Visible compassion for invisible illnesses

  • Cassie Watson
  • 14 February 2018

They suffer day in and day out, but are rarely mentioned in the church bulletin prayer list. When they were diagnosed there was a flurry of concern, but this has faded over time, even though the symptoms have not.

Chances are you know at least one person in your church suffering from an invisible illness. These are chronic conditions that have few outward signs but significantly impair daily living. You’ve heard of a few of these: lupus, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia. They often involve pain, and it’s estimated that one in five Australians live with chronic pain.1

I’ve had chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) for five years. Over that time I’ve faced a variety of responses, some more helpful than others. I’m immensely grateful to God for my church family, who have been an invaluable and ongoing source of support. But it can be difficult to know how to help someone when you can’t see their symptoms. A broken leg is obvious; you’re visually reminded of their pain and can see their progress towards healing. Invisible illnesses are ambiguous and often baffling to those who don’t have one.

Here are a few tips for caring for sufferers in your congregation. Chronic illnesses vary greatly in nature and severity so the specific help they need will differ, but these are some ways I’ve felt supported by the people around me.

Tip 1: Ask about their health

CFS has no cure, although I’m fortunate it’s a condition which usually fades over time. Many others will suffer for life—a long and often lonely life. It helps to have friends around me who never tire of asking me how my health is going, and are willing to “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15).  

Tip 2: ... but don’t only ask about their health

Yes, living with a chronic illness is a daily struggle. For many of us it’s the most significant trial we’re facing at this point in our lives. But we are more than failing bodies. Ask us what we’re finding joy in, how our relationships are going, what we’re reading in the Bible. We need friends more than we need doctors. 

Tip 3: Offer practical help

Two days before our youth group camp last year I had still not finished preparing one of the activities. I was at a baptism and my friend Kim noticed my stress and exhaustion. She offered to come over after the event to help me finish preparing. So she came, armed with snacks, and we finished much faster than I would have on my own. Her willingness to pitch in (and ignore my initial prideful refusal) allowed me to get some much-needed rest before the craziness of camp. God is greatly glorified when his people “look not only to [their] own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4).

Tip 4: Be aware of their limitations

A couple in my church have me over for a meal every month or two. They have been wonderful at making me part of their family. Whenever we’re organizing a date, they always check that I don’t exhaust myself by having too much else on in my week. And at youth group, the other leaders I serve with are happy to cover for me when I need a break on camp, or when my joints are aching too much for me to join in the active games. Without having to ask, these friends have cared enough to learn my limitations and sacrifice their own comfort to accommodate them. They are bearing my burdens in the truest way. 

Tip 5: Challenge self-pity and discontentment

We need to be cared for, not coddled. There’s no denying that living with a chronic illness is hard. It is costly for our finances, relationships, career and freedom. I know that God is still good—but it can be easy to forget that amid pain and exhaustion. I need friends to remind me that God has given me blessings far beyond anything I deserve. I may not always be able to see what he is doing through my illness, but I trust that all things are being worked for my good. Elisabeth Elliot wrote:

The deepest knowledge of God’s presence will have been acquired in the deepest river or dungeon or lion’s den. The greatest joy will have come forth out of the greatest sorrow.2

Tip 6: Remind them of the worst invisible illness

Every single one of us has a chronic illness with a fatal prognosis. It puts our bones out of joint, saps us of strength, and condemns us to death (Ps 22:14-15). This disease is sin. We are only spared eternal destruction because Jesus, in his infinite mercy, died in our place. I need reminding that the consequences of sin are far grimmer than any physical illness. I should spend more time and energy killing the sin in my life—and praising God for his grace when I fail—than fretting about my health.

In Luke 5, Jesus is surrounded by a crowd of people seeking healing. A man is lowered through the roof by his friends, landing right at Jesus’ feet. Seeing their faith, Jesus tells the man that his sins are forgiven. His conversation with the Pharisees reveals this forgiveness is far more important than physical healing—although Jesus compassionately does this for the man as well. One glorious day, when Jesus Christ returns, I will be free not only from this illness but from every infirmity and sorrow and sin.

The best way to care for sufferers of chronic illness is the same way you care for any other follower of Jesus: walk with them in friendship, bear their burdens, and always point them to the “light of the glory of the gospel of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4). 

1. ’Painful Facts’, http://www.painaustralia.org.au/about-pain/painful-facts, Pain Australia, accessed 18/01/18.

2. Elisabeth Elliot, A Path Through Suffering, Regal Books, California, 1990, pp. 146-147.