By Joel McReynolds

What My Chronic Illness Has Taught Me

For several years I’ve been sick with what is best described as a chronic illness. I don’t need to go into the details; suffice it to say that it can be debilitating at times. I miss important events, take too many sick days at work, and have been to the hospital enough to last a lifetime. It’s been a constant roller coaster of hope and depression, thankfulness and anger.

Honestly, I hate being sick—but it’s hard to imagine where I would be spiritually without it. I’ve realized that, no matter what valleys we face, God does not waste our trials and tribulations. He has continually renewed my spirit and taught me so much as I have been on this journey. Below are three specific lessons that I have learned from being sick.

1. God is in control.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 ESV)

During the hardest times, when the world seems gray and the future hopeless, God has patiently reminded me that he is in control.

I don’t know why I became sick, why I am still sick, or if I will ever be healthy. My illness can be so unpredictable that it’s difficult for me to commit to anything, and this uncertainty upsets me. I want answers; much like Job I am often dismayed and confused by what is happening to me. But, also like Job, I have learned that God is in complete control.  

God’s grace and plan is particularly evident when I take time to intentionally reflect on my life. In those moments, it becomes clear to me that God has been in control, loving and holding me, even when I was ignoring him.

Here’s just one example: When I was preparing to join AmeriCorps after graduating from college, I looked at positions all over the country. At the time I was feeling healthy and wanted to go somewhere new and exciting. Where I ended up, however, was a tiny farming community in my home state of Wisconsin. And I was bitter about it. 

A few months later my illness got worse, and I realized God’s purpose for putting me here. I am close to family and friends, and able to use my parents’ health insurance. If I had gotten my way I would be a thousand miles from my loved ones, wrestling alone with my illness and without effective health insurance. Not to mention the fact that I would have missed out on all the great work I’ve been privileged to be a part of.

Where I am and what I have been able to do are clearly results of God putting me in the right place at the right time or somehow using me in his amazing work for his glory, despite my illness. This is an incredible privilege. After looking back and seeing how many times my strength should have failed, or how many times God carried me through the day, I have no doubt that God is in control.

2. I have a lot to be thankful for.

Let my whole being bless the LORD and never forget all his good deeds. (Psalm 103:2 CEB)

When I first started feeling sick, I tried to tough it out. But when I wasn’t getting better, I began to feel jaded and angry. It seemed like God had abandoned me—like he had thrown me to the lions for no reason.

During times of great trial it can be surprisingly easy to slip into a state of hopelessness, depression, or apathy. God’s blessings can be difficult to see, especially when a gray veil clouds everything in front of me.

I have learned that, in order to counter this natural pull toward pessimism, I have to consciously and purposely remind myself of God’s blessings and his good deeds. Having a thankful spirit is not often natural for me; it takes intention to develop it.

One way I do this is by trying to list what I’m thankful for as I get ready for work. I now also have a nightly routine during which I go over the day in my head, honestly talking to God about what was challenging and what was encouraging and then ending with everything I’m thankful for. Plotting out time during my day to practice gratitude—framing my day on both sides with praise—has helped me realize just how much I have to be thankful for.

3. Sympathy is easy, but empathy is what is needed.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.(Romans 12:15 ESV)

When people hear that I’m sick, it’s easy for them to feel badly about it, or to feel sorry for me. I know they do their best to understand what I’m going through and to be there for me, but the truth is that they can never fully grasp what I’m experiencing.

They keep trying, though. I’ve been through many scenarios of people—do-gooders who mean well—grilling me about the specifics of my illness, offering every potential solution they can think of or telling story after story about someone they knew who was sick once. It’s amazing how many people seem to have a “sick friend.”

These experiences have helped me understand a little more what it’s like to be a minority of any kind. In the past I would frequently try to solve a person’s problems, offer them advice, or act like I knew what they were going through. But I don’t know what it’s like to be in anyone else’s shoes. I don’t know, for example, what it’s like to be a person of color in America, or to face discrimination at work, or to not have a home. Sickness has not made me all things to all people, but it has made me appreciate the patience of others who are suffering.

As someone who is now on the receiving end of sympathy, I finally understand how important genuine empathy can be. I don’t want people to “solve” me or feel sorry for me. I just want friends. I just want people to be with me. That’s what real empathy looks like.

Finding Hope

I’m not sure why I became sick or if I’ll ever heal, but I know that all of our lives are filled with trials and tribulations. We live in a fallen world and we will suffer, whether through spiritual struggles, physical ailments, persecution, or unfortunate events.

How, then, do we find hope in our suffering? Through Jesus Christ. God does not waste our suffering. God does not waste our trials. Living with my illness has been difficult, but I know that I would not have become the same person I am today without it. God has used this opportunity to shape me, grow me, and bring me closer to him.

There may not be an easy answer to why you are currently suffering, but know that God has not abandoned you, and he is not wasting your hardships. 

Joel McReynolds is a recent alumnus of InterVarsity and the University of WisconsinLa Crosse. He’s  currently doing a year of service with AmeriCorps VISTA in rural Wisconsin, after which he hopes to begin a career in nonprofit management. Joel spends his free time playing the ukulele and reading about soccer.

For more on growing in the midst of trials, check out these resources:

Peace in the Changing

The Way of Grace: Finding God on the Path of Surrender

After Shock: Searching for Honest Faith When Your World Is Shaken

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Dear Joel, this blog was sent to me by a friend who is part of InterVarsity. He knows me well and knows that I too suffer from a chronic illness. Like you said, no one has walked in anyone else's shoes, but I identify with pretty much everything you wrote. I love how well you said everything. So often people approach illness as something that has to be fixed right away or others just ignore it all together. I love how you stated things with such faith that is so evidently not based on religion, but on relationship. I really needed to read this tonight and know that someone out there shares my views on this subject; someone who understands because they have been there. Thank you for writing this and for walking out what you believe and trusting in our great God through it all. He made you pretty amazing and I am encouraged to have come across someone who is living out that amazingness in the midst of suffering. You are pretty awesome! Thank you! Whit P.s. Do you mind if I pass this on to others?

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