May 19 is World IBD Day, and though I have not acknowledged this day on my blog previously, I felt compelled to do so this year. IBD stands for Inflammatory Bowel Disease and describes diseases which involve chronic inflammation of all or part of the digestive tract. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis affect millions of people worldwide, myself included. I consider myself one of the fortunate ones in that I have only been hospitalized once, have had no major surgeries, and have thus far been able to manage my disease with medication. Others are not so fortunate. People with IBD live with it every day, and some complications from the diseases can lead to death. If you’d like to learn more about IBD, check out the CCFA website. http://www.ccfa.org/what-are-crohns-and-colitis/
In honor of World IBD Day, I decided to share a testimony that I gave at my church’s women’s retreat back in January. When I was first asked to share, I was terrified and wanted to say no, but I knew it was something I needed to do. God has used my experience with ulcerative colitis to show me how our deepest place of vulnerability can also be the place where He provides the greatest grace. I never would have asked for ulcerative colitis, but I would be a fool not to see how this disease has stretched and grown my faith, and I would be foolish to keep my experience to myself. It may be easier to hide our stories, but hiding is rarely the best choice, and while sharing brings vulnerability, it also brings love and support.
I hope my story encourages you and helps you understand a little bit more about ulcerative colitis and the faith that helps me face it. It’s long, but I hope you’ll take the time to read all of it.
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I always assumed that I wouldn’t have to worry about my health until I was in my 60s or 70s. I expected that as long as I took care of myself, I would live a healthy life. Several years ago, I even made major lifestyle changes in order to lose a significant amount of weight, and I started running and even completed a half marathon. I thought I was doing what I could to ensure that I would be healthy for many years to come.
However, all of that changed in October of 2012. I started feeling sick, and as the weeks passed, I just got worse and worse, and nothing seemed to help. There were some days where I could barely get out of bed, except to stumble into the bathroom. I finally ended up spending a week in the hospital, which was certainly not anything I ever expected to experience. (And having my first colonoscopy at the age of 31 definitely wasn’t on my bucket list either!) It wasn’t long after that colonoscopy that I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. Ulcerative colitis is a chronic condition that affects the colon and causes inflammation and ulcers along with many uncomfortable, sometimes debilitating symptoms, and there is no cure, only periods of flare up and remission.
The past 2.5 years have been a roller coaster as I have tried many medications and dealt with their accompanying side effects and have also experimented with my diet in attempts to achieve remission. Despite my efforts to control my disease, sometimes the way that I feel can change on a day-to-day basis.
I never dreamed that chronic illness would be a part of God’s plan for my life, but I would go through all of it again because of the many glimpses of God’s goodness I’ve been privileged to see as I’ve dealt with this disease. Psalm 119:71 says, “It was good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes,” and that is exactly how I feel. It is good for me that I was given ulcerative colitis because through it I have experienced a deeper faith and deeper walk with Christ. Truthfully, before this diagnosis, my life was fairly easy. I don’t mean that my life was free from struggles (far from it), but I had never really experienced any significant suffering. Having ulcerative colitis has shown me that even when I am at my weakest point, even when I don’t have the strength to get out of bed, I have all that I truly need because I have Jesus. God has given me everything I need for life and for godliness through His Son, and when I focus on Him I remember that this body that I can no longer depend on may fail me but God never will.
Scriptures that may have been merely words before have truly become living and active to me, as I have experienced God as the lifter of my head, my refuge and strength, and my ever-present help in times of trouble. I have taken comfort in the hope that though outwardly I am wasting away, inwardly I am being renewed day by day. Through God’s Word I am reminded to fix my eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen because I know that ultimately what I am dealing with now is temporary. And because I’ve experienced God’s love and faithfulness as I’ve lived with ulcerative colitis, I can have confidence that He will prove loving and faithful no matter what I face in the future.
One of the gifts this experience has given me is an increased longing for heaven. I confess that I never gave heaven too much thought before I got ulcerative colitis. I knew it would be wonderful to be with Jesus forever, but it wasn’t something I dwelt on too much because there was enough here on earth to distract me. But since being sick, I have longed for the day when I can be with Jesus. I have longed for the day when this broken body will be replaced with a new, eternal one, for the day when I can finally see with my eyes the God who sent His Son to die for me. I long for the day when there will be no more sickness, no more sorrow, and no more pain. What a gift it will be to worship God unencumbered by the cares of this world! How can we not long for that?
Another unexpected blessing that has come out of this chronic illness is the beauty of community I have discovered. Just a few months before I was diagnosed, I admitted to a small group of women that I was lonely. I didn’t feel as though I had anyone that I could call if I needed help, and I desperately wanted and prayed for friendships. When I first got sick, I saw God answer those prayers. Some of my dearest friends today are ones that ministered to me and my family in those early weeks before and after my diagnosis. They visited me in the hospital, they fed my family, and they covered me with prayer. They are the ones I can text when I am having a difficult day, and I know they will pray for me. They have prayed me through many struggles since my diagnosis, and I know they will be with me for many more. They have borne my burdens in a way that only those who love Jesus can–sacrificially and wholeheartedly–because their love doesn’t come from them, it comes from Him. I don’t know that I would have fully realized this blessing of friendship had I not reached such a place of vulnerability and need. I used to feel extremely uncomfortable asking for help, but having ulcerative colitis has shown me that it is when we allow others into our struggles that we can see hope in spite of those trials. We realize we are not alone. We realize we are loved. We realize we all need each other. And we cannot truly encourage one another if we don’t first share with one another.
God has used ulcerative colitis in my relationships in other ways as well. For one, I have a deeper love and appreciation for my husband, as he has truly loved me with the love of Christ at my sickest and at my healthiest, and I don’t know what I would do without him. I also have learned to be more careful not to assume that someone’s life is easy just because it may look that way from the outside. Because my illness is invisible in nature, I don’t often look sick on the outside even when I may be experiencing pain or discomfort on the inside, and this has allowed me to be more mindful of the fact that we are all walking around with our own invisible illnesses, our own inner hurts and struggles, and therefore my first impulse as a follower of Jesus should be to treat those around me with compassion. And even though initially I was embarrassed to talk about my illness, I gradually began to realize that being open about it gave me opportunities to encourage other people and share about God’s goodness and grace in my life.
I don’t know what having ulcerative colitis will mean for my future. If there is one thing I have learned from this disease, it’s that I’m not in control. I can’t control when I will have a flare or when I will be in remission. But I know the One who is in control, and I know He is for me. I have seen His faithfulness to me and know he does not waste my pain but uses it for my good and His glory. I know that I need Him so much more than I need to be healed. He is enough for me, and I hope you will remember that regardless of what you are going through, He is enough for you, too.