Though My Flesh May Fail: Reflections on Chronic Suffering from the Hospital Bed

Series: Beholding and Becoming 

by Brett Fredenberg August 30, 2022

“You have dysentery.” My common fate on the old Oregon Trail computer game became reality three years ago in Madagascar when my doctor spoke these words to me. As much as I wanted to laugh at how ironic it was to struggle with such an old disease as dysentery, I was in pain.

Little did I know then that this illness would set me on a trajectory of doctors’ visits, medical diagnoses, and hospital stays for the next three years, leading up to this very day where I sit once again in isolation at St. Luke’s East Hospital, missing my family and wondering why they can’t design hospital beds to be more comfortable.

I’m a firm believer in the sovereignty of God’s grace. I believe everything that happens to the believer is for good. After receiving an autoimmune diagnosis and seeing the subsequent bills roll in, though, this conviction has been put to the test.

Amidst temptations to doubt, God continues to reveal His good purposes for me in my affliction. As I sit in my hospital bed today, three lessons stand out among the rest as reminders of the sovereignty of God’s grace and His goodness in my life.

1. Your present trajectory does not determine your eternal reality.

Beginning in the fall of 2020, my life seemed to be on a negative trajectory. A house fire displacing our family for six months, the loss of my job and financial stability, and an autoimmune diagnosis hit us all in the span of a few months. Health, home, career, and finances- all taken away before we knew what hit us.

Any onlooker to the situation would quickly—and rightly—surmise that we were in a tough spot, in all senses of the phrase- emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

And in that season, Psalm 73 became my refrain.

“My feet had almost stumbled… For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked…For they have no pangs until death…They are not in trouble as others are…Behold, these are the wicked; always as ease.”

Why do the wicked prosper? So often, prosperity seems to attend the wicked while the Christian seems to go from bad to worse. I often wonder, “How can this be?” Anticipating my question, God answers…

“But when I thought how to understand this; it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end… Truly you set them in slippery places.”

For the Christian, God saves us not only from our sin, but He also saves us from all other saviors. During this season, I began to see that I found more comfort, identity, and satisfaction in my home, health, and finances than I had previously realized.

As Thomas Brooks said in The Crook in the Lot, “If there’s any part of my portion in this life where, in the midst of all others, one is disposed to nestle in, the thorn will readily be laid there. There the trial will be taken for there is the grand competition with Christ. We find our greatest cross where we expected our greatest comfort.”

In other words, God will have no rivals for worship in our hearts. Our thorns are God’s means of keeping us in Christ.

These earthly possessions proved to be terrible saviors, possessing no power to give what they promise. They never satisfy. The rich never have enough. The home never comforts enough. The healthy still get sick. Ease is a wicked temptress and an empty savior. The wicked may prosper, but the Psalmist teaches how I can respond.

“Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

Take heart, Christian. Though it may seem as if life is headed in the wrong direction, rest in the wisdom of God. While affluence may grow for the wicked, they are in slippery places. In His grace, God keeps us from great temptations. We may actually be closer to where we need to be than if the affliction were simply removed.

2. God has no aimless thorns.

“Though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trails.” (1 Peter 1:6, emphasis mine)

God will not unnecessarily keep you in humbling circumstances. When the end purpose for the affliction is attained, we can be sure the affliction will be taken away.

And while He may have 10,000 purposes for a single affliction, we can rest assured that His purposes are good. Again, our thorns are His means of keeping us.

Just as a fence around a playground frees children to run fast with no fear of the cars on the street, our thorns enable us to enjoy Jesus more than anything else we could find in this life.

And since I still struggle with my chronic illness, I can be sure that God is still at work— removing heart idols in me and possibly working something outside of myself that I’m completely unaware of.

Let this be your confidence, Christian— God is more committed to your Christlikeness than you are. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion on that day.” No matter what. He will do whatever it takes to ensure your conformity to Christ and your dwelling with Him for eternity. No matter how painful.

As C.S. Lewis said so profoundly, “We don’t doubt God’s goodness, we just don’t realize how painful it might be.”

So, in the midst of your chronic suffering, remember that God has no aimless thorns. Each thorn perfectly meets its mark exactly as He intends for the duration He determines. Each one will accomplish all He desires. Learn to seek God in the struggle with the thorn. See how He might be using it to conform you to the image of Christ and prepare you for eternity with Him.

3. Chronic suffering gives opportunity for resurrection living.

“We who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” (2 Corinthians 4:11)

At the hospital, a friend asked, “How are you not frustrated right now? I feel like everyone else in your situation would be angry that the doctors can’t find a solution.”

I believe there’s great opportunity for gospel witness through resurrection living. Time and time again in Scripture, God chooses the weak in the world to shame the strong. A life of suffering with joy gives a great testimony to the beauty of the gospel of Jesus.

And in this way, there is great purpose in affliction. Life springing forth out of death in my life is but a small window into the good news of Jesus – the One who became the only true source of life by His death.

So, in my suffering, God has been kind to quickly remind me that the place of dependence on Him is the best place to be. Sickness keeps me close to Christ. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked to be humbled by a different set of circumstances, but I’m learning to trust that His ways are better than mine.

As my flesh fails me, God has promised to renew my spirit day by day. And in this way—life out of death—the gospel is proclaimed. And in that, I rejoice.

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