When You Can’t Go to Church or Be in Community Because of Chronic Pain

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Every so often I come across another article articulating the importance of being in regular community and the danger of missing church. A quick google search on the topic of “skipping church” shows some guilt and fear inducing headlines.

The Selfishness of Skipping Church

The Sin of Missing Church

5 Spiritual Dangers of Skipping Church

I’m not Catholic, but I found this one particularly forceful:  “Is Missing Mass a Mortal Sin?

While many articles on this topic lay out important and needed points, I always finish them feeling as though their exhortations have forgotten and missed the entire chronic pain and illness community.

In these articles, we are often reduced to a caveat that goes something like this: “I realize that a very small percentage of people may have real struggles that make it difficult for them to regularly attend church, but….”

But we are more than a caveat. And this “small percentage” of people is not as small as one might think. Unrecognized are millions of people with severe chronic pain and illness who are desperately lonely and desire to be in community but, at times, are unable to do so. During those times we are unable to attend church or be in Christian community, we are not being lazy, sinful or selfish. We are suffering, hurting, and struggling to walk, sit, and stand. Many who have been blessed with good health are unable to comprehend the reality of a body so broken that it cannot move into community. The message so often given is that those who want community enough will find a way to make it happen.

I am currently able to make it to church every week, but in the past, I have gone through months into years when making it to church was an immense physical struggle, and I would regularly have to skip service. I also stopped going to our church small group several years ago because it physically became to much, and I don’t believe I will be attending again any time soon. On top of my other responsibilities, sometimes regular community just doesn’t happen.

Is this selfish? Is this sinful? I give a resounding no, and wonder why I even need to be asking these questions.

I think these questions come to mind because teachings on Christian community say little to nothing about this strange category we fall into. So often, we are lumped into a category of individuals who choose to forsake Christian community for sinful or selfish reasons. The Christian messages around me have always taught community to be an essential part of the Christian life, and I would either be obedient to participate or disobedient if I did not. The message was that anyone who chooses not to attend church or community groups or service opportunities is drifting, not serious about faith, and not following God’s command to be a part of a body of believers. No one ever mentioned this third category I now find myself, at times, falling into.

The first time I felt that someone acknowledge this predicament was when I read the book Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoffer.. Even better than acknowledgement, he reminded me that even Jesus was unable to participate in community during many seasons of his life on earth as he lived among enemies, wandered in the wilderness, and suffered alone on the cross.

Bonhoffer writes,

“It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed…It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”

Recognizing community as a gift of grace and not a given in our lives does not make us long less for the fellowship of believers, but it does ease our guilt and calm our fears that tell us perhaps we are sinning. It helps us respond to those who urge us to “just try harder.” It helps us know that there is grace to make the choice to drop out of Bible study when we need to and skip church when we become physically incapable of continuing to make the trip each week. Community is a gift and not a given.

To those who wonder why we stay home each Sunday or stopped attending Bible Study, thank you for your concern. But please, don’t think we are lazy, sinful, or selfish. If you are really concerned about our spiritual wellbeing as we are forced to live much of our lives in isolation, here is what I suggest.

  • Believe us when we say we are physically unable to tolerate coming to church or Bible Study, or whatever other function you think we should attend. Don’t ask a million questions about why. Sometimes it is confusing when you see a chronically ill person out on a Friday, but then they are unable to make it to church. This is just the way chronic pain and illness work: in unpredictable ways.
  • Come visit us. If you are really that concerned about our lack of community, then bring community to us. Bring Bible Study to us, offer to Skype us in, or come for a visit and a chat.
  • Offer accommodations and help. Ask the question, “Is there something specific that prevents you from making it to church that I could help you with?” Then, perhaps get more specific:

Could I drop you off at the door?

Could I go grocery shopping [or some other task] for you this week so you could use that energy to make it to church?

If we went to a closer church together, could you make it?

If I found you a better chair, could you stay?

What if I drove you there late or we left early – would you be able to make it for a shorter time?

As I consider this topic, James 2:15-17 comes to mind.

“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead.”

When I read these articles about the necessity of attending church, all I can hear is someone telling the chronic pain community, “come to church, be in community, that you may be blessed and filled,” without giving us the things we need to accomplish that. And I ask – what good is that?

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23 responses

  1. Excellent post about the thing I struggle with as well. I’ve made it clear to the members of the church I attend I come when I can and don’t when my physical condition deems otherwise. I don’t feel guilty since I know my limitations and I study the Bible at home and pray as I conduct my own home-bound worship service when I’m too pooped to make it out of my condo. I just wish there was more help and more understanding provided by those there without my having to ask. Like you said, offers of assistance with groceries, etc. would leave me utterly amazed and happy.

    When I do make it to service, I’m usually so happy just to be freed from home confinement and around others there I look good (am told this frequently) and know I’m also uncharacteristically energized. So I also understand why no offers of help ever appear without my pursuing them. I guess if people see you’re out and about, clearly un-deceased, they breathe a sigh of relief you’re winning that invisible battle after all.

    If they only knew…

    • Wow. So well said. “If only they knew…” I’ve been thinking of asking I’d they could move a couch in from the foyer, so that I could lie down but still be part of the service. My husband has said I would look lazy and weird. But I miss group worship so much. He doesn’t understand. And I gave up my mask a long time ago. They don’t know how “weird” my life really is. This post and your comment have given me the push I need. Here’s to Being Chronically Weird in Public!!

      • I think you should do it! I had a client once who used to go to church and lie sprawled out on the pew because she couldn’t sit up for the service. I will write about her sometime. She was the one of the most courageous people I have ever met. She told me that chronic illness took everything away from her, but she wouldn’t let it take away her ability to fellowship with God, surrounded by his people. I think some people would think you looked weird or lazy (there are always those people), but others would see it as a testimony of how important it is to you to be able to attend church. Cheering you on if you decide to do so 🙂

  2. I am indeed incredibly blessed by my dear Church family here in Sydney Australia. Today for example, a dear sister in Christ came to take me to my doctor, hairdresser as I can no longer wash my own hair, the bank and placed my walker in the boot of her car as I can no longer walk unaided. Others have come to my home in the past and we have had Bible study together in a small group as I could know longer drive or work. They graciously have brought meals, taking me to specialist appointments and help to clean my home. The Lord Jesus has answered my prayers and continues to do so just at the right time. I am fortunate that I can still attend church the majority of the time, but must come home very quickly to rest and recover. I am in crippling pain and average 4 to 4 1/2 hours sleep per night, i’m so grateful for all the help I receive, being Widowed and alone for long stretches of time at home, it can take me up to 1 hour to do what a normal person could do in 15 minutes of very light house work. I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have such love and compassion from my church family. They truly are the hands and feet of Jesus.

    • Thank you so much for sharing how you have been blessed by your church community. I am so thankful that you are surrounded by those who support you in those ways. And I am so thankful you are able to attend church most Sundays.

  3. I also forgot to mention that when my dear friend arrived this morning I was in tears because of the pain, my body was freezing and burning all at the same time. As my dear friend was loading my walker, and my step to get me into her vehicle there was such laughter. This was our first attempt hoping that it would fit in her car. My tears were turned to joy. My dear sister in Christ brought sunshine into my day where there was darkness. Even after she had left, she was on a mission to help me find clothing that I desperately needed, went to her local shopping mall and purchased on my behalf. She works full time has a husband and two adult children, yet on her day off had spent it sacrificially on my needs. Our church is currently studying the book of Romans, we are learning week by week what it means to truly sacrifice our free time to bless others in our congregation, in our community and in our family. This is just one example I’ve given today of how God has worked to give hope to what appears hopeless, and to give strength for just another day. In one of our ladies Bible study’s I learned valuable lesson. I prayed, that the Lord would give me eyes to see A need that has perhaps gone unnoticed in our church family, and to supply that need discreetly. Yet what I’ve learned, is that the more we seek to attend to the needs of others, even when we ourselves are in poor physical health God graciously and unexpectedly, answers our prayers and brightens our day.

  4. Really great post and an issue I have struggled with as well. My church attendance has been pretty spotty between my physical and mental health issues since 2003. I’ve made my peace with it and feel God understands but I do worry about not taking my child to church. thesundaymass.org is an online Catholic service. I watch that and it comforts me.

    • Thanks so much! I am glad you have found an online service you can attend. I can see how you would want your child to be able to go – it’s for things like that that I feel like we really need the help of community around us.

      Thank you for sharing the service you watch!

  5. Great quote by Bonhoeffer! Will have to remember that one. Hermits are often thought of as escaping from community in order to spend time in prayer. In actuality, if they are truly praying, they are more deeply entering into communal life even though not physically present.

    Even if you are unable to participate in Sunday services, you have a community of like-minded individuals here through this blog. Hopefully that helps…

    • I am thankful to be able to go to church these days, and I see people much more than I used to. But those times when I cannot, this online community certainly helps!

  6. Ted, this is such a beautiful, heartfelt post. God sees your faithfulness. If only we knew how tenderly and how passionately we are loved by our God, who is “a consuming fire,” I believe that knowledge would see us through anything. Much love from one who struggles less than you but is still in the club!

  7. This is so true! I hate going when I feel well because telling people who ask, that I couldn’t come because I hurt sounds so lame. They often say, “well, I do too, but I’m here!”

  8. I guess that I just wanted to add that I have discovered that my concept of “Church” has changed from being about the building to being about having a deep relationship with God. My community now may only consist of 2-3 people at a time but we share our experiences of being on this path together in a very unscheduled, spontaneous way. Our talks are meaningful and our prayers heartfelt and specific for each other. I am not anti Church (building) but feel I am thankful now to be on this path of redefining Church.

  9. These are the issues I’ve experienced: “The devil is preventing you from going, don’t cave into him.” “You’re just not educated in the word enough to receive your healing.” I cannot abide by word of faith doctrine. If my level of functioning is so low that it has been eight days since I have bathed, the last thing I am willing to face is misguided condemnation, judgement, and extrapolated scripture that promotes Doctrines of demons and men. I would welcome help with errands or housework. Where is the compassion of Jesus being reflected in these people? I live in Colorado Springs, sometimes referred to as the evangelical Capitol of the U.S. One self-proclaimed evangelist neighbor told me, “Stand up straight, like the Christian I know that you are!” I guess the necessity of walking with a cane opposes his doctrine. I don’t have biological family. And to have experienced so much hurt from my “other family,” the church…So much more I could say… But hurting too much physically, spiritually, emotionally and financially to say more.

    • Wendy, I am sad to hear what you have been through – sad that you have not received help from your church family and that they have said those things to you. That is truly not right. Thank you for sharing your story.

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