The weekend of my twenty-second birthday, I sat with my husband as he was diagnosed with a disease I had never heard of: eosinophilic esophagitis. Over the next few months, nearly $10,000 in medical bills overwhelmed my bank account. I made multiple trips to the pharmacy and scheduled dozens of follow up doctor’s appointments. As a dark cloud of anxiety covered my life, I had little idea how to effectively love and support my husband long-term. I knew Scripture’s promises to the suffering, but I didn’t know how to practically love my husband as he adjusted to his diagnosis, made lifestyle changes, and coped with side effects. Since his diagnosis, Scripture has comforted and strengthened me as I’ve learned how to love my husband well during his battle with chronic illness.
Comfort from Scripture
Throughout Scripture, we observe God’s deep care, compassion, and mercy for the afflicted. A few texts that bring me comfort are Exodus 34:6, Isaiah 43:1-2, and Psalm 73:25-26.
In Exodus 34, God descended to meet with Moses on Mount Sinai. In the cloud, God stands with Moses and explains his character: “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6). On days when anxiety threatens to take over my mind, my husband isn’t feeling well, and life feels overwhelming, I remember God’s character. When everyone and everything else fails, God’s love and kindness endure. God wants me to run to him with my worries, anxieties, and fears. God’s character proves to me that he is trustworthy, as his care for my husband is greater than anything I can offer. When I recall God’s character and trust him, I’m freed to care for my husband as best as I’m able and with God’s help, entrusting it all to God’s control instead of relying on my own effort or ability.
In Isaiah 43, God says to Israel,
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”Isaiah 43:1-2
On days when I feel helpless, I reflect on God’s actions on behalf of his people. God says, “I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. I will be with you”. This text reminds me that it’s God who will carry me and my husband through trials. It’s not my job to redeem or rescue; rather, I can entrust that duty to God and live in confidence that God will do all things for our good and his glory.
Psalm 73:25-26 declares that God is “the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” This text reminds me that God is the sustainer of our bodies. Our health—indeed, our very existence—rests in the hands of our sovereign God who ordains all things and sustains us for his good purposes. God has provided doctors, nurses, researchers, and pharmacists—a good, common grace—that helps manage chronic illness. However, it is God alone who sustains our bodies and ordains all of our earthly days (Ps. 139:13-16).
These three texts have encouraged me on difficult days and helped me love and care for my husband as he battles chronic illness.
Loving the Suffering
Four aspects of care that help and encourage individuals with chronic illness include education, flexibility, presence, and prayer. As you consider each aspect of care, remember that each chronically ill individual experiences their illness differently, which means the care you give will look different from one person to another. After each aspect of care, I’ve included my husband’s reflections on why that aspect of care is important to those battling chronic illness.
Whether the individual you love is your spouse, your child, a sibling, or a friend, one of the best ways to care for someone with a chronic illness is to educate yourself. Many world-renowned research hospitals have accessible online resources that explain chronic illnesses, side effects, and treatments. While researching my husband’s illness, resources from Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, and Johns Hopkins were particularly helpful. Read a few, and commit basic facts about the illness to memory. For an individual with chronic illness, there’s few things more insulting than having to explain the same information to the same person multiple times. Similarly, individuals with chronic illness are encouraged when those around them know about their illness and can explain it to others. If your loved one is open to discussing their illness, take time to ask them questions about how their illness has impacted their lifestyle, diet, or work, and commit their answers to memory. Educating yourself about chronic illness is the foundation for all other avenues of care for those you love.
- Logan’s reflections: “Educating yourself shows that you care about what a chronically ill person is going through. If you don’t take time to learn about someone’s illness, it tells them you don’t care much about them. Chronic illness intimately affects so much of a person’s life that not knowing about the illness means you don’t understand what the person goes through on a daily basis. Educating yourself also helps you avoid making dismissive or discouraging comments towards the individual about their illness.”
Being flexible towards someone with a chronic illness demonstrates love and care. Flexibility can include (but is not limited to!) being mindful of dietary restrictions, physical limitations, and conversations. Flexibility towards dietary restrictions can involve allowing your loved one to choose a restaurant that accommodates their restrictions, checking in advance that a restaurant can accommodate a modified diet, or ensuring that a recipe you’re using is adapted to your loved one’s restrictions. If your loved one’s side effects are physically limiting, give them space to rest or be willing to cut time together short if they need to leave early. In conversation, flexibility involves not making a spectacle about the illness. For example, it’s not polite to make jokes towards diet-restricted individuals such as, “Wow, you really can’t eat anything, can you?”, as the joke comes across as very insensitive and makes the individual self-conscious. A flexible friend or family member is one who adapts and plans for those with restrictions (particularly dietary or physical) and doesn’t force the individual to make their illness an ongoing topic of conversation.
- Logan’s reflections: “An individual with chronic illness can sometimes feel like they’re a burden on others. When you’re flexible—and have a positive attitude about it—it shows that you care, empathize with their burden, and are happily walking alongside them. The opposite of flexibility is insensitivity, such as getting frustrated and being rude to the ill person. Frustration will inevitably happen, but you need to understand that most times, what happens to a chronically ill person is outside of their control and they are doing their best to manage symptoms and side effects while being present.”
In addition to education and a flexible attitude, one of the greatest, most loving gifts you can give someone is your presence. This can involve sitting with them in the hospital or at home, or acts of service that demonstrate your care for them. Offer to pick up dinner from their favorite restaurant, go grocery shopping for them, or grab their medications at the pharmacy. If your loved one is home-bound or in the hospital for a time, putting together a gift basket of snacks, comfort items, or gift cards for meal deliveries is a simple way to demonstrate your care. These actions remind your loved one that you have not forgotten about them, you care about their needs, and desire to help them in any way you can.
- Logan’s reflections: “Tangibly demonstrating your care for someone with chronic illness is encouraging to them. Since chronic illnesses are incurable and life-long, individuals with them need to know that they are remembered, seen and loved. The way you show up and care changes based on the individual’s love languages. Some may appreciate words of encouragement and affirmation, others will appreciate gifts or acts of service, while others will love quality time. Ultimately, people with chronic illness appreciate the reminders that they aren’t forgotten.”
The importance of education, flexibility and presence cannot be underestimated. However, the most important thing you can do for loved ones with chronic illness is to pray for them. If they give you specific requests to pray for, such as an upcoming doctor’s appointment, surgery, or procedure, make sure to write down the date it’s happening and follow up with them for updates. After asking permission, sharing prayer requests with others is a wonderful way of involving the body of Christ in loving one another. If you don’t live near this loved one, take time to send them a text or handwritten letter with an encouraging Bible verse and a reminder of your love and care for them. Chronic illnesses are a life-long reality, and those who battle them need to be reminded of the ongoing prayers and love of God and others towards them.
- Logan’s reflections: “Showing individuals that they’re cared for, prayed for, and thought of means so much. Oftentimes, people with chronic illness are forgotten and ignored a few months after diagnosis. Handwritten cards and other reminders of prayer are appreciated because on difficult days, they can look back on those notes and know they are cared for by others.”
Education, flexibility, presence, and prayer are a few ways to practically love and care for individuals with chronic illness. God did not promise his people a life free from suffering. Rather, God declares himself to be “merciful and gracious…abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6) towards those he loves, including the suffering. Friend, as you consider your chronically ill loved one, hold to the promises of God and trust that he will grant you everything you need as you seek to love them well.
- Who do you know that suffers from a chronic illness?
- What portions of Scripture have encouraged you during difficult seasons? Write a few down, and commit to sharing them with someone that struggles with chronic illness, whether via a handwritten card, text, or phone call.
- What are a few accessible resources you can use to educate yourself about your loved one’s illness? What are a few basic facts that you can memorize about the illness?
- What is one practical way you can demonstrate flexibility towards your loved one?
- This week, what is one way you can be present in your loved one’s pain and demonstrate your love and care for them?
- What prayer requests has your loved one recently shared with you? Commit to calling or texting them this week to follow up, pray with them, and ask for additional requests.
Photo credit: @emilvhughes
Leah Jolly is a graduate of Wheaton College where she studied international relations and Spanish. She lives in the Grand Rapids area with her husband, Logan, and is pursuing her MDiv at Calvin Theological Seminary. She attends Harvest OPC in Wyoming, Michigan. You can connect with Leah on Instagram and Substack.