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Illness and the Christian
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by Stephanie Nickel

When serious illness has not touched our life or the lives of those closest to us, it's easy to keep it at arm's length, not to really think about what a devastating diagnosis can mean.

And yet, when we hear that diagnosis or even of the need for follow-up tests, our perspective changes. As my friend Glynis, who is in remission from ovarian cancer, says, "Although as Christians we know that we should instantly believe that God is in control, sometimes it takes a little while for our finite minds to grasp the whys and wherefores of receiving a difficult diagnosis."

The Scriptures instruct us to come alongside one another. That can be difficult in our fast-paced lives. It's too easy to offer platitudes. Sometimes phrases like "have faith," "keep a positive attitude," and "turn it over to God" are the last things someone needs or wants to hear. Christians know there is truth in these statements, but sometimes those who are struggling simply need a listening ear. They don't need us to try to fix things; they just need us, as my friend Rita, also in remission from ovarian cancer, says, "in essence, to be the ears and arms of God." (Rita is also dealing with pain in her right arm that seems to be caused by a pinched nerve in her neck and debilitating migraines with which she has suffered for years.)

It takes time to truly understand the depths of what another is going through. A third friend, Heather, has a son who was not expected to make it to the age of five. As she says, "He runs on batteries—literally." Her son has heart issues, among many others, and has a pacemaker. She faces judgment from those who say things like, "Such a big boy shouldn't be riding in a stroller." They don't mean to be hurtful, but they just don’t take the time to find out the facts.

It's hurtful when others intentionally or unintentionally negate our feelings. It causes us to "cocoon" ourselves and "shield" others because we know they are going through their own issues. However, there are times we need to reach out. God created us for community. After all, as Christians, we are part of the same body. As illness teaches us, we can't ignore one part of the body because all the others are functioning well.

We must be willing to simply be a listening ear to those who are facing physical and emotional struggles. As Rita says, what those who are facing challenges really need is someone who will say, "Let me sit here with you a while. If you want to talk I'm here to listen." And as Glynis says, the practical help is sometimes what's needed. "Knowing that there are people rallying around the gates of heaven on my behalf gave me a wonderful sense of peace. When we received tangible help—meals, help in the garden, announced visits, and cards galore—that sure warmed our hearts. I think when our Christian family walks the talk it paints a beautiful picture of Matthew 25:35."

And what shouldn't we say? "Leave out the death stories. Don't say you will do something and then you don't do it. Don't just say you will drop in sometime when someone is ill. Make sure the time is right and the person who is ill or going through a struggle is up to company" (Glynis).

I have another friend, Mike, who was saved from a devastating history of violence and drug abuse. He deals with emotional and physical struggles every day. And what makes an impact on him? Surprisingly, when I asked him why he had thanked me, he simply said, "Because you were nice to me." We underestimate the power of not judging another.

Sometimes, there is nothing the one facing struggles could have done to avoid their situation, and sometimes things would have been different if they'd made different choices. Even so, what is is, and we don't need others reminding us of our bad choices. (After all, we've all made them along the way.) I think we do this because it makes us feel more secure. "Well, I never did such and so, so I'm safe." Illness can strike anyone at anytime. I think that’s something, if we’re honest, we're afraid of.

If we are struggling, we may need to reach out for support. And when we're able, we should ask the Lord what good He will bring from any given situation and how best we can bring Him honour and glory. And if we know someone who is facing struggles, we must be willing to admit we don't always know what to say or do, but offer to come alongside, to treat them the way we would want to be treated in their situation…to love.