Ulcerative Colitis and the Story of God

Disclaimer: This is the first time I am writing about the biggest struggle of my life—chronic illness. I am going to be vulnerable for a moment and share with you some of my health problems, fears, frustrations, insecurities, and joys, in the hope of encouraging others. I apologize ahead of time if I gross you out in any way.


 

The Pride-Crushing Diagnosis

It all started my last week of high school. The first symptoms I experienced were abdominal pain, diarrhea, and bloody stool. It got worse after graduating. My parents and I made many trips to the hospital. I remember one day being in the waiting room of a gastroenterologist and thinking, “What am I doing here?” I looked around the room and was discouraged at the fact that I was the youngest person there. Everyone else was older—a lot older!

After several trips to the hospital and numerous tests and scans, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness called ulcerative colitis, which is inflammation in the colon (large intestine). Basically, the immune system is out of whack, attacking things such as good bacteria and food that comes in, resulting in inflammation in the lining of the intestinal walls. Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease that is life-long and incurable.

The year I was diagnosed was hard for me. Up until this point, I had never heard of ulcerative colitis, so I responded in a typical Hispanic way: “It’s nothing! It will go away eventually!”

That year, I lost a lot of weight and felt embarrassed to go out. Doubt and fear were my companions. Depression showed its ugly face on various occasions. And the physical pain was unbearable at times, to the point that I contemplated the idea of giving up on life.

But God—yes God!—was (and has) been my source of refuge and strength. When I wanted to give up on life, He was there. God stretched His mighty hand and pulled me up from my pit of despair, giving me the courage to press on with life.

The Struggle is Real, But So is The Story of God

I feel like my struggle with chronic illness has been one of “trial and error”. I have literally spent thousands of dollars, visited many doctors, and tried many medications, from antibiotics and natural supplements to probiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs.

Due to ulcerative colitis, I have a hard time maintaining a healthy weight and often deal with physical fatigue, leaving me frustrated and discouraged at times.

This might sound crazy, but I am thankful for the pain and suffering I have experience thus far in my short twenty-five years of life. I thank God for the physical hardships because they have brought me closer to Him. Make no mistake about it: physical pain and suffering sucks, and I have had a few other health-related issues that have tested my faith over time.

I do not know about you, but it is easy for me to see life through the lens of chronic illness. Limitations, failures, shortcomings, insecurities, and fears tend to color my view of reality.

Without realizing it, I have allowed chronic illness to become big and God small. Consequently, I have often allowed chronic illness to define me—my value, meaning, and purpose, negatively impacting my self-esteem and my God-given dreams and aspirations.

But there is good news—really good news! The story of God has changed it all. The story of God gives me an interpretive grid by which to make sense of life and chronic illness.

The biblical story paints a different picture of reality—one from God’s point of view. Though I am a sinner, I bear the image of God and thus possess dignity and value. I experience pain and suffering and illness as a result of sin and its tragic effects on creation, including mankind.

The story of God reminds me to look back at the cross and empty tomb as historical events marked with God’s redemptive fingerprints. The biblical story also points me to the future when God will restore all things and get rid of all evil, sin, death, and pain. Illness and suffering will be more. This is the blessed hope that keeps me going.

So I am not defined by chronic illness; I am defined by God and His redemptive story, which gives my life meaning, joy, and purpose. I am defined by my identity in Christ, which is eternal and unchanging.

Ulcerative colitis will not have the last word! Christ will have the last word! Or better yet, Christ has had the last word ever since His sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection. Ulcerative colitis has nothing on me!

I have to remind myself constantly that my value does not depend on how much I weigh or how I look or how much harder I am trying to live a “normal” life. No, my value rests solely on God and His love for me. Period.

The fight for my joy is real. And that is true both when I am sick—and caught up in the pain—and when I am feeling fine and cruising along.

Things I’m Learning … Six Years Later!

Here is a list of some of the things that I am learning (key word) as a Christian struggling with a chronic illness:

  • I am learning that God is good, powerful, and faithful
  • I am learning to exercise self-control when dealing with, and responding to, negative comments made on my appearance
  • I am learning that I need more Christian accountability and community in my life
  • I am learning to value friendships more
  • I am learning that having faith means both praying and taking action
  • I am learning to seek and find refuge in God and His joy-giving, soul-awakening presence
  • I am learning to appreciate the ordinary things of life
  • I am learning to accept help from others
  • I am learning to glorify God with my (limited) physical strength and energy and,
  • I am learning to not take myself too seriously and to enjoy life to best of my ability.

Some Advice

If you are struggling with ulcerative colitis—or some other chronic illness—please hear me out: you are not alone! It was not until I began to see my health condition holistically—taking in consideration stress management, nutrition, exercise, rest, etc.—that I started to see some improvements. I am no expert on ulcerative colitis, but I have learned some things along the journey. Here are three tips/recommendations:

  1. Manage Stress

Monitor what (or who!) gives you stress and take practical steps to relieve it. Go out with your friends, go watch a movie, or go enjoy your favorite dish. If you’re a student, break down big assignments (like that 10-page paper!) into smaller, more-doable assignments. This can be a great way to relieve stress—and get a better grade too!

  1. Eat Healthy and Exercise Often

Eating healthy is not only hard, but expensive! I have tried organic, vegan, and gluten-free products and my wallet has paid the price. For me, avoiding red meat, spicy and greasy foods, and lactose products help prevent flare ups and stay in remission longer. You will need to experiment a bit and figure out which foods trigger symptoms and which foods “feel good in your tummy”.

When it comes to exercise, I enjoy playing basketball and soccer. Whether you like hiking, going to the gym, running, or baseball, make time and do it as often as you can. Stay physically active!

  1. Get Help

If you have the means, get professional help from a gastroenterologist and/or nutritionist. If you’re a college student, visit the health center at your campus and take advantage of its free and low-cost services. For online resources, I highly recommend checking out The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America.

In regards to medication and treatment, every person is different; therefore, every case of ulcerative colitis will be different. There is not a one-size-fits-all treatment or medication. If you struggle with ulcerative colitis and are interested in receiving medical advice, please consult with a physician or healthcare provider.


 

Do you—or someone you know—struggle with ulcerative colitis? What have you found or heard to be helpful? What would you say to others who are struggling with the same or a similar condition? You can leave a comment below.

Feel free to share this blog post with others. Please let me know how I can help/pray for you? You can contact me here.

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Following Jesus

The call to follow Jesus as Messiah is a not an easy one. It is a costly and challenging invitation. Why? The call to follow Jesus is a call to die to self and to take up one’s cross. Then, and only then, can one truly began to follow the Messiah. We would be wise to hear and heed the heart-cutting, soul-penetrating, life-giving words of the Messiah Himself:

“If anyone wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me and the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34b-35, HCSB).

The radical call to follow Jesus only makes sense in light of who Jesus is and what He has done for us. In other words, apart from the person and work of Jesus, the call to live a selfless and sacrificial life sounds a bit scandalous, counter-cultural, and altogether, impossible for one to live out in his or her own strength or wisdom.

It is important to note that Jesus’ call to follow Him comes right after Mark 8:27-30 and Mark 8:31-33—two important passages that share a light on the identity and mission of the Messiah.

In Mark 8:27-30, we see Jesus asking His disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (v. 27). After the disciples respond by stating the various opinions of the day, Jesus goes on to ask them directly, “who do you say that I am?” (emphasis added). Peter, standing up and speaking on behalf of the group, expressed the following: “You are the Messiah!” (v. 29). Peter got the right answer, but he—along with his fellow disciple buddies—misunderstood the Messiah’s God-given mission (at least during His first coming).

The predominant Jewish belief in regards to the Messiah was that he was to be a military/political leader, whose very coming meant the liberation from Roman oppression and the restoration of Israel’s kingdom.

But the Messiah had something else in mind. His primary purpose was not to bring about Rome’s demise, or the restoration of Israel’s earthly kingdom for that matter, but to bring about spiritual restoration. If this spiritual restoration was not going to come through military conquest, then how exactly was this going to be accomplished? The second passage will give us insight to this question.

In Mark 8:31-33, we read that Jesus began to teach His disciples the real purpose for His first coming. What was it? Mark puts it this way:

“Then He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, be killed, and rise after three days” (v. 31).

The Messiah was supposed to suffer and die? That cannot be right. This was God’s great plan? Yes, that is correct. Jesus taught His disciples that He must suffer and die at the hands of Israel’s religious leaders. This is what the disciples did not understand, let alone believe. The Old Testament alluded to the Messiah’s suffering (look at Isaiah 52 and 53, for example) but the majority of the people—including His disciples—was not able to discern what this meant.

Jesus is, as Peter exclaimed, the Messiah and His God-ordained task was to suffer and to die. But it did not stop right there. Jesus was going to rise from the dead on the third day. Jesus was going to conquer the grave through the resurrection. And this was the way in which He was going to bring about spiritual restoration to His people.

God, through the person and work of Jesus, was restoring people to a right relationship with Himself. And this was only made possible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Having said all of that, the call to follow Jesus, then, is a call to restoration; a call, indeed, to life—but life through the way of the cross. The call to follow Jesus is a call to be restored and to be part of the kingdom of God. For this, one must, as mentioned above, deny himself, take up one’s cross, and follow the Messiah.

But this is hard. We would be fooling ourselves if we say otherwise. It is our natural tendency to be self-centered. Jesus’ call to follow Him is a direct attack at our selfish nature. Jesus’ call to abandon our selfish way of living does not only sound outrageous and unappealing, but also foolish and out-of-this-world crazy, especially in today’s self-absorbed, self-obsessed society.

A call to die is not an easy pill to swallow. But following Jesus is also a glorious call. How? The fact that Jesus gives an open invitation to follow Him as Lord is an expression of God’s amazing grace. When was the last time you and I saw the call to die to self, take up our cross, and follow the Jewish Messiah as an expression of grace? But this is exactly what it is! The call to follow Jesus is an opportunity to experience the undeserved grace of Almighty God.

Many Christians today can testify that choosing to follow Jesus as Lord has been the most important decision they have ever made. The truth is one cannot be drawn—by the power of the Holy Spirit—to accept and follow the Messiah and not have his or her life radically transformed.

To follow the Messiah is—as challenging as it may sound and be—the single, most important, heart-changing, worldview-shaking, spiritually-satisfying, and life-transforming decision/commitment one can make in life.

The invitation is open. The call is challenging, yet glorious. Let’s follow Jesus as Messiah for the glory of God and for our joy. Amen.

Some Thoughts on Appearance

I was reading Scripture the other day and came upon a passage that struck me as fascinating. The passage, when originally written, was specifically for the ladies, but the principle applies to men as well.

“Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:3-4, ESV).

An observation I made was that the problem is not the act of adorning, but how you go about it, or better said, what type of adorning you will primarily focus on.

In this passage, the apostle Peter seems to emphasize the importance of the inner person. In today’s culture, people praise and admire external and superficial appearance. Why? Well, for starters, all we see and hear through the media is culture’s unbiblical perspective of beauty.

We are constantly being bombarded with an unhealthy view and definition of beauty (just look at Hollywood). Believe it or not, we are heavily influenced by such a view to the point that we judge ourselves and others based on that standard.

In a culture that values superficial appearance, one has to ask, “Where are those who are known for their inner person and good character and moral values?” “Where are those who strive to be godly and pure and modest?”

True beauty comes from within a person and it flows outward. Now, do not misunderstand me, there is nothing wrong with adorning ourselves. (I think that God is pleased when we look and feel good about our appearance. Wouldn’t you agree?) But the problem is that sometimes we make our appearance our number one priority and focus, to the extent of neglecting our own personal character development (and worst, we forget about God).

True beauty begins and ends with God. Let me explain what I mean. You and I were created in the image of God and that is not just an old, outdated Bible fact, but a relevant one that has many implications for our daily lives.That means that you and I do not have to look a certain way to have value and meaning because we already have it in Jesus Christ. That’s revolutionary!

You and I are beautiful in God’s eyes. Now, let me be honest, it is so hard to accept that truth sometimes because we have the tendency to base our worth and value on performance alone.

To sum things up, our definition of beauty should come from God, and our perception of beauty should be grounded and firmly rooted in our identity in Christ (read Eph. 1:3-14) and not in our external appearance.

What a difference it will make when you and I accept the truth of God’s Word—that we are beautifully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14)—and live in light of that reality!

Leadership is Essential

Leadership is important. Why? As John C. Maxwell well puts it, “Everything rises or falls on leadership.” I agree. As a leader myself, I am beginning to realize that the success (or failure) of an organization or ministry falls on its leadership.

Leaders are important not because of the positions they hold, or the talent they have, but because of the impact, whether positive or negative, they will have on their followers and the organizations and ministries they represent and work for.

Leaders are called to serve others and not their own personal, selfish agenda. Leaders are called to…well lead, and leading will require great responsibility and effort and, at times, great sacrifice. A leader must be willing to pay the price in order to be effective in whatever he or she does.

Leaders are called to a higher standard of living for they will give an account to God for what they do (or don’t do). It is vital for a leader to live a life of integrity, service, honesty and humility.

The stakes are high and many are watching. People are counting on leaders to display a life worth imitating and following. The responsibility could not be bigger but the potential for long-lasting impact and positive change is endless.

Leaders: pray and strive to serve God and others with a humble and sincere heart.

For His glory,

Jonnathan Menendez