Two challenges – and two posts
When it comes to love, I think these two challenges are shared by most Christians living with chronic illness:
- Feeling loved by God within our isolation, pain and sorrow.
- Knowing how to respond when fellow Christians say insensitive things to us, or neglect us in our time of need.
Today we’re focusing on #1 (above). In Fruitful #5 we’ll move our focus outward, considering how we might reflect God’s love to others.
1. God’s love is different to ours
Knowing God’s love in the depth of our hearts is the most important goal we could ever aim for in life. (Eph 3:16-17, 18-19)
If this sounds a bit airy-fairy or self-indulgent to you, consider this: how can we reflect God’s love to others if we haven’t known it deep within our own hearts first? We can’t give away something that we don’t already have!
Think about it: a heart that’s filled with God’s love has something to offer even when people have disappointed or forsaken us, even when our dreams are snatched away by illness, even when we are sick year after year. God’s love is described as a spring of living water that always satisfies and never runs dry. (John 7:38)
God loves us because…
So let’s start off by meditating on this mind-blowing, heart-healing, life-changing truth: God loves us because of who he is, not because of who we are.
Did you soak that in? It’s so important that I’ll say it again: God’s love is not based on who we are. No! It’s based on who he is.
God doesn’t take into account the ways we’ve let him down (phew!). He keeps loving us regardless of our imperfections. Why? Because that’s who he is – it’s part of his character. 1 John 4:16 says “God is love”.
I think the closest earthly comparison to God’s love would have to be the parent-baby bond.
I absolutely love babies. They’re so pudgy and cuddly and gummy and delightfully trusting. I took thousands of photos of my own babies. It was my way of savouring the moments that I knew would fly by all too quickly. And I’ll always treasure the milestones in my heart – first smiles, first steps, first words, even first poo in the potty!
It was such a special time… But I have to admit, I was a little relieved when the baby phase had passed!
Our baby blues
Our second baby was extremely unsettled. As a newborn she cried a lot. Nothing would soothe her. As soon as we laid her down, in the car seat or the pram or the bassinet, she would scream until her teeny face turned purple and her sweet newborn clothes (and surrounding surfaces) were covered in vomit.
At about 3 months of age she settled – finally we could put her on her back and she would stay calm. She still wasn’t a good sleeper though; in fact she didn’t regularly sleep through the night until she was 2-and-a-half years old. (Yep, we did hire a sleep specialist. Nope, no miracle cure, unfortunately!)
Living on broken sleep month after month, year after year, was truly awful for my husband and me. It was a shock to the system for us, because our first child had slept through the night consistently from 6 weeks of age – how lucky we’d been!!
Nothing could take our love away
The level of affection we felt for our kids fluctuated a great deal during those grueling years. Hormones, illness and sleep deprivation can play tricks on your emotions!
But we never contemplated taking our love away from our unsettled baby and our determined toddler. Not even once. It didn’t even cross our minds as an option. Why? Because they belonged to us! They needed us! Even though they gave us nothing in return, we felt a soul-deep, visceral, powerful connection to them.
That’s just a shadow of God’s kind of love! God’s love is sacrificial. It never gives up. It’s not flippant or changing; it’s constant and enduring. It requires nothing in return.
I love the following two passages, which sum up God’s love so beautifully: Psalm 103:8-17 (click ‘more’ to read whole passage) and Isaiah 49:15-16 (pictured below).
2. Grace is different to Karma
God chooses to be good to us because he is full of love and goodness (not because we are full of love and goodness!). He loves us even though we can’t give him anything in return. This is what the Bible calls “grace”. Let’s look at how grace compares to karma.
- Karma says: Do good, and good will come to you; do bad, and bad things will happen to you. Karma seems logical, and it feels fair. You get what you deserve in life.
- Grace says: No matter how “good” or “bad” you are, God loves you. God’s choice to love you is not dependent on your actions. Grace isn’t “getting what you deserve”. No! It’s getting more than you deserve.
Here’s how Paul and John (the Apostles, not the Beatles!) put it:
When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. (Rom 5:6-8)
God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. (1 John 4:9-10)
Beliefs vs Feelings
There can be a sizeable rift between what we believe and what we feel, can’t there? We believe God loves us, for example, but we feel confused: Why won’t he take my illness away? We know God has promised never to leave us, yet we still feel the sting of loneliness when we’re stuck at home year after year, unable to work or socialise.
Having these feelings isn’t wrong; it’s a natural part of grief. The Psalms are full of heavy-hearted laments from King David, a “man after God’s own heart”. (1 Sam 13:14, Acts 13:22)
Was David’s intense sorrow a sign that he lacked faith? Did his lamenting push him away from God? No! The opposite is true: it pushed him towards God! Each time he cried out from the depths of his being, he was drawing near to his creator – perhaps closer than he ever would have come if his life had been struggle-free. (Psalm 62:8, Heb 4:16, 1 Peter 5:7)
Alone with our thoughts
Now we’re going to home in on our thought life for a few minutes. (Bear with me; it’ll be worth it!) After all, we’re often left alone with our own thoughts when we’re chronically ill, aren’t we? Particularly those of us who are house-bound or bed-bound. We’re not able to run away from our thoughts like we used to, when good health allowed us to keep active and busy. So it’s important that we learn to manage our thought life, otherwise we’ll have no peace.
I’m about to go through some strategies that can help us take charge of our thoughts, but I just want to set the record straight before we go there. After reading Fruitful #4 I don’t want you to think that all your feelings will magically become positive, and all your sorrow and doubts will vanish, if only you’ll read your Bible more. That is most definitely not what I’m saying! Such a message would be, at best, simplistic and at worst, terribly misleading.
After reading Fruitful #4, I do hope you remember afresh: God’s word is living and active; it has the power to give you hope within your pain, joy within your grief, and peace within your loneliness.
Challenging our thoughts
Any therapist will tell you: it’s not what happens to you that matters, it’s how you think about what happens to you that matters. The way we interpret events, and perceive our circumstances, can have a tremendous impact on how we cope with adversity. I think this Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) approach has a lot going for it. In fact, if you’re struggling with depression and haven’t sought help from a psychologist or counsellor, I encourage you to do so.
But what I’m about to say concerning your thought life is not simply a Christian rehash of CBT. What do I mean by that? Well, drawing near to God through his word is not just an abstract activity. God isn’t a concept to be understood, or a technique to be followed; he’s our Father, our companion, the most knowledgeable Counsellor, the most intuitive Helper. (Isaiah 9:6, Matt 1:22-23, John 14:26 ESV)
God speaks directly to our souls through his word. What a precious gift we have in the Bible! (2 Tim 3:16)
“Take captive every thought.“
Our thoughts don’t always line up with God’s truth, do they? (Well, I know mine certainly don’t!)
For example, the way we think about ourselves can be quite harsh and unloving. Have you ever noticed that? Sometimes we say things about ourselves that we wouldn’t dream of saying about someone else!
- “I’m such a burden!”
- “They’d be better off without me.”
- “I’m so useless… Look at me!”
I would never say such cruel things to another person – especially to someone who is sick or disabled through no choice of their own… Yet I’ve thought all of these things about myself many times since falling ill, particularly in the first couple of years.
How it must break God’s heart when his dearly loved children torture themselves with their own thoughts!
The Apostle Paul said we need to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ“. (2 Cor 10:5 NIV) Although Paul was talking about false teachers here, I believe the same principle still applies to us. Think of how often our own thoughts lead us away from Christ!
What sorts of thoughts and fears have you struggled with as you grieve the loss of your health? See how many in the list below you can relate to:
“Take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Joni Eareckson Tada is a role model of mine. She’s a quadriplegic who has written extensively on the topic of suffering. One of Joni’s tips for facing each new day, despite ongoing pain and weakness, is to “preach the gospel to yourself”.
I love this idea! We so easily drift towards self-pity, don’t we? We doubt God’s goodness. “We want what we do not have. We have what we do not want. And we are unhappy.” (When God Weeps, p.2/Loc 183).
A friend who helped me with this
I remember a very dear, compassionate, faithful friend and mentor asking me this question years ago:
“What’s the truth? What does God think about you?”
I wasn’t in a good state at the time; my depression wasn’t well-managed and I was haunted by self-loathing. I felt like shrieking, “What’s the truth?! The truth is that I’m an awful person! I’ve failed God!” The question truly stumped me. It felt like a cruel thing to even ask!
Holding my hand while I wept, my friend recited the start of Psalm 103, steadily and gently:
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits.
(Psalm 103:1-2 ESV)
I couldn’t join in – I was too dejected. But eventually, reciting verses like this became a habit. When my sense of despair would flare up – like an infuriating, burning itch that just couldn’t be scratched – God’s word would come to my aide. It grounded me and soothed me.
Why memorise Bible verses?
Memorising Bible verses is a great way to “preach the gospel to yourself”. I encourage you to become aware of your thoughts, and to measure them against God’s word. Do they line up?
After all, God’s word is the “sword of the Spirit”. We need to arm ourselves with God’s truth, like Jesus did when he was tempted in the desert. (Matt 4:1-11) Each time the devil tempted him to doubt God’s goodness, Jesus responded with these words: “It is written…”
Let’s follow our Lord’s example! Let’s learn to wield God’s word like a sword. Let’s learn to stand strong against any thought that threatens our hope, steals our peace, or smothers our joy in Christ. (John 10:10, Eph 6:10-11, 17)
Memorising God’s word won’t take away your physical pain, but it can help you endure it. Memorising God’s word may not take away your depression, but it can bring life-giving comfort to your crushed spirit. Memorising God’s word may not take away your loneliness, but it can draw you near to your creator in an intimate and precious way.
To finish off, let me ask you again:
What’s the truth? Are you building your identity on what God thinks of you?
I pray that Fruitful #4 has helped you remember who you are in Christ. You are dearly loved! Nothing in all creation can separate you from his love! (Rom 8:35, 37-39)
Your weakness is no obstacle to God’s love. In fact, your pain might be the very thing that pushes you, like King David, even closer to God’s heart.
Want help putting these ideas into practice?
Click here to download Fruitful #4 Printable Bible Study. Let’s be proactive in directing our thoughts towards Jesus! Let’s fill up our hearts and minds with good things.
Want to continue?
Fruitful #5: How to Deal With Judgy Advice will look at how we can reflect God’s love to those around us.
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Lego soldier: Paul Hudson Flickr CC licence