By Jennifer Slattery, Crosswalk.com
Joy and chronic illness may seem like two diametrically opposed states. In fact, your ongoing and perhaps even debilitating condition may make you feel anything but joyous. You might routinely battle depression and grief over all you’ve lost. But what if I said you can experience deep and abiding joy, even in the midst of hardship and grief?
Can We Really Be Joyful While We Suffer?
When many of us think of joy, we envision something akin to happiness, filled with moments of laughter and celebration. But biblical joy is entirely different. It’s the abiding, unshakable assurance of God’s grace. It’s the realization that God is with us, loves us, and is working all things, our most challenging circumstances included, for our ultimate good and His glory. (Rom. 8:28-30). As we deepen our intimacy with God, the Holy Spirit’s influence increases, as does the fruit He produces. Therefore, whatever magnifies our dependence on Christ simultaneously enhances our joy.
I witnessed this truth displayed by a terminally ill friend as brain cancer steadily stole her eyesight, mobility, and coherent speech. In some ways, her world shrunk drastically, but in reality, it expanded as her relationship with God matured. She found joy not in her disease or lost abilities but instead in Christ Himself. As Psalm 16:11 indicates, as we rest in God’s love and allow His presence to reign over all our experiences, He expands our joy.
6 Ways God Wants Us to Experience Joy While Chronically Ill:
1. Actively Examine Our Illness through God’s Word
James 1:2 tells us to “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (NIV). Some translations state “count” or “esteem” it joy. The original Greek word James used means to “reckon heavily,” and to allow spiritual wisdom and discernment, rather than our emotions or experiences, to lead our thoughts. The author continues with an explanation, stating, “because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (v. 3-4, NIV).
In other words, we’re to stay alert to God’s hand and desired outcome, knowing He’s using our most painful experiences to grow us into men and women who more closely resemble His Son. And while I don’t believe God causes our illness, I do believe He uses it to make us into something beautiful—radiant children who accurately reflect Him.
How Does Suffering Work for Our Good?
This is the “good” Romans 8:28 points to when it states, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (NIV). This becomes clear when we read the verse that follows: “For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters …”
We may understand this intellectually. After all, we’ve probably all heard the analogy of how diamonds form from coal and adversity refines our souls. When suffering, however, we can easily forget this truth. We might even be tempted to think God doesn’t love us, is upset with us, or has abandoned us. That’s why we must intentionally evaluate our circumstances, allowing God’s wisdom, not our emotions or initial perceptions, to lead us.
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2. Remain Close to Jesus (through the Spiritual Gifts Christ Gives Us)
Shortly before His death, knowing not only the grief His disciples would experience but also the intense persecution they’d suffer, Christ promised them three interconnected gifts that would enable them and by extension, us as well, to thrive, no matter what they faced.
1. The gift of his indwelling presence. “Remain in Me,” He said, “and I will remain in you.” In other words, He’s inviting us to live as vitally connected to Him as a branch is to its vine.
2. The gift of his joy. In John 15:11, He went on to state, “I have told you this so that My joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” or, in other words, to reach its full expression within us. Galatians 5:22-23a reiterates joy’s origin when it says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (NIV).
3. The gift of his peace. This is why our attempts to produce joy within ourselves—through affirmations, “mindfulness” or forced cheerfulness can actually work against us. All efforts to express godly qualities apart from Christ increase self-reliance, which distance us from our Savior, in whom true and lasting joy is found. The solution, then, is to yield to God’s Spirit within. As His influence increases, so does the fruit He creates.
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3. Live Dependent on Christ
Fueled by pride, our culture often idolizes human strength. We like to feel accomplished, as if we’re unconquerable overcomers in command of our own destiny. But while Scripture verifies that Christ-followers are victors, this stems only from our position in Him. When we are weak, in Christ, we truly are strong. (2 Cor. 12:10).
God Wants Our Suffering to Drive Us to Dependence on Christ
Paul, the ancient church planter who wrote much of the New Testament alluded to this truth in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9. He stated, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead”.
Paul understood how frail he was apart from Christ, but he also recognized how to live supernaturally empowered. As a result, hardships that would’ve caused many of us to cower and quit only propelled him forward. What’s more, he experienced soul-fortifying joy in some of the darkest places. (Acts 16, Philippians 1). Through our continual reliance on Christ, we can as well.
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4. Maintain an Eternal Perspective
In his book Thinking Right When Things Go Wrong author John C. Hutchison wrote, “We must see our lives as part of a bigger story. Grasping that story better prepares us to face life as it really is. As we try to understand earthly trials, therefore, we will do so in the context of heaven and earth. This life is viewed in light of the light to come. It is the only way that makes sense.”
The Apostles Show Us How to Focus on Eternity When Our Current Reality Is Painful:
This mentality, consistently held by all New Testament writers, enabled them to experience joy in the midst of great suffering. They were far less focused on momentary comfort than I tend to be. Instead, they frequently reminded themselves and those they led of their hope of heaven. Writing to Christians experiencing intense persecution, Peter reminded those scattered throughout the ancient Middle East of their “living hope” and their "inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1 Peter 1:4). This hope allowed them to “greatly rejoice” as they were filled with “inexpressible joy” despite their sufferings.
And notice how Paul commended the Thessalonian believers in 1 Thessalonians 1:3. Praising their joy-filled response to the gospel despite “severe suffering,” he wrote, “We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (NIV). They found joy and endurance in Christ and His promise of heaven.
This is where we’ll find joy as well. For as Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (NIV). But indeed, our hope extends far beyond this temporary, pain-ridden world to a time and place where God will banish all sickness, tears, and death from our lives for good.
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5. Accepting Your Illness Opens the Door to Joy
When I first became sick, I spent the majority of my time chasing after any and every potential cure. I wasted so much money on supplements and naturopathic appointments. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing diverse treatment plans. When those pursuits become an obsession, however, as they did with me, they begin to rob us of our joy. Our thoughts can easily become so focused on what might be, that we fail to enjoy the blessings God has for us now.
I needed to accept my illness, to make peace with it, in order to experience joy despite it. And while I still care for myself as best as I can, I don’t let these efforts dominate my thinking or my life. Instead, I’ve learned to recognize God’s hand and enjoy and celebrate every blessing He provides today.
If you’re struggling to release what once was to find joy today, listen to the first three episodes of my Thriving With Chronic Illness podcast, which deal with the stages of grief, depression, and the anger that many battling chronic illness feel. You can find these episodes HERE.
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6. Find Reasons to Laugh
When I first became sick, I fell into a bit of a depression. My battle started with colitis, which initially was unmanaged, and soon morphed into an ongoing battle with fibromyalgia. The ongoing pain and fatigue dramatically changed my lifestyle. I felt like I’d lost so much, including the ability to pursue activities that once brought me great pleasure. During that time, my pharmacist encouraged me to do something that made me happy each day, even if that was something as simple as eating a candy bar. Initially, I balked at her statement, thinking she simply didn’t understand. But God has since shown me how important mirth is for our mental health.
The Benefits of Laughter to Manage Chronic Illness
Proverbs 17:22 states, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” Modern research verifies this truth. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter helps relieve stress, stimulates our organs and immune system, increases circulation, and helps combat anxiety and depression. It also releases endorphins, which act as natural pain killers. Knowing this, I started making a point to add fun activities to my schedule, whether that meant sitting out in the sun, going for coffee with my adult daughter, or watching some clean comedy routines on YouTube.
While my pain levels aren’t predictable enough to actively test science’s claims, I enjoy much greater joy than during that bleak period when I was first diagnosed. Most days, I experience genuine happiness as well.
Chronic illness is hard and can easily lead to discouragement and grief. It might indeed steal our happiness, for a time. But remember, biblical joy goes so much deeper than our momentary feelings. It’s the unshakeable knowledge that God loves us, remains with us, and is using our pain for good. What’s more, He holds our eternal future, an inheritance that won’t fade or tarnish, secure in Christ. That, friends, is always reason for joy.
A Helpful Resource for Managing Chronic Illness:
Is it possible to suffer daily with chronic illness and also live a thriving life? Yes! Jennifer Slattery is your chronic illness coach and friend, walking alongside you with the resources and support you need to thrive in your life. Her podcast, Thriving with Chronic Illness, empowers listeners to see their illness through the lens of the gospel, using Scripture as a roadmap for navigating the challenges, loneliness, fatigue and pains of life with chronic illness, while also learning how to thrive.
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