Living with chronic illness is hard. Living the life of self-denial we’re called to as believers in Jesus Christ is also difficult. But when you combine the two, as many of you who read my posts are seeking to do, you face a dilemma. How do we deny ourselves and yet cope wisely with the issues caused by chronic illness? In other words, as followers of Jesus, how do we find a healthy balance between self-care and self-denial?
The Christian life at it’s core is a life of self-denial. Jesus said to His followers, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24 NIV). As disciples of Christ who also happen to suffer with chronic illness, we are not excluded from this directive.
Our Heavenly Father has called us to be His hands and feet on this earth, putting the needs of others above or at least making them equally important to us as our own needs. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4 NIV).
Yet, those of us who live with chronic illnesses live with limited resources. For many of us, fatigue is a way of life. Often, the things we used to enjoy doing are no longer within our range of ability.
For example, earlier in my Christian life, one of my biggest joys was leading ladies in Bible studies. My heart hasn’t changed, but recently even making it to the class where someone else is teaching has been a stretch. For instance, yesterday morning I went to our iConnect Sunday morning class, but I mainly sat there like a sponge, absorbing truths that would strengthen me to make it through another week. Being in class was worth it, but after class I was exhausted. Severe shortness of breath and just general tiredness and weakness resulted in me spending the rest of the afternoon in bed resting.
Denying the facts of where I am physically is not self-denial! Thinking I can ignore what is going on in my body is foolish. So how have I learned to balance the two seemingly opposites of self-denial and self-care? I’m definitely not an expert in this. But as I face new health challenges, I’m learning that it’s possible to both be concerned about the needs of others and do what is wise in taking care of myself. I’ve begun to reach a balance in the area of caring for the needs of others and caring for my own needs, and my goal today is to share some key understandings that are helping me in this area.
We cannot effectively minister to the needs of others unless we first meet our own true needs. Those needs fall in three main categories: spiritual, physical, and emotional.
- Trying to minister to others when we are depleted spiritually is like trying to fill a glass from an empty pitcher. Before I can minister to others, I must make efforts to fill myself so I have something to share. For me, that begins by spending time daily in God’s Word and prayer, asking Him to show me the truths I need to apply in my own life. This is spiritual self-care.
- Giving my body what it requires to function at its best is not being selfish. When you fly on an airplane, the flight attendant instructs you to put your oxygen mask on first, before helping others. Why is this important? Because if you run out of oxygen, you can’t help anyone else with their oxygen mask. Similarly, if you don’t take the needed steps to meet your own physical needs, you will lack the needed resources for meeting others needs. This is physical self-care. Whether it involves eating the foods my body needs to function at it’s best, finding exercise that is appropriate to my current level of health, or making time in my schedule for rest, this type of self-care is essential.
- Emotional self-care is also important. Living with the challenges of ongoing illness can affect every part of our being. Serious illness often causes major changes in lifestyle and limits our independence and mobility. Chronic illness may make it impossible to pursue the activities you find fulfilling, and this can undermine self-confidence and cause depression and feelings of hopelessness. If you are struggling in these areas, taking steps to shift your focus onto the Lord and His love may help. Listening to encouraging music may help. Purposely looking for things to be thankful for, even looking for God’s blessings in the midst of the pain, all of these things can be useful. And if you’ve tried all of these and are still struggling, finding a person you can confidentially share your struggles with may help.
- Recognize that self-care is important but not the final answer in dealing with chronic illness. Spiritually, we need the encouragement of others who are walking a similar path. This is one of the biggest benefits of finding a Christian support group such as God-Living Girls with Chronic Illness, the one I’m a part of. Physically, find a good team of medical doctors and seek their advice. And emotionally, acknowledge if you are experiencing deep depression and need help to get out of it. There need be no more shame in seeking support for mental health issues than there is in seeking medical support.
- Finally, having “filled your pitcher” and “put on your own oxygen mask,” look for ways to be a blessing to others. You may not be able to serve God in the same way you used to enjoy serving. So look for a new way to serve, one that is in line with your current abilities. Chronic illness can easily make us self-centered, and ministering to the needs others are facing counteracts that tendency. You may no longer be able to lead a Bible study at your church, but maybe you can help teach an online Bbible study. Praying for others, sending cards to encourage them in the battles they are facing, starting a blog and writing articles sharing the lessons God is teaching you about living a God-honoring life with chronic illness – these are just a few ideas for reaching out to others. Ask God to show you how you can be a blessing to others. Then do what He shows you.
So take care of yourself. Spend time daily building yourself up spiritually. Make wise choices that allow you to be at your best physically. And don’t ignore your emotional needs either. Exercise wise self-care in each of these areas, but then as a Christ-follower practice self-denial by looking for ways to use the resources you currently possess to be a blessing to others. By doing these things, it’s possible to live a balanced and fulfilling life with chronic illness.