Thorn in the Flesh

14 August 2013

Gospel Centred Suffering

The following post is written by a former City on a Hill Engage intern, and current key leader at our City on a Hill: Geelong church. She has battled Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for the last five years and as you’ll read below, has developed a beautiful understanding of God’s love, mercy and grace throughout this time.

Having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a painful, frustrating and disheartening experience, but it is an experience I am thankful to have.

At the end of 2008, the end of my first year of university, I got sick with a virus. There was nothing particularly spectacular about this virus, except that it wouldn’t go away. After a range of blood tests, specialist visits, neurological tests and scans, I was told I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. This was basically a diagnosis of exclusion; a label saying that the symptoms I was experiencing could not be explained by anything else. I then joined over 180 000 other Australians with this largely invisible but incredibly debilitating condition.

I lost large amounts of muscle mass, making things like opening doors very challenging. I used a walking stick or leant on friends’ arms when moving around, and avoided stairs as much as possible. I had pain throughout my body that would not go away. I found it hard to concentrate, particularly in situations with lots of noise, smells or colours. And above all, I was overwhelmingly tired which no amount of sleep could heal. This meant that simple things like making phone calls, going to the supermarket or driving were extremely difficult.

These symptoms were very hard to explain to others. When I told people, they would often respond that they were really tired too, having no idea of the vast difference between them feeling tired after a late night and the debilitating fatigue that persists for years in people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It was suggested to me that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was like having a hang over every day, and for a while this became my chosen method to explain it to others who didn’t understand. Though it fails to communicate the pain and frustration of waking up day after day, for years on end, feeling as though you have been run over by a truck in your sleep, and there is absolutely nothing you did to cause this or could have done to avoid it.

The lack of understanding I experienced from others was perpetuated by my pride driven desire to seem ‘okay’. This meant that I often poured all my effort and energy into getting through class or attending an event and then crashing afterwards.

I lost many friends who thought I was too lazy or uncaring to continue attending social events, not realising how much I would have loved to have been there. Thankfully, I had a loving a supportive family and group of close friends who loved and supported me consistently throughout the worst of my illness. They did all the things for me that I could not do for myself. I appreciated this help overwhelmingly; I could not have gotten by without it, but I also found it painful (to my pride primarily) that I could not do these things for myself or give back to them in return.

This is one of the reasons I say that I am thankful to have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It made it unavoidably clear that I am not self-sufficient, that I cannot do everything on my own. This is the reality, not just for Chronic Fatigue sufferers, but for everyone as we were not made to live independent lives but to live in community with one another and dependent on our Father in heaven for all things. I am thankful that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome made it so clear to me that I need God, and the people He has placed in my life, not just because I am sick but because that is the way He made us to be. God did amazing things in and through me when I was really sick. I know that it was God because there was nothing in me that could have achieved it on my own. Though at other times in my life I have tried to take credit for the things that God has done, during the time when I was really sick there was no denying that He is the One who works through me to achieve His good purposes (Philippians 2:13).

Another reason I am thankful to have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is that it imposed quiet time on my own which God used to bring me closer to Himself and search deeper into His Word. The time when I was most sick was also the time I started reading my Bible most consistently. Before I was sick, I could busy myself with all sorts of things and think I didn’t have time to read the Word, but when I was really sick there was plenty of time to sit and read, and think and pray. God blessed this time and taught me so much about Him and about myself. I pray that I remember the importance of this time as my capacity to do other things increases.

A third reason I am thankful to have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is that it revealed to me a lie that I am prone to implicitly believe; that is, a lie I would not say out loud but that is revealed by the inclinations of my heart and my response in situations of challenge. I am prone to implicitly believe the lie that the promise that God has a wonderful plan for my life means that His wonderful plan will align with my own plans for my life. This is not the reality presented in Scripture. Yes, God works all things for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28), but this does not mean that the things He will use for good will appear good to us at the time He brings them. It is often only in retrospect that we can see the good that God has accomplished through situations we would never have chosen for ourselves. Yes, God has plans for our welfare and to bring us hope and a wonderful future, (Jeremiah 29:11) but these plans and this wonderful future is not our comfort on earth but that we would seek Him, and know Him for who He is, and find our hope, purpose and joy in Him. God certainly used Chronic Fatigue Syndrome to bring me closer to Him, to know Him better, and to lead me to trust Him and find joy in Him. For this reason I am thankful that He brought it into my life.