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4 things I learned from prolonged sickness

I don’t like being broken. Who really does? I like having it all together, being prepared, never inconveniencing anyone. If we were going on a trip, I’d have everything prepped before you got there. The gas tank would already be filled even if it meant going out of the way in the middle of the night. The suitcase would be packed and loaded in the car. And of course, I’d have your favorite snacks for the trip regardless of how many stores I had to go to find them. 

Last year, in the midst of a new area, a new church, a new job, and while fostering new friendships, I experienced a long season of sickness. No one wants to be knocked off their feet for two months and isolated by feeling crummy, but in that season I had a great deal to learn.

Here are a few lessons I learned:

1. I’m not God, but I often want you to think I am. 

That’s an uncomfortable thought to share. But in saying it, I’m fighting intentionally against the desire to make much of myself. When I fail to confess that pride and fear of man, it’s ugly how far those thoughts can go. The longing to be seen as God can manifest itself in several ways: 

  • I want you to think I’m omniscient and would never get something wrong.
  • I want you to think I’m omnipresent and say yes to more things than I can physically do.
  • I want you to think I’m omnipotent, so to accomplish the task, I might use my own finances or spend endless free hours so you don’t know what effort it took. 
  • I want you to think I’m self-sufficient, not needy. Why would I ask for help?

Sickness laid me low and exposed these sinful thoughts. The Great Physician knows exactly the means are needed to mend our souls, and he can use physical illness at times to produce spiritual health in us.

2. I need others.

Most of the time I’m okay with being dependent on God; I mean I have to be. I’m human; he’s not. But in my arrogance, I don’t want to be dependent on others. Biblically, though, we are dependent on one another. There’s no such thing as a solo believer. We are members of one another (Rom. 12:5) and are given our gifts to serve one another (1 Cor. 12:7). 

It’s pride that leads me to want to be self-sufficient and not accept the gifts others have been given in order to build up the body of Christ. Often in my independence and illusion of self-sufficiency, I’ve acted as an autoimmune disease in the body of Christ—fighting to work independently from the very parts I’m dependent upon.

Here are several ways I saw my need for others when I was ill:

  • I needed their insight and leadership. I didn’t even deal with my debilitating sickness until someone else told me to stop what I was doing and take the time to go to the doctor.
  • I needed their assistance as there were tasks I could not physically do when I was sick.
  • I needed their encouragement. Prolonged sickness brought a season of gloom that I thought would be my new reality. Friendship brought hope into my dreary days.
  • I needed their ear to think out loud and to confess. The ideas that sounded right in my head were shown to be wrong simply by verbalizing them aloud to a friend.

3. I’m brought into relationship with others as I live as what I am—human. 

Sickness reminds us of the fall. I am sinful and broken. I’m often afraid that if I am not perfect in every way, people will turn from me and reject me. In reality, no one wants to be around someone who is perfect. To be human is to be needy and to not have it altogether. To be perfect is to be sterile, foreign, robotic, lacking in personality, and unapproachable.

I can rest because my status and worth doesn’t rest on me, but on the finished work of Christ.

In the last year, I’ve seen how these moments bring friendship and affinity. They allow people to see you and for you to see them. When that happens, friendship is furthered. I started working with a woman I had admired from a distance for a long time, and I was intimidated. When we ended up riding to a staff lunch together, she confessed her car was a disaster and scrambled to clean it. She sprayed perfume in it, and then panicked thinking I might be allergic to perfume. When that happened, she became not a person on a pedestal, but a friend.

I wrongly thought if I couldn’t manage relationships and keep people happy, I would lose them. Instead, through illness I have experienced profound community in the church despite being new to the area and having a season of sickness that didn’t allow me to be everything to everyone. I didn’t have to perform to be a part.

4. I don’t have to produce to be worth something. 

Being sick and unable to do what I was used to doing revealed that I thought I had to contribute or do something to be worth something. Work is a good thing that God created for us to participate in, but I’m not more accepted or worthwhile because of it. I wasn’t necessarily trying to earn my salvation, but in my mind, my identity and worth hinged on my contribution. The gospel had freed me from having to perform, but I continued to run until exhausted. I had to become sick and physically unable do things to assess my pace and motivation for work when I was healthy. 

That led me to reflect on the gospel and delight in the truth that I have nothing to earn and nothing to prove. I can rest because my status and worth doesn’t rest on me, but on the finished work of Christ. Now that I have fully recovered and and am back to work, I hope it is with just as much diligence, but less striving. My work should be done out of the rest I have in Christ and his statement, “It is finished.”

Sickness exists because of the fall, but it was used by God in the process of sanctifying me. Sickness revealed my humanity in ways I didn’t enjoy, but it also reminded me of important truths that have allowed me to rest, to work, to admit limitations, and to enjoy community more. 

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