The Faith and Illness Initiative (FII) is a project hosted by The Girod Chair of Western Theological Seminary to discover a theology of vocation and virtue for Christians living with chronic illness.
FII seeks to facilitate an interdisciplinary conversation among pastors, scholars, and medical professionals, alongside faithful Christians who live with chronic pain or illness and their caregivers. The goal is to shape the theological imagination of the church on this topic.
FII is currently recruiting pastors to participate in the 2023 FII Colloquy. Click Below to learn more and apply
By Dr. Todd Billings, Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology
The Problem: The Growing Challenge of Chronic Illness and Inadequate Storylines of Discipleship
Medicine has its limits, but it is an extraordinary gift from God. Modern medicine has made great strides in treating acute injuries and illnesses, extending lifespans and giving “second chances” for life to many patients with serious illness. Amidst these advances, the prevalence of chronic illness has risen sharply. Demographic studies anticipate that serious chronic illness will become significantly more widespread in coming decades. Bio-medical treatments have provided great help for many with acute illnesses. But as research has shown, bio-medical approaches to chronic illness are ultimately insufficient. Indeed, as Harvard Medical School professor Arthur Kleienman has shown in The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, and the Human Condition, chronic illness is invariably complex, with biological, psychological, social, and cultural elements tightly entangled together. Fruitful treatment requires not simply a new pill, or another bio-chemical intervention. Instead, since chronic illness is a “bio-psycho-social” reality, a path toward healing engages not the medical system, with its various approaches to physical and mental health, but the patient’s culture and community, the life-purposes of the ill. Chronic illness is a deepening problem. It will not be properly addressed by treating individuals as “consumers” of medical goods and services. We need the partnership of communities of connection and care. We need to engage questions of life-purpose, which relate to faith. Ultimately, for those of us who are Christians living with chronic illness, we need the living God. We need the church. And the church needs us.
And yet, in the modern west today, Christians with chronic and degenerative illness are asked to live within a narrow set of “storylines” about how the gospel relates to these complex forms of illness. While prayer and support are helpful, these Christians often become objects of prayer for healing in a way that suggests they cannot participate in God’s mission in the world until the illness goes away. Whether through the common storylines of “victory over illness” through the “miracle of modern medicine,” or through praying for miraculous intervention, Christians living with ongoing illness often feel forgotten and sidelined when the illness continues unabated. Ill Christians are often told to become “advocates” to “fix” the problem — to be “warriors against cancer” or “warriors against chronic Lyme disease.” But the ongoing battle of displaying the light of Christ in a darkening world is no longer seen as a possibility. In spite of good intentions from faith communities in our medicalized age, they often fail to offer a robust theology and pathways of discipleship for followers of Christ amidst illness.
The Path Forward: To Recover a Robust Vision of Vocation and Discipleship
The Christian faith has a long and storied heritage in caring for persons struggling with illness. This has been displayed in a variety of personal and communal callings. Some have explored the marvelous order and complexity within God’s creation to discover new medicines and modes of treatment. Others steward their energy to help provide a communal response to acute injuries and illnesses. Others provide care through help and companionship, as a family member or clinician. Since the earliest centuries of the Christian faith, Christians have sought to provide communal and personal responses to fellow image-bearers in need, in body and soul.
In addition, for centuries before modern medicine, Christian communities joined together in worship with the ill, addressing the needs and gifts of ill members of the congregation in particular ways. Coming before the Lord of life with laments and petitions for healing, Christians prayed for one another to grow in conformity with Christ, whether or not the illness was physically healed. Physical healing is a good gift. But recognizing that the Christian’s ultimate enemy is not illness, but sin and the work of the principalities and powers, Christian communities sought to give a robust vision of discipleship for the ill and (temporarily) healthy alike. Amidst the affliction of ongoing illness, believers faced particular temptations, such as despair and envy, and were especially called to particular virtues, such as hope and perseverance. The community was called to support ill brothers and sisters in their vulnerabilities, and to learn from them in their examples as fellow ambassadors of the good news.
This commitment to a robust vision of discipleship that extends not only to the healthy but the ill has a deep source in the Christian faith: by the Spirit, the church bears witness to our crucified and risen Lord. As the apostle Paul testified, the power of God is displayed in the crumbling “jars of clay” of our mortal bodies. This takes place “to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Cor. 4:7, NIV). Our bodies are good gifts, temples of the Holy Spirit. And yet, “outwardly we are wasting away” even as “inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). Amidst his own ongoing afflictions, Paul repeatedly cried out for relief (2 Cor. 12:8). Yet the Risen Jesus declared to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:8). Amidst ongoing illness, Christians are to simultaneously seek mending and repair, and to bear witness to the crucified and risen Lord when illness persists. For as Paul testified, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
The Opening Colloquy: Fall of 2023
The first colloquy for the Faith and Illness Initiative will take place September 18-20, 2023, in Holland, MI. It will include two public events – one at Western Theological Seminary, and one at Hope College, co-sponsored by the St. Benedict Institute.
Apart from the two public events, a core group of 12-14 will meet for discussions, meals, and shared life together. This core group will include a group of visiting scholars and clinicians, a group of pastor-theologians (who will be accepted after an application process) and a small group of seminary students.
- Scholar and Clinician Participants: Dr. J. Todd Billings, theologian at Western Theological Seminary and author of Rejoicing in Lament and The End of the Christian Life will be the scholar-host. He will help lead the discussion with confirmed visiting speakers and scholars, including Dr. Matthew Levering, theologian and author of Dying and the Virtues (and many other books); Dr. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, author of Glittering Vices (and numerous other works) and a philosopher at Calvin University specializing in virtue ethics; Dr. Irene Kraegel, author of The Mindful Christian and a clinician who directs the Center for Counseling and Wellness at Calvin University.
- Guest Participants: Each colloquy will feature discussions with a variety of participants from theological and medical perspectives. In addition, various faculty from Western Theological Seminary and Hope College will join the group for discussions that are pertinent to their areas of interest and expertise.
- Discussions: The discussions function like “think tank” sessions, diving deeply into the topic. We seek to think biblically and theologically about our topic, but in a way that is attentive to pastoral practice, congregational life, and the experience of Christians living with chronic and degenerative illness. The “end goal” is to generate constructive theological, liturgical, and pastoral resources to embrace a renewed theology of discipleship for Christians living with ongoing illness.
- Articles, Blog Posts and resources will emerge from pastors after each colloquy, on the ecclesial dimensions of the topic.