Andy Mason writes: I’ve been a vicar on a council estate in central London for about 17 years, and have been married for 25 years. During that time, my wife has suffered from a number of distressing chronic conditions. Accordingly, life has, at times, been very unpredictable, very stressful and pretty traumatic.
Firstly, my wife has a particularly nasty kind of endometriosis (you can look it up), which has, over time, caused acute chronic pain. It’s the kind of pain that isn’t controlled by tramadol, or morphine. In fact, when it was at its worst, it couldn’t be controlled by a drip in hospital either. There have been times when I have literally carried her into A&E in my arms.
Secondly, in addition to endometriosis, she also suffers with vestibular migraines (you can look that up too). They are a form of migraine that doesn’t manifest itself in pain, but in acute, very debilitating vertigo and nausea. An attack can leave her, all of sudden, laid out on the floor wherever she happens to be. These migraines can come suddenly and without much warning, leaving us suddenly needing to change all our plans and get her home. I’ve had to collect her, physically, from work a couple of times when she just couldn’t move.
The combination of these chronic health problems, with their spontaneous hospital visits, have been traumatising for us both. They have understandably left emotional scars and lingering worries about what is coming around the corner. As you can imagine, these struggles have been even made harder by having young children – who themselves have some complex needs.
During these years of ministry I can see that there have been different seasons. Some have been better, some have been much worse. We have been very grateful for a number of medical interventions over the last few years, which have improved the pain significantly. However, they also have side effects that make other things worse. So, while certain issues get dealt, other problems emerge. Anyone who has been operated on understands the complexity of these kinds of interventions. Overall, I’m amazed that we’ve come through some of these situations, but the Lord has been faithful. Somehow, he has kept us going in the drama of it all.
So, how do you cope with chronic illness in the midst of life and ministry?! Well, everyone has their own story and I have huge respect for the particularities of different situations, medical problems and personal struggles. No one context is exactly the same. There will obviously be plenty of people reading this article who have, and are, facing awful struggles. The Lord will have worked in them and they will have a bucket load of wisdom that has been given to them. All this said, I thought I’d share some encouragements from our own life as a family.
Now, just in case you wonder, as you read through this: I’m not a cessationalist with regard to healing. I’m very happy to pray for healing and for others to pray for that. However, I’m also, on the other hand, not spiritually perturbed by the lack of healing we’ve experienced. I’m fully convinced that our hope is not in this world, nor is God’s ‘no’ a demonstration of a lack of love. Quite the opposite!
So, below are some spiritual principles that I’ve learnt along the way. These are just an excerpt, and not meant to be exhaustive. In sharing these principles, I’m in no way suggesting that they’ll help everyone else, but I can say that they have helped me. Of course, I still hope that they’ll encourage some who read this. Here they are:
1. Sickness is bad, but dependence is good
Ill-health very obviously makes you weak and dependent, and my instinct has always been to escape it as fast as I can. Yet it’s ironic that physical ill-health produces much spiritual health through an assault on self-reliance. As Tim Keller said, ‘you’ll never find out that Jesus is all you need until you get into a situation where Jesus is all you’ve got.’ Dependence is great for your prayer life, and if you can bottle it then much good can be done.
2. Plodding is victory
Intense episodes of sudden pain and unpredictability have, at times, wiped us out emotionally, psychologically and physically. In that context, survival has been triumph. Waiting in hope has been a form of winning. Just keeping going has been a sign and wonder. The devil is humiliated by the perseverance of the saints. And, wonderfully, underneath all our holding on, are the everlasting arms holding onto us.
3. Lament is a means of grace
I always knew that I could lament and that there were rich psalms to help me do that. But a fellow pastor opened my eyes, some years back, to lament, not simply as an opportunity to vent feelings, but as a means of grace. It was a powerful for me to see lament as a way to grow up into Christ. Accordingly, I love using the psalms to lament. Psalm 88, the bleakest of them all, is strangely wonderful, and my faith is stronger because of it.
4. The stabilising effect of specific scriptures
Obviously, reading the Scriptures is always good! But, many who’ve had big struggles have said to me that they camp out in a particular Bible verse (or passage), and let it shape them. In recent years, for me, it’s been the well-worn 2 Corinthians 12:1–10.
I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about someone like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations.
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Its interweaving of divine sovereignty, spiritual warfare, earnest prayer and the Lord’s discipline is just very profound.
5. The importance of ‘living in season’
Ecclesiastes 3:1–8 reminds me that life is made up of seasons, and wisdom is about living within those seasons (and foolishness is ignoring them). I have learnt that my ministry must be under a ‘restraint’ at time, and that those boundaries need to be respected. Thankfully, I’ve worked in environments where this is fully supported and sympathised with. Further, when it’s been particularly hard, it has been a powerful encouragement to know that we don’t have to ‘keep going the rest of our life’ today. Our family just has to survive this day, and there will be fresh grace, power and bread tomorrow – all until we get to the Day.
6. The need for big worship-evoking theology
It’s easy for suffering/pain to induce a narrow vision and self-preoccupation, but lifting my eyes to a sovereign, independent, beautiful God in worship has been liberating. Reading books on suffering is good, but, funnily enough, that hasn’t really been my focus. When life is hard, a thin view of God just won’t do, and so it has always seemed better to read about God and then praise him. Is it not striking that God, in answer to Job’s questions, gave his servant a lecture on the doctrine of God?
7. The suffering of others
It might seem strange to mention this. But, I’ve had the privilege to know, and read about, people who have had bigger struggles than our family. Now, of course, it’s not a competition, and struggles can’t be quantified, but, seeing the significant struggles of others has hindered the powerful pull of resentment and self pity.
For example, what shall I say to my pastor-friend whose wife has debilitating MS? What shall I say to the family I know who are all afflicted with awful chronic migraines? What shall I say to the suffering believers in other parts of the world? All these people have terrible struggles—and seeing them has helped ‘normalise’ suffering in a world full of groans (Rom 8:19–22). Above all, of course, there’s massive consolation in meditating on the One who suffered in a way that can barely be conceived. The cross is an endless source of comfort, hope and encouragement. I know that I have a sympathetic High Priest who intercedes for us.
8. The mystery of gospel advance
Chronic illness isn’t just discouraging and traumatic, it’s actually quite frustrating. Your plans get scuppered. You constantly feel your limitations. You want to do things and achieve things, but you can’t. Recently, Phil 1:12 has been a big encouragement to me. In this verse, Paul explains how his imprisonment has actually become an opportunity for the gospel. In other words, the restrictions on his life actually served to advance the good news. Wow! He has taught me that limitations aren’t just something we endure, or put up with, but they are, in God’s mysterious ways, the very means God uses for his kingdom. The suffering of his ministers is not a problem for God, but part of his mysterious plan.
So there you are! There aren’t easy answers, nor quick solutions, but there is much grace on offer. We are struck down but not destroyed. The Lord works in our weakness for his glory and he will get us home. Brother or sister, as you read this, I’m trusting that you too will know Light shining in your dark place today, and indeed every day. Whatever is going on, there is hope because of the One who holds us in his eternal arms. Come soon, Lord Jesus.
Rev Andy Mason and his wife Kathrine have been married for 25 years and live on the World’s End Estate in Chelsea, London. Andy is the vicar of St John’s Church, and also works part-time in the Co-mission Network overseeing training and support of pastors.