It was not a good year for Lisa Copen. In 1993 one day, suddenly her wrist began freezing up in pain and soon the sensation migrated to her other wrist, and then to knees and shoulders. “And after three weeks, a doctor diagnosed me with rheumatoid arthritis,” said Copen in a telephone interview from her home in San Diego, California. She was only 24 then.
A National Institutes of Health website defines rheumatoid arthritis as a long-term autoimmune disease “that leads to inflammation of the joints and surrounding tissues. It can also affect other organs.”
Explained Copen further, “It occurs when the immune system confuses the joints and the surrounding area into thinking there is an infection, and so the body attacks itself. The joints get eaten away. As for me, my hands are pretty deformed. My feet are a disaster. I don’t walk well or far, but I am still walking.”
With the disease, she said her fingers soon started “having a mind of their own” and “went off sideways.” Over the years, she also developed fibromyalgia, which is body-wide, long-term, soft-tissue pain. Not long ago, Copen survived an ankle infection and flesh-eating bacteria.
While in the midst of trying to cope herself and desiring to help others, in 1996 Copen founded Rest Ministries, a Christian organization that serves people with chronic illness or pain. Later, it became a large online community that now reaches more than 80,000 visitors monthly and 1,600 people in a social network. About 5,000 people receive Copen’s daily online devotional, which is authored by different people experiencing chronic pain or illness. The organization also has more than 300 HopeKeepers support groups that meet in churches throughout the world.
“Churches are gradually becoming more receptive to the idea that people with chronic illness or pain may not be physically healed this side of heaven,” said Copen. “Even if healed, it may not be for years, and they need support and encouragement through that journey.” She said many churches often don’t or are unable to respond well to people with chronic illness or pain, in part because the affected person’s needs usually never end.
She firmly believes God could heal her anytime He chooses, she said. But if He doesn’t, she will have learned a great deal about trusting in Him while serving others and having to get through each day.