Many years ago, one of my professors at preaching school said this: “The work of a preacher is to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.” At the time we all sort of chuckled at this idea, but we came to realize that this simple statement encompassed much of what we were called to do. Our ministry was to all those who had needs, even if they were unaware of those needs. Our ministry was to help soothe the pain of life, but also to motivate the complacent.
Unfortunately, some preachers, especially young ones, fixate on the “afflicting” side of this statement. Their words become harsh and cutting, and they pride themselves in their perceived fidelity to God’s word by the number of people who are offended by what they say. It is a testimony to the patience and wisdom of elders and congregations of God’s people that many preachers like this are helped to grow out of the immaturity that spawns such a harsh attitude.
Preachers, however, are not the only ones who may be infected with this attitude. Sometimes the people in the pews can be just as harsh and cutting in their remarks and attitudes as the brashest young preacher. The result of this kind of attitude is predictable. Some sincere seekers are driven away from the truth because of an unloving attitude expressed in harsh terms. They go away with feelings hurt, and we shrug and persuade ourselves that it is because they didn’t really love the truth.
We know from the scriptures that some people are not interested in the truth (Rom. 1:18; 2 Th. 2:11, 12; 2 Tim. 4:3, 4). These people will not be persuaded to obey God’s will no matter how kindly they are entreated. Others, however, because they do not understand the importance of truth, may be driven away by the manner in which we present it to them. Each person will answer for his decision to obey the gospel or to reject it, but we must be certain that we do not do anything to prejudice anyone against the truth.
The great apostle Paul made a simple statement that gives us the guidance we need on this subject. In Eph. 4:15 he said, “But speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ.” He said we are to speak the truth, but we are to speak it in love. When we think about it, this just makes good sense. We have the greatest good news that the world will ever know. It is the news of salvation from sin by the blood of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. This is a message of love, and should be communicated as such. Doing so does not negate or compromise the truth.
Paul himself is the example of this in his sermon on Mars Hill in Athens. This was a city that was among the most idolatrous in the ancient world, yet as Paul began speaking he said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects” (Acts 17:22). If he were like some today, he might have said, “You people are a bunch of ignorant idol worshipers. Let me tell you the truth about these false gods you worship.” Paul’s approach drew them to listen to what he had to say, even though most of them ultimately rejected his message. The other approach would have gotten him thrown out of town before he even had a chance to speak. Doing it the way Paul did at least gave them the opportunity to learn the truth. This is something we must always bear in mind.
In 2 Cor. 5:21 Paul said, “We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” One who begs another to do what is right is speaking the truth in love. One who berates and offends may speak the truth, but his words and attitude rob it of its power to change lives. Let’s always make sure we speak the truth. But, let’s always make sure we speak the truth in love.