I’ve been diagnosed with a chronic, debilitating illness, and I’ve received two pieces of advice: “Suffering builds character.” And “learn to comfort as you have been comforted.” So, what is the relationship between character development and chronic illness?
Your two pieces of advice certainly find their origins in Scripture. However, as with all such biblically based instruction, we must be careful in applying these truths to be sure they build up, rather than tear down, the spirit within a suffering body.
The Apostle Paul writes in Romans: “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4). Following the linear relationship that Paul develops, it is the perseverance of the suffering that actually produces the character. Certainly, living the journey with a chronic illness challenges, yet it also can confirm such character traits as trust, patience, selflessness, humility and the like. Remember, it is the persevering that may bring these qualities to the surface. Perseverance usually takes time.
The second admonition is somewhat more complicated. Indeed, Paul writes to the Corinthians: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
Perhaps one of the most positive outcomes of such an illness is the empathy that may develop toward others, particularly those living with similar conditions. However, just as in the case of the Romans passage, these words come with a potential for misunderstanding. We must be careful that we do not interpret Paul’s words to mean: “Been there, done that.”
This oft-repeated phrase minimizes the other person’s suffering far more than it comforts them. Unfortunately, that all-too-common response will direct attention away from the one who is hurting and refocus it on the past experience of the speaker. Instead, we are called to comfort in the same way that God comforts us, through intense listening in love. Only by our presence and our intentional attention can we offer compassion, love, and hope.
How do character development and chronic illness relate? Enduring the suffering can offer a unique, God-inspired result. Unwavering faith strengthens character in a variety of ways. In fact, one of the manifestations of wisdom gained through affliction may very well result in much-needed comfort of someone else.
The next hurting person you encounter may need encouragement for patience, or trust, or one of the other character traits you have already developed through your own journey. At the end of the day, the experience of a chronic illness may very well reveal the intent of the Scripture: “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” (Romans 8:28).
Allen Reasons, senior pastor
Fifth Avenue Baptist Church
Right or Wrong? is co-sponsored by the Texas Baptist theological education office and Christian Life Commission. Send your questions about how to apply your faith to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Top Image: Baylor University Medical Center)