Saturday, March 14, 2009

Ministry to the Chronically Ill

As was made obvious to me yet again from a short telephone conversation yesterday, the chronically ill are often chronically misunderstood and chronically lonely. Why is this and what can be done about it?

First, many do not understand the unique ravages of diseases that neither kill nor heal (apart from God's intervention). I speak of chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, lupus (although complications from this can be fatal), chemical and environmental sensitivities, and (sadly) more. Those who so suffer may not always look ill; they are not disfigured or depending on wheel chairs, necessarily. Thus, they often fail to solicit sympathy, given that people judge by mere appearance and do not attend to the words of those sore afflicted. This lack of sympathy can translate into outright cruelty when people infer that the chronically ill are not really that bad off, that they should just "buck up" or that "it is all in your head."

There is a simple solution to this problem, but it requires a sacrifice: Listen to the wounded, really hear what they are saying and why. Do not prejudge their words because they do not resonate with your experience. The world is more wounded than you life may know, so, for God's sake, listen. The walking wounded are among "the least of these" who Jesus tells us to care for as both a duty and privilege. If you do not understand the condition or situation, keep listening and ask real questions.

Second, even if some understanding is reached, many shrink back from helping in any concrete way. "I'll pray for you," we may say, but do we do so in any consistent way (see Luke 18:1-8)? The chronically ill do not have short term illnesses. Those are easier to minister unto: you simply bring over meals, do housework, take people to the doctors, and so on--knowing that the duration is limited: the broken leg or arm will heal, the operation will be recovered from. Chronic illness has no limited duration. Nor is it a death sentence, but a life sentence (should God not intervene). In a way, terminal illness is easier to cope with: there is a finish line. Chronic illness, is, well, chronic--interminable and often unbearable. Ministering to these folks requires patience and kindness. It requires the creative love described in 1 Corinthians 13. It requires an infusion of grace from the Holy Spirit to reach out to those who may not be able to "pay back" your efforts, those who are not cheerful after years of pain and crushed dreams, those who are weary and skeptical of real help after so many have faded out so quickly.

There are no easy answers on how to help the chronically ill, even if you have fathomed something of their fate. But one can put oneself in their shoes, in their compromised bodies through sympathetic imagination. Then one may contribute acts of kindness, no matter how small, to help alleviate the loneliness and frustrations. It may simply be a phone call or an email to provide fellowship and alleviate loneliness. Most importantly, ask the ill person what she or he needs. It may be other than you think. They probably know better than you do, so please consult them! And if you tell them you will pray for them, do so earnestly and seriously (1 Thes. 5:17). Otherwise, your words are empty.

The chronically ill in our midst want and need to heard and helped. Ask God to make you a listening ear and a helping hand.


  1. Dr Groothuis,
    A while back you asked if anyone was reading this blog. I didn't reply then, but even though I do not closely know anyone who has a chronic illness, I appreciate your discourses and hope and think they are helpful when I do meet someone.


  2. Thank you. You may end up being better prepared than most when this happens--and it probably will.

  3. You brought back very good memories of my exceptional nursing teacher. To listen, as you describe it so well, is what she taught us years ago (in the late 50s). Taking care of the sick was a vocation then, not a profession. To pass the grade, we needed to practice not only sympathy, but also empathy. It can be learned if one truly cares.

    My teacher emphasized listening with our 'eyes' and our 'mouth', not only with our ears. I never forgot. She had the three monkeys statue on her desk. She said often, "Good with evil, but not with suffering. Don't be deaf and blind and mute when meeting people in pain."

    There's always a danger that our promised prayers become a routine. When it's possible, I add photos to my list of daily prayers. Far away people, family, friends, become very present. I don't say a long prayer unless I just received new informations. I pronounce each name looking at each photo, thank God for His love and help, and ask for His continued support. It's good to have both, you and Rebecca, from one of your profiles. Hoping and praying that Rebecca is doing better each day, and that you can now relax in your role of care-giver.

  4. Doug, have you and Rebecca considered writing a book on caring for those with chronic illness in the church? I think that something of a guidebook (that goes beyond Rotholz's volume) and published by an evangelical house is sorely needed. And, of course, it takes the right kind of person(s) to author such a work. It's hard to imagine folks more prepared for such a task than you and Rebecca.

  5. Ed:

    I resist writing on this, honestly. It is so painful. I have to finish my huge apologetics book first. Then there are at least two other books. Further, a book on chronic illness would likely not be picked up by any publishers. So, I am reluctant, honestly. But it could happen; there is a need.

  6. My husband just discovered your blog and passed it along to me. We have been living with my chronic pain, fatigue, etc. for 20 years. Thank you for putting a voice to this invisible illness.