Picture it: Christmas morning. For the first time all month, you’re not focused on your chronic illness. You’re not thinking about all of the Decembers you were too sick to get out of bed. You’re not fixated on the pain in your head. All of your attention is on the presents in your hands, the poinsettias on your aunt’s front porch, and the family waiting for you inside. As you walk through the entryway and put your purse down, you wrap your arms around your people and almost remember what it’s like to feel well.
Between bites of roasted turkey and fresh cranberries, you listen to your parents and their siblings tease each other about moments from their childhood, and you reach for a napkin to dry tears of laughter. Your cousins share career updates, changes to college majors, plans to get married. The conversation quiets. The questions swing your way. You stare down at your place setting, always startled a bit when your invisible illness is seen by others.
You take a breath and prepare to answer. You know what they want: a praise report to take back to their neighbors and small groups and friends from church who have been praying for you for years. You want to give them an honest update about your health, but at the same time, you don’t want to say that you’re struggling with new symptoms or a fresh flare-up or that you’re afraid your medicine has stopped working. You don’t want to break their hearts on a holiday.
Before you look up, you hear someone say it: “All we want for Christmas is for you to be well.” You don’t know how to respond. You hear the compassion underneath their words. You know they come from a good place. They’re kind words and consistent with your desire to be healed. But they separate you from the rest of your family. You are no longer a part of the whole, but the patient at the end of the table.
In your mind, you’re not much different from the others, sitting beside your aunt who is struggling to get pregnant, your cousin who is still praying for a husband, and your uncle who can’t find a job. Their ongoing needs are a source of ongoing isolation, too.
But the room stills as everyone waits for your answer; you feel like nothing you say will comfort them. What do you do when you show up without the one thing your family wants more than anything? When you can’t give them the gift of not worrying about your health anymore?
Here’s one solution: offer them something better than your health.
Your family has watched you suffer year after year; they assume the best gift you could receive would be physical healing. But freedom from pain is an unsatisfying present, an empty box, if it comes apart from Christ. Jesus is the best gift. He is what we all need most this season. Because of Him, we have gifts to offer that are better than a clean bill of health.
Chronic pain sufferers have many chances to learn this lesson. We practice dependence on Jesus just to survive the day. Family members who live close by ride this chronic illness wave with us and cry out to the Lord alongside us as our pain comes and goes, as we try new treatments, and as we wait for flare-ups to calm down. But family members who live far away don’t have the same intimate opportunities to enter into our experience of suffering. When they see us on Christmas, they see all of the updates they have received over the last year standing in front of them, face-to-face. As they are reminded of our suffering all over again, they are thrown back into a cycle of grief.
Their sadness can feel like our failure. We may be tempted to succumb to self-pity. We may try to shut down their displays of emotion by refusing to discuss bacteria or pills or medical plans over the holidays. But sickness is not a legitimate excuse to avoid serving our families, even when we feel like we have nothing to offer. This year, whether we are coming into Christmas ready to share good news of improved health or whether our chronic symptoms are in full swing, we do not have to walk (or Zoom) into family gatherings empty-handed. Here are three precious gifts we can talk about this Christmas.
1. The Gift of Faith
Look at the examples of Elizabeth and Mary in Luke 1—Elizabeth’s suffering was real and it was long, but she walked with God and rejoiced in His faithfulness. Tell your family about the deep confidence you have in Christ, especially now, as symptoms of chronic illness remain. Tell them who He is, and why He can be trusted. Talk to them about the promises of God and the power of the cross and why the resurrection is proof that everything God has said will come true. Talk about God’s character: the aspects that make sense to you and the areas that are too great for you to comprehend. Explain what it means to you that God cares about your condition and why it matters that He is sovereign over your sickness. Tell them about the times that you were faithless in the last twelve months, then share all the ways God has not stopped being faithful to you this year. And as you do, don’t forget Elizabeth’s words in Luke 1:45: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
2. The Gift of Hope
1 Peter 3:15 (NLT) says, "If someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it.” True hope is not based on how well your treatment is working but in the hard won victory of Christ’s accomplishments on the cross. Comfort your family with the reality that a far better future is coming. Because of the gospel, you can be one hundred percent certain that someday you will be well. It might not be today. It might not be until you reach eternity—but one day, because of Jesus, you will be wholly and completely healed. Tell your family why you believe there is no better option than to throw your whole self into the hands of Jesus, knowing that whatever happens next, heaven rules.
3. The Gift of Love
Show your family the same kind of love that Christ has shown to you. Remember 1 Corinthians 13:4–7: Love is patient, even when you are tired of the topic. Love does not respond with sarcasm, even when you are offered weird medical advice. Love is not irritable, even when you are exhausted. Love is not resentful, even when you have reason to be. Model the kind of love that does not keep records of insensitive comments, but rejoices with the truth.
We do not have to wait until we have good news about our health to celebrate the best gifts of all. Let’s invite our families into our suffering, into our celebration of the hope we have in Christ. When the hard questions come, let’s thank God that one day Jesus will wipe away every health question and concern, and all will be well.
Picture it: Christmas morning. It will not be perfect. Everyone at your Christmas table will have pain points, some of them seen, most of them invisible. Isn’t this why Jesus came? To give us the only gift that can truly comfort us—Himself. Instead of leaving the best gifts unopened because they can be awkward, let’s unwrap the joy of His presence together.