A Biblical Theology of Chronic Illness -- By: Jeffrey H. Boyd

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 024:2 (Fall 2003)
Article: A Biblical Theology of Chronic Illness
Author: Jeffrey H. Boyd


A Biblical Theology of Chronic Illness

Jeffrey H. Boyd

Dr. Jeffrey Boyd is a physician at Waterbury Hospital, Waterbury, Connecticut. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Fifty-Fourth Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, November 20, 2002, Toronto, Canada.

There is an increasing amount of chronic illness today because the population is aging and the risk of most illnesses increases with age.1 Estimates are that at least one hundred million or one third of all Americans now have a chronic disorder and that proportion is increasing.2 Like the CDC (United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), I define chronic illnesses as ones “that are prolonged, do not resolve spontaneously, and are rarely cured completely.”3 Historically the church has a robust theology of death but almost no theology appropriate to chronic illness. At the time of the American Revolution the average person lived about thirty-six years.4 Today it is seventy-seven, and soon it will be eighty years.5 During most of the centuries since Christ, people got sick, and in a relatively short time, they either recovered or died. There was little need for a theology of sickness. A theological understanding of death was sufficient. But today someone can acquire a chronic illness and live with it for decades, sometimes for seventy years. We need to have a theology that speaks to this new circumstance.

This paper will attempt to develop a theology of chronic illness. I will make two points: First, some parts of the church have over-emphasized the healing aspect of prayer. Second, we should emphasize the God-human relationship if we want to help sick people.

Before embarking, let me to articulate the guiding principles that shape this work—principle #1, from Hippocrates: we should do no harm to sick people; principle #2: we should unpack the Bible in such a manner that sick people will find helpful.

The context of this article is important. While there is an increasing amount of chronic disease, this is only one side of the picture. There is also a decreasing amount of disability caused by medical illnesses, a phenomenon which is sometimes called “morbidity compression.”6 We are diagnosing diseases earlier and managing them better. Although the population is aging, and acquiring more diseases as i...

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