I've noticed that people of a certain mild, middle-of-the-road flavor of Christianity, and even some completely secular folks of a culturally Christian background, often speak of their troubles as "crosses." Sometimes they say this in the context of accepting their problems with resignation. Sometimes they say it with a touch of resentment or self-pity. Very often, I think, they are trying to make a virtue of their suffering by doing so with fortitude, or by looking at it from a spiritual angle.
One gloomy morning when I was driving on business, my mind turned over this use of the term "crosses" while in one of those fugue states that can develop when you're alone at the wheel at 8-ish in the morning and your daily caffeine hasn't yet reached your heart. It was then, as if in a dream, an epigram descended upon me that captures the essence of what I think about this. It goes like this:
ALL SUFFERING IS NOT "THE CROSS." IT IS ONLY THE CROSS IF IT UPHOLDS CHRIST.
What I mean to point out is that there are two types of affliction, as the apostle Peter wrote: "For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God." And a chapter later: "For it is better, if it is the will of God, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil."
A Christian's suffering can have a good spiritual use, and that distinguishes it from all other suffering in the world. Most of the pain experienced by human beings is simply an artifact of living in a fallen world. Some if it is a direct consequence of human sin. In certain specific instances, when God has directly revealed it to be so, one may also consider an affliction to be a visitation of God's judgment against man's wickedness or his children's unfaithfulness.
But for Christians and Christians only, affliction can have the extra purpose of turning eyes toward Jesus and strengthening the faith of His elect.
You don't see that use of affliction at work in would-be examples of Christian fortitude who want you to notice them. But you do see it in humble saints who, as it were, hide themselves in the glory of Jesus' cross. Their affliction can strengthen their faith because by it, the Holy Spirit teaches them to recognize it as a shadow or reflection of the suffering of Christ, and so they feel privileged and honored to bear it. They also know that they do not suffer alone because in Christ, our Lord suffered with us and for us all. And by showing such faith in Him, they strengthen the faith of many others - faith that is directed toward Jesus.
When they call their afflictions the cross, it is because they recognize them as a sort of sacrament that mysteriously unites them to Christ crucified, and that confesses Him in a language that goes beyond words. When they speak of their cross, they are speaking of their duty and privilege to carry their cross alongside their Master who is greater than they, and who gives them sufficient strength to bear it, and who will deliver them from it at the proper time, having passed through all things. He knows what they can bear, in part because he makes them able to bear it. And while their afflictions teach them not to put stock in this-worldly goods that are passing away, they also learn all the more to rely on Him and by patience and prayer to seek the next-worldly treasures that will not be destroyed or taken away.
Put in a nutshell, their pain holds the cross of Christ up before them, and it enables them to hold up Jesus' cross to others. And that's why they can truthfully say they bear the cross. God bless them.