My flesh and my heart may fail but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. – Psalm 73:26
Chronic illness is not what I’d planned. Chronic illness is not the path I would’ve chosen. Yet chronic illness is the laboratory where I’m learning to be a better wife, mother, daughter, professor, and friend.
Chronic illness occurs in nearly 45% of the U.S. population and causes 7 out of every 10 deaths annually in the U.S. Such conditions include diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis. These conditions can range from being a nuisance to debilitating in their severity. Wherever someone falls on the severity spectrum, chronic illness is life-changing.
For me, the life changes in the last 9 years since diagnosis have been key to changing my choices for life every day – be it: using a cane, walker, or electric scooter versus running 7 miles a day; teaching online versus all-day field trips in the woods; regimented pills, diet, and injections versus the occasional multivitamin; planned rest breaks versus just collapsing at the end of the day; etc.
But the greatest life changes for me have been attitude changes (and hopefully these changes in my life are as visible to others as the cane, walker, and scooter).
1. Trusting God
“Tenacious”; “highly determined”; “fiercely independent” – all of these and more have been used to describe me in the past. I used to regard these statements as great compliments but now I see them for what they were – trusting myself and my abilities rather than trusting God. Life now requires dependence on God to provide another gram of strength to make it through the next task without complaining or giving in to the pain. Every hour centers on trusting Him that this next task won’t be impossible or if it is, that He will bring someone along to help.
2. Accepting help
“Thanks but I’ve got it” used to be my catch-phrase because really, I could do it on my own. Yet “thank you so much for your help” has become so sweet to me every single day because when someone helps me, they give me the gift of caring – be it: opening a door; carrying my bag; bringing a meal for my family; running an errand; praying for us; etc. And more importantly, my accepting of help allows another person to receive the gift of the joy of worshipping God through loving people in serving them.
3. Being grateful
“Move along people, we’ve got a long ways to go” was what my students and/or family used to hear from me when we were out hiking before 4 years ago. I had my sights set on the end game of getting there, teaching a lesson, and getting home before sunset. But now, a day looks very different in perspective for me. I find delight in the many little things I once overlooked – a view outside my bedroom window of the wind in the trees; sending a note or text to a friend for whom I’m praying; the lyrics of a song on the radio; etc. Meditating and praying a single verse of Scripture has become so very precious and rich – especially the songs of David in the Psalms (as with Psalm 73:26 listed above). Yes, much has been lost, but the realization that so much more has been given – this is a grace which floods my life daily in the incredible ways of finding beauty in the small things.
4. Giving grace
“Where do I sign up?” used to be the normal for me in always being quick to volunteer for some project or activity. I just couldn’t understand why others would refrain from the task at hand and judged them for their holding back. But now, I see things differently and hopefully, extend grace to their potential invisible illnesses of depression, difficult finances, family issues, past rejection or abuse, etc. So many of us carry around burdens which are not readily apparent but are so demanding that we cannot stand up under them outside of the grace given to us by others in the love of Christ. Yes, I still am “hard-nosed” on my syllabi at the beginning of the semester but far more grace is available from me (both to students and colleagues) throughout the term than ever before. And many times, grace is manifested in the giving of my time and energy through calls, visits, emails, and texts which can be exactly what that person needed at that time to give him the strength to give grace to another in his life.
When I encounter people I don’t see every day, they usually ask me “are you still teaching?” and seem surprised when I say “yes.” And with every “yes,” I am grateful. Very grateful. Grateful not just to be a professor in a university setting but a student learning trust, acceptance, gratitude, and grace in the often hard lessons of daily struggles. I surely don’t want to miss any lessons by not showing up for class but I especially don’t want to fail the lessons God has for me to learn. He is the patient faithful teacher who is “the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
What areas of your life are not going as planned right now? How is God making His presence known to you in those areas?
Thank You for how You never leave or turn away (even when I do). Thank You for Your strong love which holds me together and together with You when everything around me is coming apart. Thank You that You are the strong Rock to whom I can run when I am afraid. Thank You that nothing happens to me apart from Your plan for what is good. Thank You for always providing what is needed at the right time.
I confess my fears and lack of trust. Father, please forgive me and help me to be brave. And Father, please help me now to keep going on to the next task. Please help me to choose what is best for Your love to be shown to those around me – please place a guard on my heart and my tongue so that I might honor You in all things. I want to trust You for the strength and the courage and the help for now and for later today.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen
written by and copyrighted to Beth Madison, Ph.D., 2016 and updated version, 2021
*first published in Scholars’ Compass, InterVarsity Emerging Scholars Network, 3/4/16