Comfort my people, part 2

Photo by Simon Cataudo
Photo by Simon Cataudo

Here’s one for all the pastors out there.  Raise your hand if you agree with this statement: “Preaching can sometimes be a lonely act.”

Amen.  I see those hands.

I don’t mean the isolation that naturally comes from railing aggressively at reluctant sinners.  I mean the invisible social boundary that often attends the role itself, of the one who dares to speak the word of God with borrowed authority.  In the eyes of many, for those minutes at least, you cease to be human in the same way that everyone else is human.  People may love or hate the sermon, and by extension love or hate you — but either way, you may feel that people don’t know you as a person at all.

But then, every once in a while, you’re blessed by an unexpected word of encouragement.  A card comes in the mail, or someone quietly pulls you aside: God spoke to me through the message; thank you.  You poured your heart and soul into that sermon, and weren’t sure if anyone was really listening.  That little word of encouragement, however, is like salve to your spirit.

Could a preacher faithfully soldier on, week after week, without such support?  By the power of the Holy Spirit, yes — and many do.  But something important would be missing from the life of the church.

And that “something” would itself be an expression of life in the Spirit.

When Paul repeatedly mentions “comfort” in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7, he speaks of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, but there is nary a mention of the Holy Spirit.  For my part, however, I can’t help but read the passage as if this is what he had in mind.

After all, comfort — encouraging and supporting someone by coming alongside — is something we do for one another, as those who share in the life of Christ and his Spirit.  Jesus himself referred to the Holy Spirit as the Comforter (or in some translations, “advocate” — John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7).

God is the God of all comfort, and Paul, having been comforted by God in the midst of everything he’s suffered, wants to pass that on to the Corinthians.  He does this by telling them of his trials and connecting both his suffering and theirs with the suffering of Christ; he then tells them of his continued confidence in the God who rescued him.

Here, the comfort runs in one direction: from God to Paul, from Paul to the Corinthians.  But later in the letter, Paul writes of a flow running in the opposite direction.  Titus had the unenviable task of carrying a scolding letter from Paul to Corinth.  To Titus’ delight, however, the letter had its intended effect, and people repented; he was comforted by his reception.  Then, when he finally reconnected with Paul and gave him the happy news, Titus was able to comfort Paul in turn (7:6-7).

There are some pastors who have difficulty receiving the comfort of others.  There are congregations who have trouble giving it.  But I believe that this is meant to be a two-way street: pastors encourage the flock, and the flock gives encouragement back.

That doesn’t mean sending flowers every Sunday.  Nor does it mean that there’s no room for disagreement or dialogue.  But what your pastor needs is to know that someone was listening, that the Word preached is somehow having its intended effect.

Pastoral ministry can be difficult and draining.  If you are the beneficiary of a pastor’s care, exercise the ministry of comfort in return.  A little gratitude goes a long way, and pleases the God of comfort in whose image we are made.