Maybe you’ve heard the saying “God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable,” but I bet you didn’t know that this expression was originally coined in 1902 to describe the important role that newspapers play in society!
It wasn’t until 1987 that someone applied this catchy expression to the work of God and the work of the church. Before then the expression was in regular use, but it was only used by journalists to describe the “watchdog” role that they felt newspapers were obligated to have. To journalists, the “afflicted” were the victims of crime or corruption in the big city. The “comfortable” were the fat cats in business and politics who were dabbling in crime and corruption behind the scenes. The journalists saw their dual role in the media as both comforting the victims of corruption and also calling the sleazy fat cats to account for their crimes.
Now fast-forward through most of the 20th century. In 1987 Martin Marty thought that the expression sounded ideal for a description of the way God is both merciful and judgmental, so he applied this term to religion for the first time. He even referenced the fact that the term was a figure of speech from the journalism world (see 1987 citation below). Interestingly, he also mistakenly attributed the origin of the expression to newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer. (It’s possible that Pulitzer might have used the phrase, since the expression was coined around 1902 or so and Pulitzer lived until 1911. But it’s for certain that he didn’t coin it.)
The term was coined, as you can read in the definition below, by a Chicago journalist named Finley Peter Dunne who used to write a small newspaper column in the tone of voice of an “every man,” or an average, everyday, fictional character named Mr. Dooley. In these weekly columns, Dunne used the character of Mr. Dooley to offer humoristic, colloquial commentary on the happenings of the day. You’ll note that the quotation from 1902 that features the appearance of “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable” is written in a very slangy and almost unintelligible accent. Hopefully you can make out most of what it’s saying. It’s basically an ode to how newspapers are the pillars that hold up society!
So just to be clear, this phrase doesn’t appear in the Bible and it wasn’t even coined by a preacher or theologian. But the concept of God comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comforted is thoroughly Biblical. Consider Psalm 18:27:
For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down.
In that verse from Psalm 18 we clearly see the psalmist linking together the dual nature of God’s mercy and his judgment.
In the quotations in the definition below you can read several examples of how people apply this expression to Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, as well as to sermons and ministry. The idea is that anything that truly represents God is going to contain elements of God’s grace and his judgment.
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.