What my chronic illness taught me about GodWritten by Sarah Coft
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On January 20, 2014, my life, as I knew it, came crashing down around me in a single afternoon.
I became bedridden. I couldn’t sit up without fainting and having seizure activity. I stopped being able to sit up, walk, live on my own, attend school, work or drive. The fainting, dizziness, severe brain fog, debilitating nerve and muscular pain, and fatigue completely changed my life.
We later discovered it was an autonomic nervous system condition called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome. Prior to that, I was in university full time while working part time and living a fairly functional life. I had some chronic pain prior to 2014 that could be debilitating, but otherwise I felt healthy. Later, my doctors discovered that I have a rare genetic condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome that caused the Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome and Craniocervical Instability.
My journey to God
I was raised in a home that emphasized reverence toward God, but I wasn’t as familiar with the concept of being saved by faith alone. I appreciate that I had a foundation for understanding God and his Word, but I didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus.
When I first started attending university, I began to think like the world and started to identify as an atheist. I fell in the trap of believing that science and faith couldn’t coexist. Then, near the end of 2013, I accompanied a friend to church, fully expecting to leave unchanged. At that service, I had a supernatural experience that couldn’t be explained by logic. This experience, and the community I found at this church, showed me that God most likely exists.
However, when I first got sick, I hadn’t yet let God into my heart. I had only started attending a church for around six months before I got sick, so at first, I tried to fit God into my secular mindset instead of allowing him to change me from the inside out.
But when I fainted and started seizing, I became acutely aware that there was a powerful God in a way that’s hard to describe. It was in that moment that I realized my need for God. It was only once I lost almost every ability I had in the physical realm that I was left with a keen awareness of the spiritual realm.
Wrestling with God
I immediately began praying and begging God to make my symptoms stop. I have prayed for healing more times than I can count.
It can be really difficult to wrestle with the understanding that God is a loving Father who can heal me but chooses not to. This wrestling can make you doubt if God really does love you or why he’s allowing this sickness. Even well-meaning Christians try to give false hope that depends on the belief that God’s only will is healing for all Christians.
The road to an initial diagnosis and finding suitable treatment options was a long and anxiety-provoking experience. I often found that God wouldn’t answer my prayers in my timing and the suffering felt unbearable. I would sometimes pray that a new medication would improve my symptoms, just for it to make my symptoms worse. Or I would pray for favour over a doctor’s appointment, only to leave feeling helpless. It was in those times that God taught me how to be patient and glorify him in suffering. God allowed me to experience more than I could handle on my own so that I could learn to depend on him.
I experienced many isolating seasons where I found myself asking God, “Why?” Although God hasn’t always made his reason clear, he’s always met me in those moments of suffering when I’ve let him in. God strengthened my faith during a time where my new faith could have easily been sucked dry through suffering.
Even though God has not fully healed me, he has gifted me with a steadfast faith in him. Becoming sick actually solidified the faith I was developing as a new believer, and that faith has matured over the years as I contemplated deep theological questions.
The idolatry of health
My biggest wish is that I could say I have overcome my health challenges. In fact, at times health has become an idol for me. I search for health in every wellness fad in desperate hope for healing. This tenacity has improved my quality of life in many ways, but at times it’s been a result of misplaced hope. I still hope that God will heal me one day, but I know that God’s goodness isn’t limited to whether I am healed or not.
There’s a quote I love by Charles Spurgeon that says: “Remember this, had any other condition been better for you than the one in which you are, divine love would have put you there.”
If health was better for me right now, then God would heal me. At times, I have been hurt by this concept. It has made me wonder why health isn’t “better” for me – does God think I’m not deserving of health? Is my character that bad that he needs to sanctify me this much? When I find myself asking these questions, God’s peace stills my restless heart. God doesn’t owe me an explanation for why he’s allowing this to take place, but I can trust that he knows what’s best for me and his Kingdom.
An anchor of faith and community
I don’t know how I would have survived this journey without my faith. God has carried me through the past eight and a half years in more ways than I probably realize.
When I first got sick, God brought people from my church to pray for me, send me encouraging messages, and uplift me when I was trying to figure out what was happening to my body. The Church body gathered around me in a deeply meaningful way. God brought so many people into my life to carry me through the difficult times. He blessed me with my mom who became my full-time caregiver and advocate. He also blessed me with an online community of people who understood what I was going through and reminded me that I wasn’t alone.
Throughout the years of suffering with chronic illness, my faith has been my anchor. If it weren’t for my faith, the suffering would feel meaningless. My faith teaches me that I can glorify God, and reach a unique community, in my suffering. When I realized that the purpose of life isn’t to be healthy and happy, but to be holy and make disciples of all nations, I found deeper purpose in my journey.
Encouragement for others
Thanks to God, I am no longer bedridden, I am much higher functioning, and I work in a very fulfilling career as a Registered Clinical Counsellor. However, I still experience debilitating fatigue, orthostatic intolerance and chronic pain.
If you are facing a difficult health challenge, let me encourage you to cling to God, find a like-minded community that empathizes with your unique experiences, and seek professional counselling when needed – it can be very traumatic to lose your health.
When I was first grieving my previous healthy life, I found myself feeling purposeless. I wondered if I would ever be able to go back to school, work or live a functional life again. I doubted whether I would be able to fulfill any kind of spiritual role in God’s kingdom without having a large physical capacity. I questioned God’s will for my life until I read 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
In some ways, having everything else stripped away from my life gave me the gift of realizing what is really important: rejoicing always, praying continually and giving thanks in all circumstances. God’s Word explains that his will for your life includes these three simple – yet difficult to implement – tasks that we can do even when we’re bedridden, housebound or struggling with our health.
There’s a quote I love by Toby McKeehan that says, “When you are hanging by a thread, make sure it is the hem of his garment.” Oh, how I long to be the bleeding woman who was healed when she touched the hem of Jesus’ garment! If you’re like me and have prayed for healing continuously, you may find yourself feeling deeply disappointed if he doesn’t heal you. In those moments, it’s so important to bring your disappointments to God instead of withdrawing from him. God isn’t afraid of your emotions and he won’t turn his back on you when you share your grief with him.
If you or someone you know is struggling with chronic illness, we encourage you to contact our care and counselling team at 1.800.661.9800. Our office hours are Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT.
Sarah Coft is a registered clinical counsellor who works with couples and individuals in BC.
© 2022 Sarah Coft. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
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