In light of the global pandemic, Cru staff Ashley Yang reflects on the chronic illness that she was previously diagnosed with. Together with the bold sharing of three other current/former Cru staff and their chronic illness journeys, these stories reveal how Jesus is unparalleled in every way.
In my 20s, I came down with what I’d assumed was the onset of the flu: generalised body aches and a terrible fatigue. But when the flu’s other usual suspects like a cough never kicked in while my symptoms persisted for a month, I realised that this wasn’t something to trivialise.
Little did I know that I’d developed fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder where the brain incorrectly processes and amplifies pain signals. Apart from widespread chronic pain, I’ve also struggled daily for the past eight years with chronic fatigue and muscle weakness.
Similar to COVID-19 as it relentlessly tears its way across the globe, both can sometimes seem not to have an end in sight. What’s significant to me, however, is that chronic illness and the pandemic have underscored how Jesus is greater than everything I often place my faith in.
This truth is expounded on powerfully in the book of Hebrews, which highlights how Jesus is better than the angels and even the most esteemed Old Testament prophet Moses. Jesus’ priesthood, sacrifice and the covenant that He fulfills are described as overwhelmingly superior.
This rings true amid all the twists and turns of both chronic illness and the COVID-19 pandemic. When politicians and scientists scramble to handle COVID-19’s brutal lashings, when institutions and systems are exposed as broken and fallible, when my own condition puzzles doctors, God remains unperturbed. And that’s not because He’s indifferent, but because He’s very much in control.
Cru staff, Ashley Yang in Taiwan
1. The circumstances of illness never baffle an omniscient God
With no standard medical testing for fibromyalgia, my condition was only diagnosed five years after its onset. During that season of waiting, I pinned my hopes onto every blood test. When these tests repeatedly returned with “negative” or inconclusive results, I felt relieved yet disappointed that I still didn’t know what was happening in my body.
Manson Koh’s ankylosing spondylitis (AS) also came unexpectedly. Previously on staff with Cru Singapore’s music ministry, he started experiencing what appeared to be a regular backache in 2006. A year later, this turned out to be an autoimmune disease he’d never even heard of before, where the joints – particularly in the spine – are inflamed.
John Piper writes in Lessons from a Hospital Bed, however, that the inner workings of illness never elude His omniscience:
"God knows absolutely everything about your body and its disease. Compared to His knowledge of the universe, all the scientists and all the libraries in the world are like children and first-grade readers.”
With restrictions imposed on businesses like Manson’s during Singapore’s circuit breaker, stress took its heavy toll on his AS. While reading Leviticus 13 about God’s quarantine laws for Israel, Manson felt God’s conviction to trust Him even during the pandemic’s ongoing uncertainty. He notes:
“I believe God knows what He is doing right now. Just as He instructed Moses to lead the Israelites, He’ll teach us to manage during this pandemic. We just have to keep our fear in check and channel that into faith in God instead.”
Former Cru staff, Manson Koh
2. He is more accepting of our limitations than we are
Shirley Chua, the Associate Head of Cru Singapore’s Operations department, shares about arguably the most difficult lesson for those with grappling with chronic illness:
“I sometimes feel the tension between the need to complete my work and my need for rest. Being highly responsible, I tend to choose the former.”
Shirley was thrown a curveball when she was diagnosed with two autoimmune diseases: rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in 2011 and then, lupus in 2018. The immune system attacks the joints in RA, and healthy tissues and organs in lupus.
During the circuit breaker, Shirley’s had to re-learn how to let her body rest. She seeks to create what author Richard Swenson calls “margin” in her daily routine through short breaks and intentionally stopping work by a certain time.
Infirmity has a strangely painful yet valuable way of unravelling the thinly veiled perfectionism that we’d rather brand as a “strong work ethic”. Rest actually requires more discipline and faith in Jesus than unceasing toil. It humbly recognises that Jesus is infinitely strong, sovereign and yet gracious towards our fragility.
Lynette Baker attests to that. A former staff with Power to Change (Australia’s chapter of Cru), she was serving among university students in Japan for over a year when she was suddenly afflicted with repeated seizures and migraines in 2016.
Lynette was later diagnosed with functional neurological disorder (FND), where the central nervous system’s functions are impaired, as well as chronic fatigue syndrome. Besides migraines, she also experiences fatigue, walking difficulties and “brain fog”. Lynette’s still learning to trust God when she comes up against the limitations imposed by illness.
“I’ve had times when I’ve haven’t any movement problems, and times when I can’t get out of bed. It’s a choice to trust God daily when I don’t know if I’ll be able to walk or cook or think clearly,” she explains.
Former Power to Change staff, Lynette Baker
3. He comforts in a way nobody else can
Being misunderstood, especially by able-bodied Christians, can also sometimes hurt us more than the physical pain of chronic illness.
Shirley says, “I feel it's hard to explain to people, including leaders, what fatigue is like. When I get replies [from the healthy] like "me too, I'm feeling fatigued”, I don't feel like people understand me.”
Nevertheless, in A Book of Comfort for Those in Sickness, the 19th century English minister P.B. Power highlights Jesus’ unequalled compassion:
“Perhaps your nearest and dearest friends about you cannot enter into your sufferings…well, remember there is a friend who can – who in all our afflictions was afflicted; and that friend is in sympathy with you, and you are not unnoticed, and your pain is not under-valued.”
Having had his service suddenly curtailed by illness and living the rest of his life as an invalid, Power speaks from experience. The reality is that while their encouragement is precious, even the most compassionate of our able-bodied Christian friends will never be able to fully empathise. That’s simply because they can’t share in the exact same cup of suffering that God’s allowed into our lives (nor we in theirs). When that happens, God reminds us that greater pleasure’s to be found in the incomparable comfort of His Word and presence.
Cru staff, Shirley Chua, on the left
4. He’s much more inclined to answer our prayers than we think
At the onset of my fibromyalgia, I begged God to give me back my life prior to illness. Though more “undignified”, these prayers became increasingly honest, with less of the sterile religiosity they previously had. The psalms and Puritan prayers of old endowed me with the language of lament, helping me to articulate my disappointment to God.
The Holy Spirit, too, guides me in prayer. As my body groans under the weight of its brokenness, He constantly intercedes for me with “wordless groans” according to the Father’s will (Romans 8:23, 26 – 27). And when pain leaves me tongue-tied and teary-eyed, I remember that I’m in the good company of Jesus, who also “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears” during His earthly life (Hebrews 5:7).
Admittedly, there’ve been seasons when my inclinations towards praying for healing have slowly ebbed away. This jaded sluggishness could be related to fibromyalgia’s chronicity as well as an absence of my idea of answered prayers. When days stretch into months, then years, and my body’s still racked with pain, turning to God in prayer, can become less instinctive.
Yet, according to Spurgeon, God’s actually all poised to answer my petitions, not necessarily “according to the letter, [but] according to the spirit”:
“You may not always get what you ask but you shall always have your real needs supplied… If you ask for coarse meal – will you be angered because he gives you the finest flour? If you seek bodily health, should you complain if instead thereof – He makes your sickness turning to the healing of spiritual maladies?”
The preciousness of Jesus’s love – in sickness and in health
When I berate myself for praising God when pain is manageable and complaining when it isn’t, He’s patient with me. When I repeatedly lose my grasp in attempts to cling onto Him, His faithfulness holds me fast. When the enemy tempts me towards self-condemnation because my faith seems to crumble under the strain of illness, He reminds me of Martha and Mary’s example as they pleaded for Jesus to heal Lazarus.
J.C. Ryle sums this up exquisitely:
“[Martha and Mary] do not say [about Lazarus], ‘he who loves You, believes in You, serves You,’ but ‘he whom You love.’ They had learned that Christ’s love towards us, and not our love towards Christ, is the true ground of expectation, and true foundation of hope.”
Though I wish I could unreservedly proclaim that God’s “steadfast love is better than life” (or a clean bill of health) (Psalm 63:3), infirmity has revealed my daily need for the Spirit’s conviction of this truth.
Through this seemingly unending season of illness for my fellow brother and sisters, we ultimately choose to hold onto the only unfailing bastion of hope we know - the enduring strength of the love of Christ.
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