Scott Hoezee

Faith and Chronic Pain or Illness

Many illnesses and ailments come and go. Some may be very severe but then pass. But what happens when the pain doesn’t go away? When there’s no cure? It might be an old sports injury that never fully healed and might be made worse if a doctor tried to perform surgery. Some people experience pain for which there is no medical explanation at all, or at least not one that anybody can do anything about. Others live with the daily effects of an illness or disease that has no cure. In each of these situations, the debilitating pain, the disability, the illness becomes a part of the person’s daily life. It can even become part of their identity.

For Christians with chronic pain or an incurable illness, such a condition raises a lot of questions related to faith. Where is God for the one who suffers on a daily basis? Why doesn’t God heal the condition? 

In the Groundwork episode “Faith and Chronic Pain or Illness,” Rev. Chelsey Harmon joins co-host Dave Bast and me to examine these questions and discuss faith in the reality of daily physical suffering and in the light of Scripture. Speaking from her own experience with chronic pain, Rev. Harmon discusses how those who live with chronic pain or illness can find strength and support by studying God’s Word and how fellow Christians can provide compassionate, faith-supporting care and encouragement.

Finding Support in Scripture

Obviously, such a scenario of pain and illness that stretches on for years or decades is an unhappy situation for all people. Folks with these conditions usually seek and get a lot of prayer support. Yet healing does not come. For whatever reason, God does not take this pain or chronic illness away. Christians see this reality echoed in the story of the Apostle Paul, who writes about a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). Whatever this mysterious condition was for Paul, his prayers for healing did not yield the answer Paul wanted.

In the Psalms, we read many laments about situations that eventually got better. But one common theme in such psalms is the idea that it is awfully hard to praise God when a person is in crisis or in pain or is seriously ill. Many times we read the equivalent of “Deliver me, O God, and then I can get back to praising you!” And indeed, most of us know what it is like to lie in bed with a bad fever or with terrible nausea—we might croak out a prayer or two for healing, but we’re very unlikely to break out into singing the Doxology.

Caring for Christians in Pain

So what happens if the pain never fully goes away? Can Christians with chronic illness and abiding pain still find ways to praise God? Most people in these circumstances testify that they are able to praise God and worship, but for those of us unfamiliar with what it is like for them, we should not be glib about telling people to look for the good and give God the glory. Many Christians with chronic illness manage to do just that, but it’s not easy, and the rest of us in the church ought not talk as though it is. 

How do we care for and encourage sisters and brothers in the faith who suffer from these abiding conditions?

  • Exercise restraint. Yes, God’s power can be made perfect in weakness, as God revealed to also the Apostle Paul in his own struggles. But don’t be too quick to point this out, as though it were a “feel better” cure-all. We neither understand nor should we pretend to understand why some people suffer more than others or the reason for anyone’s chronic pain.  
  • Continue praying. We should never give up on praying that God will heal these conditions. But in the meantime—in the very long meantime for some believers—we need to pray for stamina and courage, and that they will not give in to the chronic temptation to despair. Pray that the Holy Spirit can make Jesus Christ large, plain, and unmistakable to their eyes of faith. Lament is a proper mode of biblical praying; there may be seasons in which a Christian with chronic pain just needs to vent, to yell at God a little, to weep that their life is not what they would like it to be, free of pain.  Joining sisters and brothers in such laments is a deeply compassionate thing to do.
  • Be Present. The incarnation of the Son of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth showed us that the most wonderful thing God ever did was to come down to this earth in person to sit with us in our sorrows and struggles. Perhaps we are never more Christ-like ourselves than when we do the same for Christians with chronic illness and pain.

Study this truth with us, along with how it applies to depression, anxiety, and chronic conditions,  in our podcast Bible study “Finding Strength and Support in Scripture.”

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