This may seem like an odd topic to post on the night of Easter, but this has been running through my mind periodically for the past few days. You hear occasional teaching on maintaining stewardship of your physical body to the glory of God."You aren't your own..." they say. Or something to the effect of "God didn't give you a body so you could use it on whatever you want. It belongs to him." There is plenty of teaching on the topic of sacrificial giving of yourself in order to help the cause of Christ.
Unfortunately, there seems to be a virtual vacuum of teaching on how to be a good steward of your body if it doesn't work the way it's supposed to. How are we to be good stewards of bodies that wear out more quickly than they should? What if your condition leaves you incapable of fulfilling the expectations other people (sometimes including even your local church) have for you? What do service and ministry look like then? It can be a very difficult situation to find yourself in--physically incapable of meeting requirements from your job, expectations at church, and possibly even self-imposed obligations at home. There is a thought prevalent in a lot of churches today that says you can't be spiritual if you can't handle as much as the average, dedicated member. For some reason, even being chronically ill is not a good enough answer to these obligations. You must still find a way to provide for your family, be there for your friends and family, and find time to make cookies for the special event at church or you are not a good, spiritual wife/woman.
My question here is what do you do when your physical health and perceived spiritual obligations seem to being conflict? Do you find a way to get it all done no matter what the cost? Or do you simply step back in failure wishing it were possible to serve the way you once could, but no longer can? It's hard to deal with the spiritual pressure faced by those with chronic conditions that are not visible to the casual observer. No one expects someone who has lost a leg to keep up the pace they did when they still had both legs. It's hard to find that same level of adjusted expectation when your diagnosis doesn't come with crutches or a wheelchair, or even a bandaid. What adds to the frustration is the fact that many strong believers in this situation are already frustrated with their increasing limits and feel inadequate on their own without facing the frustration of those who used to feel they were dependable or reliable. So the question still remains--what does biblical stewardship look like as it relates to bodies that are unreliable at best, completely broken down at worst? What does God expect of the chronically ill among his people? Aren't we supposed to gladly spend and be spent for the sake of the Gospel? How does that relate to our physical health when our supply of energy is already precarious?
Upon thinking through this issue for quite a while, I think I have come up with some biblical principles that apply here...
1. Because our bodies belong to God, they are not ours to abuse or to selfishly hoard. By this I mean that neither extreme reflects legitimate stewardship of the resources God has given us. We should not be harmfully over-extending ourselves by giving in to external pressures or false guilt, but we also cannot use the concept of "stewardship" as a copout to avoid giving sacrificially of ourselves (up to and including being physically worn out and possibly sick sometimes).
2. God is not unaware of our physical limitations, because he planned them for us specifically. What can get confusing about this is when those in spiritual leadership over us try to get us to do more than we are physically or mentally capable of doing. It's easy to confuse being asked to do something at church with God putting something on your plate. God will supply the strength and energy necessary for everything he wants you to do, but he will not necessarily give the strength to do everything you may be asked or expected to do by others.
3. Our sacrificial service and ministry should be directed to pleasing God alone, not alleviating guilt or pleasing other people. It is true there are times when you give beyond your comfort level or even physical ability, but that should never be for the purpose of impressing other people with your level of dedication or making ourselves feel more spiritual. It should be service directly to God and will often involve difficult decisions trying to determine if it is God who wants you to do something or just a person's expectation.
There is a lot more I could say on this topic, and probably more I should say to avoid miscommunication that might occur. Suffice it to say that as hard as it can be to accept new limitations and feeling like a failure as a Christian when you can't do everything people may think you should be able to, it is important to see that these new limitations come from the hand of God, and rather than viewing them as disrupting his plan for us, we should view them as his plan for us. Don't think for a minute that this means finding an excuse to avoid things we don't want to do because we're simply tired. This is a matter of viewing our God-given strength as His and trying to spend it on what his priority is for our life. That won't look the same for everyone, but I believe the only way to pursue knowing what his priorities are is to be in the Word constantly and to desperately seek wisdom in prayer.
Take heart, my friends, he will give guidance and direction and strength for this perplexing and often exhausting journey. And for those of us who are serving in the Gospel with chronically ill believers, let us show more often grace and love of Christ to our brothers and sisters who are struggling to keep one foot in front of the other. More to come on ministry in the face of chronic fatigue and pain.
Grace and peace. Praise God--He is risen!