“It’s bring-your-own-chair-to-church day, didn’t you know?” I said, forcing a polite laugh and trying to make the camping chair on my shoulder seem small. My cheeks burned with a mixture of embarrassment and anger for what felt like the thousandth time.
My husband has suffered from chronic, untreatable back pain for 16 years. Despite this daily drain on his energy and stamina, he lives a full life. He works hard to manage his pain and has learned to live within his boundaries.
When we decided to help plant a church in an economically challenged part of town, we knew it would be a stretching experience in many ways. Meeting in a low-income elementary school for our Sunday service meant that our congregation sat in the school’s plastic chairs – something that my husband simply could not do. Instead, we decided to bring a camping chair with a pillow for his back each Sunday so he could still participate in the service.
Our close friends knew what the pillow and chair were for, but we still received questioning looks and sarcastic comments every Sunday.
There were times when my flesh wanted to scream, “Do you have any idea how much pain he is in? Do you think your comments make him feel any better!?”
Although we no longer attend that church, Sunday morning experiences like these have taught me three important things:
- Practice patience. Life with a disability is not convenient. You must plan and consider things that others do not. Sometimes you must say no, even when you want to say yes. Disability slows us down and forces us to maintain boundaries that others might not understand. Patience is of utmost importance in maintaining a good attitude when life is more complicated than we thought it would be.
- Identity in Christ. Disability opens the door for a lot of self-doubt. What do others think about me carrying this chair? I hope our friends understand why we had to say no. What if it gets worse, what will we do then? I have been forced to take every thought captive, bringing each one to the foot of the cross and submitting it to Christ. Chronic pain is the path that God has chosen for my husband—God will sustain us, God will provide for all our needs. If I anchor my emotions or desires in anything other than Christ, I inevitably find myself floating in a sea of “what-if” questions and doubts.
- Give grace freely. Unless your life is affected by disability, it can be difficult to understand the nuances of what daily life looks like. This can be especially true for invisible illness or disability. When people look at my husband, they see a normal 32-year-old guy. They often don’t understand why we choose to stay home or why we don’t offer to serve in more than one ministry at a time. I have come to realize that I need to be ok without them understanding. I deserve God’s wrath and yet He gave me abundant grace. Likewise, I want to give grace freely to those around me—especially when they don’t get it.
My husband often tells people, “I don’t like pain any more than anyone else, but pain is a gift.” How true this is! I’m not sure I would really understand patience, identity, and grace if the Lord hadn’t given me the opportunity to walk this road. So, next time someone unwittingly makes a joke about my husband’s limitations, I pray that my response will gently help them learn these lessons that have been so valuable to me.
Ali Howard is a Baylor University graduate who has engaged in full-time, nonprofit work since 2011. She joined the Joni and Friends team in January 2015, and serves as the Senior Coordinator of Volunteer Services. She also acts as the content editor for the Irresistible Church blog and books.