Taking care of patients with chronic illnesses is the greatest challenge in medicine. The term “chronic” indicates a problem that just doesn’t go away. The best that a physician can do is to mitigate the extreme difficulties of these diseases, perhaps leaving patients with less symptoms, hopefully giving them a better quality of life.

Over the many years of medical practice I have been made aware of how common these conditions are, wondering how I would cope if faced with one or more of them. Also, as we get older we see family and friends pick up diabetes, arthritis, or even cancer and we can’t help but empathize. Chronic disease is one of the many difficulties of life that lies in wait and picks many of us off along our journey.

The monster descended on me fifteen years ago when I woke up one morning with a headache that just wouldn’t go away. I was diagnosed with an uncommon kind of “chronic daily headache,” I have had it continually since that first day, but I have been able to dampen its voice with handfuls of daily pills and was able to continue missionary work.

Six years ago, though, my health was significantly handicapped by a second chronic illness that I picked up as a parting gift from Ethiopia; a gastrointestinal infection that can be temporarily weakened by antibiotics, but can never be wiped out. I was able to work through headache pain, I tried to do the same for the nausea of the stomach-bug, but it was too much and we left the missionary field four months ago.

The hardest part of having a chronic disease is realizing that you have permanently transitioned from being someone who had energetically gone to work, cut the grass, cleaned out the garage, or whatever else needed to be done, to being someone who can’t do nearly as much and who has to depend on others for help. If you lived alone it or hated your roommate it wouldn’t be so bad, but it is terrible feeling like you are a burden to those that you love.

You guys know that I am always doing my best to see the world through spiritual rather than just physical eyes. I write about it all of the time. And chronic disease raises a lot of spiritual questions, which I have turned around and around in my head, wondering if God is trying to tell me something that I am deaf to.

The apostle Paul had a chronic disease, perhaps the reason why he traveled with a doctor, and probably had to depend on others daily. He only wrote about it once, and here is what he said:

. . . in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

For me, the take-home points from this are:

  1. The purpose of Paul’s affliction was to keep him from becoming conceited.
  2. The reason he wasn’t healed was that weakness gives a disciple better access to God’s power.
  3. Paul was happy with that answer and was proud of the weakness that God had forced on him.

Physical and spiritual power are inversely proportional.

This is a classic spiritual paradox, similar to teachings like, “the last shall be first,” or, “to him who has, more will be given.” Physical pain and nausea are tough on the body. Many times I have said, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” But the beauty of physical affliction, for a disciple, is that it is the most effective way for God to curtail our physical pride, which creates the greatest impediment to us being used by him, thus paving the way for his spirit to give us spiritual power. When physical power is forcibly depressed through illness, spiritual power is amplified.

Physical and spiritual pride are inversely proportional.

And here comes the paradox: like Paul, the purpose of my ailments is to keep me from having pride, and like Paul, I am proud of that. With 7.8 billion people on the earth, God loves me enough to make me sick so that he can perfect his power through me. I’m sorry that I’m a burden on others but, what can I say? This is how God and I are working together, with much more power, to make an impact for his kingdom. If this is what he wants, I’m proud of it.