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Donald Trump went to church last Sunday. Lots of people did. My guess is he doesn’t do that on the regular. Nor do most people who at one time or another have been religiously observant but for some some reason have been on a kind of hiatus. But you run for president and go back to church and people take notice.

I suppose it’s the job of the press to take note of such things. I don’t begrudge them. There is a curious bi-product of this kind of reporting though. It poses a kind of religiously voyeuristic Twilight Zone question: what would one say if presented with the opportunity to preach to the Donald?

Trump went to a small Presbyterian church in Iowa…but I repeat myself. By most accounts it seems like he nodded affirmatively during the scripture readings and sang all the hymns. But the media was most interested in the sermon.

Wherever you find yourself on the political spectrum the press’s account provides the raw material to provoke some combination of discord, discomfort and aggravation. But there’s also room for delight. The preacher, The Rev. Dr. Pamela Saturnia, went with the lectionary texts. She didn’t cherry pick readings when she knew Trump would be there (she didn’t have much of a heads up, as it was a surprise visit. But still, to her credit, she didn’t call an audible.) Remarkably, she didn’t mention Trump by name or grandstand in anyway.

The sermon focused on the fourth chapter of Luke where Jesus finds himself back in his hometown reading the prescribed passage from the Torah after which he proffers his own interpretation (verses 14-21). He is then promptly run out of town.

But I’m most interested in the quote Dr. Saturnia used (attributed to a friend and colleague) on the task of preaching. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. It’s a quote I’ve heard attributed to so many different people so many different times that it seems like its origin is in Plato’s realm of the eternal forms, outside of space and time. It’s one of those sayings that’s so ubiquitous it’s impossible to plagiarize.

She said that preaching is about “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”. Here’s the etymology of the phrase, for which I’m indebted to the dictionary of Christianese:

“Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” v. phr. A Christian expression that describes the work of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, Biblical preaching, and Christian ministry. Basically the expression affirms that God demonstrates mercy and grace as well as judgment in his dealings with people.

The expression was coined by Finley Peter Dunne (1867–1936), an American journalist, to describe the crucial role that newspapers play in society: “Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, conthrols 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) 240). (Note: Several authors have erroneously credited the origin of the expression to E.W. Scripps, H.L. Mencken, or Joseph Pulitzer.) For most of the 20th century, the expression was used only in the context of newspapers, journalists, and the mass media. Martin Marty seems to be the first person to apply this expression to religion (see 1987 citation). The expression continues to be used by journalists to describe their profession, but the expression now has a distinct and separate meaning in the Christian community.

  • 1987 Marty Religion and Republic: The American Circumstance 82 : Let us speak of these [roles of the church] as “priestly” and “prophetic.” The priestly will normally be celebrative, affirmative, culture-building. The prophetic will tend to be dialectical about civil religion, but with a predisposition toward the judgmental. The two are translations of Joseph Pulitzer’s definition of the compleat journalist or, in my application, of the fulfilled religionist: one comforts the afflicted; the other afflicts the comfortable.
  • 1988 Hewett, ed. Illustrations Unlimited 352 : The pastor … seeks the lost, visits the sick, counsels the troubled. He comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
  • 1994 McIlhon A Little Out of the Ordinary: Daily Reflections for Ordinary Time 87 : Quite prophetically someone comments that Christianity comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
  • 1995 Eckardt How to Tell God from the Devil: On the Way to Comedy 48 : One familiar and viable way of living with the spiritual finding that God is at once judge and font of mercy is through the assurance that God afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.
  • 1999 Morris A Lifestyle of Worship: Making Your Life a Daily Offering 122 : When the Spirit of God is present in a gathering, He “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” That about sums up the work of the Holy Spirit.
  • 2002 Riordan Our Twentieth-Century Romance 321 : The problem arose within our family, and it caused Gertrude and me the deepest and most severe test of our Faith that we have ever encountered. (“Jesus comforts the afflicted, and afflicts the comfortable.”)
  • 2004 Dobbins Take My Hand 206 : They say that the Bible comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable and this week it is painfully true for me.
  • 2005 Alling, Schlafer Preaching as Pastoral Caring ix : “Pastoral” and “prophetic” are routinely contrasted, even by those who affirm the values of both. “Good preaching comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable,” says the old homiletical cliché.
  • 2007 Van Pelt, Hancock A Parent’s Guide to Helping Teenagers in Crisis 24 : There is a biblical tradition that God comforts the afflicted (and occasionally afflicts the comfortable).
  • 2007 Kearns, Keller Ecospirit: Religions and Philosophies for the Earth 33 : Recently she has been lobbying city officials to offer more support for a local community center that provides opportunities for teenagers to be tutored after school. People find her good-humored, but also at times irritating. Like Jesus, she comforts the afflicted but also afflicts the comfortable.
  • 2012 Belle Words of a Good Shepherd 175 : Preach the Word with courage and conviction; that Word which is the gospel of grace but also the gospel of judgment; that Word which comforts the afflicted and also afflicts the comfortable.

It’s interesting to note that this famous preaching dictum comes from the secular press.

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I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone that I’ve gotten to know in any deep or significant way that was at the end of the day comfortable, at least in their own skin. The proclamation of the Gospel, which is simply the preaching of Jesus, is always comforting. It never afflicts. Not so with the Law. The Law can only afflict. The Law afflicts in one of two ways: it afflicts in a way that serves the Gospel or in a way that mutes it. There is a kind of affliction that virally begets more affliction. It says “you may feel bad but the source of that feeling is your failure, but you didn’t really fail…you can edit that post or tweet or that mistake at that point in your life where you feel like you’re in the worst ditch anyone could imagine.” But it’s still in your hands, even if it feels slippery. This is affliction that can disguise itself in countless ways as false comfort.

The Law’s job is to afflict. But to afflict us all the way down. Not to inflict us with some surface-level guilt so that we go back to self-reliance and self-salvation and self-esteem projects that all leave us in the prison of self-loathing. The law is most beautiful in the Sermon on the Mount when it is the radical democratizer, and in the same breath a humanitarian dictator. Or in Paul’s words:

“19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” (Roman 3:19-20)

The problem with the “comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable” preaching motto is that it starts with a false disjuncture as its premise. No one is really comfortable much or even most of the time, and everyone is afflicted in some fashion all the time. The preacher’s task is not to afflict the comfortable. It’s to listen, intuit and interpret where the people who walked on broken glass to get to church are already feeling afflicted by the Law so that the Gospel can be spoken to them in ways that offer real comfort.

It seems to me that part of the preacher’s goal was to afflict Donald Trump, whom she sees as the quintessential example of the comfortable. All his means and wealth aside, Trump’s authenticity and refusal to play by the politically correct rules of the ever increasingly sanitized public square is rooted, I suspect, not in an abundance of comfort but a lack of it. It strikes me as at least partially a kind of “fake it ’til you make it” kind of authenticity. That’s far from comfort.

There’s nothing wrong with lifting up as imperatives the works of love. But unless they are rooted in a sense of utterly gratuitous belovedness they will increase the affliction and discomfort of everyone involved in one way or another. The relationship of the indicative, that in Christ God is graciously reconciling all things to himself, and the subsequent imperative is played out beautifully in William Cowper’s hymn, “Love Constraining To Obedience”:

Chorus:
To see the Law by Christ fulfilled,
To hear His pardoning voice,
Changes a slave into a child
And duty into choice.

1. No strength of nature can suffice
To serve the Lord aright
And what she has, she misapplies,
For want of clearer light.

2. How long beneath the Law I lay
In bondage and distress
I toiled the precept to obey,
But toiled without success.

3. Then to abstain from outward sin
Was more than I could do
Now if I feel its power within
I feel I hate it too.

4. Then all my servile works were done,
A righteousness to raise
Now, freely chosen in the Son,
I freely choose His ways.

It’s only grace that can turn the Donald, or any of us, from a slave to a child and bestow the faith filled freedom that makes duty into choice.