I was recently speaking to a colleague of mine who for the past several months has been suffering from a series of unexplained migraine headaches. At some point in the conversation, he exclaimed, “How can people live this way?” It’s a good question. How do we deal with the phenomenon of chronic suffering, both as sufferers and healthy loved ones who care for the afflicted?
Chronic illness and disability are a common reality. Millions of people continue to endure diabetes, MS, cancer, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, depression, back pain—to name just a few. Pain, debilitating weakness, the ability to think or speak clearly are a daily continuing fact of life that many must negotiate, and with no end in sight.
When I get the flu, I can expect to recover. I have been forced to take a detour from the highway of life, but I fully anticipate rejoining the main flow in the foreseeable future. I can hardly imagine having the flu and knowing with all certainty that I will never recover from it: I won’t die, but I won’t get better, either.
The temptation in this line of thinking, of course, is to conceive of chronic suffering as a permanent detour from normalcy. “Real life” is somewhere else, and other people are living it. The experience of the chronic sufferer, because it is not “normal,” is somehow inadequate when compared to the experience of others. According the Gospel, however, this is just not so.
Through the Incarnation, God entered the world to do away with all illness and, ultimately, to end all suffering. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more. Neither shall there be mourning, nor crying or pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” This is from the Book of Revelations.
God’s ultimate purpose, then, is to end chronic suffering, including death itself. But how does he achieve that goal? He enters into suffering, fills it with himself. He makes suffering itself the medium in which freedom is to be found. In other words, according to the Gospel, chronic pain and illness and weakness are not a detour from real life; they are the very path leading to real life, which is nothing less than an encounter with the living God whose very purpose is to dwell with his people. “Behold! The dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.” (Again, the Book of Revelations.)
For those of us who are generally physically healthy, it is easy to assume that the real spiritual life consists of such activities as prayer, preaching, reading the Bible, going to church, and so on. Real ministry is overtly spiritual or religious. If we consider the deeper implications of the Christian Gospel, though, we must realize that while some are called to obvious expressions of faith—preaching and teaching, missionary work, faithful attendance and support of their communities—many others are called simply to suffer with chronic illness and disability.
In short, chronic suffering itself is a ministry, and no less so than anything else in the spiritual life. Indeed, I would be so bold as to say that chronic suffering is the most important of all ministries.
Someone who endures daily pain and weakness, while trusting in the love of God, speaks far more eloquently of his power than a healthy person who, say, writes a regular article for the local newspaper or delivers a weekly podcast or something. It’s one think for a person to talk about the death and Resurrection of Christ. It’s another thing for him or her to live the Cross in the form of multiple sclerosis or cancer, while demonstrating Jesus’ Resurrection in his or her ongoing love for the neighbor.
I would therefore urge those of us who are “healthy” to be patient with those who suffer chronically. Don’t expect them to participate in obvious expressions of faith, because the fact is they don’t really need to. They’re living the spiritual life more fully and really than we are. And if they even learn to endure the condition without bitterness, they will achieve a far higher goal than we ever could.
For those who endure chronic suffering, I would say this: This is your ministry. Your victory is the smallest of things: getting out of bed, being gentle with a loved one in the midst of the pain. Those things can and will change the lives of those around you more powerfully than the most talented of writers or preachers or missionaries. It was for you, above all, that God entered his creation. He came to suffer, not just for you, but with you and beside you. He came to go through what you are going through, so that he might see you all the way through into a place where all sickness, sorrow, and sighing will finally flee away.