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“I am watching my wife die of cancer,” Pastor Eric Tonjes wrote in 2020. “There are moments where it has a strange, stark beauty….She has shown a grace and peace in her suffering that has displayed Jesus to me and to many others.” He continues, “Cancer’s reality has also been brutal, leaving in my soul churning pools of existential despair and spiritual rage.”1
THE SUFFERING OF CAREGIVERS
As Tonjes attests, caregiving can bring profound joy, but it can also lead to intense personal suffering. Caregiving calls for compassion, and compassion, which comes from a Latin word meaning “to suffer with,”2 necessarily involves suffering. Caregivers suffer with and for their loved ones.
The fifty-three million caregivers in America,3 whether serving for months or for a lifetime, caring for a child born with a disability, a spouse with a terminal illness, or a mom with Alzheimer’s, daily face an endless and exhausting array of tasks. As Kate Washington, who cared for her husband during a cancer crisis, explains, “In cases of serious illness or ongoing disability…[caregiving can] become a full-time job that includes paperwork and fighting insurance battles, administering IV nutrition and changing colostomy bags, sorting medications and checking insulin.”4 In addition to the exhausting work, “caregiving has all of the features of a chronic stress experience,”5 and caregivers suffer emotional, psychological, spiritual, and physical effects, including anxiety, depression, fear, grief, guilt, shame, isolation, doubt, and poor health.
How can a caregiver find joy in the midst of such suffering? For the Christian caregiver, appreciating the riches of our union with Christ may offer much-needed hope when suffering threatens despair.
UNION WITH CHRIST
What is “union with Christ,” and how could it possibly help the family caregiver who needs to call the insurance company, change her son’s feeding tube, and get him to the physical therapist, all before nine a.m.?
Union with Christ, put most simply, means that by faith in Christ, we are “in Christ,” and He is “in us.” The Holy Spirit joins us to Christ in a mysterious union, which Galatians 2:20 describes: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”6
Throughout the New Testament, the phrases “in Christ” (eighty-nine times) and “in him” (ninety-one times), reveal aspects of our union with Christ. The apostle Paul describes the blessings that stem from our union with Christ: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph. 1:3–4, emphasis added). As theologian Robert Reymond explains, “Union with Christ is the fountainhead from which flows the Christian’s every spiritual blessing — repentance and faith, pardon, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and glorification.”7
If union with Christ is the fountainhead of our Christian life, we must seek to draw from its resources. Author Rankin Wilbourne shares a sailboat analogy to describe the relationship between God’s gracious gift of our union with Christ and our efforts to experience it: “We can’t control the wind [God’s grace], but we can catch it. And in order to catch the wind, you have to draw the sail.”8 Wilbourne explains that the traditional means of grace — meditating on God’s word, prayer, worship, communion, and fellowship with the body of believers — are ways we can “draw the sail” to harness God’s grace.
As we harness God’s grace, we find safety and security in our union with Christ. To demonstrate this security, Wilbourne describes a play executed by his junior high football team: Andrew, an enormous linebacker, would run ahead of the scrawny Wilbourne, who carried the ball. “Everything that was supposed to hit me hit Andrew. He blazed a path for me against hostile forces. He made a way to glory.”9 Wilbourne explains, “The Bible says that those who belong to Christ are so intertwined with his life that when he died, we died with him” (see Col. 3:3 and Rom. 6:3–11).10 For the suffering caregiver, this image of union with Christ may be particularly relevant: “Everything that was supposed to hit us, even the judgment of God for our sins, hit Jesus.”11 Let’s consider how Christ bears the brunt of the caregiver’s suffering and how He gives hope for joy in the midst of the suffering.
CHRIST BEARS THE BRUNT OF THE CAREGIVERS’ SUFFERINGS
When caregiving lands us in a wild maelstrom of suffering, knowing that we are anchored to the one who is with us in the storm secures our hearts with hope and joy. Let’s consider just a few of the ways union with Christ helps the caregiver in suffering.
Daily Burdens. When we think we can’t handle one more doctor’s appointment, change one more diaper, or remember one more dose of medicine, we know we are united to the Christ who cares for us in the nitty-gritty. The Christ in us is, after all, the Son of the God who feeds the “birds of the air” and “clothes the grass of the field” (Matt. 6:26, 28). As Eric Tonjes explains, “He doesn’t watch over us distractedly, the way we watch TV while we’re trying to do chores around the house….He is big up into the heavens but also big down into the tiniest details of our lives.”12
Emotional and Psychological Turmoil. Whether we struggle with anxiety over an unexpected PET-scan, depression resulting from years of unrelieved caregiving, or despair over our loved ones’ unrelenting pain, we are united to a suffering Savior. Christ Himself endured psychological and emotional distress on the cross, beyond excruciating physical trauma, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). As Pastor David Leyshon, who retired from ministry due to Parkinson’s disease, explains, Christ’s sufferings “have equipped Jesus to act as our High Priest who, because of what he has personally experienced, understands our every sorrow, and as the omnipresent, omnipotent God, is able to provide not just sympathy but very real help.”13
Grief. When a caregiver’s spouse no longer knows her name, when a terminal illness approaches its end, or when teenagers mock a disabled child, the caregiver grieves with the One who is “acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). Indeed, Jesus “has borne our griefs” (Isa. 53:4), as He took the punishment for our sins. Not only did Jesus bear our grief, He Himself grieved when His friend Lazarus died (John 11:35). Even though He knew He would raise Lazarus from the dead, Jesus did not accept His friend’s death stoically. When grief assails us, we shed our tears in the embrace of the One who entered into grief on our behalf.
Isolation. When caregiving prevents us from going to church, leaves us too weary to go for a walk with a friend, or makes us feel alienated from those who don’t understand our burden, we know we are never alone because we are united to the One who experienced isolation for us. As Stephanie Hubach, author and parent of a Down syndrome adult, writes, “Jesus suffered the isolation of not belonging in this world so that we might always belong to him.”14 Not only did Christ experience our isolation; as the head of the body, He has joined us to His body, the church: we are “members of one another” (Rom. 12:5). As members of the body of Christ, we can ask for help, because the body is called to shoulder one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2).
Guilt and Shame. When our tempers run short, when we utter insults we wish we could retract, or when we forget to pick up our spouse’s medicine — whether we’ve sinned or simply made a mistake, our union with Christ offers hope for forgiveness. As pastor and theologian Dane Ortlund reminds us, “As deep as your failure goes, Christ and your union with him go deeper still. As strong as your sin feels, the bond of your oneness with Jesus Christ is stronger still.”15
Spiritual Doubts. When we are tempted to ask questions like, “Why is God allowing this to happen?” or “Am I being punished?” or “Does God care?” our union with Christ offers hope, if not answers. As Wilbourne explains, “If you know that you are ‘in Christ’…you can be sure and certain that God loves you even though you may not know why he is allowing this suffering….It can’t mean God is punishing you or condemning you since Christ already bore all the punishment and condemnation that our sins deserved…(Heb. 10:10; Rom. 8:1).”16
Health. When we fail to prioritize our own doctors’ appointments, when we suffer fatigue for lack of rest, or when we injure our bodies trying to lift a loved one, we can remember that we are united to the One who came to care for us physically. Jesus tended to the sick, and He calls us to care for our bodies because He cares for them. Additionally, united to Christ, our bodies become the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19), so we are called to steward our health wisely.
In every struggle we face as caregivers, we find that the rich resources of our union with Christ can shield us from being knocked down or can offer a hand up when we land in the pit of despair. But there is an additional way union with Christ helps the caregiver cope with her suffering.
UNION WITH CHRIST AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF SUFFERING
Not only does union with Christ mean that He takes the brunt of a caregiver’s suffering, it also imbues her suffering with profound meaning and purpose. Studies have shown that finding meaning and purpose in their suffering is essential to a caregiver’s coping ability.17 Caregivers united to Christ by faith find meaning and purpose in their suffering in two key ways.
First, Christ Himself attached deep meaning to a caregiver’s suffering by claiming that His followers care for Him when they care for “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). Empowered by Christ in our union with Him, we enter suffering with our loved one; as we do so, we care for the suffering Christ. In this mysterious way, we grow more closely connected to Christ through caregiving, and caregiving takes on deeper meaning.
Second, our union with Christ calls us to share in His sufferings (Phil. 3:10). As we share in Christ’s sufferings, He uses our suffering to display God’s glory, to preach the gospel, and to advance His kingdom. The apostle Paul, after detailing his own suffering, concludes, “For it [his suffering] is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15). As we share in Christ’s sufferings, our suffering is transformed into glory.
While caregivers will indeed suffer, union with Christ infuses that suffering with deep meaning and profound hope. Hidden in Him, we know our griefs are borne by Him. Caring for another, we care for Christ. One day soon, He will return, and He will wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:4). In that day, we will see Him face to face. Having participated in His sufferings through our union with Him, we will rejoice as we see His glory revealed (1 Pet. 4:13).
Eric Tonjes, Either Way, We’ll Be All Right: An Honest Exploration of God in Our Grief (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2021), 1.
Merriam-Webster, s.v. “compassion (n.),” accessed August 29, 2022, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/compassion.
Deborah Schoch, “1 in 5 Americans Provide Unpaid Family Care,” AARP, June 18, 2020, https://www.aarp.org/caregiving/basics/info-2020/unpaid-family-caregivers-report.html.
Kate Washington, Already Toast: Caregiving and Burnout in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2021), 4.
Richard Schulz and Paula R. Sherwood, “Physical and Mental Health Effects of Family Caregiving,” American Journal of Nursing 108, no. 9 Suppl (September 2008): 23–27, https://doi.org/10.1097/01.NAJ.0000336406.45248.4c.
All Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), dccclix, quoted in Rankin Wilbourne, Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2016), 109.
Wilbourne, Union with Christ, 212.
Wilbourne, Union with Christ, 41.
Wilbourne, Union with Christ, 42.
Wilbourne, Union with Christ, 42.
Tonjes, Either Way, We’ll Be All Right, 111–12.
David Leyshon, Sickness, Suffering and Scripture (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2008), 46.
Stephanie O. Hubach, Parenting & Disabilities: Abiding in God’s Presence (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2021), 70.
Dane C. Ortlund, Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021), 66–7.
Wilbourne, Union with Christ, 255.
Tiago Casaleiro, et al., “Spiritual Aspects of the Family Caregivers’ Experiences When Caring for a Community-Dwelling Adult with Severe Mental Illness: A Systematic Review of Qualitative Evidence,” Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 29, no. 2 (April 2022): 240–73, https://doi.org/10.1111/jpm.12816.