During your casual Sunday morning greeting, you’re likely interacting with someone suffering from a chronic illness undetectable to you. They carry pain and weakness while putting on a brave face. We in the church often miss the need because the struggle of invisible illness is not obvious.
A decade ago, I had a serious health emergency where our family needed a lot of help. A dear friend in our church quickly organized a schedule of helpers to come care for our infant, assist with household chores and keep me company while my husband went to work.
That crisis was the starting point of my life with chronic illness. How can the church include and better serve those with chronic illnesses? Here’s what those with chronic illness want the church to know.
Replace “How are you?” with better questions.
While the question may be well-intentioned, sometimes it opens up a complicated answer they can’t yet share. Instead, try “What’s bringing you joy today?” or “How can I honestly pray for you?” Take the time to listen and later follow with a card or text thanking them for their vulnerability. Consider this information private unless you get permission to share when others ask how they’re doing.
On the flip side, as a chronic illness warrior, it is often worth the energy to help others understand your struggles when asked. You might provide varying levels of engagement depending on the state of your health, but giving insight that helps someone practice compassion is never a waste. By sharing your story, you can help others with chronic illness feel welcome at church.
Practice a Biblical theology of suffering.
The health-and-wealth prosperity gospel mindset has subtly crept into churches and the hearts of many believers. Physical weakness does not equal spiritual weakness, lack of faith, a deficient prayer life or a direct consequence of personal sin. In John 9, Jesus’ disciples asked if a man was born blind because of his sin or his parents’ sin. Jesus answered, “Neither…this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3, NIV)
For the chronically ill, healing may never come on this side of eternity. We must stop linking someone’s spiritual condition to their physical one and questioning their faith if they aren’t improving, implying shame for an illness they can’t control. Rest and knowing their physical limits are signs of wisdom, not laziness. Their suffering may be the very tool God uses to deepen their faith and display His glory to others.
Believe your chronically-ill friend and don’t dismiss the severity of her symptoms or limitations. Fatigue, pain and ambiguous loss often accompany chronic illness. When they vulnerably express frustrations or discouragement over their illness, grieve with them. Instead of “have you tried…” or “at least it’s not as bad as…” statements, say, “That must be so hard. I’m so sorry.” Your presence and a listening ear are often all they need.
Likewise, praying only for healing or improved health can be more hurtful than helpful. Instead pray for these things:
- Express gratitude to God that He’s near to them in pain, He cares deeply for them and nothing can separate them from His love.
- Pray for their faith not to fail.
- Pray for needs to be met (spiritual, physical, relational).
- Pray that God is glorified and that He can be seen by them and through them.
Make a place for them in church community and ministry.
Many times, physical limitations result in isolation and loss of community. A chronic illness sufferer may have to step away from roles, like teaching a Sunday school class, helping in nursery or singing on the worship team, but they are still a valuable part of the church body. Find creative ways for them to serve and be a part of the community, such as:
- Leading or participating in an online prayer meeting or Bible study.
- Coordinating another member to visit in the home to disciple or to serve as a mentor.
- Watching a virtual service with them in their home; often it’s the fellowship they’re missing most.
In planning events, see if there are special considerations so they can attend. Allow them to share a testimony of God’s provision or grace in their illness—you may be surprised how many other church members identify with their stories.
Consider practical needs.
The needs of the chronically ill are often ongoing and expensive. Consider practical help, like a home cooked meal, restaurant gift cards, a ride to church or doctor’s appointment and light housework (such as folding towels while you visit). They may need financial help for assistive devices, home modifications or gas for appointments. A family with a chronically ill parent or child could benefit from a gift from a church’s special fund or offering.
Bonus: Check in with their caregiver.
The struggles of those caring for the chronically-ill can also go unseen. The church can give the caregiver a break, to either talk through their struggles or get away from responsibilities. I remember friends taking my husband go-kart racing, and it was such a gift to me that he was able to find joy in a hard season.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul teaches the body of Christ how to treat one another:
“There should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part sufferes, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.(1 Corinthians 12:25-26, NIV)
Let’s not let the chronically ill fall through the cracks, but embrace them as a vital part of our church. The chronically ill can live satisfying, joy-filled lives, and the church can serve as a place of visible compassion for those with invisible illnesses.
Chronic Illness Resources for Your Church
Invisible Illness Inspiration Bundle – For Invisible Disabilities Week (Oct. 17-23), Erica partnered with two other chronic illness writers to create a resource for those with invisible disabilities and those who love them. You can download your free bundle here.
Chronic Joy (Chronic Illness Ministry)– Resources for churches to provide compassion, inclusion and community for the chronically ill.
Joni & Friends– Training resources to help churches welcome and embrace people of all abilities with the love of Christ.
Erica Baldwin lives in North Carolina with her husband and miracle son. Diagnosed with an incurable genetic condition at 33, Erica encourages women to trust God’s goodness while facing life’s unplanned detours and unwanted trials. Erica’s grief journey includes chronic illness, infertility and early loss of both parents. OhHisGoodness.com