Author – Jenny-Lyn de Klerk

 

Sickness has a way of muddling your brain; it can make you temporarily forget what you believe about God, creation, and yourself, making your suffering worse. In my own experience with chronic illness, I’ve found that it helps to collect small reminders about God’s person, providence, and presence so that on days when thinking is difficult due to fatigue and brain fog, I can read something short to set my mind straight. Many of the reminders I collect come from church history. Sadly, illness is something that all human beings must endure, and Christians who came before us often fared far worse than we do today. Yet, this means their statements of faith, prayers, and poems can be all the more powerful in showing us that just as God was in control of their illnesses, so is he in control of ours. Though they did not have the ability to see the details of their life story laid out years later like we do as interpreters of their past, they lived as people who already knew the most important facts—that God saw them, was with them, and cared for them the whole way through.

Here are sections of the Heidelberg Catechism, Matthew Henry’s Method for Prayer, and Anne Bradstreet’s “From Another Sore Fit” that have helped me remember:

THE HEIDELBERG CATECHISM (1563)

The Heidelberg Catechism is one of the most beloved Protestant catechisms in history, known for its warmth and sensitivity. It was originally commissioned by a German prince to faculty at the Heidelberg University for the purpose of instructing believers, and has been used as an official document of many Reformed churches since the sixteenth century. It is divided into fifty-two Lord’s days, each with a question and answer as well as biblical references.

 The following section addresses God’s work in creating and governing the universe, and how that directly affects our lives. Ideas that may be especially encouraging for those with chronic illness are that God is eternal, he constantly and continually governs all things, and he uses evil to bring about good. While God has no beginning and no end, illness does, and it functions under his close rule.

Lord’s Day 9
26. Q. What do you believe when you say:
I believe in God the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth?
A. That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who out of nothing created heaven and earth
and all that is in them,
and who still upholds and governs them
by his eternal counsel and providence,
is, for the sake of Christ his Son,
my God and my Father.
In him I trust so completely
as to have no doubt
that he will provide me
with all things necessary for body and soul,
and will also turn to my good
whatever adversity he sends me
in this life of sorrow.
He is able to do so as almighty God,
and willing also as a faithful Father.[1]

Lord’s Day 10
27. Q. What do you understand by the providence of God?
A. God’s providence is
his almighty and ever present power,
whereby, as with his hand, he still upholds
heaven and earth and all creatures,
and so governs them that
leaf and blade,
rain and drought,
fruitful and barren years,
food and drink,
health and sickness,
riches and poverty,
indeed, all things,
come to us not by chance
but by his fatherly hand.

28. Q. What does it benefit us to know
that God has created all things
and still upholds them by his providence?
A. We can be patient in adversity,
thankful in prosperity,
and with a view to the future
we can have a firm confidence
in our faithful God and Father
that no creature shall separate us
from his love;
for all creatures are so completely in his hand
that without his will
they cannot so much as move.[2]

MATTHEW HENRY, METHOD FOR PRAYER (1710)

The great commentator Matthew Henry also wrote a book on prayer, which he believed was a central part of being a Christian. He explains, “A golden thread of heart-prayer must run through the web of the whole Christian life; we must be frequently addressing ourselves to God in short and sudden ejaculations, by which we must keep up our communion with God.”[3]

To this end, Henry includes some short forms that may help his readers pray on certain occasions. Despite stereotypes of the Puritans as being entirely opposed to using forms of prayer, they were actually against using forms to the exclusion of praying with the help of the Holy Spirit who aids believers in praying according to Scripture and their particular situations. In Henry’s section on forms for praying for and with the sick, he includes examples of what to pray at the beginning of an illness, for ongoing illnesses, and for illnesses that do not seem to be leading to immediate death. All three may be applicable to those with chronic illness, as the beginning of a lifelong issue may span several years, many chronic illnesses are not fatal, and it is common to go through phases of activity and remission. Similar to the Heidelberg Catechism, these prayers highlight the fact that God is in control of sickness and uses it for good, which Henry often identifies as growing in sanctification:

(If it be the beginning of a distemper) 
Lord, set bounds to this sickness, and say, Hitherto it shall come, and no further: Let it not prevail to extremity, but in measure when it shooteth forth do thou debate, and stay thy rough wind in the day of thine east wind; and by this let iniquity be purged, and let this be all the fruit, even the taking away of sin. Job 38:11. Isaiah 27:8, 9.[4]

(If it have continued long) 
Lord, let patience have its perfect work, even unto long-suffering, that those who have been long in the furnace may continue hoping and quietly waiting for the salvation of the Lord: Let tribulation work patience, and patience experience, and experience a hope that maketh not ashamed; and enable them to call even this affliction light and but for a moment, seeing it to work for them a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. James 1:4. Lamentations 3:26. Romans 5:3, 4, 5. 2 Corinthians 4:17.[5]

(If there be hopes of recovery) 
Lord, when thou hast tried them let them come forth like gold; Let their souls live, and they shall praise thee, let thy judgments help them: O deal bountifully with them that they may live, and keep thy word. In love to their souls deliver them from the pit of corruption, and cast all their sins behind thy back. Recover them, and make them to live. Speak the word, and they shall be healed; say unto them, Live, yea, say unto them, Live, and the time shall be a time of love. Father, if it be possible, let the cup pass away; however not as we will, but as thou wilt: The will of the Lord be done. Perfect that which concerns them; thy mercy, O Lord, endures for ever, forsake not the work of thine own hands; but whether they live or die, let them be the Lord’s. Job 23:10. Psalm 119:175, 17. Isaiah 38:17, 16. Matthew 8:8. Ezekiel 16:6, 8. Matthew 26:39. Acts 21:14. Psalm 138:8. Romans 14:8.[6]

ANNE BRADSTREET, THE WORKS OF ANNE BRADSTREET

Like so many others who emigrated from England to the New World in the seventeenth century, Anne Bradstreet frequently struggled with sickness. She wrote several poems about her experiences—which she refers to as fits, fevers, and faintings—including both suffering and relief. The persistence of her health issues are not only seen in the fact that she wrote several poems about them, but also in her use of “another” to describe recurring problems. Yet, despite the fact that she seemed to recover just to go through another illness, she did not view it this way. Rather, she cried to God in her pain and asked him to heal her for the purpose of dedicating her renewed life to him. She writes in “From Another Sore Fit”,

In my distress I sought the Lord
When naught on earth could comfort give,
And when my soul these things abhorred,
Then, Lord, Thou said’st unto me, “Live.”

Thou knowest the sorrows that I felt;
My plaints and groans were heard of Thee,
And how in sweat I seemed to melt
Thou help’st and Thou regardest me.

My wasted flesh Thou didst restore,
My feeble loins didst gird with strength,
Yea, when I was most low and poor,
I said I shall praise Thee at length.

What shall I render to my God
For all His bounty showed to me?
Even for His mercies in His rod,
Where pity most of all I see.

My heart I wholly give to Thee;
O make it fruitful, faithful Lord.
My life shall dedicated be
To praise in thought, in deed, in word.

Thou know’st no life I did require
Longer than still Thy name to praise,
Nor ought on earth worthy desire,
In drawing out these wretched days.

Thy name and praise to celebrate,
O Lord, for aye is my request.
O grant I do it in this state,
And then with Thee, which is the best.[7]

For those enduring another sick day, remember that God is eternal, constantly and continually governs all things, is using illness to bring good, and hears your cries for relief when nothing else brings comfort.

[1] “Lord’s Day 9,” http://www.heidelberg-catechism.com/en/lords-days/9.html. This online version is easy to read and includes the biblical references.

[2] “Lord’s Day 10,” http://www.heidelberg-catechism.com/en/lords-days/9.html.

[3] http://www.matthewhenry.org/read/esv-corporate/chapter-eight/?page=18&translation=esv-corporate&chapterslug=chapter-eight&tranlation=#.XmANey0ZNN0. This online version is easy to read and search.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid

[7] Anne Bradstreet, The Works of Anne Bradstreet (ed., Jeannine Hensley; Cambridge: The John Harvard Library, 1981), 248.