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:
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.