Comfort. Self-care. Indulgence.

Emblazoned on tumblers and t-shirts everywhere, and of course, often critiqued, especially by Christians. Should we seek our own comfort? At what point does wise care for our bodies turn into sinful indulgence?

For those with a chronic illness, it’s an even more delicate balance. We question ourselves all day long: Do I truly not have the strength to play with my son, or am I being selfish? Should I brave through my pain and continue working on this project, or is that an unwise use of my physical resources? What will comfort and distract me from these unrelenting aches?

None of these questions have answers that fit everyone. God grants wisdom for all decisions, even daily check-ins about physical capacity. He may teach some to care for their bodies because they are His good creation, and He may lead others away from seeking only the most enjoyable physical experiences, and toward the holy discomfort of sacrifice.

But while the particulars of God’s merciful guidance may differ, I have learned through my illness and my writing that comfort, above all, is to be shared. My calling to write about the comfort with which God has comforted me shapes the decisions I make throughout the day.

Before I can share God’s comfort with others, I have to trust in him as the true source of comfort: not in accomplishments, social media, or even friends and family. Do I turn to him first when the pain becomes unbearable? Or do I send off a panicked text, asking others to pray but not seeking the Lord myself? Do I look for comfort in the Bible, letting God’s Word touch my heart and remind me of forgotten truth? Or do I numb myself with Instagram, a coloring book, or Netflix? I struggle daily to root myself in God’s true comfort, which puts both my difficult circumstances and the various available solutions into their proper context.

*********

It took months for doctors to pinpoint the source of my increasingly-severe abdominal pain last spring, and even longer to receive a diagnosis. I began to update faraway friends and family about my situation through my blog, but always struggled to fill my pieces with more substance than just medical information. Then a pattern began to emerge: whenever I started writing about my suffering, God would point me to a truth that turned my entire perspective on its head, and shined the light of his caring plan on the darkness of my circumstances. Writing became not only a useful distraction when the painkillers couldn’t dampen the agony, but the primary way that God shepherded my heart through the first six months of my illness.

I began to focus my writing on the encouragement that God was continually giving me. Sharing my blog posts on social media reconnected me to old friends, many of whom were also bearing impossible burdens, like the death of a spouse, receiving multiple failed treatments for cancer, or the dissolution of a marriage. I was surprised to discover that my writing encouraged even these friends, though they were suffering through what I considered much more severe trials than my own.

When I conveyed my surprise to my dad, he read me these verses from II Corinthians:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our afflictions, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (II Corinthians 1:3-4, ESV)

“Of course others are comforted by your writing,” my dad added. “God has comforted you, and, as Paul instructs, you are sharing that comfort with your readers.”

These verses shifted my entire outlook. Instead of seeking comfort for myself (which often meant seeking to avoid discomfort), I could seek comfort from the Lord in order to share it with others. Believing that all comfort is God’s gift to be shared reframes my daily experiences. I can enjoy an afternoon nap as a God-given mercy, but if I clench my heart around the idea that a nap is the only thing that will make me feel better, I turn it into an idol and remove God from the equation. I can encourage others by sharing God’s kind gift of rest, but my grasping fear of feeling tired benefits no one.

*******

As the months wore on, I became more and more confined to my bed. Walking or standing for more than a few minutes heightened my pain, and even talking began to cause discomfort. For the most part, I have been able to continue prioritizing my work as the worship leader for a church plant and as an English instructor for a test-prep company, but those efforts have left me no strength for attending a Bible study, reaching out to my neighbors, practicing hospitality, or even making friends on Sunday mornings. I’ve had to portion out my energy towards my most important commitments and my opportunities for local ministry have shrunk considerably.

Writing, though, has given me a chance to serve the Body of Christ while many face-to-face opportunities remain unavailable to me. While it’s true that nothing replaces in-person fellowship, reading and writing online and enjoying fellowship through social media are beautiful gifts for those whose in-person opportunities are slim.

Discerning how to steward my illness, my share in Christ’s sufferings, and God’s comfort to me for the sake of others comes with challenges. I’m often worried that readers will focus too much on my suffering, but if I minimize my pain or weakness, I also minimize the comfort God gives. Readers may have to look past their initial reactions of pity or fear, and look instead at how God has cared for me. I don’t write to bring attention to my suffering, but to share how God has met me in the midst of it. I write so that others who struggle know they are not alone, to point them to the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, so that together we can learn what it means to be more deeply united to Christ through our suffering.