There are many Bible verses that take on richer, more personal meanings when you suffer from a chronic illness, such as ME. Paul’s thorn in the flesh comes to mind, and the word he received from God: “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9; all quotes from NLT) Or the words of David: “My life is poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax, melting within me. My strength has dried up like sunbaked clay.” (Psalm 22:14-15a). Or the book of Job …
One particular verse that I have thought about quite a bit is the one that Jesus himself calls the most important commandment: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.” (Mark 12:30, quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 – although interestingly adding “all your mind”.)
Power in Weakness
The problem I have is that in my case, and for many people, “all your …” doesn’t amount to much.
“All your heart”; well, some of the problems many ME sufferers have are to do with the heart: tachycardia, arrhythmia, palpitations, and hypotension leading to dizziness and even fainting. In fact, these are the only symptoms my GP has been particularly concerned about, after a couple of trips to A&E; but several cardiology appointments and tests confirmed the symptoms but failed to find any organic cause. (However, there is quite a bit of research literature on the mechanisms in ME patients that may account for these symptoms.)
“All your mind”; the frequent occurrence of what ME patients usually call “brain fog” makes this one tricky: unable to concentrate, difficulty taking in new information, sometimes stuck for words. This is why I generally read the Bible in the New Living Translation these days (previously it was any version, often the NRSV), as it takes less effort.
“All your strength”; any ME patient will tell you that it’s not all about fatigue (hence our dislike of the too general “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome”), but fatigue is there, along with aching muscles after quite trivial exercise. So that’s another one where I’m not doing well.
Which only leaves “all your soul”; and I think God is a better judge of how well this is doing than I am. But of course, God is also the better judge of how well I am doing with all the others, too. It is God’s power that works best in my weakness; so I need to learn to respond, with Paul, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).
Types of Energy
But there’s another way that I have beein thinking about this verse, as it can be used to describe different types of energy, and energy management is key to living well with ME and other chronic illnesses.
So we have strength = physical energy, mind = mental energy, heart (taking it metaphorically this time) = emotional energy, and soul = spiritual energy.
Back when I was still working, and having regular meetings to discuss my health (or lack of it), the HR manager would try and suggest things I might do to “give me energy”. (In her case it was going for a run in the evening which gave her a lift from the stresses of the day.) This is part of the lack of understanding of ME, suggesting that the physical symptoms are simply the result of stress or feeling badly.
I don’t know of any physical activity that would increase my store of physical energy. It is true that, in general, physical exercise will build up muscles, and mental exercise will build up brain power; but there are limits to how much of these even a healthy person can do at one time. For people with ME these limits are extremely low, and increasing activity beyond them makes things worse, and brings on all the other symptoms.
It is also possible to drain emotional and spiritual energy, especially from stress, and with difficult relationships, and one of the hard things we have to learn is how to say ‘no’ to things that are likely to do this.
And yet … there is a sense in which energy levels can be increased by activity – but these are the emotional and spiritual energy types. A walk in the park (even a short one) may result in muscle pains, but it may lift my spirits; a visit from family may end up fogging my brain but may also be emotionally rewarding. Singing hymns may leave me short of breath (a slightly worrying recent development), but it still is part of worshipping God with all my … which is where we came in.
There are times, then, when it is worth pushing ourselves to do certain things, accepting the resulting muscle pain, brain fog, fainting – if we know that other kinds of energy will be refreshed by them, and that they are part of what makes life worth living.
And the runner-up is:
Emotional and spiritual energies can also be lifted by encouraging words and support from others. Fortunately, these don’t take up too much physical or mental energy (unless I’m really low on these), so that as well as receiving them, they are things I can do for others – when I remember! And that leads me to the second commandment, which Jesus said was equally important: “Love your neighbour as yourself”. (Mark 12:31)