Three Things to Never Say to a Chronically Ill Friend

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1. “I’m too busy.”

Every choice you make shows your life priorities. With these three little word, you’ve told your friend that they’re last.

After grocery shopping. Scrubbing your toilet. Talking to other friends. Stepping away from that customer, heading out of that meeting a few minutes early, or writing that last paragraph.

Or maybe even skipping a church service to worship with them.

Chronic illness strips life to the bare bones. People who suffer with pain or daily defy death are busy about the task of survival. More than most people, they know the meaning of “too busy.” And most are still finding ways to give to others on the journey.

Saying you’re too busy invalidates the day-to-day significance and sanctity of their courage and resilience.

Busy is not activity.

Busy is meaningful engagement with the work God has given us.

3. “Including you could make other people feel awkward.”

Yep. Christians really say this. And when they don’t say it out loud, they live it by avoiding, excluding, or consciously or subconsciously condescending. They feel awkward with wheelchairs, catheters, other strange medical equipment and procedures, and friends who just never get better year after year. They want to offer solution and feel inadequate. So they drift away.

They use their discomfort with other people’s needs as a measuring stick for inclusion. Clearly this is not what Jesus taught. Jesus was never concerned about offending others when He extended compassion to the suffering. He always met people at their point of need. His ministry was public, so people could see his heart and learn.

As believers, our role is to become compassionate advocates on behalf of the sick and broken. We need to educate ourselves about their needs and join them in those places. This will mean sacrifice, discomfort, and speaking up on their behalf. It will be learning to see through their eyes and teaching others to see them with dignity. And perhaps above all, offering the simple gift of presence for the long haul.

3. “Why aren’t you over this yet?”


In many circles, Christians grow impatient if healing doesn’t come quickly. People with chronic illness and especially invisible illnesses feel judged, isolated, and labeled as somehow less than spiritual.


Lacking in faith.

Or simply navigating the medical field in ways that others disapprove of.

Jesus was intolerant of spiritual judgment. He offered compassion to the suffering. And he told us to expect that WE would suffer, and that the path to being conformed to his image would require learning tough lessons.

Disease and decay is part of a sinful world–whether we experience aging eyes, rheumatoid arthritis, or saggy skin. Some people experience miraculous healing. Some do not. It’s God’s business why, and his plan to use us for his glory through miraculous healing or chronic illness. Either way, his glory and blessings in our lives are not diminished, and we don’t feel like we need to apologize for him. Ever.

So if you feel impatient or judgmental of the chronically ill or prideful in yourself, your seeming faith or theology or medical approach over someone else’s, stop it. God hates pride.

Ask what you can learn from those who are suffering. Walk beside them. Listen. And offer a learning, compassionate spirit.

  • Perhaps you’re a middle-aged Sunday School teacher. What can you learn from a fourteen-year old girl who has to go to school and cath herself to get through the day? How has she learned to cope?
  • What about the single mother of three who lives two hours from the nearest children’s hospital, where here toddler daughter receives ongoing inpatient medical care for her cerebral palsy? How does Mom care for the other two kids at home while caring for her daughter in the hospital and her own diabetes while maintaining a job and income?
  • Or what about the twenty-three year-old in the church pew beside you who wheels into church through the snow to navigate life and lives with her parents? She’s undergone forty surgeries for her cerebral palsy and lives with a shunt in her brain. She has no hope of dating or marriage. She began steroid therapy before the age of ten, which stimulated early breast development and devastated her endocrine system. Her health has devastated her dreams for a husband, children, and she suffers from PTSD from a live of medical procedures. What can she teach you?
  • Or more importantly, what rich gifts can these individuals and other bring to the church–to us? What are we missing when we are too blind to enter into their stories with passion, grace, and humility?

What do YOU think? I’d love to hear from you.

4 thoughts on “Three Things to Never Say to a Chronically Ill Friend

  1. Shelly, these are truly valid points… . Thanks for inviting others to input.

    I might offer a couple additional reasons why I’ve observed that people don’t engage:
    1. They themselves, are overwhelmed with life and their own (family/work) challenges;
    2. They are/or feel they are not equipped to engage in helpful ways and others’ problems underscore that anxiety/deficiency;
    3. They “fear” that they will “do it wrong” and make things more difficult for you by their misstep (perceived or real);
    4. People really don’t know “how” to pray…they are not seeking God for their own lives, let alone your problems, so they feel hypocritical or dishonest in saying they will come alongside;
    5. Saying they are “too busy” or acting out of business is a cultural problem – we are ALL too busy. We don’t really have our priorities straight. We don’t know how to be quiet…find solace in the Lord/his Word, and so we are empty rather than being filled and able to love;
    6. People with chronic illness (even the silent-you look good, how bad could it be) are weary and wear others out (I know…I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum) causing them to feel inadequate & guilty, ergo avoidance seems the only option. It’s not that they are uncaring, they are just unable to meet your need (and that’s okay – let it be okay);
    7. People with chronic illness often whine. Hardly anyone, but God, knows how to deal with that and even at that, God is about provides us with solutions not pity parties;
    8. People with acute or chronic illness often share too much information adding to others’ inability or sense of sufficiency to come alongside… . It can become too exhausting, especially if you already feel ill-equipped, and unless you like hearing details, seeing bloody images (etc.), it is visually beyond many people’s ability to grapple with your suffering;
    9. Our gifts differ – some people have a God-infused compassion whereas others are “take charge” let me help you find some practical ways to help your situation (which may not be what you need, yet they are acting out of their gifts);
    10. People have unrealistic expectations of your ability to come alongside and may rebuff your efforts because they don’t “meet your expectations.” We can only “expect” God to meet our needs. Everything else is “icing on the cake” so to speak;
    11. We are selfish. Go figure. Dying to self and caring for the needs of others is unfamiliar territory to the “old man” – our unregenerated/unredeemed soul nature. People who are ill (emotionally or physically) would also do well to not play the “sympathy” card but praise God, knowing that he has said he works all things together for good, that in our suffering we are drawn closer to him…etc. and ask our friends to come alongside us to help our faith to be built up as we all grow in grace and honor God on our journey.
    12. We don’t know how to esteem others, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Our delivery for others to “be strong” in the Lord often comes across as harsh or condescending, rather than gentle and humble. Forgive them.

    As mentioned, I’ve been on every part of this spectrum. I’ve discovered in myself and others, that anger and bitterness surface quickly when we look to people to meet our needs. Repent. Seek to have your own contrite heart – even amidst your struggle.

    Bearing with one another, forgiving, making allowance for others’ failures/imperfections; showing kindness and compassion are all things to which we choose to yield. Our maturity in the Lord is a pivot point for that.

    I am greatly more understanding and empathetic toward people with whom I have a shared experience than I am with people whose experiences are outside my scope of experience. When I lost every physical thing I owned in 14 minutes of time, followed by other losses to my physical body and continuing insults as I attempted to resolve my fire claim, I continually bumped into one outrage after another. Some people helped, others did not. There were many who offered platitudes which seemed insincere, yet, they were (I believe), ‘trying’ in within the realm of their capacity or understanding.

    I remember the first time I saw a news clip of someone having lost their home to a disaster and they showed the newscaster some little trinket that was found in the rubble – that truly was the first time I had any comprehension or empathy. I said, “I know EXACTLY how s/he feels!” Before the fire loss of my home/belonging, it was just a tragedy someone else experienced but I had no space for it in my perception – no empathy – it was just facts. I could write a check, offer some practical help, but I had no emotional hook ergo my response was pragmatic, not born of compassion. We need to give grace to others who are not on the same level of understanding.

    We are all broken. The measure of our ability to respond is often proportionate to walking in the perfection of His goodness and grace – walking in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. May love unite us not divide us.

    Shelly, thank you for sharing this post. It is an important discussion, but ultimately, it boils down to our maturity in Christ and walking in love. His capacity eclipses all of our inadequacies. May we all grow in grace and be a blessing, one to another. May we learn to be quiet before him and allow his care to transcend our earthly limitations as we do the greater things – the things of eternal value.

    • Liza, thank you so much for offering your wisdom. You give us so much from your heart, experience, and passion for God. We are blessed by your words.

  2. Shelly,

    Thanks for your great article. I am certainly familiar with many of the ideas you expressed, as I have had a brother go through kidney failure and a transplant, and another brother who has had leukemia twice and still suffers from the effects to this day (just had a total knee replacement less than a month ago).

    I’m not looking for pity haha. I just wanted to express gratitude for what happens when people throw the phrases you talked about out the window and rather reach out a helping hand and do everything they can to empathize with you and lift you up. Though there were really tough patches through the trials, we have been blessed with a multitude of people reaching out to us out of the pure charity of their hearts.

    Many of the helping hands came from members of our faith, and I know that the charity they share with us stems from the pure love of Christ that lives in them as a result of trying to live their lives like Christ. I know that Christ has felt all the pains and sorrows that we have felt, and that he is the only one who really understands our suffering, and that gives me great comfort.

    How does your faith in Christ help you in your times of trial?

    • Thank you so much, Samuel. I’ve been hugely blessed by my faith family, who have sacrificed and given to me in countless ways–in this journey and also over the years. Gratitude is key to life, in my opinion, and I’m enormously grateful for the ministry of friends from my faith perspective, many others who do not necessarily share my worldview, and especially my church. My church has been so caring, sensitive, and helpful. I very much appreciate your heart and perspective.–Shelly

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