How can a Christian living with a debilitating disability not waste their life? It’s an important question from a listener named Sarah. “Hello, Pastor John, I’ve enjoyed listening to your podcast for several years. My husband and I actually started our dating relationship by listening to and discussing Ask Pastor John episodes together.
“I was very encouraged by your episode ‘God’s Sovereign Plans Behind Your Most Unproductive Days,’ and my question is related. I’ve had chronic illness for several years and am struggling to understand God’s purpose in it.
“Five years ago, I left my job to serve as an intern on the mission field in Haiti. After the internship, I started to pursue longer-term positions on the mission field, but doors clearly closed and my health problems began. I settled in at my church, became involved there, and met my husband. I was working at a job I loved and often invited coworkers to church.
“But my health continued to worsen, and last year, I had to quit my job. I’ve also had to drop out of serving at church and frequently cannot even attend on Sunday. I have spent thousands of dollars I would gladly give to missions on medications and treatments. Time I would gladly serve the Lord with or invest in others is eaten up by doctor appointments. My energy is very limited and some days I can’t even focus well enough to pray.
“I am desperate to not waste my life, but the days, weeks, and months consumed with illness are slipping through my fingers like sand. Five years ago, I had so much to give and now I feel that I have so little. Can weeks and months of sickness spent in bed count as much for eternity and God’s glory as weeks and months spent serving on the mission field? How can I be a faithful servant of the Lord on the days when I can do nothing?”
The best thing I can do for Sarah, perhaps, is point her — if she isn’t already familiar with it — to a sonnet by John Milton, the author of the greatest poem in English, Paradise Lost. I want to help her see what he says in this poem.
“We don’t fight to keep all the powers of youth, but to trust in the power of our God.”
He wrote it after he had gone totally blind in the midst of his writing career. God changed Milton’s heart, and gave him an astonishing resilience. But in this form, you hear his sense of great loss at his blindness, just like Sarah feels great loss in what she’s able to give and do for the sake of the kingdom. I hope she’ll find encouragement.
Let me read the sonnet and then make some comments on it from a biblical standpoint.
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Does God exact day-labor, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; Who best
Bear his mild yolk, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
Now, that’s a beautiful poem from one who felt at least at first like God had taken away the gift and the strength to do the one thing he felt called to do.
I think it is biblical the way he works it through. Let’s think from Scripture about what it means to lose one’s capacity to do what we would love to do, or what we have loved doing for Christ and his kingdom.
In August 1992 during the Summer Olympics, I preached two messages on what I called “Olympic spirituality.” I called it that just to connect the sermons to what everybody was watching. I built the messages around those several parts of Scripture that compared athletic efforts to the Christian life — running the race, boxing, fighting sin.
“It is possible for the unhealthy to win the fight against unbelief because the fight is against lost faith, not against lost health.”
As I preached those messages, I was aware that Elsie Viren, one of the oldest ladies in our church, was recovering from a broken hip in August in a home a couple of blocks away. I knew that Elsie would never run again, just like Milton would never see again — not in this life.
I wrote an article for the church newsletter called “How Can Elsie Run?” She doesn’t look like an Olympic marathoner. She was in her late eighties, and she had a broken hip. She could barely move. She didn’t look like an Olympic boxer. But can Elsie be an Olympian spiritually?
The answer is not that she doesn’t have to run. The answer is that we all must run — whether old or young, whether sick or healthy, whether blind or seeing. This Olympic spirituality is possible for the sick and senile because the race is a race against unbelief, not against sickness or senility.
These illnesses may come, and we still win. The sickness may come, senility may come, and we still win. It is possible for the unhealthy to win the fight against unbelief because the fight is against lost hope, lost faith, not against lost health.
Here’s the biblical evidence for this. In 1 Timothy 6:12, Paul says, “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”
“The finishing line is crossed in the end not by a burst of human energy, but by collapsing into the arms of God.”
The fight is a fight of faith. It’s not a fight to get out of bed; it’s a fight to rest in God. It’s not a fight to keep all the powers of youth, but to trust in the power of God. The race is run against doubt in God’s goodness and love for us. It’s a fight to stay satisfied in God despite the broken hips and lost sight and failed memory and inexplicable fatigue.
The race can and may be run flat out on your back. Paul said in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Finishing the race means keeping faith. It’s a race against unbelief, not against aging or physical deterioration.
Those are real temptations, but the great enemy is unbelief and lost hope. What gets us across the finish line with the saints cheering and the crown of life is not legs, and it’s not hands — it’s faith and hope.
When we cheer on the diseased or aging runners who run their final laps in hospital beds, what we are really saying is “Don’t throw away your confidence in Christ; it has great reward” (see Hebrews 10:35).
The finishing line is crossed in the end not by a burst of human energy, but by collapsing into the arms of God. And by all means, let those of us who have any energy left remember that we are called upon to, as Paul says, “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
Finishing the race for all of us is a community effort. This is especially true of those who are losing the ability they once had to use the means of grace. My conclusion is, may God give us the grace to help every Elsie and every Sarah finish the race — namely, the fight of faith.