WINNIPEG, Man. — What’s it like to be a person of faith with a chronic illness? That’s one of the questions explored by Allison Alexander in her new book Super Sick: Making Peace with Chronic Illness.
In the book Alexander, 31, shares about her lifelong experience of living with severe Irritable Bowel Syndrome, exploring how chronic illness is not always well-represented in TV, movies and books — or in faith.
When it comes to faith, Alexander, who is part of River East Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Winnipeg, has found churches can make being chronically ill both harder and easier.
“Some Christians believe that if you’re sick it’s your fault for not having enough faith or because of a past sin,” she said, noting there is a movement in Christianity called “prosperity theology” that teaches God wants all Christians to be wealthy and healthy.
“That is especially damaging to poor and suffering people, because it suggests if we’re not happy, healthy and wealthy, we must not have enough faith,” she said.
On the other hand, being a member of a church has made being chronically ill easier due to those who seek to understand and support her.
These are people “who don’t just say ‘I’ll pray for you’ but offer to bring a meal, or pick up medication, or come sit in the hospital waiting room, or play a video game with me to help distract me, or whatever it is I need,” she said.
This, she said, is “the church as it should be, reminding me that I am loved, valued, and cared for.”
Having a chronic illness has also challenged and deepened her faith.
“When you’re in intense pain, and you know God has the power to stop it but doesn’t, it’s difficult to wrap your mind around. Faith is a struggle in this way,” she said.
On the other hand, her faith is a comfort because “I believe God is suffering with me. . . . God cares about what I am going through.”
Just be there
One thing she wishes other Christians knew about chronic illness is “it’s not a problem to be solved. Sometimes I just need someone to be there for me and to say ‘that sucks’ instead of quoting a Bible verse.”
She wishes other Christians realized there are limits on what she can do at church, such as being a regular attender.
“Telling a sick person you miss them and encouraging them to come to church more often may be the opposite of helpful,” she said. “It may just add guilt.”
Since people with chronic illness can’t always make it to services, she encourages church leaders to find ways to involve them that don’t require their physical presence — something the pandemic has made easier.
“With COVID-19, there has been a huge movement to online services and community that may not have been thought possible before,” she said. “I’m hopeful these communities will be kept alive after the pandemic is over for people like me.”
Published by Mythos & Ink, Super Sick is available for $19.99 Canadian in paper or $14.99 Canadian as an ebook. It is available from Mythos & Ink’s website at mythosink.com.