Friday, March 23, 2012

Guest post: "The Selfish Guilt of Chronic Illness"

Another great guest post from my friend, Victoria. See more of her story here.

About seven years into my battle with chronic pain I started to feel an overwhelming burden of guilt about my inability to serve my family.  I had been married to a wonderful man for about four years and we had a beautiful two-year-old son.  Since his birth, however, my chronic pain, which had once been pretty well-managed and activity-specific, became widespread, increasingly difficult to control, and invaded every part of our lives.  

I began to see that this chronic pain might never be leaving me – might never be leaving us.  It was like the proverbial uninvited houseguest; it arrived unannounced, not so intrusive at first, but gradually wreaking havoc on my marriage and mothering, undoing the order in my home, and settling down into my life, never intending to leave.  Chronic pain or illness can at first glance seem merely personal, but in a very real way it is something that affects an entire family just as much as the individual sufferer. 

As I had to limit my physical activities more and more to regulate the pain, my husband had to pick up my slack.  I felt useless and angry every time he would wash the dishes, something I “should have” been able to do.  I would try to do them despite the pain, to feel like I was fulfilling my role in our home (I do stay home all day after all), but would inevitably end up on the sofa with an icepack and pain pills.  My husband still sometimes has to physically remove me from the kitchen to make me lie down and not hurt myself.  But I want to work, I want to serve my family, and I want to feel productive.  These are all good things, right?  Why has God taken away something that he commands me to do: serve?   

Webster’s dictionary defines “guilt” as “a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.” That’s exactly how I felt.  My inability to take care of my home, my children, and my husband felt like a Christian crime.  I was letting down my team.  I was a burden to them, not a willing servant.  Every marriage book, or conference, or women’s Bible study I attended affirmed my suspicion that I was committing a horrible offense against my family by my infirmity.  Serve, they said.  Serve even at a detriment to yourself, like Christ served us.  Have the house clean before your husband comes home so he feels welcomed and relaxed.  Jump up to greet him at the door.  Have great sex at least a few times a week to hold your marriage together and keep him from temptation.  And so on.  You know what I’m talking about.   

Well, I do think that is excellent and wise advise, but my husband comes home to a pile of dirty dishes, a baby I haven’t been able to hold all day, a wife who can barely get off the sofa, much less jump into his arms for a hug, and the general knowledge that sex is off the table unless it’s a special occasion and I take narcotics an hour or so before we go upstairs.  I felt like a complete failure as a wife, a mother, and a Christian woman in general.  All this practical advice doled out by wise and respected Christian women for keeping a happy home and marriage, I’ve completely failed to carry out because of my pain.    

Guilt enveloped me as my husband would take care of the dishes rather than doing his schoolwork for seminary or spending time with our son.  Guilt stabbed at my heart every time I had to tell my toddler, “no mommy can’t play trains with you on the floor” or “no I can’t hold you” or “please don’t sit on mommy’s lap.”  Guilt whispered into my ear every time I put our adopted baby in his swing instead of rocking him in my arms: “He’ll never bond with you.  You’re not his real mother.  You should be holding him.  He needs skin-to-skin time, not his swing.  You don’t really love him.”  Guilt worked its way into our bedroom as physical intimacy with my husband slowly trickled down to nothing more than holding hands in bed on most nights.  

I found myself constantly apologizing, especially to my husband.  I really believed that I had wrecked his life.  The fun, active marriage he thought he would have is gone.  The physical intimacy he had longed for with a wife, though now approved by and rejoiced over by God, is mostly a memory of just the first few months of our marriage.  The hope of having a little blond girl with my eyes is something we don’t bring up anymore.  Our plans for hiking and canoeing and camping with our children, like our parents’ did with us, is a silent dream now.   And it’s all my fault.       

As I was fleshing out this idea of living with chronic pain and the resulting feelings of guilt to write about it on this blog, God sent a friend to me with a wise word.  She pointed out that I cannot deny God the use of my pain to work in the lives of others.  God is using my pain, she said, to sharpen my husband’s Christ-like love for me.  And who knows how else he is using it in the lives of my children, and our church family, and my own heart.  

I thought about this for a while.  I knew it was true that God was using my pain to work in my husband’s life, and in mine, but I had never really connected that to my guilt.  I always thought, “I can deal with this pain and let God use it in my life, but I don’t want it to ‘hurt’ my family.  That’s not fair.”  I thought that was righteous and loving.  But if I am reaping the eternal benefit of having my faith tested and strengthened through this fire, how can I deny that same experience of God’s grace to my family and friends?  I came to a rather startling conclusion: my guilt, for all that it appears to be concerned for others, is really self-centered.  It’s selfish.  It’s my ego screaming out to be validated while writhing in my own feeling of uselessness.    

Guilt was something in which I had allowed myself to indulge.  For example, I have felt “righteously guilty” about not being able to take my children for walks around our neighborhood.  After all, one of the reasons we bought this house was the fact that the neighborhood has paved sidewalks on both sides of the street, just for mothers like me to take their children out for walks (of course, then I feel guilty that we bought a more expensive house to be in this neighborhood for that purpose).  My line of thought would go something like this:   “I should feel guilty that I can’t take him out.  Children are supposed to go for walks.  They would be happier and healthier if we got more fresh air and stretched our legs.  I feel so useless.  I’m such a bad mother.  I’m so insufficient for this task.  My kids would be better off with someone else, who could really give them what they need.  I wish I could just get better.  Is being able to walk really too much to ask?  Why does God not want me to take my children for walks?  Doesn’t He want them to revel in His creation?  Doesn’t He want me to take good care of them?” 

Not sure if you noticed, because I didn’t for a long time, but that inner dialogue was really all about me.  It is just me whining, letting my feelings rule over me, and indulging in a little pity party.  It’s me not trusting God.  And it’s me wrongly defining what it is to be a good mother and to live a “useful” life.  

So there’s the truth about my guilt; what I thought I could wallow in as “selfless love” for others and sorrow over my “ruining” their lives, was actually sinful and self-centered.  I shouldn’t be surprised; “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Isaiah 17:9).

This life is not all about me and how I feel.  It’s not all about my marriage or my children either.  It’s certainly not about my ability to go for walks or do the dishes.  It’s all about God.  It’s about the work He is doing for His glory – and as believers that includes working for my good and the good of my family.  He has seen fit to give me this chronic pain for a purpose – His purpose - which I don’t fully understand.  He has given me a husband and two wonderful children to go on this difficult journey with me.  And He knows that I struggle with my role as a mother and wife.  But I know that He is good and He is training me to take my eyes off of myself and my guilt and onto Him for sustenance, even when I don’t understand.  He has a plan: “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:5-6).
God never defined good mothering as taking your children to the park every day.  He didn’t even define a good marriage primarily as one that has intercourse four times a week (though some Christian books may convince you He did).  The purpose of mothering is to raise up children to know and fear the Lord.  It is to “teach [God’s works] to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 11:19).  The purpose of marriage is to reflect the loving union between Christ and His Bride, the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33).  Those goals can be accomplished only through God’s grace and strength, and even through much suffering.  In fact, as I think about it, my pain gives my husband more opportunities to serve me as Christ served the church.  He is challenged to lay down his life and his plans and his dreams anew every day.  God is forcing him to change those personal plans to better reflect His plan.  Rather than feel guilty about this, I should praise God that He is constantly using my pain to shape my husband more and more into the image of Christ. 

My children won’t suffer from a lack of walks as much as they would suffer from a mother who has no faith in God’s providence and goodness.  My pain can point them to the Gospel in a way a “normal” life would not.  “No, mommy can’t hold you right now, and that makes me sad, but my hope and joy is still in Christ and I want you to have that joy too, my son!  It is far greater than being in my arms, and He will be able to hold you forever!” There is no room for guilt in that great hope. 


  1. This is one of the first times I have seen the guilt factor approached so thoughtfully. I am not driven to do typical household things, but I would like to be able to, and not have so many nights when I am not able to cook. I would like to be able to have a marriage that could be more balanced in the work we do. I had never thought of guilt in this framework before and found this very helpful.

  2. I'm glad you found this post helpful! My friend "Victoria" is a talented writer and you can read more from her at

  3. Very thoughtful writing. I only disagree (strongly!) with one thing you said - I do not believe that GOD gave you - or me - this chronic pain or illness. God only wants good for us. He would no more put pain on you than you would on your child. Christ, when He was on earth, was our example of God - and He never refused to heal anyone. Isaiah says that "by His stripes we ARE healed." I believe our pain/illness comes from this fallen world we live in and/or SOMETIMES from our own choices (such as when we cause an accident resulting in injury, etc). God certainly DOES USE our pain for His good but He never CAUSES it. there is a huge difference there. Thank you so much for sharing! I am going to share this with my small group, a group for women who live with chronic illness/pain.

  4. Thank you so much for writing this, truly it was of the Lord! I am a teenager who has now been suffering from chronic pain for a little over a year. I have been struggling, especially recently, with feeling guilty. Guilty that I can't always make it to church or youth events. Guilty that I can't make to school every day and especially not for a full day. Guilty that I can't help around the house, that my mom is always serving me and helping me. Guilty that I can hardly hang out with my friends and when I do they're always having to take care of me. Guilty that I've run up expenses on bills, medications, and tests - all of which haven't helped me any. I have told myself that my guilt was alright because, after all, I was being sorry for everyone else. But I love what you said about this guilty really being selfish and self-centered. Reading this was an eye opener, but also very encouraging! Thank you for being used of God in my life! :) God bless!