Today, The Gospel Coalition posted an article called "Don't Waste Your Suffering." As someone who has chronic migraine and who had to leave a satisfying career, I thought it might be an interesting read. Instead, I was appalled.
The gist of the article was that, as believers, should use our suffering as an opportunity to reach out to non-believers to share Jesus. We should be prayerful and joyful and always ready to speak a positive word about Jesus.
This sounds great - to someone who hasn't dealt with severe illness or had significant suffering. After all, the author used scripture to back up her arguments. In reality, though, what she is doing is what Jesus described of the Pharisees: "They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders" (Matthew 23:4).
How should we deal with suffering? The Bible gives us plenty of examples, and they are all different. Job sat with his friends and then argued with his friends and with God about the nature of his suffering. (God won that argument.) The Psalms and the author of Lamentations give us examples of pouring out our sorrows to God. And, in the Psalms, we see that lament is communal. Jesus himself wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus. Paul suffered and seemed to find sustenance in his work along with prayer.
The author of the article is correct that our suffering can have a spiritual purpose. We are often driven closer to God through prayer. Romans 5:3-4 tells us, "Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope." God knows every moment of our lives and uses each of them to make us more like him.
But, how we suffer is individual. No one knows your emotional, social, and spiritual situation and no one can expect you to live up to some expectation of "Christian suffering". You may be very quiet and cry by yourself. You may need to talk it out. Everyone is different and that's OK.
In the early stages of an illness or tragedy, most people need space to process what is happening in their lives. Asking them to also "perform" in a certain spiritual manner is abusive and not Jesus-like. As we walk longer with Jesus, particularly with something like a chronic illness, we may find that our suffering offers a way to minister to others.
When someone is suffering, the don't need to be told how to "use their suffering for God." In fact, Christians are told to "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn" (Romans 12:15). Love each other. Quit the Pharisee crap.
If you are suffering, don't worry about how to do it "right." Keep loving God. Find a group of people who truly love you. You and Jesus will get through this.