their awful odours of festering battle wounds. They also could smell the sweet savour of incense that accompanied the victors, but they were unable to rise to the level of those that could forgive in this Roman cultural picture that Paul gives us, 2 Cor. 2. 15.
‘Truly, I say to you, Today you will be with me in Paradise’, Luke 23. 43 ESV.
Bless others! Stay connected to others in a positive way. Speak well of others, Rom. 12. 14, pray for their spiritual growth. Be generous to others with God’s graciousness. Thank everyone that assists you with words of encouragement and grace. Let your sufferings be a source of blessings for others. While you are bedbound or severely limited, you can be the quiet and secret instrument of God to motivate others to greater living for God, Heb. 10. 25. You can stimulate the development of their gifts by sharing God’s grace with them. Share with them some of the great promises of God that you have experienced personally. Give them the promises of God with confidence, and the true assurance of your faith in God. Give them a phone call with a word of encouragement, or send them a card.
‘Woman, behold your son . . . behold your mother’, John 19. 26-27 ESV.
Arrange for the practical necessities of life for those who are around you. Express your wishes for the care of loved ones, and the disposal of items that may have special intrinsic meaning for those around you. Set all of your material things in order so that they do not become a burden to others. Simplify your needs to conform to the constraints of the situation materially, 2 Tim. 4. 13. Withdraw from your traditional participation in certain activities when unable, but continue to give suggestions and to encourage others to carry on despite your absence. If you are facing death, formalize your wishes promptly and legally, while you are still of a sound mind.
‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me’, Matt. 27. 46 and Mark 15. 34 ESV.
Meditate on God’s ways. Remember His ways of redemption, via our repentance and faith and self-sacrificing obedience to Him. Recount the many scriptural connections of tribulation and glory, and how they are intertwined. Ask why, seek His wisdom, pray for spiritual understanding. Read the book of Job, Paul’s listing of his tribulations,5 David’s psalms when he recovers from his battle wounds.6 Write down your words of confession, your considerations for the poor whom Christ has chosen,7 the greatness of God’s grace, our promises of God’s love to us, and of ours to him. Try to write your experiences with God in a story form, or in a poetic form, to ventilate your moments of intense pain in His presence or with sympathetic loved ones; this will give strength to others when they should suffer. Read about the experiences of sufferings of other brethren. Speak to others who are suffering, and share the consolations of Christ together. In a group setting, consider sharing your personal experiences of God’s grace with others.
‘I thirst’, John 19. 28.
Express your physical needs. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. The people observing and caring for you will do their best to alleviate your sufferings. Don’t be too proud to acknowledge your weaknesses and temporal needs. Humbly accept their assistance, even when their efforts to mollify your suffering may seem meagre against the backdrop of your intense pain, grief, and disappointment. Don’t insist on your own independence, but humbly acknowledge and accept their assistance. Don’t be vain, but use a walker, or a wheelchair, or other aids, as necessary.
‘It is finished’, John 19. 30.
‘It is finished’ is a single Greek word that was used in a commercial sense to complete a transaction, and, in a military judgement execution sense, before the general would have the condemned beheaded. It was also used to mean the end of a matter. The apostle Paul said, ‘I have finished the course’. Accept the final judgement of God in the situation. Conclude the meditations; express some understanding of your sufferings. ‘It is finished’ reveals that Christ understood why He was forsaken. Review the wisdom and knowledge that we have garnered from our meditations day by day in the presence of His patient love.
‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’, Luke 23. 46 ESV.
Despite His sufferings, Christ’s most fulfilling moments were in the darkest hours of anguish. Despite Paul’s tribulations, rejection by his brethren and execution by Nero before him, he could say with joy, ‘I have finished my course’, 2 Tim 4. 7. Our most fulfilling moments can be in our most difficult times. We will see His face!
To cope with our chronic illnesses, we should have an attitude adjustment time with God each day and read just as needed during the day. Set reasonable goals for ourselves. Forgive daily, and start with a clean slate towards all who are around us. Bless and encourage those that we come into contact with during the day. Attend to the material necessities of life within our means. Ask hard questions of our loving Father during the day, and allow Him to reveal Himself to us daily in a special way. Humbly admit our needs to others who care for us; comply with our medical treatment programme. Fulfil the reasonable goals that we have set for the day, in the will of the Lord. Finally conclude the day, and give the day back to the Lord in its entirety for His eternal purposes in glory. In the final analysis it is only His assessment of our actions that really matters. To God be the glory!
- Statistics for USA from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 2009.
- Heart disease, cancer, and stroke account for more than 50% of all deaths each year in the USA, CDC, 2009.
- Heart disease patients are at the highest risk. Heart attack survivors who enter into a major depression are three to four times more likely to die within six months.
- He requested the company of His disciples in the Garden, Matt. 26. 37. He spoke to the women on the way to the cross, Luke 23. 28. He expressed Himself seven times on the cross, and even spoke to the malefactors, Luke 23. 43.
- 2 Cor. 11. 23-33; 2 Cor. 12. 7.
- For example, Ps. 41.
- Jas 2. 5.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Dr. Thropay is an elder in the East Los Angeles Gospel Hall, a Spanish-speaking assembly, where he has been in fellowship for over 30 years. He helped see the establishment of two more Spanish-speaking assemblies in Panorama City and Montebello, California. He is a full-time cancer specialist physician, board certified in Radiation Oncology in the USA for 35 years, and has been a Hospice Medical Director for 20 years.