I have always been a bit skeptical of the “comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable” adage deployed in many an evangelical circle. It’s not just the implicit condescension it lends to the ‘minister’ in any given moment. The main skepticism has to do with the supposition that anyone is actually comfortable in life–that, beneath the surface, all of us are experiencing some underlying discomfort with the world we’re inhabiting. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re all afflicted, and we all need comfort.
If this adage makes any sense, then, it’s that we sometimes need help facing ourselves. It’s that maybe the task of ministry is not wagging a finger at the self-satisfied, but providing a safe place for a person to see themselves. This is what Henri Nouwen is getting at in this passage, which comes from his classic work on pastoral care, The Wounded Healer. To wit, he explains that a minister is really only a minister when he sees his task in light of his own affliction. Until he has followed the call of his own wounds, he will continue to misunderstand the work of ministry itself.
The minister who has come to terms with his own loneliness and is at home in his own house is a host who offers hospitality to its guests. He gives them a friendly space, where they may feel free to come and go, to be close and distant, to rest and to play, to talk and to be silent, to eat and to fast. The paradox indeed is that hospitality asks for the creation of an empty space where the guest can find his own soul.
Why is this a healing ministry? It is healing because it takes away the false illusion that wholeness can be given by one to another. It is healing because it does not take away the loneliness and the pain of another, but invites him to recognize his loneliness on a level where it can be shared. Many people in this life suffer because they are anxiously searching for the man or woman, the event or encounter, which will take their loneliness away. But when they enter a house with real hospitality they soon see that their own wounds must be understood not as sources of despair and bitterness, but as signs that they have to travel on in obedience to the calling sounds of their own wounds.
From this we get an idea of the kind of help a minister may offer. A minister is not a doctor whose primary task is to take away pain. Rather, he deepens the pain to a level where it can be shared. When someone comes with his loneliness to the minister, he can only expect that his loneliness will be understood and felt, so that he no longer has to run away from it but can accept it as an expression of his basic human condition. When a woman suffers the loss of her child, the minister is not called upon to comfort her by telling her that she still has two beautiful healthy children at home; he is challenged to help her realize that the death of her child reveals her own mortal condition, the same human condition which he and others share with her.
Perhaps the main task of the minister is to prevent people from suffering for the wrong reasons. Many people suffer because of the false supposition on which they have based their lives. That supposition is that there should be no fear or loneliness, no confusion or doubt. But these sufferings can only be dealt with creatively when they are understood as wounds integral to our human condition. Therefore ministry is a very confronting service. It does not allow people to live with illusions of immortality and wholeness. It keeps reminding others that they are mortal and broken, but also that with the recognition of this condition, liberation starts.
No minister can save anyone. He can only offer himself as a guide to fearful people. Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely in this guidance that the first signs of hope become visible.