By lunchtime, I was exhausted. Actually, I had been exhausted since I woke up that day. And I was exhausted when I went to bed the night before. I felt like my nutrient-starved mind was imprisoned in a dark room, peering out at the world through the gaps in the bars.
This has been my pattern of life for so many years that some days, I forget that what I feel isn’t normal. I look at other ministers in my area, living, working, and glorifying Christ, and in a pique of sinful jealousy think to myself, Where do these people get all their energy? Where do they get all their time?
This is life with a chronic illness. In my case, it’s an autoimmune disorder that causes my body to attack itself. My immune system rips ragged holes in my intestines the way a tailor tears broadcloth. You can imagine the results: I wake up, eat, drink, read, work, drive, and play with my kids while in constant pain. All this bodily chaos disrupts every part of my life – physical, mental, emotional. I say this not to elicit pity, but to make the point that chronic illness complicates life. And it complicates ministry. By the time I reach the end of a day, I too often feel like a useless, paralyzed limb on Christ’s body.
Many are the times I have wondered whether I’m taking up a position that could be filled by someone wiser, more energetic, or more equipped to actually do the work of ministry. Couldn’t someone who isn’t saddled with my disease-ridden, sludge-choked mind advance the work of the church so much farther?
Recently, I got a glimpse at what life would be like without chronic illness. My disease was advancing aggressively, so my doctor prescribed a powerful medication in order to halt its progress until we could figure out something different.
An amazing thing happened. Suddenly, I could take only eight hours of sleep and wake up feeling downright alive! I had plenty of sustained energy throughout the day to play with my kids, care for my wife, and perform all of my ministerial duties. Best of all: my spiritual affections were more easily stirred. My efforts in the Word more readily yielded sweet Gospel nectar. Jesus was more immediate to me, and my desire for Him was more fervent, more constant. The work of ministry itself came more naturally.
The first few days, I reveled in my newfound capacity, delighted by the acute realness of everything – an over-easy egg in the morning, my daughter’s curly hair, the satisfaction of spiritual nourishment from God’s Word.
Yet as I watched the pills in the bottle dwindle, it slowly dawned on me that this delight was fleeting. As my doctor started to wean me off the medication, I could feel my world beginning to shrink once more. A hunted desperation overtook my meditations: Why must this be, O Lord? Am I not more useful to You as a fully-functional person?
That was the moment that the trap sprung.
You see, on top of the physical depredations, chronic illness attacks the soul with a Satanic falsehood that would be laughable if it weren’t so unspeakable: God is not who He says He is. Your worth to Him is dependent upon your works for Him.
Since I was diagnosed over ten years ago, Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:9 have always rattled around in my head: “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.” (ESV) I expect every minister with chronic illness keeps this scripture close. Our weakness is always before us, staring into our bleary eyes from the mirror every morning.
But sadly, like so much other Scripture, we can make this passage mean all sorts of things as salve for hurts both real and imagined, and never apply the medicine to the wound it was made to heal.
In some ways, this misuse of the cure is less painful than its intended purpose. If it does not mean what we think it means, then there is still room for our efforts, our works-righteousness, our self-earned value in the sight of God and men.
But this text does mean exactly what we think it means: Christ uses weak people to accomplish His will. For weak ones, what grace! what mercy!
But for the strong – or those who wish to be strong - it can be an acrid draught. Christ’s power does not rest upon the self-reliant, the self-sufficient, or the self-equipped. It rests instead on the Christ-reliant, the Gospel-sufficient, and the Spirit-equipped.
As I look back on my brief life, I see how Christ has been working in the weakness of my chronic illness to give me undeserved good and to bring Him glory. The same is true of all of us, in one way or another. When our paltry ministerial efforts barely amount to five loaves and two meager fish, Christ is enough to feed those left hungry by our inadequacy. When our strength is gone and it’s everything we can do to pray with our family before bedtime, Christ still hears from heaven and carries us to the Father. When illness ravages our minds and our efforts in the study are dimmed, Christ in the Gospel is bright enough and glorious enough to blast away all the darkness.
One day, my illness will claim my life, and my battered flesh will peel away. I will stand before my Savior and God in a body that will never know the degradation of sin or sickness. And on that day, I will still be boasting in my weakness – for in that weakness, Christ is shown to be very strong.