By Jody Bennett
I have recently been suffering with prolonged ill health, during which I spent several weeks mostly in bed and feeling rotten. Illness naturally makes one morbid and introspective, but I don’t like self-pity, and as a Christian I believe that everything happens for a reason, so I sought to use the time not to ask the tempting question “Why, Lord?” but instead “What are you trying to teach me, Lord?”
Here are 10 insights I had:
1. Patients are aptly named! It takes a lot of patience to be sick for an extended period. And patience is a virtue that is hard to develop and takes — by definition — a long time to learn!
When ill one has to have patience to wait for appointments, and results, and a correct diagnosis, and the pain to abate, and the medications to take effect. Waiting for an explanation, while worrying about one’s symptoms, is particularly hard in a day and age where we expect to be able to get answers to just about any question with a quick Google search. The Bible uses a very descriptive word as a synonym for patient — “longsuffering”.
The book of Psalms has a lot to say about waiting patiently on and for God. I have found that He often replies “wait” in answer to my prayers, and it is always a difficult answer to accept. I have to learn to be longsuffering.
2. While one is waiting for the answers to bigger prayers, like “Please heal me!” it is good to acknowledge the answers to many other prayers that might have been prayed along the way.
For instance, for me nausea was a real problem for a while, and nausea tablets are no longer sold over the counter. Then I happened to watch a YouTube nursing skit where they talked about how sniffing alcohol wipes helps combat nausea. Who knew!? After that I got great relief from sniffing rubbing alcohol, until I could get a script for tablets. Small mercies…
3. As I have put aside my impatience and embraced the journey, it has been really nice to have a proper rest. Life is so busy! There are so many small chores that I usually attend to from the moment I get up, and then there is work and exercise and commitments. It was really lovely to break the routine, to do nothing but lie on the couch listening to a book or watching TV or sleeping, and not feeling guilty because I was too sick to care! If we can put aside our impatience and alter our expectations, rest can be a great blessing and a precious time.
4. Living in the present while sick is very important if we are to appreciate the time. I’m a catastrophist by nature, always living in the future “what ifs?” Especially on bad days, it took all my self-control to bring my focus back to the present. Today. I can do today. Today, work can cope without me. Today my family is fine. Today I can cope with this pain. The Lord taught His disciples to ask for daily bread. As His child, I live hand to mouth – right now I have grace sufficient for this circumstance. What I don’t have is grace to cope with every worry of the future and all the might be’s that one can think of.
The Psalmist, David, described this as quieting his soul within him like a weaned child (Psalm 131:2). I have to be as trusting as a little kid before God. As a poster in my loo says: Lord, I don’t understand, I don’t need to; I know You’ve a plan, You will see through; It is in Your hands, I believe You.
5. Illness is not only trying but humbling: the waiting and helplessness and realisation that we are not indispensable reminds us that we are puny and our lives are fleeting. The world goes on without us. Sickness (like disaster) reminds us that everything we plan could be instantly changed by forces outside our control. We arrogantly think we are masters of our own destiny and captains of our fate but even the common cold can destroy our lofty plans and pretentions of invincibility. The Bible writer James admonishes us to prefix our plans with “If the Lord wills” or “Lord willing” because we really have no idea what tomorrow holds (James 4:15).
6. Another hard lesson is that pain is very lonely. No one else can feel our pain or understand our feelings of sickness. It is hard to explain or quantify. In hospital one is asked to rate pain on a scale of 1-10 or describe it as stabbing or crampy or sharp. But one person’s level 6 pain may be very different from another’s. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if there was a machine that could give the doctor the exact pain you were feeling? However, our pain is ours alone. The only one who feels it with us is God Himself. I found great comfort in knowing He understands my suffering precisely and completely.
O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
You know my sitting down and my rising up;
You understand my thought afar off.
You comprehend my path and my lying down,
And are acquainted with all my ways. (Psalm 139:1-3)
7. But while pain is in one sense isolating, in another way it made me think of all the people I know who have had cancer or suffered with ongoing sickness, and realise how many of us deal with pain on a near-constant basis, especially as we age. If pain gave people a visible aura, I think we would be astonished at how prevalent it is. How many old people are cantankerous just because they are dealing with chronic pain? My suffering gave me new respect for the elderly and chronically ill, each day they bear a great weight that very few acknowledge, let alone appreciate. I hope that insight will make me kinder in my dealings with others.
8. Sometimes in all the waiting and pain of a long illness, one can have days of despair where it all becomes too much. That is when I had to remind myself that feelings are not reliable – they lie. Feelings are influenced by how much sleep I’ve had, my digestion, what others have done or said, what I’ve watched or Googled, by my pain or discomfort. Feelings are fickle and transitory, they cannot be relied on. I feel God is far away and has abandoned me. Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matt 28:20) I feel like my prayers hit the ceiling. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayers. (1 Peter 3:12) The Bible reminds me that feelings change but the Word of God is a solid foundation.
9. One way to tackle bad days, I found, was to remember people worse off than myself. While I was sick, there was a terrible earthquake in Syria and Turkey, and I thought about those poor people trapped under the rubble. Here am I on my comfy couch, with my tea and my headphones, and my dachshund at my feet. Millions of people would trade places with me, sick as I am. And that would inevitably lead to thanksgiving. Thank you God for our home, for my dog, for the opportunity to rest, for this comfy pillow etc. etc. That would turn my thoughts from despair to gratitude. The Bible even commands us to do this: 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
10. The second way to tackle bad days is to remember this too will pass. Things change, the tunnel ends, the pain eases, the sun comes out. It will not be like this forever. Bad situations improve. Most illnesses and wounds heal. And, as a Christian, even if the situation doesn’t improve and worst comes to worst and I die, there is hope even then because heaven awaits. God has promised that I will live eternally in perfection in His presence – a forever without any sorrow or crying or death or pain!
God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away. (Revelations 21:3-4)
So, if you are a fellow sufferer, going through an illness or a dark time, may I encourage you: God can “work all things for good” as Romans 8:28 says, if you are of those “who love Him and are called according to His purpose” i.e. a Christian. To become one you need to love and trust Him enough to turn away from your sins, and give your circumstances and life into His hands.
“Suffering is part of the human condition,” as the late Billy Graham once said, “and it comes to us all. The key is how we react to it, either turning away from God in anger and bitterness or growing closer to Him in trust and confidence.”
May you find God in your dark times.
By Jody Bennett