I’ve been blessed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) since 1997. Because my symptoms were relatively mild and medication kept disease activity to a minimum, I lived in denial for many years. Sure, my joints hurt, but I was young and active and still in that youthful mindset that I was invincible.
I continued to exercise. I continued to raise a family, to work, to live. Most people didn’t know anything was wrong with me. I spoke of RA with only those who asked. When friends shook my hand, they mistook my wince for a wink of my eye. When I was slow to stand, they assumed I was in no hurry. Clothes concealed knee braces and wrist supports. Those who did know I was sick thought my illness was manageable, because I hid my bad days. I didn’t want my RA on display. Even though support bandages brought much relief, it felt fraudulent to wear them, because I didn’t have an injury. I, it seemed, had bought into the mentality that since RA was invisible, it wasn’t real.
The problem was I could feel it in a very real way.
For a time I went unmedicated. I explored alternative therapies: homeopathy, nutrition, cold lasers, detoxification. I discovered some things that increased flares but nothing that reduced them. As is the nature of any chronic illness, left untreated, my symptoms worsened. Before I opened my eyes each morning, I would assess which joints were functioning and which were not. Would I be able to stand? Would my shoes fit? Could I brush my hair? Prepare my own food? Hold my children’s hands?
Denial was no longer possible; RA demanded to be heard. I longed for comfort in my suffering, and I wondered why, after so many years, I was no longer able to conceal my weakness—my flaw.
The apostle Paul understood affliction. He said, “It was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel…” to the churches of Galatia (Galatians 4:13). He’d been headed elsewhere when physical infirmity diverted him. I, too, was headed somewhere else in life. I had no desire to visit the region of chronic illness. I expected to journey through life without detour. The trip was plotted on my map of intentions. I’d fly through youth with a layover in childbearing years. I’d hike the hills of middle age and trek on into the golden years without a hinge. But like Paul, illness reduced my plans to ashes and blew me into unexpected territory.
As a Christian, I read what Paul said in Acts 14:22, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” but that didn’t make me feel any better. It just confused me more. Why would pain and struggle be a requirement of heaven.
Before Jesus left the earth, He warned the disciples in this world they would have trouble. It may sound the opposite, but He said that to encourage them. In that same statement, He also assured His followers He would leave them His peace (John 16:33). And that is where I found relief. Why had I been surprised at pain? Why had I been embarrassed by affliction? Even Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Perhaps I had much to learn myself.
I stopped hiding. My RA became visible so others could see Christ through me. Today I view my Rheumatoid Arthritis not as a disease that chars my spirit, but as an instrument of God to draw me close to Him and to direct others to Him. RA sidetracked me, because I was walking the wrong path. It turned me around and pointed me in His direction. RA reminds me of my daily need for God’s compassion and grace, and it alerts me to His unending mercy. “My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life” (Psalm 119:50).