Last month I met with a new specialist. What a turbulent time it’s been!
We’ve embarked on a new treatment path – possibly a dwindling dead end; possibly a tree-lined avenue with heady horizons of restored health.
New insights have been offered. New tests have been ordered. New treatments are being trialed – which may or may not make a difference… There’s no certainty about the outcome. All we can do is try.
The emotional investment has been absolutely enormous. Why is that, I wonder? Why is seeing a new doctor such a gut-wrenching experience for people with chronic health conditions?
My guess is it’s linked to the hope conundrum: Do I dare to hope? Can I handle any more disappointment?
Hoping for better health?
There’s a rekindled sense of hope in our household: Could this be the answer we’ve been praying for? The new doctor was so knowledgeable about my illness, so empathetic, and seemed to feel that my condition is “resolvable”.
Resolvable? Really? It was very surprising to hear this, when my prognosis until now has been not-so-positive. (There’s about a 4% chance of recovery.)
I didn’t quite know what to make of this. Of course I was pleasantly surprised: Perhaps there is a chance I might regain some of my pre-illness function? But at the same time I didn’t want to get my hopes up…
It will be months before we get any answers. Test results take time. Waiting periods for other specialists are long. More data needs to be gathered in the meantime. It’s a slow process.
How can we stay afloat emotionally when living in limbo? How can we experience peace in the face of an uncertain future?
I think the answer has to do with hope.
But what does that mean? What does that look like?
- Do I hope that I’ll get better? Do I focus on the possibility of an unexpected cure that defies the odds?
- Do I hope this new doctor will have answers – answers that have evaded my other doctors for the past several years?
- Do I take it down a notch and just hope for a modest improvement – for the lessening of my most debilitating symptoms?
Hope can lead to disappointment
Or do I not hope at all?…
After all, with hope can come heart-wrenching disappointment: If I hope for an unexpected cure, and this doctor can’t help me, I’ll be disappointed. If I hope this doctor has the answers, and he doesn’t, I’ll be disappointed. If I hope for a modest improvement in my symptoms, and nothing changes for the better, I’ll be disappointed.
Sometimes it can feel safer not to hope at all, because crushed hope leads to despair.
I spent some very dark months in a state of despair, three years into my illness, when coming to terms with my prognosis. Within the first two to three years, the chances of recovery from ME/CFS are relatively high. After that point, the disease is likely to be lifelong.
For the first couple of years, under close medical supervision, I had devoted myself completely to the project of regaining my health. I refused to envisage a future of continued disability – I just couldn’t face the thought. I didn’t want my baby and pre-schooler to grow up with a sick mother who’s rarely able to leave the house! (How would they respect me?) I didn’t want to be a chronically ill wife, dependent on my husband for the rest of my life! (How would he handle such a heavy load?)
Sadly, my efforts to recover made very little impact. Hopes to regain my old life eventually led to disappointment. Actually, I was more than disappointed; I was devastated to the point of despair. Raw and terribly frightening despair. I-can’t-live-like-this-for-the-REST-of-my-LIFE despair. I’d-rather-die-than-live-in-a-body-that’s-broken despair. Numbness engulfed me. It became a protective cocoon for a while. The reality of my “new” life and the (perceived) bleakness of my future were just too much to bear…
Is our hope secure?
Thankfully God brought me out of that “valley” (Psalm 23). And, looking back, I can see just how misplaced my hope had been for those years.
I had placed all of my hope in the possibility of getting better. My happiness depended on it. Therefore, when I looked down the barrel of the rest of my life with this illness, of course it was devastating! My hopes and dreams had been crushed.
When we let our sense of joy and peace depend on something unpredictable, like improved health, our hope is not secure.
CS Lewis put it this way:
“Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.”
Jesus said it like this:
“Don’t store up treasures on earth! Moths and rust can destroy them, and thieves can break in and steal them. Instead, store up your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy them, and thieves cannot break in and steal them. Your heart will always be where your treasure is.” (Matt 6:19-21 CEV)
Here’s my paraphrase for people living with chronic health conditions:
Don’t put your hope in good health! Health is unpredictable; you can lose it to illness, you can lose it to injury, you can lose it to old age. Instead, put your hope in God. Set your heart on building a strong relationship with him, because it’s the only thing that will last forever.
Thankfully we have a merciful and compassionate God. He is close to the brokenhearted. He comforts those who mourn. (Psalm 34:18, Prov 18:14, Matt 5:4)
Even when we fail to fix our eyes on Jesus; when we are short-sighted, focusing only on earthly things that simply can’t give us the security we crave; even then he is always there with open arms, ready to forgive. (Luke 15:19-23, Rev 3:20)
He is there for us in our times of grief. He gently nurses us back to emotional wholeness, like one of those animal rescue workers you sometimes see on TV. These magnanimous people deliberately seek out injured wildlife. They take great delight in nursing the most pitiful, forlorn creatures back to health. Such tearjerkers, these TV shows! What a beautiful reminder of our Good Shepherd and great Rescuer, Jesus.
A new type of hope
Deep despair can push us closer to God. It can teach us to “hope in God” – as the Apostle Paul writes:
“We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself… But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God… On him we have set our hope…” (2 Cor 1:8-10 NIV)
Hoping in God is something I never really grasped before, despite having been a Christian for decades! Like Paul, I can see how despair has indeed pushed me to rely on God. And with that has come an enduring sense of peace (even within limbo), a growing sense of joy (even within ongoing pain), and a deeper understanding of the firm, secure hope that our unchanging God provides.
Are you wrestling with despair? Do you feel like a flickering flame, smothered by grief and pain? Keep reaching out to God! He hears every cry, and he is with you. (Isa 42:3, Psalm 34:17-18, 42:11)
“Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal comfort and a wonderful hope, comfort you and strengthen you in every good thing you do and say.” (2 Thess 2:16-17)
Father God, we don’t like feeling under pressure. We don’t enjoy the sense of despair. But thank you for teaching us, through difficult circumstances, to rely on you. We’re sorry for focusing so much on the things of this world, when your Word clearly teaches us to set our hearts and minds on our relationship with you – the only thing that will last for all eternity. Give us strength to entrust our uncertain futures to you, please Lord. And for those who are feeling crushed by disappointed hopes, please let them feel your comfort today. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Want to read the next post in the Hope series?
If you struggle to maintain your sanity, joy and peace during times of waiting, Hope #2: Yet I still Dare to Hope might be just the post you need to encourage you!
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CS Lewis quote: The Four Loves (Scroll down to #2!)