Caring for the Chronically Ill

When you live in constant pain, or struggle with chronic illness, discouragement is just part of daily life.

The simplest tasks can be exhausting. You consistently worry that you’re becoming a burden. Pain often leads to intermittent sleep, so you rarely feel rested. It’s hard to stay upbeat and cheerful. Since chronic conditions persist for a long time, or are constantly recurring, you depend on friends to encourage and support you — and then to keep encouraging and supporting you over extended periods of time.

I’ve lived with post-polio syndrome for nearly twenty years now, and I’ve also tried to care for others with chronic health issues for decades, so I’ve learned from both sides what’s helpful, sustainable, and frequently overlooked. It’s a long and difficult road for everyone involved, and each situation is unique, but here are some lessons about what to do, what to say, and how to pray for our friends who are hurting.

1. Keep checking in, even when others have stopped.

In my experience, one of the most helpful ways to serve our hurting friends is to check in regularly to see how they’re doing.

People with chronic pain and illness often feel alone and forgotten, especially if their condition leaves them homebound. Friends may rush to help when symptoms first start, but with pressing issues in their own lives, many stop staying in touch. They assume others are still visiting and offering support, but few people stay engaged months afterward, even as needs persist and increase. The paralyzed man in Bethesda had no one to help him into the pool, perhaps because, after 38 years of disability, people had stopped showing up (John 5:2–7).

If you’re going to visit, consider offering concrete help at the same time — anything from stopping by the grocery store to running errands to bringing a meal. As James reminds us, it’s easy to say, “‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body” (James 2:16).

Even if you stay only for thirty minutes, you could offer to load the dishwasher, straighten up the kitchen, or give a back massage while you talk. Or you could ask if there’s anything else you can help with or projects you can come back to work on. People usually won’t initiate the conversation about their own needs, but they may respond well to specific questions. However you try to help, always ask first, because what is a welcome blessing for some might feel intrusive to others.

2. Be quick to listen and slow to speak.

While we all want to say something profound and comforting, sometimes listening is the most comforting gift we can give.

Friends with chronic illness may not mention their latest symptoms or struggles for fear of sounding like chronic complainers, but they may welcome the opportunity to share what’s going on. Strive to listen without immediately passing judgment. Resist offering them a “cure” for their sorrow. And don’t pry if they’d rather not talk more about it now. Instead of asking the general question, “How are you doing?” you might ask instead, “How are you doing today?” which is more personal and easier to answer.

Remembering what not to say is often more important than remembering what to say. I say that as someone who has too often said too much. Don’t minimize what they’re going through. Don’t compare their suffering to others who are doing it “better.” Avoid sentences that start with “At least . . .” Don’t throw out platitudes like, “Count your blessings.” Don’t tell them that you know their condition will improve or that they will be healed, because no one knows what the future holds. Again, I give these examples as someone who regrets having said them all before.

“Remembering what not to say is often more important than remembering what to say.”

Faithful friends weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). They acknowledge how difficult their situation is. They let their sick friends vent for a time, and then encourage them to put their hope in the Lord Jesus. They assure them that God will never leave them, and reassure them that their suffering will not be wasted. They remind them of the glory that awaits in heaven, where there will be no more pain or tears.

Many of us in this generation have heard cautions not to use Scripture like a baseball bat, as if we could bludgeon suffering people into feeling better, but don’t be afraid to share God’s word altogether. Since God’s word gives true comfort, by all means, bring verses to share, but do so patiently and with care. Choose the verses that have been meaningful to you in your trials, and explain why. For example, I have found hope in passages like these:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (John 14:27)

We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)

This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:21–23)

3. Take the most caring, most effective action: pray.

Pray consistently for your friends with chronic illness. They need prayer not only for their physical needs — including strength, healing, and reprieve from pain — but also for their emotional and spiritual needs. With chronic struggles, it’s common to feel discouraged, disillusioned, and depressed as days go by without improvement. While we can’t change their situation or outlook ourselves, God loves to work through our prayers.

When friends share their prayer requests, pray with them right away, if possible. Not only does it reinforce your genuine care, but it also ensures that you really do pray. It’s easy to stop earnestly praying for people with long-term conditions, but our prayers have great power (James 5:16), so don’t give up. Remind people that they aren’t forgotten by occasionally texting them what you’re praying for them.

“Be especially quick to listen and slow to speak when your friends are hurting.”

You might offer to pray with them through a psalm of lament like Psalm 13, 43, or 142. Lamenting together is a beautiful way to acknowledge what’s hard and to cry out to God with them, while entrusting their situation to him. Read a few verses at a time, followed by spontaneous words of request or trust. If your friend would prefer just to listen, try inserting their name into a psalm like Psalm 23, 46, or 139 as you pray it aloud.

Now Is Not Too Late

Ministering to people with chronic pain or illness can leave us exhausted if we believe it’s all up to us. Or, if we’ve made mistakes in the past and ended up hurting someone we wanted to help, we may wonder if our efforts are worth it. But caring for our wounded friends is not all up to us, and our imperfect efforts really are worth it. God will give us fresh strength and wisdom as we wait for him and serve by the power he supplies (Isaiah 40:31; 1 Peter 4:11).

If you’ve grown weary and stopped checking in, don’t let guilt keep you away. Instead, go ahead and reach out now, because it’s never too late. We cannot fix our friends’ problems, but we can keep showing up, meeting their physical needs, listening to their struggles, encouraging them in Christ, and bringing them before the only One big enough to heal, sustain, and deliver them.