Praying through Chronic Illness

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As Christians who believe in the God “who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,” it can be hard to know how to pray for those suffering from chronic illness (Psalm 103:3, ESV). Often, the church starts strong, praying fervently for the healing of the afflicted person’s body. However, as weeks, months, and even years go by, discouragement can set in. Why keep praying for something that does not seem to happen? As other requests for prayer are shared, it is easy to push those with chronic illnesses into the background.

When we hear that someone is sick, our first reaction is to pray for healing. This is appropriate. As Christians, we recognize that disease and suffering represent a corruption of God’s perfect creation, and it is only natural for us to pray that God would restore the sufferer to a healthy state. Our God is the Great Physician, and certainly has the power to heal those struggling with chronic illness.

The problem is that the healing we ask for does not always come. For some, their illness will last for the rest of their life. This should come as no surprise. Even the apostle Paul had his “thorn in the flesh,” which persisted despite his petitions to God for its removal. God’s response to Paul’s requests is telling: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul’s sufferings were not without reason, but were allowed by God for his instruction.

There are many virtues and opportunities that can be gained through illness. It can teach reliance upon God, reveal attributes of his that were once only partially understood, and deepen the sufferer’s relationship with him. It can build patience and humility. It can give opportunities to share the faith and be an example to others. It can even give fellow believers the opening to be a servant, providing them occasions to demonstrate Christ’s love and compassion towards the one who is hurting.

While all of this is true, it does not necessarily make the experience of suffering a chronic illness any easier. It is one thing to talk about and understand the lessons of suffering when times are good; it is something else entirely to take comfort in them when it actually occurs. After months or years of fighting, helplessness and discouragement can set in. Even God can seem distant and uncaring—if he really cared, why doesn’t he help? For those of us who are not in this position, it can be difficult to know how we should respond.

In a previous Intersections piece, Dr. Kelly Kapic discussed our responsibility to those who are suffering and addressed some problems of becoming overly focused on the bodily healing of the one who is hurting. His conclusion is that we do not need to try to heal these people or give them advice—we need to pray for them and love them. Failure to pray is certainly a failure to love. But, this brings us back to our original problem: how should we pray for those who are suffering when our requests for healing seem to go unnoticed by the Great Physician?

The first step is to look beyond the physical to their emotional and spiritual needs. These are just as important, but often overlooked. Additionally, we understand that there may be many purposes for suffering; if so, then why not pray that those would be accomplished? Unpleasant as chronic illnesses are, God has allowed them. Thus, what follows are several concrete, practical ways in which we can pray for one who is suffering beyond the physical healing of their bodies:

  1. Pray that they will have sufficient strength to sustain them through each day.
  2. Pray that they avoid discouragement, despair, and bitterness—both towards others and towards God.
  3. Pray that they will be a model for other Christians to emulate in their own times of suffering.
  4. Pray that they will be a witness to unbelievers in their suffering and that they take any given opportunities to share the Gospel.
  5. Pray that they continue to have hope in their future healing, whether it takes place in this life or the next.
  6. Pray that they will have the humility to allow others to serve them, and that others would continue to show them the love of Christ.
  7. Pray that they will not become hard-hearted, but remain open to God’s teaching in the midst of their affliction.
  8. Pray that they learn more about the character of God and his great love for them.
  9. Pray that they would be strengthened in their faith, grow closer to their Savior, and depend more on him.
  10. Pray that they would be at peace with their situation.

I offer this list not as a comprehensive guide, but as a catalyst to further reflection on how we might better pray for those who are suffering. Individual needs will be different, and our prayers should change accordingly. One of the best things we could do is meet with the sufferer, talk with them, and pray with them. Show them that we care for them and are praying, and let them tell us where they need the most help or encouragement. I also invite you to leave a comment below sharing any brief prayers you have found helpful when dealing with chronic illness—or tweet them, tagging @EDBioethics.

As Christians, we are called to pray for one another and to bear each other’s burdens—even when it may be discouraging or we are not seeing the fruit of our requests. Interceding for the whole person—physical, emotional, and spiritual—can help us to remain faithful in prayer, and provides us a way to serve our suffering brothers and sisters throughout their time of need.