Wednesday Writings

To Receive and To Relinquish: Finding Grace, Joy, and Peace in Chronic Illness

I recently started reading Elisabeth Elliot’s book Secure in the Everlasting Arms, a collection of short devotional thoughts from the newsletter she wrote for almost twenty years. The very first entry hit me square between the eyes. 

The Lot We’re Dealt

The entry is titled “Whatever My Lot” and, after giving a brief, personal backstory to the title’s source, Horatio G. Spafford’s hymn “It Is Well With My Soul,” offers a short but powerful discussion: 

That word ‘lot’ is not one we often use in quite that way. It means whatever happens, that which comes by the will of the powers that rule our destiny, a share, a portion, an assignment. 

p. 18

You’ve heard of drawing lots or casting lots, right? In Bible times, both these actions were divinely used to appoint land, responsibility, or other things to groups or individuals. We also say the phrase “lot in life.” Anne of Green Gables mourns in when she’s appointed as caretaker for another family’s children, “Twins seem to be my lot in life.” 

The key thing to remember is that our lot is never dealt arbitrarily–that is, without purpose, meaning, or source. As Elisabeth Elliot writes,

But Christians know that we are not at the mercy of chance. A loving hand, a great wisdom, and an omnipotent power rule our destiny. All is intended for our blessing. How different things look to us!

p 18

This is one of the most comforting truths for anyone in chronic illness, or any trial, for that matter. God’s love, wisdom, and power are in charge of the entire universe, including every detail of our individual lives. Including our chronic illness. 

When we believe–truly believe and embrace–God’s words that He is in charge of everything and is working (in everything) for our good (Rom. 8:28), it revolutionizes our perspective and allows us to see our suffering in a new light. It allows us to say with the same faith as Horatio G. Spafford, “It is well with my soul.”

To Receive and To Relinquish

These truths are always refreshing to my soul, but they’re not what struck me in the heart with conviction like a broadhead arrow that lodged there, deep and painful, until I went to God and asked Him for help. 

To love God is to love His will. That which He gives we receive. That which He takes we relinquish, “as glad to know ourselves in the hands of God as we should be sorry to be in our own,” as Fénelon said. With what astonishment–of gladness or sadness–we receive some things! With what reluctance or delight we relinquish others!

p 19

Anyone who has lived any amount of time with chronic illness understands the constant juxtaposition, both emotional and physical, of receiving and relinquishing. All the things God has given us that we don’t want. All the things God has taken that we (still) want. 

Things from my own life started coming to mind, so I grabbed the nearest piece of paper and wrote a list: 

What God took:

  • My health
  • My strength
  • My confidence and certainty
  • My capacity
  • My abilities and activities

What God gave:

  • Weakness
  • Illness
  • Limits
  • Uncertainty
  • Battles

God took my health. I used to have good health. Sure, not perfect health, but good health. I could do things, I was vibrant, I had strength and energy and physical capacity for both work and play. 

God took my strength. I worked out consistently in my high school years and loved the exertion, the challenge, and the reward of pushing my body to do hard things. As a result I had fair stamina as well. Now I have neither strength nor stamina. Some days I can’t even do yoga or go for a gentle walk, let alone do a pushup or run six miles.

God took my confidence and my certainty. I used to be able to make appointments and know I could keep them. Commit to responsibilities and know I could carry them out. Offer ideas and know I could put them into action. Now, almost every commitment comes with phrases like “if it’s a good day” or “Let’s plan on it for now” or “I’ll let you know the morning of.” I have to make plans with a Plan B (and even Plan C) in mind in case my body decides not to cooperate. 

God took my capacity. Let me make it clear that I still have some capacity, for which I am deeply grateful. But God took the capacity I once had–the capacity to work all day, all week, with jobs and classes and hobbies and church ministries and friends. Now I’m fortunate if I have 4-6 good, functioning hours a day.

God took my abilities and activities. Again, there are still many, many things I’m able to do, and I thank God for each of them. But I miss running. I miss going for twenty-mile bike rides. I miss having the bandwidth for multiple social interactions a day. I miss going to church services and activities.

God took these things, and in their place he gave me weakness, illness, limits, uncertainty, and battles–every day, sometimes every minute. Battles emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual. 

It can sound accusatory to say, “God took this,” but not when we think about who God is–as Job did when he said, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). 

The things He took are in His hands, in His keeping–whether to return when He sees fit on earth or to restore (in even better condition) in Heaven. Either way, I feel better knowing that He has them.

In other words, the fact that these things were taken doesn’t mean they’re lost in this black void in the middle of nowhere, inaccessible and gone forever.

Let me give you an illustration: I can sometimes be possessive with my things, and I have a very high sense of propriety. As a result, if someone takes something of mine without my permission, I may be upset that I wasn’t asked. (I like to be asked even if we both know I’ll say yes; it’s a courtesy thing.)

Yet if I find out it’s my mom who’s reading my favorite book or wearing my ultra-versatile scarf,

1) It’s okay–I trust she’ll take care of it.

2) I can tell her she can have it as long as she needs. Even if it’s after the fact, I feel better giving her permission to borrow my item. 

It’s the same with God. We can trust Him, and we can give Him our acceptance (He doesn’t need our permission) when He takes from us. He knows more than we do and is working for our good.

It’s like He’s working on a surprise event for you, and you walk into your room to find He’s taken some of your favorite things. He goes, “Just wait, I’m using these for something, but I can’t tell you what. Trust me, you’ll love it.” 

He owns everything anyway. Our health, our bodies, our abilities, our talents are all gifts on loan from Him, to be stewarded for His glory as long as they’re in our care. If He chooses to take them back–whether for the rest of our lives or for a season–what right do we have to contest? He can do whatever He wants. And when we know Him, we can trust that “whatever He wants” is good.  

As Elisabeth Elliot writes,

God shields us from most of the things we fear, but when He chooses not to shield us, He unfailingly allots grace in the measure needed. It is for us to choose to receive or refuse it. Our joy or our misery will depend on that choice.

p 19

This is the promise of II Corinthians 1:5: “For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ.” God’s grace extended to us is always equal to the trial given us–if we choose to receive it.

Grace, Joy, and Peace

Now that I had my list, I decided to practice. I went through my list of “What God Gave” and said out loud, “I receive” with each one: “I receive my weakness. I receive my illness. I receive my limits. I receive the uncertainty. I receive these battles.” 

Then I went to the list of what God took. Starting from the bottom, I told Him He could have each thing on that list. “God, You can have my abilities and activities. You can have my capacity. You can have my confidence and certainty. You can have my strength.”

I met some resistance when I got to “health.” But I prayed for grace, and after a little extra time and a few tears I was able to say, “You can have my health.” 

Friends, I was not prepared for the peace and the joy that came with those words. Receiving and relinquishing. Trying to love God’s will as a way of loving Him. 

It’s so easy to say–and we can even believe ourselves when we say–that we’ve accepted our lot in life. The pain, the hard days, the losses, the limits. We know God is working a good plan and we trust Him, we really do. 

But do you really? Can you tell God (out loud, so you can hear your own voice) that you relinquish the things He’s taken? That you receive the things He’s given? Or are you still struggling to leave in your Father’s hands what He’s taken away, still fighting against what He’s giving you? 

I can’t promise that saying these words will take away all your struggles and make chronic illness easy the rest of your life. (This kind of surrender often happens more than once, sometimes daily or multiple times a day.) But I do know that whether or not you can genuinely say “I receive” or “I relinquish” will show you the true depths of your heart and if you really love God’s will.

If you’re not at this point yet, it’s okay! It may take time–a few minutes, hours, days, or weeks of prayer and wrestling, tears likely included–but I encourage you to seek God’s grace and let Him work in your heart to help you toward the submission, joy, and peace we see modeled by both Job and Mr. Spafford.

Tomorrow we celebrate Thanksgiving, turning our hearts Godward with worship and gratitude. Take some time to receive and relinquish, to renew your trust in your Father’s good heart, to rejoice in the good work He is doing; and may His grace, joy, and peace fill you.

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