“Lord, I pray you will do a physical miracle in my wife, but if you choose not to, then work a spiritual miracle in me so that I can love her well until the end.”
These were the words of Dr. Robertson McQuilkin, shortly after receiving his wife’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. His response pierced my heart — as if someone had reached into my soul and exposed a hidden place of fear and insecurity. “Will my husband be able to love me well until the end, even if our life is never free from the painful effects of chronic illness? Will he reach a point where the sacrifice becomes too great? Could I even blame him if he did?”
Not long after we said, “I do,” chronic pain and illness began to dominate our lives. As one trial after another has come, and the complexities and weight of long-suffering have brought us both to the end of ourselves, our marriage has been tested in more ways than we ever imagined it would. Sadly, I know that we aren’t alone. Statistically, 45% of the population live with at least one chronic illness, which means its devastating effects are also impacting many marriages and families.
By God’s grace, my husband has stayed by my side for fourteen years of nearly constant struggle (though some of those years have certainly been rocky). We have been entrusted with hardships we could never have expected. And yet, I genuinely believe that God has sovereignly ordained this marriage, this family, and this suffering for his eternal purposes — and for our eternal happiness. God has not only sustained us, but is using our suffering to strengthen and beautify our marriage, and to draw us closer to him.
Pray for Relief, but Trust God
For the one who chronically suffers (physically or mentally), there is always a tension between wanting to escape the pain on one side, and learning to trust and rest in where God has us. The spouse, however, bears the pain indirectly. They do not feel the physical pain that their husband or wife does. They often carry a greater load of responsibility than normal, while grieving the loss of how things used to be and feeling helpless and frustrated with their inability to ease our pain.
Over time, strain can begin to grow in our marriages. As each person grieves the loss of what chronic illness has robbed from them, we struggle not to turn against one another. When we have no guarantee of our circumstances changing, we are faced with the choice of becoming bitter, resentful, and closed off to one another, or desperately dependent on God’s grace and strength to press on and love our spouse with a love beyond ourselves.
Consider Job’s Wife
Consider Job, who, after losing everything, was suddenly struck with painful, hideous, and loathsome sores, with no certainty of healing. He had every reason to turn his back on God and yet chose to trust his sovereignty and the path of humble surrender, declaring, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. . . . Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 1:21; 2:10). He despised the pain, yet chose a sacrifice of worship.
Job’s wife, however, struggles to join her husband in his response. In many ways, I can empathize with her. Though we usually focus on Job, the reality is that she too had just lost her children, their wealth and security, and was now helplessly watching her once confident, strong, and well-respected husband covered in ashes and moaning in agony. Consumed with grief, I imagine she felt an incredible sense of fear and helplessness, knowing that if she lost her husband, she would have lost everything. Out of those emotions (and foolishness), she advises her husband to curse God and die (Job 2:9). She assumed escape was the best option.
As a wife, I appreciate Job’s gracious response. Instead of directly calling her a foolish woman, he speaks to her as though this isn’t who he knows her to be. He says that she is speaking “as one of the foolish women would speak” (Job 2:10). He doesn’t attack her character, but he lovingly calls out where she is wrong. I hope that Job’s faith in the midst of agony and tragedy eventually won her to a deeper faith of her own.
Let Your Spouse Walk with You
Whether we are the suffering spouse like Job, or suffer alongside our spouse like Dr. McQuilkin, we can glean wisdom from their godly responses as we walk the hard road of chronic pain or illness in our marriages. We don’t have to settle for survival. We can strive to experience a deeper love for the Lord and each other in the midst of our suffering.
We can learn to avoid turning inward and against one another in the struggle. We need to consistently go to the Lord first with our needs and desires, and then take steps to communicate with our spouse on how to navigate the realities of chronic illness together. If we who suffer get trapped in the wrong thinking that our pain is ours to bear alone and nothing more than a burden to our spouse (or children), we will often battle guilt and resentment. We’ll either become hardened to those around us or consumed by the loneliness it often brings.
However, if we realize that God has sovereignly allowed our suffering, not only for our own growth and good, but for our spouse’s as well, it can help us move toward them with a common goal, rather than away in guilt and self-reliance. In fact, we rob our spouses of the God-given role that they’ve been given when we try to live as though we must carry our suffering on our own. We withhold both the privilege of walking alongside us and the opportunity to grow in greater Christlikeness through this trial.
Of course, no spouse will do this perfectly. It takes supernatural humility and open communication, rather than assuming our spouse will automatically know how to help carry the physical and emotional load that chronic illness brings. But as we walk this road imperfectly together, prayerfully relying on the strength of Christ to communicate, extend grace, and love each other with the unique roles he’s given us, we become a more beautiful picture of the long-suffering love of God for us.
Two Prayers for Your Marriage
The grievous losses and painful trials have not had the final word in our marriage. They have been a vessel that God is using to give us a deeper and more satisfying love for one another in Christ.
May those of us who have been called to live with a long-term illness pray with childlike faith, Lord, heal me if it would be your will, but if not, help me to trust your purposes and love my spouse as you have loved me. Guard me from the deadening cloud of guilt over the burden I feel like I am, and help me trust that you will give my spouse the strength and endurance for the road you have called him to walk with me.
And may those who have been entrusted with the high calling of loving and serving their spouse with chronic illness be able to pray like Dr. McQuilkin, “Lord, I pray you will do a physical miracle in my wife, but if you choose not to, then work a spiritual miracle in me so that I can love her well until the end.”
Sarah Walton is a stay-at-home mom with four kids under twelve years of age. She is the co-author of Hope When It Hurts: Biblical Reflections to Help You Grasp God’s Purpose in Your Suffering (The Good Book Company, April 2017) and the co-author (alongside her husband) of the forthcoming book, Together Through the Storms ( Coming Spring 2020). After more than a decade of trials and learning to walk with Christ as her family navigates Lyme Disease, special needs, financial loss, and many other challenges, she shares how the gospel speaks into all areas of our lives and gives hope to our suffering. She blogs at Setapart.net and is a contributing writer at Desiring God, Revive Our Hearts, and Unlocking the Bible.