Un-limiting Grace for the Chronically Ill

by Margaret Bronson January 20, 2021

The Gospel is the good news that those who believe in Jesus and repent of their sins are made perfect in Christ. All of their shame has been taken away. All that made them broken, dirty, and condemnable has been burned upon the cross. He makes us worthy. He makes us whole. He makes us valuable – no matter what we do or don’t do. This is the birthright God has given us, His undeserving children. We anticipate the fullness of it in heaven while we experience a foretaste of this peace in our relationships between believers. We experience grace, acceptance, and a love that we didn’t earn – a love that is foreign to this world.

But, somewhere along the way we’ve allowed limitations to that gospel to creep in. You are without fault – as long you are in a stable place in life and don’t have any consistent, on-going needs. You are enough – as long as you are productive. You are free of shame – as long as you don’t have ongoing consistent trials that make it look as though you are in trouble with God.

It’s as though we’ve forgotten that Jesus made us whole, worthy and well in a world that has not yet been put to right. We expect each other to live as though the trouble of this world and the limitations they impose on us don’t matter. We expect everyone to be able to live as unbound by the suffering of this world as we do, no matter how much more the world’s brokenness is pressing in on them.

One of the most subversive ways we alienate the sick is by creating Christian performance standards they cannot hope to meet. We prioritize and value things like consistency, drive, focus, and stability. We define a faithful woman as one who keeps her house tidy and her body slim. We define a faithful man as one who provides well and is physically strong. Our sermons, conversations, and posts are riddled with a legalism of able-bodiedness.

It is impossible to be consistent when you live inside a body that has waged a vicious, unpredictable war against you.

It’s hard to be driven when you are forced to stare down the unreliability of your future every time you move your body.

It’s difficult to be focused when you spend more than half of your day’s energy just doing the things that keep you alive.

Our society is designed for the able-bodied. Our pace of life, expectations for homes, money, careers – there is no room for limitations, for inconsistencies. We’re willing to have a sick person around but only if they act like a healthy person. You must pick one: be sick and go where sick people are or be healthy, but whatever you do, don’t be sick in a healthy space.

Don’t need help, don’t move slower, don’t show up late for medical reasons. Don’t have brain-fog. Don’t cancel plans or leave early. Don’t bring sadness and mourning into our spaces. Don’t parent, run your house, your marriage, or your career in a way outside of the standard set by the able-bodied majority.

The world treats the sick as though they are a burden every day, all the time. They are constantly surrounded by messages that say “you aren’t enough,” “you aren’t accomplishing enough,” “you aren’t consistent enough,” “you aren’t prioritizing the right things.” It ought to be different in the church, but too often, it isn’t.

We don’t realize it, but our expectations in the church are very often outside of what sick people can do without doing further injury to their health. When someone cannot perform to a certain level we question their morality and character. “Are they really trying? Are they really saved? Are they manipulating us? Do they want attention? Why don’t they just do what the rest of us do? It’s not hard!”

Thus, the narrative about sick people, both in the world and in the church is one of shame, rather than grace. There is often a suspicion that they probably did something to “get” their disease, or that they are probably not doing things that would ease their condition. This could be practical: maybe they are making health choices that resulted in or contributed to their illness. Or, this could be spiritual: perhaps God is punishing them, or teaching them a lesson, or testing them by allowing Satan to attack them. One way or another, the sick live under a thick cloak of both spoken and unspoken accusations of shame that stand in the way of experiencing the freedom and peace of the gospel.

In our homes and churches, the narrative of shame around sickness must be changed. It must be changed because Jesus spent his time changing it. He made it clear in John 9 that illness is not the result of sin in the person or their parents but so that God’s work might be displayed in him. Illness, and its effects, are not something a sick person does to others. This is happening to them and no matter how heavy it is on those around them, it’s a thousand times heavier on the one who is sick.

Jesus spent much of his ministry healing the sick. That’s what He did. He preached and healed. He made lepers, the blind, the lame, and the unclean holy before God, and removed the thing that separated them from society because God wants the sick to be both at peace with Him and with society. He revealed himself to us through His work in them. If we are to be like Christ, then we ought to spend our time doing what He did. This is our priestly role. We do not have the power to heal hearts or bodies but we know the one who has and who will in heaven. We are called to draw near to people, to enter into their suffering, and help them draw near to God.

When we don’t offer acceptance, grace, understanding, and love to the sick we act in direct contrast to how Jesus carried out His ministry and deny ourselves a means of grace promised by God in seeing His work in the sick.

Instead, let us learn from these precious people who choose to hope in a Healer even though their bodies are not healed, and learn from the depths of their faith. Let us welcome their limitations and allow them to challenge our assumptions and theology and make us wiser. Let’s let them push us out of our comfort zone as we find that life is not fair, and remember that to those to whom much has been given, much will be required. Let us allow the grace we show them in their limitations change how we view ourselves and each other, making us more gracious even without the obvious limitations of health. Let us spend our time as Christ did and draw near to others and draw others near to God.

There is no bottom to God’s grace. You cannot be too unproductive, too unfocused, too weak, too inconsistent, too consistently needy, too helpless, too sad, or too ill for the gospel to come in and transform your life. If you are in Christ, there is nothing that will keep Him from making you whole and right with God, and to one day, in heaven, give you a physical exterior that matches what God has done in your heart.

*I use the term sick in this article but it could easily be swapped for disabled. I simply used one word for the sake of word count.