How Church Families Can Better Assist and Minister to Those Living with Chronic Illness and Pain.
Copyright © 2004 Where Is God Ministries
What Can We Do?
“God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.” Hebrews 6:10
Most of us know someone living with a chronic disease, disorder or pain, because it is estimated that 2 in 10 live with some sort of ongoing illness. Many have manageable symptoms, but others struggle with varying limitations that can be debilitating on a frequent or even daily basis.
Because most chronic illnesses and pain cannot be seen on the outside, the first and foremost thing we all can do is to resist the temptation to make a visual diagnosis. We do this by coming to the conclusion that our loved one must be embellishing their situation or trying to deceive everyone, because to us they “look fine.” Most of all, we must avoid saying things like, “But you LOOK good” or “But you don’t LOOK sick.”
“To a healthy person, none of these comments seem unusual or insincere” Lisa Copen, the founder of Rest Ministries pointed out in her article, When the Illness is Invisible. “Our friends are simply trying to find the right thing to say.”
Yet, when we use the statement as a rebuttal to what they are trying to tell us about their condition, our loved one will actually hear, “But I don’t believe you, because I can’t see it.”
In the Invisible Disabilities Advocate’s online support group, John explained, “I have injuries to my feet, wrist, neck and shoulder. None of these injuries is visible, but they limit me and cause me pain. I look ‘good.’ I don’t feel good, but I look good. That really frustrates me when someone says that. What I have found is that if people can’t see it they don’t believe it.”
Charlene, a woman with Graves Disease and Fibromyalgia agreed, “I was just telling a friend this morning if one more person says you don’t look sick, or you look fine I was going to scream!”
In the book of John, it says, “do not judge by outward appearances” (John 7:24). Instead, value each person individually, because they are made in the “image of God” (Genesis 1:27). Simply talk with them and find out what their gifts and needs are! Refusing to believe what we cannot “see” will only make them feel isolated in their struggles and as if we think they are not valuable.
Be a Source of Encouragement
1) Acknowledge their situation and losses.
2) Respect and honor their limitations.
3) Appreciate their efforts to get out and about.
4) Ask them how they are, instead of putting words in their mouths- listen.
5) Compliment them for their courage and value their faith.
If people with disabilities, whether they are invisible to us or not, are wrongly accused of just being lazy or unwilling to “get better,” false witness is being borne against them (Exodus 20:16). Be mindful not to place blame on those who have a chronic illness, pain and/or disability.
We must acknowledge their condition, validate their losses and respect their limitations by taking “no” for an answer, even when we do not understand. Next, when we see them out and about, we can recognize the efforts it took for them to get there and the price they will pay for the outing, in order to authenticate what they are going through.
Unless just used as a greeting, when we ask them, “How are you?” we need to be more specific. If we want to know how they are coping with their situation and the state of their soul, despite their condition, we should ask, “How are you doing?” When we want to know the condition of their illness or injury, we should ask, “How are you feeling?”
Either way, we must give them full permission to be realistic and honest with us. We do not want to put them in the position of having to lie just to please us or be treated as if they are just being negative. “The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge; the ears of the wise seek it out” (Pro 18:15). This will give them a chance to answer according to how they are coping with their situation.
Finally, we can encourage them by letting them know we admire their faith. Often, we criticize those who are ill, thinking that must prove they do not have faith. The truth is that it takes a true faith to say what Job said to his friends, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him;” (Job 13:15a). Let’s give them recognition for the courage and perseverance, despite their circumstances.
Be Be a Source of Support
1) Send flowers, notes and cards once in a while.
2) Arrange a short visit or give them a call.
3) Bring them a video, read from a book or share Scripture.
4) Resist the temptation to bombard them with suggestions, literature and quick fix-its.
5) Ask them for specific ways you can pray for them.
When we asked Kim Mills, a former pastor now disabled with extremely brittle Diabetes and a severe seizure disorder, “What is the hardest part about being disabled?” he answered, “By far the hardest thing for me is the severe loneliness. It is not uncommon for me to go a week without ever speaking a word to another human being.”
We often do not want to “bother” someone who is sick. The irony is that when nobody, “bothers” them, they end up very isolated and alone. Sometimes we even avoid them all together, because we do not want to deal with the situation. However, the Letter of Hebrews tells us to remember those in prison as though we were shackled with them (Hebrews 13:3).
We can bring them flowers, a video, read from a book or share Scripture. It is so encouraging to spend time reading the Bible and talking with God gives hope, joy and peace in the midst of the storm (Philippians 4:7).
On the other hand, steer clear of overwhelming them with advice and pat answers, even when sharing Scripture. “Avoid giving ‘God balm,” Copen advised in, When a Friend Has a Chronic Illness. “If you say ‘God will heal you’ or ‘all things work together…’ she will believe you don’t really understand and avoid sharing her feelings with you in the future.”
Sometimes we simply do not know what to say to make if all better. We often want to fix the problem to make it all go away, so we give quick solution answers without thinking or even listening. Yet, “He who answers before listening– that is his folly and his shame” (Proverbs 18:13). We should hear what our loved one is saying and think before we speak.
After all, the Bible does not say that we need to point out their faults and make them stop crying; it tells us to hold their hand and mourn with them: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation” (Romans 12: 15 & 16).
Be a Source of Practical Help
1) Bring them a meal or pick something up from the store.
2) Arrange rides to church and/or doctor appointments.
3) Take up a collection for occasional house cleaning.
4) Arrange a workday to fix things around the house and yard.
5) Watch the kids for an evening.
People with chronic illness and/or pain have great difficulty keeping up with the daily demands of life. They often become overwhelmed by all of things there are “to do;” but, just imagine trying to get those things done when you are sick or injured!
Many with chronic conditions are unable to just hop in the car and dash to the store. When they do go, it may cost them several days worth of energy, as they will be too sick to shower, go to the doctor or even cook the food they just bought. They play a trading game with their energy every day. If they do one thing, it means they cannot do another.
Consequently, if we could save them several days worth of energy by dropping by the store, they could then use that energy to attend Bible study, putting a craft together or having lunch with a friend! “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).
Sadly, we often fear it will take a great deal of our time to visit those who have physical limitations, so we end up doing nothing at all. On the contrary, even little gestures like picking up milk can mean the world to those with limitations.
The Scripture clearly tells us we must love one another (John 13:34) and help those in need (Deuteronomy 27:18). For Jesus said, “…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” He continued, “… whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25: 40 & 45).
1) Make sure the grounds are accessible for those with assistive devices and impairments.
2) Provide for comfortable seating, temperatures and breathing concerns.
3) Develop a warehouse ministry, with food, clothing, appliances, furniture and/or take up love offerings.
4) Develop a transportation ministry to pick up people for services, Bible studies, activities or even a night out.
5) Have the staff send a note, card or arrange a visit.
The Bible instructs us to make provisions for those with disabilities and in distress (Leviticus 19:14). First, we must make the grounds and church building accessible for those with physical impairments. Next, we can also provide a section of the congregation open for wheelchairs and comfortable seating, which is free of smoke and perfume. Third, we need to be aware that when we have a cold, we need to stay clear of the elderly, those with illnesses and babies. Many with weakened immune systems will not just get a cold, but may end up in the emergency room or hospital!
“Church bodies excel in jumping to meet the needs of people who have surgery, new mothers and the elderly. The person who lives with chronic illness or pain, however, is rarely even noticed” Copen observed in Why Don’t Churches Understand Chronic Illness?
It is true that we often fail at continuing care when the need is on going. I realize that most churches are short on resources. However, the reason for this is because according to the Pareto Principle, 20% of the people are doing 80% of the work in the church. It is no wonder those 20% are overwhelmed!
Nevertheless, this does not excuse us from making the effort to be there for those in need. Kim commented, “I have never been visited by a single pastor and I personally know of 5 who live within 3 miles of my house.”
When we asked Renee, a pastor’s wife with CFIDS and FMS, “How does your church deal with your illness?” she responded, “Chronically ill people just need to know they are not forgotten. That it is ok that they are human ‘beings’ not human ‘doings’ at this time in their lives. Illness makes you isolated from the world and just a note card helps.”
Kim suggested that food and clothing closets are a great resource for those with debilitating conditions, as well as those simply having financial troubles. Even if your church does not have the space to store clothing, appliances and furniture, you can create a “needs” board or section in your newsletter or bulletin. People can post what they need or things they want to give away or sell cheaply. Remember to put this board in a place where everyone can easily get to it.
Finally, most churches collect a “bereavement fund” for difficult times. Kim continued, “Some of the most difficult times for the disabled revolves around the lack of money. I have personally had to quit taking medication at times due to no money.” If the fund is not sufficient, we could take up a special offering for those with additional medical expenses or a need for groceries or clothing.
Let’s face it. It is difficult to deal with continuing illness. Copen explained in her When a Friend Has a Chronic Illness brochure, “Living with an illness that is invisible to those around us can often have a more devastating affect on our emotional health than the physical pain.”
Even though it is difficult, we are called to listen, love and help those in need. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1: 3 & 4).
Copyright © 2004 Where Is God Ministries. “How Can We Help?” Visitors may print up to 5 copies of this pamphlet. To publish or distribute, you must contact WIGM for permission. Order this pamphlet and WIGM’s booklet, Not By Sight: A Guide to Ministering to Believers Living with Chronic Illness and Pain!
Copen, Lisa (1999, January). Why Don’t Churches Understand Chronic Illness? …And He Will Give You Rest Newsletter, Volume III, Issue 1, 7-9. Rest Ministries.
Copen, Lisa (1998). When the Illness is Invisible. …And He Will Give You Rest Newsletter, Volume II, Issue 3, Rest Ministries.
Copen, Lisa (2001). When a Friend Has a Chronic Illness. Brochure. Rest Ministries.
IDA Support Board (2002). Visitors to IDA’s online support group, all quotes given with permission.
IDA Survey (1999). Poll to those with chronic conditions. Question: How Does Your Church Deal with Your Illness? All quotes given with permission.
NIV, The NIV Study Bible, Zondervan Corporation, 1985.