There’s a wonderful little saying that you may have heard:
“God afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.”
This is such a great fit to Biblical teaching that it’s widely assumed that it was originated in that context — which isn’t actually so. Lutheran theologian Martin Marty in 1987 introduced it into Christian literature when he described the two ways that the Church ministers to the world: “one comforts the afflicted; the other afflicts the comfortable.” However, Marty himself adapted it from an adage that was coined in 1902 by a Chicago journalist/humorist to express the role of investigative journalism. “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” remains a popular slogan among journalists and it was in that context that actor Gene Kelly repeated it in the 1960 film Inherit the Wind.
Despite the fact that the saying was originally created and employed for purely secular purposes, Christians have now pretty-well ‘hijacked’ it for our own use since it so beautifully encapsulates the tension and balance between God’s love and His justice, between Gospel and Law, between mercy and judgement. It applies equally well to the message of scripture, the ministry of the Church, and the life of the Christian.
If you query enough Christians you will get some polarized opinions about what’s important about their belief: some will speak of the liberating comfort of the Gospel, and cite the forgiving example of Jesus. Others will speak of the need for discipline and obedience, and cite the stern commands of Jesus. Sometimes these differences can be so pronounced that it’s hard to believe that they are actually talking about the same Bible! But the simple reality is that Jesus Himself said and did seemingly contradictory things that support both perceptions. For instance, Jesus lectured on the consequences of lust with a cringe-inducing image of the severity of God’s judgement:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:28-29)
Yet this same Jesus bestowed tender forgiveness on a well-known prostitute as if her sordid past didn’t actually matter:
“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven …And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:36-52)
How to explain such apparently contradictory messages? Our little saying does it well: those who have become comfortable with their sin must be afflicted with the stark reality of God’s justice; those that are afflicted by the awful realization of their sinfulness find sweet comfort in Jesus’ tender mercy and forgiveness. Both are part of God’s Word for our salvation.
The spiritual journey of a Christian is a continual bouncing between the poles of affliction and comfort. Even though we are washed clean in the blood of Christ, our hearts and our wills are not yet perfectly aligned with His. So we continue to sin. And one of the most pernicious forms of sin for any believer is that of self-righteousness – settling into the comfortable delusion that my own efforts are turning me into a creature who deserves God’s salvation. But God shatters such complacency by holding up the righteous demands of His Law so that we see clearly our fatal inadequacy. In the despairing words of St. Paul as he contemplated his own guilt:
“…I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. … Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? “ (Romans 7:19,24)
Then, with hearts afflicted with remorse, we gratefully hear God’s words of comfort and assurance in the glorious Good News of the Gospel by which we are washed clean before God through the sacrifice of His Son:
“Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus our Lord! … There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 7:25,8:1)