[This blog was updated on September 30, 2016.]
2007 was one of the best years of my life, for just one reason: I met Stella, the lady I was going to marry.
I’ll be the first to admit that my wife’s version is more detailed and exciting. But for the sake of brevity, we spoke for the first time in January, and met in person for the first time that April (I lived in Fort Lauderdale, she just outside of Philadelphia). It was a wonderful whirlwind for both of us: I would fly up to see her, and the very next month she would fly down to see me. In the interim, we were on the phone five, six, and then seven days a week.
Just four months after our first face-to-face encounter, I proposed to her on a California beach at sunset. Just short of six months later, we were married in snow-covered Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. It was the best day of my life, and I will always treasure the memory of having families and friends be there for Stella’s and my special day.
Every married couple knows that they will face some challenges that will be unique to them. This is one of the ways our Lord takes two people and makes them one flesh.
That said, our experience took the definition of “unique” to a whole new level: midway through our honeymoon, my wife became terribly sick with a burning fever. The next day her fever was gone, and this was the beginning of her constant nausea and abdominal pain, as well as other negative symptoms that came and went. Since we were on a cruise, we figured that maybe she was just seasick, and that she would feel better once we returned to land.
Then, we flew back up to Pennsylvania, loaded her things into a U-Haul, and made the long drive down to Fort Lauderdale where we would begin our life together. Her constant nausea and abdominal pain did not let up. But we consoled ourselves by saying that once we visited a doctor, we could find out what was wrong, Stella would be given the proper medication, and then everything would be as it should.
It didn’t happen.
Instead, she was given just about every single medical test that you could imagine. In the coming weeks, our frustration grew as the “negative” test results came rolling in. The only “positive” result that came back was one that diagnosed one of her symptoms, but not the cause. As a result of this, she was now officially “diagnosed” as having a pre-existing condition, which meant that we couldn’t get her full medical coverage when we moved to Atlanta where I was to begin my pastoral internship.
As a newly married man, I didn’t always handle things in the best way; yes, part of my wedding vows was that I would care for my wife “in sickness and in health,” but quite frankly, it was a situation that I was totally unprepared for. Without going into specifics, I would make pronouncements or decisions on what needed to be done. While thinking that I was being bold and decisive, I was actually being very uncaring and insensitive.
At any rate, the weeks turned into months, which turned into our one-year anniversary. We still had no medical answers for Stella, and though they generally meant well and they knew that something was wrong, the doctors and specialists could not find anything wrong with her.
Whenever I read a testimonial like that in the past, I imagine that I would act like most people. I would think and audibly say, “Wow, that’s too bad! I’m so sorry!” But quietly, I wouldn’t really be able to identify, as nothing like it had happened to me. That’s not to say I wouldn’t have sympathy for others’ ongoing health problems, but sometimes I would wonder if their problems weren’t just in their minds. After all, the doctors are professionals, so if they can’t find the root of the problem, I reasoned, then maybe the problem is not truly medical at its core.
I was wrong. No disrespect to doctors, but sometimes people heave health issues that will not be solved by prescription pills. Sometimes, people have to seek alternative methods to determine what ails them (and yes, great care and discernment are needed here), which is what we eventually did. And sometimes, the Lord in His mysterious providences brings trials like these into our lives. This is part of our Christian pilgrimage through this life. Because of our fallen state, this will include sin, death, and sickness.
What Does the Bible Say?
When we search through the Bible for answers, it’s very tempting to make a beeline for the passages where Christ healed someone. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But while we can certainly draw comfort from those texts, we need to understand that these miracles were unique; they didn’t always happen in the Bible–recall that before Christ’s incarnation in human flesh, it had been four hundred years since God’s people had received a prophetic word or witnessed a miracle from one sent by Him.
This changed with Christ. In the words of B.B. Warfield, “When our Lord came down to earth He drew heaven with Him. The signs which accompanied His ministry were but the trailing clouds of glory which He brought from heaven, which is His home.”
This power was then given to those closest to Him, the disciples (later the Apostles). When they passed on from the scene, biblical miracles (here defined strictly as “visible, immediate, supernatural acts of God, usually through one sent by him to authenticate his ministry”) ceased to occur.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that God is no longer active in this world. For instance, He does answer prayers; if you have been a Christian for long enough, I hope you firmly believe that He does! Nor am I suggesting that God does not still work in acts of extraordinary providence–like we see when a person in a terrible automobile accident or with cancer is not expected to live long, and then does. I have seen both of these in the Reformed world, and I am thankful that the Lord saw fit to provide for these dear saints.
However, the Lord does not always do this. It was well over a year before we started getting some real help for Stella, after we went the “alternative” route.
I know of other Christians who have not received answers for their health conditions. Does God have a word of comfort for them?
The Thorn In the Flesh
He certainly does: in Second Corinthians, Paul spoke of receiving a “thorn in the flesh…a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated” (2 Cor. 12:7). Commentators have differed on what that was, but there is general agreement that it was some sort of trial which would be common to most Christians.
But whatever it was, Paul’s response to it is most telling: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
This tells us that God often glorifies Himself through weak vessels. This should not surprise us, given that the Christian faith is centered upon a crucified savior…and in the first century Greco/Roman world, this would have been a contradiction in terms. But if our Lord suffered in this life, why should we expect to be exempted from it, especially since we are in the process of being conformed to His image?
The Lord is glorified in our weakness–and we should not forget that our purpose in life, as stated by the Westminster Shorter Catechism, is to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” For some of us, at least for a season of our lives, this may come about by going through trials. Perhaps there is an unbeliever in your life who is watching how you will handle your situation. If you go about it in a God-honoring way, it brings Him glory and it could be what the Lord uses to draw that soul to Himself.
Those who have been afflicted with lifelong ailments can particularly attest to this. My good friend Johnny Farese certainly can. Born with spinal muscular atrophy, Johnny was at times very bitter about his condition growing up. But when he came to faith, he was transformed. He developed a love for God’s Word, began hosting a twice-monthly Bible Study, taught himself HTML and started his own business designing church websites (including the first church I pastored), and counseled other Christians with their problems.
In 2006, I worked at Coral Ridge Ministries in Fort Lauderdale. I approached our TV program’s executive producer about doing a feature on Johnny, which they did (see here). Johnny later told me that as a result, several dozen women who had had abortions when they learned that their as-yet unborn children would have special needs contacted him. He was able to use this opportunity to tell them that God is loving, merciful, and forgiving.
People have also heard of Joni Eareckson Tada. Since her late teen years, she has been wheelchair-bound and in constant pain due to a diving accident. She has used her disability as a platform to help disabled children in impoverished countries, and to spread the gospel.
Years ago, Tada was asked at a conference if she could do it all over again, would she have made the fateful dive all those years ago. She said, “The only regret I have is that I wasted so many years being bitter about it.”
What wonderful examples Johnny and Joni are of God being glorified through our weakness!
Tools for Sanctification
That’s not to say that Christians like these don’t have their struggles. They will be the first to tell you that they are not indestructible titans; they are human beings who overcome their frailties on a daily basis. And yet, those frailties have sanctified them, and drawn them closer to our Lord. As Johnny (who has since passed into glory) once said, “The Lord has taught me so much, it is worth the suffering.”
Thankful for Progress
Thankfully, Stella is doing much, much better now. For instance, she had no appetite for two years after we got married, but now she does. She has also made progress in many other areas as well, such as combating acid reflux and heartburn. This is due in large part to our decision to seek alternative methods (for instance, Stella now has a gluten free and dairy free diet and drinks ionized alkaline water), and has become better educated on chronic illnesses. Thanks to our nutritionist, we have learned that most chronic illnesses don’t go away overnight. People with such maladies did not get sick in one day; it took several weeks, months, or years, and that could be how long it takes them to get better. We also learned that proper nutrition and hydration can speed up the recovery process for people like Stella who have had to deal with chronic illness.
Through it all, I was able to learn some things about myself: before her health problems, I considered myself to be patient, sympathetic, and understanding, but I realized I actually had a lot of room for improvement. Going through this journey with Stella has made me a much more sensitive pastor, and enhanced our relationships with others who have also suffered various chronic illnesses. Most importantly, it has brought us closer together as husband and wife. For that, we are both abundantly thankful.
***Post Script: What You Can Do***
One thing that Stella’s health concerns taught us is that sometimes, even the most well-meaning Christians aren’t sure what to do when others have chronic health issues. In some cases, this causes well-meaning believers to over-compensate, and try to do too much. Others, not knowing what to say or do (usually out of fear of offending the person in question), wind up saying and doing nothing.
We have discovered that it’s not because these brothers and sisters in Christ don’t care; it’s just that they don’t know what to do.
So following is a list of helpful suggestions on what you can do to help a believer with health issues based upon our experiences (and I am thankful for my dear wife’s contributions herein):
Don’t judge. There is greater potential to come to quick conclusions about others’ health issues. For instance, it is easy to decide that “it’s all in their head” if medical tests come back negative–I should know, as I came to this conclusion about others quite often in the past. Additionally, some can become judgmental if the person with physical maladies turns to alternative medicine if traditional medicine has not provided sufficient answers.
As one who has been on both sides of these judgments, I plead with you not to do this. There may be more complicated issues that you are not aware of, especially since chronic illness rarely goes away overnight. Instead…
Encourage Them. When we lived in Atlanta, there was a very dear elder’s wife who had her own chronic and ongoing health issues. She has artistic talent, and so whenever she saw someone else suffering, she would write them a hand-written note featuring some of her artwork on the cover. Her notes and prayers to and for Stella were (and are) very encouraging to us.
You don’t have to be an artist to be an encourager. Another man (a deacon) in that congregation had his own health issues as well, so he and my wife could readily identify with each other, even while they had different symptoms. We could always count on him for an encouraging word. And don’t forget, encouragement is very biblical (cf, 1 Thess. 5:11, Heb. 10:25), and you can never have too much of it in the local church; Barnabas, Paul’s traveling companion, was known as the “son of encouragement.”
You can be as well. It’s not hard, and it means a great deal to suffering saints. If you can’t think of what to say, that’s okay. What you really need to do is…
Be Positive and Empathetic. If you know of someone who is struggling, or has been inconsistent in church attendance due to health concerns, here is what you can do: approach them after the worship service, and ask them how they are doing. If they seem hesitant in their mannerisms and body language, just be positive and say, “I’m so glad you’re here today,” or, “You made it!” Then hug them, touch their arm, or shake their hand–whichever is most appropriate given your relationship with them. More often than not, that’s all they need to hear.
Don’t Overwhelm Them. If you or a loved one has chronic health issues, you might discover something that works for you. But then, if you meet someone else who has health problems, there is great temptation to share your remedy with them.
At the most basic level, there is nothing wrong with doing this; after all, you don’t want to regret not sharing something that has helped you with someone in need. But when too many people try to present their suggestions to one who is sick, it can be overwhelming, and even stressful for them.
So what should you do if you really think you have something that can help, but don’t want to overwhelm them? First, try to develop a rapport with them. Let them know you care. Go out of your way to do special favors for them. And then, when you sense that they are ready and willing, ask if you can talk to them about what has helped you. If they are still not comfortable, they will let you know. If that’s the case, tell them you understand, but that you would regret not sharing your information with them. If they ever change their minds, they know where they can reach you. As more time goes by and their condition has not changed, you might consider gently approaching them again.
Last but not least…
Be Sensitive to Dietary Restrictions. This is a wonderful way to minister to those with health needs.
Before I was married, whenever I heard someone say they couldn’t eat foods that had an ingredient called “gluten,” my eyes would glaze over. I had no idea what that was; it isn’t even listed on most ingredients (I later learned that a particular grocery store item has to specifically say “gluten free” on the label).
A few years ago, we learned that Stella is very sensitive to gluten and dairy–and at times, there were other restrictions as well. This changed everything. Suddenly, we needed to become label-reading experts. We had to do extra research to find products that she could eat.
We have also discovered that when Christians with food allergies don’t feel cared for in this area, they oftentimes don’t come to church functions. They “don’t want to be a bother,” and they don’t want to eat something when they know it’s going to make them sick. Ergo, they conclude that it’s easier on everyone if they just stay home. And even if they don’t verbalize it, they could draw the conclusion that they are not cared for.
This is where you come in: whenever there is a church-wide function or you are having someone over at your home, ask if they have any dietary restrictions and cross-contamination issues. Do some research on their health needs (it only takes a few minutes), ask them what they can and cannot eat, and always give them the freedom to bring their own food if that will make them more comfortable. It may take you some time, but even if you provide just one or two items that they can eat it is well worth it, and it makes the person with health issues feel cared for.
On a personal note, Stella and I are always happy to talk about our experiences and answer any questions others might have about the topics discussed in this post.
Although these tips might seem trivial or even overly simple, they are important, relevant, and necessary. Christ called those in His Church to “love one another” in word and in deed. This includes those who have chronic health issues, and it is my prayer that those who read this will strive to follow these steps, and so glorify our Lord through encouragement and hospitality.