QUOTE OF THE WEEK
If, then, we want to be disciples of Christ, we should make it our aim to soak our minds in the sort of sensitivity and obedience to God that can tame and subdue every natural impulse contrary to His command. So it will be that no matter what kind of cross is placed upon us, we will steadily maintain endurance even through the narrowest straits of the soul. Indeed, adverse circumstances will keep their bitterness, and we will feel their bite. When afflicted by illness, we will groan and toss and long for health. When pursued by poverty, we will feel the stings of sadness and anxiety. We will bear the weight of sorrow at dishonor, and injustice. When loved ones die, we will naturally weep. But this will always be our conclusion: Nevertheless, the Lord has willed it. Therefore, let us follow His will. Indeed, this thought must intervene in the midst of sorrow’s very stings, in the midst of our groans and tears, in order to incline our hearts to endure those things with which they’re inflicted.81-82
Building upon chapter 2, Calvin now turns his attention upon a particular branch of self-denial: bearing the cross. By this, he means that we must endure suffering and affliction. He first addresses the necessity of the cross and its benefits and then describes how we are properly to bear the cross, with faith and patience rather than with cold indifference.
Just as the cross of Jesus Christ stands as the centerpiece of both the biblical narrative and all of human history, it is fitting that the central chapter of this book on the Christian life should also focus upon the cross. Of course, since this book is addressing how we ought to live, it is the cross that each of us must bear in following the cruciform pattern of our Lord that is Calvin’s chief aim. Indeed, just as Christ Himself was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3), so too must His people “prepare themselves for a life that is hard, laborious, troubled, and full of many and various kinds of evil” (57). Yes, it is very fitting for Calvin to spend so much time addressing the topic of suffering and affliction because the Bible explicitly warns that we will suffer, for Paul warned the Thessalonians that we are destined for afflictions (1 Thessalonians 3:3). How else can we be conformed into the image of our Lord?
Indeed, Calvin spends a significant portion of the chapter arguing for how God uses suffering to our benefit. Toward the end, he notes how great of a grace this very fact is, saying:
Thus, we don’t hear that frigid song: “Yield, for such suffering is necessary.” We hear, rather, instruction that is lively and full of power: “Submit, because it is not right to resist. Endure, because unwillingness to do so is defiance of God’s justice.” But since in the end we only find attractive those things that we perceive to be for our good and well-being, our kind Father comforts us also in this way—assuring us that He works for our salvation by that very cross with which He afflicts us. If it’s clear that tribulations work toward our salvation, shouldn’t we accept them with a grateful and calm spirit? In bearing them with endurance, we’re not yielding to necessity, but we’re assenting to our own good.84-85
As the Creator of heaven, earth, and all things visible or invisible, God certainly has the right to command to us bear through suffering simply because He has decreed it. Yet God goes so far as to call us His adopted children “and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). We see this thought again in Philippians 3:10-11, where Paul writes, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” God did not need to give such glorious promises to us to encourage us in the midst of bearing our cross, yet by His resplendent grace, He did!
As Philippians 3:10-11 shows, Calvin also emphasizes the significance of the cross in conforming us increasingly into the likeness of Christ. “There’s no better method for God to curb such arrogance than by demonstrating to us through experience our weakness and frailty. He afflicts us with disgrace, poverty, childlessness, illness, and other troubles. And we, for our part, quickly crumble before such blows, being far from able to withstand them. Thus humbled, we learn to call on His strength” (60-61). Of course, such humility, then, causes us to better reflect our Lord, who humbled Himself by becoming man and even further by suffering death upon the cross. He also notes, from Romans 5:3-4, that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character.” He ties this into the humility gained through tribulation, noting that “having been impressed with our own weakness, we learn to despair of ourselves. Then, having despaired of ourselves, we transfer our trust to God” (64).
Suffering also trains us in obedience. Of course, “they are quite unable to produce obedience unless He Himself empowers them. But it pleases Him to illuminate and testify by clear proofs to those graces that He has bestowed on the saints, so that those graces don’t lie hidden and idle” (64). He cites the great example of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, an act of no-doubt tremendous suffering yet one that certainly trained Abraham in obedience. “Peter likewise teaches that our faith is proven by trials, just as gold is refined in a furnace of fire” (65). This principle can be seen in the very literal fiery furnace that Daniel’s three friends endured out of their commitment to obey God rather than the king.
Lastly, Calvin notes that God also uses suffering to correct “our past failings,” although he quickly warns that “we shouldn’t let awareness of our past sins serve as the principal reason for the call to endure suffering” (69). After all, we know that in Christ we are no longer condemned for our sins. Nevertheless, God does use suffering to correct us of sin, both past and present. As Proverbs, 1 Corinthians, and Hebrews reveal, it is the Lord’s kindness which disciplines us that we may not be consumed by our sins. Yet Calvin also calls us to be warned of how we respond to the Lord’s correction:
Scripture teaches us that there’s a difference between believers and unbelievers. Unbelievers become worse and more obstinate in consequence of the lashes they receive, just like slaves of earnest and deep-seated wickedness. Believers repent just like individuals gifted with the status of sonship. Choose, then, which of these you will be.71
The final ten-ish pages of the chapter see Calvin broadly addressing how Christians should rightly embrace suffering. Interestingly, he dismantles the notion that Christians should resemble the Stoics. I must admit that I have a certain admiration for Stoicism; in fact, I’ve written before that, if I were not a Christian, I would likely have become a Stoic. Yet Calvin’s criticism of the Stoics is spot-on. They teach the necessity of embracing suffering, but only because it is unavoidable, and that one must face it with stone-hard endurance.
They painted a portrait of endurance that has never been found, nor can exist, among men. Indeed, while they wished to represent endurance accurately and precisely, they deprived humankind of the power of genuine endurance… They will turn a courageous and faithful man into a wooden post. Rather, Scripture praises the saints for endurance when we, though knocked around by evil circumstances, remain unbroken and undefeated; when we, though, pricked by bitterness, are simultaneously filled with spiritual joy; when we, though oppressed by anxiety, breathe freely—cheered by the consolation of God.77, 79-80
Is this not a better way? Scripture does not call us merely to grit our teeth and endure; instead, God provided roughly one-third of the Psalms to aid us in lamentation during our affliction, as well as an entire book of the Bible upon that theme. As our quote of the week said, there is plenty of bitterness, groaning, and weeping to be found in suffering, and our God does not call us to attempt to ignore these facts. Instead, He grants us a glimpse above the sun on how they will ultimately be used for our good. Therefore, we cry out to Him, even lay our complaint before Him, and trust wholly in His perfect and unyielding will.
There is much more that we could say about this chapter, and I certainly look forward to hearing what struck you particularly. Yet let us end with this thought. In a day when Christianity seems to be dominated by megachurch preachers who assert that suffering and affliction derive from a lack of faith, Calvin’s straightforward and, above all, scriptural teaching on bearing our cross is never more needed. Do you agree?
All quotations are from this edition.