No Such Thing as a Ministry of Affliction

Early on in my ministry years I heard (on more than one occasion) this expression:

“Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

The idea, as I heard it, was the ministry leader was to be a balm to those who were in the midst of pain, but an agitation to anyone who seemed (in the leader’s estimation) too settled in and comfortable to be of any godly use.

The idea was that if you spotted someone within your ministry who looked overly cozy, it was your job to figure out a way to perturb the person to the point they get the clue that God doesn’t like snug, comfy slackers.

Essentially, the goal was to bring a measure of stress and chaos to this comfortable person’s world.

The roots of the “comfort/affliction” axiom are found in the 19th century world of journalism. It came from a 19th century newspaper columnist, and the statement came from one of the writer’s fictional characters, one “Mr. Dooley.”

Interestingly, some people have interpreted the expression as a mandate for proper journalistic practice, when in reality the original assertion was a complaint against the newspapers of the day. Here’s what Mr. Dooley (in thick Irish accent) actually said:

“Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.” – Observations by Mr. Dooley (1902)

But back to the topic at hand.

Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Sounds noble, doesn’t it?

And yet, I find such a perspective only half correct.

Scripture is brimming with imperatives to bring consolation and solace to those who are in the midst of pain and suffering. Consider this sampling:

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 affliction, 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. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 ESV)

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:15 ESV)

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. (Isaiah 40:1 ESV)

Considering all the difficulty experienced in this world, we will always have plenty of opportunities to comfort those around us. It’s almost like a full-time job.

Now, ministry is not just about comforting. Their are other aspects to take into account. Practices such as:

  • Teaching
  • Training
  • Warning
  • Guiding
  • Exhorting
  • Challenging

Our ministries are to be well rounded.

Paul, in writing to the Thessalonian elders, offered a three-fold perspective of how to minister to the needs of people:

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. (1 Thessalonians 5:14 ESV)

Simply put, we have to consider our unique people and the varying situations in which we find them.

But I can’t seem to find the so-called “ministry of affliction” within the pages of my Bible.

Life is full of affliction. It doesn’t seem that God’s ministers need to dispense any more than that which already plagues our people.

I must confess that a couple times in my early ministry years I actually made things purposefully difficult for some people.

Yes, I had bought into the “afflicting the comfortable” philosophy of ministry.

I took it upon myself to conclude that these comfortable individuals needed their world upset a bit, thinking that my actions might move these people to deeper discipleship.

In reality, I was simply being an annoying jerk.

My actions weren’t rooted in true discipleship, but rather, I suspect, in pride, immaturity and an unhealthy need for control.

Thankfully, the Holy Spirit wasted no time to convict me of my misguided efforts to try promoting spiritual growth.

The world in which we inhabit is overflowing with pain and suffering, thanks to something called sin.

Sin steals. Sin lies. Sin kills. And sin leaves a terrible amount of damage in it’s wake.

We don’t need more affliction. There’s plenty to go around and then some.

We need leaders who will comfort us in the midst of difficulty and perhaps guide us to figure out how our struggles made be used for a better purpose.

We need shepherds, not ranchers.

We need pastors, teachers and equippers, not psychotic boot camp drill sergeants.

Jesus said His people would be known for their love.

Let’s stick with that.


The Whole Enchilada

No, I’m not talking about the wonderful, amazing Mexican dish.

I’m talking about the idea that Christians are to worship God with every aspect of their being.

Here’s the scripture I’m basing this on:

Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” ~ Mark 12:29-32 (ESV)

This of course was in response to the question posed by a scribe. Mark 12 describes a series of questions thrown at Jesus with the intent of tripping Him up.

Jesus’ response was masterful because in two sentences, he encapsulated the intent and practice of the entire Jewish law. If the Jews had simply followed these commands, they would not have had to worry about the ever-growing list of rules being produced by their legalistic religious leaders.

In regard to the Ten Commandments, loving God covers the first four laws; the practice of loving a neighbor takes care of the final six.

But, here’s where I want to go with this. My point is that our love of God can (and should) be practiced in the way we think, the way we feel, and in the way we live.

  • We love God through our mind by learning and thinking correct thoughts about Him and the world we live in. (Philippians 4:8: “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
  • We love God by matching our emotions with the types of emotions that are descriptive of God (mercy, compassion, justice, and righteous anger for example). Micah 6:8 comes to mind.
  • And we love God when we use our physical bodies to do those things that serve as acts of worship toward God, rather than using our bodies for our own selfish pursuits. Romans 12:1 says it well:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

By nature, we tend to have a bent in one direction or other.

Some of us are more intellectual.

Some are more emotive.

And others are more physical.

But may we, to the best of our ability and with God’s help, live a life that honors God in all we think, feel and do.

Finally, Jesus added that love for God was part of the equation. The other part is how we love our neighbor.

Here God challenges us to love him by loving others.

This is the challenge of relationships.

The apostle John made the point that love for God can’t be separated from how we interact with others:

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. ~ 1 John 3:16-18

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. ~ 1 John 4:20-21

The temptation we often face is to try and compartmentalize our relationship with God.

We tend to lean in to the things that come more naturally and ignore the things that come with greater difficulty.

But our calling is to engage and embrace the entire spectrum of what it means to love, honor and obey God.

We love God through our thoughts. (Think Philippians 4:6

We love God through our emotions and attitudes

We love God by using our bodies in ways that He prescribes.

And we love God by passing to others the same love He shows us.

That’s the whole enchilada.

(How come I’m starting to feel hungry?)