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BECOME A MEMBER TODAY! JULY'S VERSE: "As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” — Psalm 103:12

Chronic Illness and Struggle

How do we understand God as our guide?

by Glenna Marshall


Scripture shows us over and over that God is trustworthy and faithful. Because he is “our God for ever and ever,” as our verse this month says in Psalm 48:14, we will never need nor find a guide more reliable and true. But what if God leads us in a direction we’re not sure we want to go? Can we trust him when his path takes us through pain?

Paths We Do Not Choose

I was twenty-nine when the pain started. It was subtle. Just a little soreness in my low back that began waking me up at night. But as the weeks turned to months, the pain increased steadily, growing from a flicker to a blaze that burned all night. Unable to sleep, I walked the floors in the middle of the night, crying out to the Lord for help. It took six years to get a diagnosis for a cluster of inflammatory autoimmune diseases. Since then, I’ve vacillated regularly between remission and flare ups. Even after all these years, I wonder what it would be like to live without pain.

When I was fifteen, I made a promise to the Lord that I would obediently go wherever he led. Back then, I was sure he’d call me to an impoverished country to serve as a missionary. I was open to that. Instead, he has led me into a life marked by physical pain. It’s not exactly what I had in mind. We used to sing the hymn “Wherever He Leads, I’ll Go” in the church of my childhood, and I sang it with gusto when I was young, not knowing that sometimes God guides us to places we could never have imagined for ourselves. His plans for us are good, but they are not always easy. Even so, I’ve learned that when God calls us to walk through a shadowed valley, he has promised to go with us. We can trust his guidance because he provides what we need to persevere through every valley.

Manna for Israel

When God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt, he took them to the land he had promised their forefather, Abraham. The journey to the promised land (which would be stalled by the people’s disobedience) was not an ideal place to forage for food. It was a wilderness, inhospitable to travelers. If you’re picturing desert-like terrain without food or water, you’re exactly right. But God provided food for his people the entire time they lived in the wilderness. Every morning, they gathered manna, a wafer-type substance that appeared on the ground (see Exodus 16). They could only gather what they needed for the day or else it would spoil with worms. In the evenings, quail would also be available for meat. In this daily act of gathering food, the Israelites had to believe the Lord would provide again. Each day was an opportunity to trust his guidance in a place that seemed completely at odds with the promised destination. 

Manna for Us

In my struggle with chronic illness, I’ve learned that daily “manna gathering” is essential for trusting God with my life. No matter how intense my pain on any given night, I know I must reorient my mind and heart to what is true when the sun comes up. I must open my Bible and remember who God is and how much he loves me. 

Pain and other physical symptoms of disease can cause extreme tunnel vision, and in the past, I’ve been tempted to let my circumstances tell me what is true about God and his thoughts toward me. I believe God can heal me, but since he hasn’t, I’ve wondered if he loves me. At times, I’ve feared my disease was a consequence for some sin I had forgotten about. Maybe God was angry with me. I’ve worried about what my health and my faith would be like ten years from now. Twenty years. Thirty.

But this is where daily “manna gathering” of the Word is crucial. I didn’t need to worry about God’s long-term mercies. They’ll be there when I need them (see Lamentations 3:22-23). I needed to focus on today’s mercies only. I began searching through Scripture after each night of debilitating pain, writing down what I learned about God’s character. I made lists in a spiral notebook, copying down the attributes and actions of the Lord as I read. He wasn’t punishing me, for all my sins were paid for at the cross. He wasn’t withholding love, for nothing separates me from his love (Rom. 8:1, 38-39). If he loved me while I was still a sinner and sent Christ to die for me, then nothing—not even pain—could separate me from his love. In time, I grew confident of the Lord’s presence and faithfulness to me even in my physical suffering. Each morning I opened the Bible to combat my fears and worries with truth, and each day God’s Word was enough to sustain me until the next day. God guided me down a path of pain, but it led to certainty of his love for me. 

God Guides, the Church Provides

Living with ongoing health issues means you sometimes need help in practical ways. During some of my worst flare ups, I’ve kept my struggle quiet, unwilling to draw attention to myself or burden others with needs. When a friend from church kindly rebuked me for trying to be self-sufficient, I asked my church family for prayer to get through a particularly painful season. The response was overwhelming: meals, cleaning, childcare, intercessory prayer. God has given us the church to encourage one another, to help us walk in faithfulness to him. It wasn’t his intention for us to fly solo throughout the Christian life. He knew we’d have practical and spiritual needs, and he gave us the church to meet those needs. He provides care and love through the body of Christ. 

When I have allowed my church to minister to me, I’ve seen that they are in the valley with me. Weeping when my pain is great, rejoicing when I’m sleeping through the night. Where God has led me, his people are also present.

Where Has God Guided You?

God is intimately acquainted with his people. He is not far-off or distant, holding you at arm’s length. So, if he has guided you into a place you didn’t exactly want to go, he will not abandon you there. He could have led Israel in many different directions, but he led them specifically to a place where they would learn to trust him daily. He’s led me to a similar place, and though I will always pray for healing, I wouldn’t trade his nearness for anything. He is your God, and he will faithfully shape your heart to become like his in the place he’s called you to.

Glenna Marshall

Glenna Marshall is a pastor’s wife and mother of two energetic sons. She is the author of The Promise is His Presence, Everyday Faithfulness, and Memorizing Scripture. She writes regularly on biblical literacy, suffering, and the faithfulness of God. She is a member of Grace Bible Fellowship in Sikeston, Missouri.

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