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I suffered a spinal trauma over twelve years ago and I am gradually getting worse with being able to function physically on a daily basis. My biggest heartbreak with my disability is that my church meeting attendance has dropped over the past two years to where I cannot attend anymore. I cannot sit for a sacrament meeting without severe pain, whimpering, sweating, body jerks and twitches, and I feel that I am a huge distraction to those around me.
My bishop called and told me he would make sure I got the sacrament in my home. It has never happened! I tried going back about a year ago, but I felt overwhelmed by the rush of ward members trying to be first to welcome me back, when they purposefully avoid me in public. I had to leave before the opening song. One member actually lectured me for being too ornery to make meetings and I could not stop the flow of tears that overtook me.
I received word that our Stake President is now one of our Home Teachers. Initially, I was thrilled, but, once again, no visits, no calls, nothing. That was months ago. My husband attends meetings. He says no one asks about me. They figure that because I look okay on the outside, I am okay on the inside.
My testimony of the gospel has not changed. I am just disappointed in people. I do feel forgotten, abandoned, not worth a few seconds of anyone’s time to check on me, let me know I’m missed, that someone cares. My prayers have been answered that I need to have patience and keep believing and learning how to suffer alone until the time when I meet my Savior and know that my tears have not gone unnoticed.
When will I be noticed as a faithful member of this church when I spend most of my time in a recliner trying to just breath through my pain? And how many others suffer as I do and do not feel the true love we know we strive for?
You are in great physical and emotional pain and I can’t begin to imagine what this must be like for you. I want to be careful that I don’t trivialize your experience in my response. You are asking me to help you make sense of why people in your ward have abandoned you. While I can certainly make educated guesses about their motives, I believe I can be more helpful to you by exploring what you can do to respond to these injuries so you don’t continue to feel powerless and victimized.
You are working to hold onto hope for a better world where your suffering will be “swallowed up in Christ.”[i] I echo the words of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland who declared:
“This is precisely what the gospel of Jesus Christ offers us, especially in times of need. There is help. There is happiness. There really is light at the end of the tunnel. It is the Light of the World, the Bright and Morning Star, the ‘light that is endless, that can never be darkened.’ It is the very Son of God Himself.”[ii]
Even though God promises that he will eventually “wipe away tears from off all faces”[iii], I want to encourage you to keep learning from your painful earthly experiences to deepen your connection to God, yourself, and those around you. The Apostle Paul taught that we can gladly “glory in our infirmities” and even “take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake.” And, ultimately, he concluded that when “[we are] weak, then [we are] strong.”[iv]
What does this mean for someone in your situation? One Church member with a painful chronic illness shared the following:
“Living life at a pace that is slower than what most people experience allows me more time to pray, study, and meditate. As I rely on those aspects of the gospel, I draw nearer to the Source of strength and hope. My situation has also helped me to be more aware of and sensitive to others’ suffering. This helps me “glory in my infirmities” rather then dwell negatively on them. This attitude adjustment, which came from studying the scriptures, has truly been life-changing.”[v]
You may wonder how your suffering can be a blessing to others. All of our struggles, weaknesses, prejudices, and pains are actually gifts to others in our ward families. The late Eugene England, a former English professor at BYU, shared this most encouraging perspective:
“Paul teaches that all the parts of the body of Christ, the Church, are needed for their separate gifts—and, in fact, that those with ‘less honorable’ and ‘uncomely’ gifts are more needed and more in need of attention and honor because the world will automatically honor and use the others. It is in the Church especially that those with the gifts of vulnerability, pain, handicap, need, ignorance, intellectual arrogance, social pride, even prejudice and sin—those Paul calls the members that ‘seem to be more feeble’—can be accepted, learned from, helped, and made part of the body so that together we can all be blessed. It is there that those of us with the more comely and world-honored gifts of riches and intelligence can learn what we most need—to serve and love and patiently learn from those with other gifts.”
“But that is very hard for the ‘rich’ and ‘wise’ to do. And that is why those who have one of those dangerous gifts tend to misunderstand and sometimes disparage the Church— which, after all, is made up of the common and unclean, the middle-class, middle-brow, politically unsophisticated, even prejudiced, average members. And we all know how exasperating they can be! I am convinced that in the exasperation lies our salvation, if we can let the context that most brings it out—the Church—also be our school for unconditional love. But that requires a change of perspective.’”[vi]
You have chronic pain and emotional hurts while your ward members and leaders appear to have a lack of sensitivity to your condition. According to Dr. England’s explanation, they need you and you need them for your growth and refinement. It’s understandable that you would feel like giving up on them and refuse to continue finding ways to be involved in the lives of those around you.
However, this is exactly what will bring you the greatest growth and lasting happiness. Continue to build your relationship with your good husband and Heavenly Father as a way to gain the strength and inspiration to know where else you can reach out for connection to others. You might find places where you can make contributions in your ward. It may not look like the way you’ve imagined in your mind. For example, instead of people coming to sit with you and support you in your pain, you might be guided to become involved in a simple service activity where you can make a small, but meaningful, contribution.
I love Sister Linda Burton’s recent example of a woman with a chronic illness who chose to focus on what she could do. She says:
“A certain woman who has blessed my life for decades has battled for the past 15 years the debilitating, difficult, and progressive disease called inclusion body myositis. Though confined to her wheelchair, she strives to be grateful and keeps up her “Can Can List”: a running list of things she can do, such as I can breathe, I can swallow, I can pray, and I can feel my Savior’s love. She bears her Christ-centered certain witness almost daily to family and friends.”[vii]
There is so much you can do. Please don’t believe that your only option is to passively wait for people to notice you. It will embitter your heart and make it hard to trust others when they do show love. I know it will feel risky to continue reaching out to your leaders and ask for visits, the sacrament, and some personal ministering. It will be difficult to invite others into your life. You will struggle to attend, even if for a short time, activities and service opportunities. Your heart is hurt and you long for connection. As you work to keep yourself connected and involved, you are offering these gifts of your suffering to your ward members and leaders. And, they are offering their gifts of ignorance, lack of awareness, and insensitivity to you.
I recognize this is a counterintuitive way to view personal weakness, but I promise you that you will find great purpose in seeing these struggles in this light. You don’t have to retreat to your home and suffer in isolation and darkness. Keep reaching for connection and ask God to give you courage and perspective.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[i] Mosiah 16:8
[iii] Isaiah 25:8
[iv] 2 Corinthians 12:9-10