“Your body is a stumbling block to other girls.” That’s what my Fitness for Life professor said to me in a one-on-one health conference during my freshman year at a Christian university because of my thin body. She said this even after I shared about the open sores lining the inside of my gut that caused painful convulsions when I ate (my Ulcerative Colitis was particularly virulent in my late teens).
Long past my teenage years, into adulthood, I have continually been told, in different ways, that my body is problematic. As a person with chronic illness, I am a wedge in a certain kind of privileged theology that is not big enough to account for long-term pain.
I encounter from others, again and again, a need to explain my body. They say my pain must happen because I am too stressed, too weak, or too sensitive. I have not gone to the right doctors or tried the right remedies. I don’t pray the right way or have the right kind of faith. It feels like I can be open about my struggle only if I am simultaneously counting my blessings and getting over it. This theology credits God for all the good and none of the bad. When a health concern arises, a person shares the concern with their faith community who joins them in praying for the problem to go away. God intervenes, the problem is resolved, and God is praised and credited. All good is celebrated and all bad is prayed away. (This has broad implications for behaviors in the COVID-19 Pandemic, but that’s another essay.)
In reality, when you have white skin, enough money, a generally healthy body, and access to good healthcare, things do tend to break your way. I’m not sure God wants the credit for that because I’m not willing to say God is responsible for bestowing that kind of favor on some but not others. Think of the heartache and struggle endured by the majority of people in the world (the result of oppression, racism, poverty, violence, disease, disaster, and more). I believe God gives us strength, teaches us life-giving things, and loves us in many unique ways into greater wholeness. It is absolutely important to ask for and receive supportive prayers when enduring medical crises. However, is God directly responsible for one person’s healing while another suffers or dies? When God gets credit for the first outcome but not the second, it leaves the second person (and/or their loved ones) invisible, insignificant, and clearly excluded from God’s circle of care.
The same people who hold this small theology seem to fixate on the word “blessed.” When I see or hear “blessed” or “blessing” used to indicate ‘chosen for special favor,’ or even to emphasize an aptitude for gratitude (i.e., “Blessed” home décor and jewelry), I think about the way Jesus uses the word “blessed” in places like the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12, NIV: “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . those who mourn . . . the meek . . . those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . the merciful . . . the pure in heart . . . the peacemakers . . . the persecuted”). Is it possible that “blessedness” is more concerned with “what God can do through me and my struggle” than about “what God can do for me inside my abundance?”
I would like to know why and to what end pain and suffering exist. I know I am in good company. I firmly believe God cares and is up to something big. I wonder what suffering in this life will look like and mean in eternity. I believe Kingdom work involves the alleviation of suffering right now. Beyond that, I don’t understand. I feel guilt over the fact that I struggle to inhabit my body when I live a life of luxury and ease compared to most of my human siblings. I am privileged in so many ways. A pastor friend once told me that life is not “an Olympics of suffering.” The reality of existence is that you have to deal with what you have to deal with. The important thing is to deal with it so that you can be available to help others.
To survive with chronic illness, I need to lament my pain and make space for it. I need a theology big enough to sit in solidarity with my suffering so that I can sit in solidarity with others.
If you feel alone, forsaken, and smothered because you struggle with chronic illness, mental illness, different ability, or any other health-related condition, I want you to know that you are beautiful. I think your imperfect struggle is beautiful to God because the opposite of struggle is giving up. Struggle is faithfulness. Your pain and suffering are not your fault. Let any guilt or concern over that drop to the ground right this moment.
I’m not saying don’t practice joy and gratitude. I’m saying don’t let someone else’s demand for joy and gratitude crowd out your need to be real about your pain so you can survive.
If you suffer from health-related struggle as well as from struggle related to oppression, my heart swells with admiration for you. How do you do that? I can’t imagine the kind of strength required to navigate your daily life, the many obstacles you have to handle along with your sick body (including, in many cases, access to the healthcare you need for it in the first place). I am so sorry for all of your pain.
No matter where you find yourself in life with chronic illness, please allow yourself to lament it. I recommend the Psalms as a guide. Find someone to sit with you whose theology is big enough to let your struggle breathe. Then sit with others who suffer. Listen to their stories. Read their words. God may, in this way, begin to redeem your own suffering and help you find your own “strange gift.”
A Strange Gift
In the morning,
the wind is furious.
White gusts tear at the windows,
which rattle and creak, but hold.
I am lucky on the inside.
Warm and lucky.
I am calm, even, at last,
because there is nothing
I can say that the wind,
in its bitter seethe of fury,
has not already said.
To struggle is to survive.
Everything, even invisible suffering,
can be redeemed.
I see you.
You are not alone.
From The Unsaid Words (Finishing Line Press), used with permission