Self-Care vs. Self-Denial: Finding a Balance as a Christian with Chronic Illness

Living with chronic illness is hard. Living the life of self-denial we’re called to as believers in Jesus Christ is also difficult. But when you combine the two, as many of you who read my posts are seeking to do, you face a dilemma. How do we deny ourselves and yet cope wisely with the issues caused by chronic illness? In other words, as followers of Jesus, how do we find a healthy balance between self-care and self-denial?

The Christian life at it’s core is a life of self-denial. Jesus said to His followers, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew‬ ‭16:24‬ ‭NIV‬‬). As disciples of Christ who also happen to suffer with chronic illness, we are not excluded from this directive.

Our Heavenly Father has called us to be His hands and feet on this earth, putting the needs of others above or at least making them equally important to us as our own needs. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (‭‭Philippians‬ ‭2:3-4‬ ‭NIV‬‬). 

Yet, those of us who live with chronic illnesses live with limited resources. For many of us, fatigue is a way of life. Often, the things we used to enjoy doing are no longer within our range of ability. 

For example, earlier in my Christian life, one of my biggest joys was leading ladies in Bible studies. My heart hasn’t changed, but recently even making it to the class where someone else is teaching has been a stretch. For instance, yesterday morning I went to our iConnect Sunday morning class, but I mainly sat there like a sponge, absorbing truths that would strengthen me to make it through another week. Being in class was worth it, but after class I was exhausted. Severe shortness of breath and just general tiredness and weakness resulted in me spending the rest of the afternoon in bed resting

Denying the facts of where I am physically is not self-denial! Thinking I can ignore what is going on in my body is foolish. So how have I learned to balance the two seemingly opposites of self-denial and self-care? I’m definitely not an expert in this. But as I face new health challenges, I’m learning that it’s possible to both be concerned about the needs of others and do what is wise in taking care of myself. I’ve begun to reach a balance in the area of caring for the needs of others and caring for my own needs, and my goal today is to share some key understandings that are helping me in this area.

We cannot effectively minister to the needs of others unless we first meet our own true needs. Those needs fall in three main categories: spiritual, physical, and emotional.

  1. Trying to minister to others when we are depleted spiritually is like trying to fill a glass from an empty pitcher. Before I can minister to others, I must make efforts to fill myself so I have something to share. For me, that begins by spending time daily in God’s Word and prayer, asking Him to show me the truths I need to apply in my own life. This is spiritual self-care.
  2. Giving my body what it requires to function at its best is not being selfish. When you fly on an airplane, the flight attendant instructs you to put your oxygen mask on first, before helping others. Why is this important? Because if you run out of oxygen, you can’t help anyone else with their oxygen mask. Similarly, if you don’t take the needed steps to meet your own physical needs, you will lack the needed resources for meeting others needs. This is physical self-care. Whether it involves eating the foods my body needs to function at it’s best, finding exercise that is appropriate to my current level of health, or making time in my schedule for rest, this type of self-care is essential. 
  3. Emotional self-care is also important. Living with the challenges of ongoing illness can affect every part of our being. Serious illness often causes major changes in lifestyle and limits our independence and mobility. Chronic illness may make it impossible to pursue the activities you find fulfilling, and this can undermine self-confidence and cause depression and feelings of hopelessness. If you are struggling in these areas, taking steps to shift your focus onto the Lord and His love may help. Listening to encouraging music may help. Purposely looking for things to be thankful for, even  looking for God’s blessings in the midst of the pain, all of these things can be useful. And if you’ve tried all of these and are still struggling, finding a person you can confidentially share your struggles with may help. 
  4. Recognize that self-care is important but not the final answer in dealing with chronic illness. Spiritually, we need the encouragement of others who are walking a similar path. This is one of the biggest benefits of finding a Christian support group such as God-Living Girls with Chronic Illness, the one I’m a part of. Physically, find a good team of medical doctors and seek their advice. And emotionally, acknowledge if you are experiencing deep depression and need help to get out of it. There need be no more shame in seeking support for mental health issues than there is in seeking medical support. 
  5. Finally, having “filled your pitcher” and “put on your own oxygen mask,” look for ways to be a blessing to others. You may not be able to serve God in the same way you used to enjoy serving. So look for a new way to serve, one that is in line with your current abilities. Chronic illness can easily make us self-centered, and ministering to the needs others are facing counteracts that tendency. You may no longer be able to lead a Bible study at your church, but maybe you can help teach an online Bbible study. Praying for others, sending cards to encourage them in the battles they are facing, starting a blog and writing articles sharing the lessons God is teaching you about living a God-honoring life with chronic illness – these are just a few ideas for reaching out to others.  Ask God to show you how you can be a blessing to others. Then do what He shows you. 

So take care of yourself. Spend time daily building yourself up spiritually. Make wise choices that allow you to be at your best physically. And don’t ignore your emotional needs either. Exercise wise self-care in each of these areas, but then as a Christ-follower practice self-denial by looking for ways to use the resources you currently possess to be a blessing to others. By doing these things, it’s possible to live a balanced and fulfilling life with chronic illness.



When I saw today’s Five Minute Friday topic, I knew I needed to write about my recent experience with shortness of breath. 

I was recovering well from neck surgery, and it was time for a follow-up appointment with my primary physician to evaluate how I was doing. As Mitch and I prepared to leave for the doctor’s visit, we decided to make this my first outing without my wheelchair. So I grabbed my walker and headed for the car. 

The walk from our car to the office was short, with no obvious problems. But when my doctor came to the door to take me back to her office, the problems started. The short walk left me seriously short of breath. What in the world was going on? My doctor was obviously concerned. Thus began a new experience in my journey of dealing with chronic illness.

The need to breathe is something God built into our bodies, and when something interferes with fulfilling that need changes are required. Last week, after numerous medical tests, I finally learned that my breathing problems are related to a new problem with my heart. 

So this week I’m starting down a new path in my chronic illness journey. That started with new medications, but I don’t know what else lies ahead. In the midst of change, I’m leaning on the Lord who formed my body for grace and strength to walk this new path. His grace has been ENOUGH in the past, and I’m confident I’ll find His grace sufficient in this new hurdle as well.

Anchored in God’s Character and His Word

Choosing HOPE as my word of the year for 2017 has caused me to think about what it really means to be anchored in the Lord. Hebrews 6:19 says, “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”  What HOPE was the author of Hebrews referring to? Verses 17 – 18 make it clear that (1) the unchanging nature of God’s purpose, and (2) the truth that God doesn’t change and that it’s impossible for Him to lie are the HOPE we are to hold onto. In other words, our HOPE is found in God’s unchanging Word and character. 

So why do our souls need an anchor? This question caused me to ask myself why a boat needs an anchor. The anchor prevents the boat from drifting away with the current. If sailors didn’t use anchors, their boats would drift aimlessly around the harbor or, if caught in the right current, out to sea. Anchors serve a useful purpose, they help control a boat’s movement when the captain wants it to remain steady for any of a variety of reasons.

I am currently walking at a place where my need for an anchor to keep me from “drifting out to sea” is obvious. The “wind and waves” of life could easily cause me to “drift aimlessly out to sea” if my life were not anchored in the Lord.  God’s desire – His unchanging purpose – does not include us being tossed to and fro by the winds of adversity. Our “Captain” wants us to remain steady, even in the storm. And therefore, He has given us hope as an anchor. 

This hope is not like the “hope” of this world, which is wishing for something with no real assurance that it will happen. No, the HOPE The Lord gives us is a sure and confident expectation that our God is who He says He is and that He will do what He says He will do. It is a steadfast trust and faith in God’s faithfulness.

A Safe Harbor

After an emotionally difficult day yesterday, I woke up this morning asking God for a clear word of encouragement. My prayers for a diagnosis of my new symptoms now had been answered, and an effective treatment plan was starting. But the answer was a bit overwhelming. 

I have dealt with chronic illness for over forty years, but up until now most of my diagnoses have been orthopedic or neurological, difficult to live with but not life-threatening. Yesterday, I was diagnosed with diastolic dysfunction, a cardiac condition in which the heart loses its flexibility and ability to move the blood out of the heart and around the body. Left untreated, this can lead to heart failure. I had now moved into a whole new area of chronic illness.

I needed to see what I learned yesterday from God’s perspective. My daily Bible reading passage hadn’t given me what I needed, so I cried out to God in prayer for a clear word that would help me see my current trials as He sees them. The Lord answered my prayer with a simple phrase: “I am your safe harbor.”  

Usually when I sense God speaking to my heart, a familiar verse of Scripture comes to mind. This time was different. I couldn’t remember any Bible verses that specifically spoke of God as a safe harbor. So I did a search using the YouVersion Bible app that I’ve been using this year for the 2-year Life Application Bible devotional and reading plan. This plan uses the New Living Translation, which is new to me, and I didn’t change the version on my search parameters, so the following verses came up as the ones closest to the phrase I had entered.

The parallel to my current situation was clear:

  • I needed help!
  • I was crying out to God in my trouble, my distress, just as those in these verses had done.
  • I knew the truth of Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God,” and I was asking God to still my emotions so I could hear His voice.
  • He alone had the power to “calm the storm to a whisper and still the waves” crashing over me.
  • He could bring me “safely into harbor” – in fact, He is my SAFE HARBOR.

I don’t know what you are currently facing in your life. But let me reassure you that Jesus Christ is also your SAFE HARBOR. Our proper response to the truth is found in the next two verses, Psalm 107:31-32. 

                           “Let them praise the LORD for his great love and for the wonderful things he has done for them. 

                              Let them exalt him publicly before the congregation and before the leaders of the nation.”


A Doorway of Hope

As 2016 came to an end, I began half-heartedly seeking God for a “word of the year” for 2017. Seeking, because choosing joy as last year’s word was a big help in keeping a good attitude in tough circumstances. Why half-heartedly? Mainly because the last few months have been extremely difficult, and I was discouraged. 

After a successful neck surgery in July and a couple months of hard work to regain my strength, things suddenly did an about-turn in October. During a routine surgery follow-up appointment with my primary physician, I had an extremely severe episode of shortness of breath from simply walking from the waiting to an exam room using my walker. As weeks passed, I’ve had to accept that this wasn’t just a single episode, but rather a new long-term issue to deal with.

All of this started three months ago, and my doctor is still in the process of trying to find the cause of these sudden changes. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s are behind us, and a new year lies ahead. In spite of my hesitancy to seek God concerning a word for 2017, He clearly spoke to my heart this is to be my Year of Hope.

 I’ve been in God’s Word daily, spent time praying and seeking God’s face, even started an article on hope a couple times. Pain, difficulty concentrating, and other health issues have kept those articles from being completed. Yet Hope has found another outlet in the midst of the pain and other undiagnosed problems: through digital Bible journaling on some of the verses I’ve read and studied. Here are a few of the things the Holy Spirit has been impressing upon my heart concerning Hope.

Still learning about how God will turn this Valley of trouble into a Gateway of hope, so this is a subject I’ll probably revisit at a later time. For now I’ll close with a few more graphics of verses God is using to speak to my heart.

The “Rat Trap” of Sin

A banging noise woke me up out of a sound sleep around three o’clock this morning. I got up to investigate. The rat trap my husband had set in the kitchen had snared a large rat, and the still alive rat was flopping it across the kitchen doorway, unsuccessfully trying to free itself from the snare. A quick call to my husband took care of this problem, but I didn’t find it quite as easy to go back to sleep.

Sin is much like the trap that held this rat. As I’ve done an in-depth study of Hebrews 12: 1-2 this week, God has been expanding my understanding of these foundational verses. This morning, I read these verses in a variety of versions and noticed that a diverse list of phrases were used in Hebrews 12:1 to describe the effects of sin. 
Sin can:

  • Entangle us (NASB & NIV)
  • Cling closely to us (ESV)
  • Make us fall (Easy-to-Read version)
  • Distract us (God’s Word version)
  • Dog our feet (J.B. Phillips)
  • Easily beset us (KJV)
  • Wrap itself tightly around a our feet and trap us up (Living Bible)
  • Easily hold us back (New Century version)
  • Keep us from doing what we should (New Life Version)

But as I continued studying this verse, the description that really stood out to me was from the NKJV and HCSB: SIN ENSNARES US! Sin is much like the rat trap, a common type of snare trap, that woke me up much too early this morning. And in our own strength, we are no more able to free ourselves from the trap of sin than the rat was able to free itself this morning. 

But praise God, Jesus made a way for us to be set free from the snare of sin. He did this by enduring the cross and becoming the author and perfecter of our faith. As you prepare your heart for God’s good purposes for you in 2017, give thanks to Jesus for this incompatible gift of salvation. And determine to stand on this truth from Romans 6:6, that in Christ we are no longer enslaved to sin.