As I’m sure we all do, I remember my wedding day like it was yesterday. The joy, the excitement, the hope. I remember how easy it was to promise to love and honor Jonathan in sickness and health, for richer for poorer, until death do us part. I remember that I wanted nothing more than to dote on him and care for him for the rest of my life.

At the very grown and mature age of 17, while I meant those vows with all of my heart, there were a lot of things that were not on my radar. Things that I knew in the back of my mind were possible, but really those things would never happen to us. Things like surgeries and pulmonary embolisms when you realize how fragile life is. Things like cancer. Things like alzheimers. Things like paralysis.

Yet the truth is that these struggles and others are a part of daily life for many of us. Sometimes the struggle is that we are the one who is sick, and we feel guilty because our spouse is having to pick up our “slack.” When you are the one who is struggling with health issues it is easy to feel like we aren’t fulfilling God’s expectations of our role in our family, or like we are disappointing or not providing for our family.

It is at these times that we have the opportunity to set a tremendous example. I believe that by nature, as women we are much more comfortable serving than being served but there is a time and a place for both. As always Jesus is the perfect example. In John 12:1-8 we have a beautiful example of Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, washing the Savior’s feet. As our ultimate example he allowed this woman to serve him in the most humble (and let’s be honest gross) manner possible.

The word “humble” is extremely important here. It takes humility to allow others to serve us, and depending on our exact situation sometimes that service is even more humbling because it is what we would consider “gross.” Particularly if we have been struggling with a long-term illness. Yet, like Jesus, we glorify God when we graciously allow others to minister to us and serve us.

Sometimes, however, the shoe is on the other foot. Sometimes our spouse is the one who has a long-term illness, and we find ourselves unexpectedly in the role of caregiver. This can require a lot of sacrifice, and sometimes grieving the loss of dreams and hopes for what life would look like.

We must remember that while Jesus allowed Mary to wash his feet, in John 13:1-20 he was also willing to wash the feet of his apostles. This was unflattering, dirty work, yet he did it with love and compassion. This brings to mind Colossians 3:23,

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”

Regardless of which side of this equation you may be on, being cared for or being the cared giver, this is really tough. It’s hard, it can be lonely and isolating, and it can put a strain on the marriage relationship. Here are a few practical ideas for walking through those difficult times of sickness in a way that will strengthen your marriage:

  1. Pray. We are quick to mention prayer in times of difficulty, but I want to encourage you to pray a specific kind of prayer. Allow God to be your rock during this time, he can handle it! Spend some time studying Job and Psalms, and in particular look for the emotions they express and how they speak to God. We would get run out of town if we prayed on Sunday morning as they pray because they are very raw and vulnerable with God about exactly what they are thinking and feeling. Interestingly, both men are honored for their faithfulness, and God never condemns their emotion. While it can feel awkward, I find it’s especially helpful to pray these emotionally vulnerable prayers out loud.

  2. Ask for help. It’s perfectly OK to ask your kids (if they are old enough), other family members or the brethren to help. People are generally willing and glad to help, but they can’t help unless they know that there is a need. Some ways they could help would be providing meals or gift cards, sitting with the ill spouse while the healthy spouse has a break, picking up groceries, or getting on a mailing list for cards of encouragement.

  3. Beware of resentment. Whether you are the one caring or the one being cared for, these times of difficulty can breed resentment. Shoving down those stresses and hard emotions only increase the likelihood that resentment will enter the relationship. Journal, talk to a trusted friend, and when possible have open and honest communication with your spouse about the situation. Chances are that they are struggling as well, and open communication can help to ensure you are pulling together rather than against each other.

  4. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. If you are dealing with sickness, allow yourself needed time to rest and heal. Don’t constantly push yourself trying to heal faster, as this will actually slow down your healing. If you are the caregiver, it’s so important to take time for yourself. Go for a walk, take a long bubble bath, make sure to spend personal time in prayer and Bible study every day. You can’t pour from an empty cup, so remember how important it is to take time to recharge.

  5. Find a source of support and encouragement. Ideally this will come from your immediate family and your church family, however this is not always the case. There are many online support groups available, several of which are comprised of brethren and focus on specific ailments. Do some research, have others help you research, and find a tribe that can give you extra support and love.

No one envisions times of extended illness or difficulty on their wedding day, yet sometimes that’s what happens. It’s no one’s fault, it’s the result of living in a fallen world. In these difficult situations is when we have the opportunity to let our light shine the brightest. It is then we can model humility and compassion in a deeply meaningful way for our children and our grandchildren. If you are in a time of sickness, may God bless you and your spouse. May his people surround you with love and encouragement. Most of all, may you lean on the Creator who knit you together in the womb (Psalm 139:13) and find the peace that passes understanding (Philippians 4:6) even in the dark and difficult times.