My spiritual struggle with chronic disease, part 2: Hope

My journey through pain and suffering has led to a faith-inspired optimism

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by Janneke Phung |

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Last in a series. Read part one.

“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear hardship today.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

Hope was hard to come by when I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (AS), an incurable and often debilitating disease. In my last column, I shared my efforts to reconcile my spiritual beliefs with the reality of this painful condition. As a result of that productive struggle, I’ve found hope in this seemingly hopeless situation.

My life after diagnosis led me to reexamine my Christian sense of God. Could I trust that God has love and good intentions for me, given what I deemed to be my undeserved and unexplained suffering? What kind of hope was offered by a lifelong battle with a painful disease? This spiritual wrestling was good for me, as it led me to grapple with the core of my beliefs.

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At times along this journey, I’ve had to remind myself that early Christians, and even Jesus himself, didn’t avoid suffering. Paul, an early church leader, writes in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 about believers who “were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.” The passage continues, “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God.”

Their pain had a purpose: It caused them to depend on God, which has been my experience as well.

Today’s Western culture seems to believe that good things should happen to good people. Yet no one is unaffected by the brokenness of this world. Expecting to be rewarded with a smooth life because of religion or good works can set us up for bitterness and emptiness. Even today, when I look at the lives of people around me, I’m convinced that living an abundant life is still possible, even if it doesn’t equal freedom from hurt. This truth has inspired great hope in me.

My own spiritual deliberations about hope came down to whether I still trusted God’s character even in the face of hardship. Christians believe God expressed his goodness and love when he sought healing, not vengeance, for those who nailed Jesus to a cross. God didn’t change despite my new and painful circumstances. I find hope in trusting that God’s ways are higher than mine, as well as my belief that God will one day make all things right.

The Christian evangelist Oswald Chambers once wrote, “If God has made your cup sweet, drink it with grace; if He has made it bitter, drink it in communion with Him.” God promises believers his presence, which I’ve experienced profoundly, especially as I’ve experienced many bad days with AS. Ultimately, my communing with God has been my source of hope.

When my physical pain is piercing, I find it difficult but necessary to focus intentionally on the good things that can result from it. Hope, after all, is not only a noun, but also a verb that, like most other verbs, is action-oriented. Hope often requires a conscious choice to find purpose, value, and redemption in truth, beauty, and goodness.

I’m encouraged when I see evidence of beauty that’s come from the ashes of suffering. That beauty may come in many forms, such as increased empathy and compassion; the privilege of walking alongside others who are troubled by a similar diagnosis; forgiveness, which can yield healing; deepened faith; strengthened character; a different perspective on life; new and profound friendships. These positives remind me that there is redemption.

Healing isn’t linear. Neither is living with disease. Often there are waves of good along the way. Ride these waves and remind yourself that more good ones will come!

Living with pain and suffering

Some of my takeaways from this journey are:

  • Trust that there’s a purpose for every one of your days on earth, whether healthy or sick.
  • Surround yourself with trusted friends who acknowledge and validate your pain but see you, not your illness.
  • Slow down when life is spinning out of control. When negative scenarios fill our minds, we can quickly lose our perspective. Be still.
  • Recount your blessings daily — past and present, big and seemingly insignificant. Research shows gratitude can unshackle us from toxic emotions, resulting in improved mental and physical health. Aim not for shallow positivity, but for deep gratitude.
  • Focus on spiritual well-being. Studies have shown that it’s directly associated with hope. Even in people with chronic diseases, well-being can improve when spirituality and religiousness become vital strategies to deal with bleak environmental situations. While I’m tempted to focus on myself when I’m hurting, I’ve concluded that the offer of hope beyond myself was invaluable.

I’m encouraged to know that my pain can lead to refinement and transformation. I’m filled with hope when I realize that there’s a purpose to my ankylosing spondylitis and that I can see it as a gift in my life.

Thanks for reading! You can learn more about my story, browse starch-free recipes, or peruse the stories of others who successfully manage their AS with diet and lifestyle modifications on my website. Join me on Instagram and Facebook for the latest updates and recipes.

Note: Ankylosing Spondylitis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Ankylosing Spondylitis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to ankylosing spondylitis.


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