When I lay in ICU connected with multiple tubes and lines and monitors, I didn't want to hear or speak the dreaded “C” word. It stood for CANCER and I had just gone through lung cancer surgery with a third of my lung removed. In God's sovereign plan for my life, I will soon celebrate the 22nd anniversary of that life-threatening and life-changing event. Nevertheless, I was left with residual effects for which there are no visible scars.
There is another “C” word that is equally devastating in the long haul.
My beautiful friend Jennifer is finally on the list for a kidney/liver transplant after lengthy and arduous procedures and tests and evaluations and mountains of paperwork. Now the waiting for an organ donor stretches before her. She writes, “People say, 'You look so good!' yet I suffer from a chronic illness that affects every day of my life and has for over 30 years.” People need to be aware that often behind the face of a person who 'looks well' their never-ending suffering may not be visually apparent.
Another friend adds, “No one can see my illness, but I live with continuous pain and manage only with the help of continuous powerful drugs. There are days I can't drag myself out of bed. If I had a broken bone in a plaster cast, my suffering would be more believable. 'CHRONIC' is the big 'C' word in my life, and there doesn't seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel.”
As our years increase, there is scarcely anyone who doesn't have some unfixable, inoperable, incurable, deteriorating, debilitating, gradually weakening condition of body, mind, or emotions. Our mortal “earth suits” eventually all wear out and give out, some sooner, some later. Saint Paul puts it in realistic terms in Second Corinthians chapters four and five by calling our bodies “earthen vessels”—fragile clay pots, to be exact. He says “our outer man is decaying” and that implies the organs within us as well. Some inward parts of our bodies, our “plumbing and electrical systems” for example, simply don't function well anymore. When Saint Paul says we are “groaning,” it is almost an understatement. Many conditions related to aging, let's face it, are no longer able to be repaired or replaced—they must be managed, coped with, endured. They are CHRONIC.
Next week, September 10-16, 2012 is NATIONAL INVISIBLE CHRONIC ILLNESS AWARENESS week. (Google that site for a suggested list of 20 things NOT to say to someone with an invisible chronic illness!) Just because someone doesn't look sick, doesn't make their distress any less important. Such people are apt to feel lonely, misunderstood, and frustrated because they don't “look so bad” to others. Inwardly, chronic illness is exhausting and isolating. It can affect an entire family's ability to function normally. They deserve the same compassion and care and prayer as someone who has an obvious visible illness or suffered an accident.
Heartaches, not only physical but emotional, are also deep internal and hidden realities. Mental and emotional torment, no matter what real or supposed circumstances are causing it, is invisibly excruciating. Loneliness and grief bring on intense desolation that others can't see. People struggle to seek reasons for their situation; they question why this has happened to them, why God won't heal them, what they did to deserve such prolonged suffering.
Saint Paul doesn't leave us in a depressed or discouraged state without pointing to an optimistic “nevertheless.” We are not merely earth-born, finite, temporary, frail, human bodies. God gave each of us an immortal soul that is “eternal in the heavens.” He calls it “the inner man” which is invisible but genuinely real. He tells us that our spirit or soul should be “renewed day by day” and that it isn't subject to deterioration as our bodies are. When the time comes that we can no longer be “body builders” we should concentrate all the more on being “spirit builders.” That is permanent construction. Our spirit is “a house not made with hands” destined to live with God when our body has reached its finish line on earth. No wonder Saint Paul cheers us on to “always be of good courage.” That wouldn't be the case were we persons made up of body alone.
Let's not think only in terms of the millions in that category but specifically of those in our circle of acquaintance and relationships who suffer from an invisible chronic illness. Who do I know who suffers from this particular “Big C”? I can compassionately reach out to love someone with an invisible chronic illness and “en-courage” and support and pray for them. And also help their material and mental well-being as I have opportunity through the biblical corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
I'm sure I know many such people. They may or may not be in assisted living residences or in wheelchairs. They may be next door, in the next pew at church, in the next work station, in the supermarket line—or in our own family. They may “look normal” on the outside but inside their spirits may be wounded with despair and invisible pain.
I shall begin with one—and go on from there.