Dale Johnson: I am excited this week. I get to sit down and have a conversation with Dr. Venessa Ellen. Many of you may know her husband, Nicholas Ellen, but she might be the more fun one to hang out with. I love being able to sit down with Venessa and talk about the Lord, the things of God, and it just gets exciting to talk about those things. She is a lady who deeply loves the Lord Jesus, and I’m so grateful for that. She’s into a lot of different stuff, and you need to know about some of these things. She is the President of Real Life Women’s Ministry, and you can find out information about that at drvenessaellen.com. I’m told that she does a podcast and also a cooking show as well. And I’m definitely going to let my wife know about that cooking show. She also has a doctoral degree. She has a PhD earned from Southwestern Seminary. She has a MABC from the Master’s University and a Master of Arts in Christian Education from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary as well.
Vanessa, listen, it is so good to have you here talking about even some difficult issues as we talk about counseling in some very difficult moments. It’s good to have you here with us.
Venessa Ellen: Thank you so much. It’s just a pleasure.
Dale Johnson: Now, as we get started, we’re talking about the issues of chronic illness. And oftentimes, when we use that idea of chronic illness people have difficult diagnoses, and they may be even looking things like death in the face. Sometimes it’s overwhelming to think about counseling in situations like that. So I want to start here.
How can we, as Christians, view death biblically yet still grieve the reality of impending loss? What’s coming of a loved one who may die from this type of chronic illness?
Venessa Ellen: I think it’s important as Christians that we really go back to the Bible. I myself struggle with a chronic illness, I have Lupus an autoimmune disease and I remember when I was first diagnosed, the first thing that the doctor said is, you know, you’re going to die from this. If I didn’t have my feet rooted and grounded in John 3:16 and the reality that I’m just a soldier in her passing through. That this is not my home, God has prepared a place for me. 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 has helped me and blessed me to where I look at, you know, absent from the body is present with the Lord. I think we must view death from a biblical perspective knowing that the dead in Christ will rise again and that this will be our time of rest from our labor here. If we don’t see it that way, we may view it as the world and that we’re going to turn into a toad when we die, or we’re going to just evaporate into nothingness.
But now, there is still sorrow. So I think that we also have to be careful and not too quickly press someone who’s facing this, just quickly go, “you know, absent from the body present with the Lord” that may be true, but there’s a certain amount of sorrow that goes with it. So I would say to view it biblically, yes. Don’t let go of the Scripture but Ecclesiastes: everything in its time and its proper place.
Dale Johnson: That’s so good, and you’re rightly balancing that because these things are true. When we are absent from the body, we are present with the Lord, but we can’t dehumanize people in moments like that when they’re told that they have some sort of difficult illness and that this will constantly get worse. We have to help them to imbibe that truth and that takes a walking with people—what a wise thing.
Now, two important principles that I think help to guide women and focus on when they get diagnosed with a chronic illness that may lead to death. What are some of those principles that are really important?
Venessa Ellen: Well, I can tell you for me, 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10 has helped me tremendously in the times of pain, the times of disappointment that my body is not working as it should, knowing that His grace is truly sufficient. It’s sufficient for any diagnosis, is sufficient for anything that ails you. That has really blessed me. Knowing that God will never leave me or forsake me, it doesn’t matter what I’m facing on this side of heaven.
The other thing that is really, really blessed me and I think it will help others who struggle with this issue is recognizing the sovereignty of God, the wisdom of God, and the love of God, knowing that He has all things under control, He’s not asleep at the wheel. Knowing that He’s a wise God, if there was a better way to do it, He would have done it and that He is a loving God. He’s not just penalizing me or punishing me. He has a plan for my life, and this is a part of the plan.
Dale Johnson: Now that’s great and that helps to root us in the Scriptures. You even mentioned earlier, a lot of times this type of care is preventative, we need to root ourselves in these theological truths that these things dwell in us richly and can help and prepare us for moments like this.
But, you know, we look at a diagnosis like chronic illness, and it’s a devastating thing, but what an opportunity for us to walk along somebody with somebody or, if we get that diagnosis ourselves where the body of Christ can come alongside with us and help us walk through that, and listen, as you and I talked, we’ve been walking with the Lord for many years, you get a diagnosis like that, and it doesn’t matter how mature you are on the Lord. This is a difficult thing. It’s a difficult thing to hear because what we know to be true, we’re all mortal, that becomes more real. It becomes a legitimate thing.
So let’s talk about the church. How can the church support a member who may be dying from a chronic illness?
Venessa Ellen: Yeah, I think, as biblical counselors, we may be quick to run in, set an appointment, have a PDI, and we’re going to give homework, and so and so. These things may not work in that order or a person struggling with a chronic illness. They may not be able to get to the appointment. They may not be able to memorize the Scripture because their brain may not be functioning as it once did. I think the church can step in practical ways as well.
Ladies, help with the washing, the cooking, the cleaning, and establish a team to visit and make sure that basic needs are met. It could be an elderly woman or in this day and age, a middle-aged woman who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. Make sure that she’s eating and bathing, doing basic things, pray for her and with her, and remember to do that.
And then I think it would be helpful. If the family allows to help them establish or short-term and long-term needs. A person with chronic illness may not be dying tomorrow or tonight. This may be a long-term journey. We need long haulers from the church. We need people who are going to go to the end or as we say welcome to the gate.
Dale Johnson: That’s right, and this is the beauty of the church. I mean, this is a part of what the church is called to do. This is the way in which the church is called to engage one another is to meet the need of the moment, and this is a massive need. Here’s the beautiful thing, Venessa, the Lord gives us hope even in dire situations like this; you are a testimony to that as you’ve experienced this walk yourself.
So let’s talk about this. You talked about this broadly from the church perspective, but now let’s talk about in the counselor’s room because, as you mentioned, it’s not always that we run right to the counselor’s room, right? But when we do get to that place where maybe it’s a formal setting, maybe it’s not. What are some of the things that the counselor needs to be mindful of as they are working with somebody who has this type of diagnosis, and death may be impending very soon.
Venessa Ellen: I would say, recognize your personal preferences versus neutral end-of-life decisions. You know, it could be that you are not fond of chemo or you’re not fond of radiation or something like that. You’ve got to recognize your personal preferences above what they may be deciding for their life. As long as it’s not immoral or illegal, you may have to walk with them on something that maybe you wouldn’t have chosen for yourself.
And then, remove your personal emotions out of it. Don’t let your own emotions override your ability to counsel. Counseling someone who’s dying it takes a special kind of person to not allow their emotions. You can’t be on the floor if the families on the floor, somebody’s got to be standing up. You know what I mean? Don’t let your personal fears if you have a fear of death or a fear of being diagnosed with cancer. If that is you, you might need to pass that counselee off to someone else.
The last thing I always want to say is don’t attempt to be there doctor, you know, they have a medical professional. We are there for the spiritual side of it unless you are indeed their medical professional, let them handle that and let’s handle the spiritual side. Then I would encourage the counselor don’t be tempted to make promises that God might not keep such as you’re going to make it, you’re going to beat it. We know that the ultimate in whether God heals them on this side or the other side, healing is there, but don’t promise them things that God may not provide.
Dale Johnson: I think that’s the temptation for us all and I’m so glad that you brought that last part up because especially early in ministry we have a tendency to respond. We’re afraid of silence. We’re afraid of just being with people. We think there’s a gap of silence and it needs to be filled with something well-meaning, but at the same time, we say things just like that, “well, it’s going to be okay.” Well, you know what somebody’s dying and right now it doesn’t feel like it’s okay. Yes, we know what you mean and it’s going to be okay that they’re healed in heaven. That’s true, but in this moment that’s not the best thing to say.
Sometimes the ministry of presence is such a critical thing and so for us as counselors make sure we understand the promises of God. We’re not putting God on the hook for something that He’s not on the hook for. You know, that’s so important. I think another thing that adds more shame and more guilt to the individuals walking through this as if there’s something wrong with them. That this is not working out the way that we’ve promised it’s going to work out. A lot of wisdom here Venessa, in walking through this and the cool thing to me is this is something you’ve personally walked through, something you’ve personally experienced ministry through both in the giving and the receiving and I think the richness of the Scriptures as you talk about them are evident.
I do have one more question. I think is really important, especially for our counselors because again this can be a difficult thing for us to step into, we don’t feel equipped, maybe sometimes. I think it’s always important for us to give resources. Resources maybe that you’ve found helpful, you’ve certainly given some anchoring biblical passages but what are some of the other resources that you found really helpful in preparing to walk alongside those who are dealing with chronic illness?
Venessa Ellen: I have about five different books I think would be helpful, The Goodness of God: Assurance of Purpose in the Midst of Suffering by Randy Alcorn, Trusting God by Jerry Bridges and then my dear sweet husband has a book called Understanding and Developing a Biblical View of Life. Tripp has the greatest one: Relationships: A Mess Worth Making and then, of course, Jim Burke. I think this is helpful for even us as counselors to take time to Quiet a Noisy Soul.
Dale Johnson: Those are really helpful and I do pray that you’ll get some of these resources that I know can help you just to build a biblical framework about life about death and then how are we to frame life, how to understand it and value what God has given us with the time that He’s given us left. Psalm 90 makes it very clear, we’re taught to learn to number our days and when the reality of a diagnosis like this hits we see the importance of that all the more.