QUOTE OF THE WEEK
When they once have raised their heads above this earth, even though they should see the ungodly decked out in wealth and awards, enjoying the utmost tranquility, flaunting every kind of splendor and luxury, and abounding in every kind of pleasure—even if, moreover, they should be wickedly attacked by the ungodly, haughtily insulted by them, exploited by their greed, or harassed by their desires in some other way—even then believers will bear such evils. For they will set their eyes on that day when the Lord will receive His faithful people into the peace of His kingdom, wipe every tear from their eyes, clothe them in garments of glory and gladness, feed them with the indescribable sweetness of His own pleasures, raise them to fellowship in His own lofty heights, and—at last—grant them participation in His own happiness (Isa. 25:8; Rev. 7:17). But He will cast the wicked, who have flourished on earth, into utter disgrace. He will turn their pleasure into suffering, their laughter and delight into tears and hissing. He will disturb their tranquility with pains of conscience. He will punish their self-indulgence with unquenchable fire. And He will subject them to the godly, whose patience they have exhausted. For, as Paul testifies, it’s right for those who are miserable and have been unjustly afflicted to receive rest, and it’s right for the wicked who have tormented the godly to receive affliction, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven (2 Thess. 1:6-7). This, surely, is our great consolation.106-107
Another benefit of the cross is that our present suffering helps us to better understand the fleeting nature of our present life and the inadequacy of all its pleasures. Instead, the Christian must set his gaze upon the future life, our everlasting state with Christ. This does not, however, mean that we should hate this life, since even here we see evidence of God’s goodness and love; it only means that we should desire the life to come vastly more. Because of this blessed hope, Christians should not fear death but should rather view it as the end of our earthly exile.
Any discussion at length of the Christian life must address the life to come that Christ has promised to His disciples, for that is the blessed hope that is set before all Christians. This world is filled with afflictions and sorrows, yet we look toward the great Day, when heaven and earth pass away and all things are made new. As Calvin shows, this mediation upon what is still to come has very practical effects upon our present life.
I find it interesting that Calvin begins with a baseline assumption:
We all, throughout our entire lives, want to act as though we were longing for heavenly immortality and striving urgently after it. Indeed, we judge it shameful not to distinguish ourselves in some way from the brute animals, whose condition would be much the same as ours if we didn’t hope for eternity after death.89
Nearly five hundred years later, that statement is still true of Christians; however, Western society overall has happily embraced Darwinian materialism and a secular framework that denies or labels irrelevant any notion of eternity. Calvin assumed that any reader would have considered it shameful to be undistinguished from animals, while the predominate view today is that humans are nothing more than high-evolved animals. And like other animals, we are told that we should not long for eternity. Yet we know that God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Try as they might, humans cannot be truly secular. We are all haunted by eternity, even if those who pretend otherwise.
Even whenever our society as a whole has openly endeavored to ignore the impulse of the eternal, it is a great tragedy that Christians should too. Yet it is remarkably easy for “our entire soul, entangled in the enticements of the flesh, seeks its happiness on earth” (90). Therefore, the LORD afflicts His people with tribulations that we may see just how “uncertain, passing, vain, and spoiled” this life truly is (91).
Allow me to digress for a moment. Although we discussed suffering in the previous chapter, I was struck again by how explicitly Calvin links the hand of God to our affliction on pages 90-91. Again, there is a whole subsect of Christianity that would revolt at such writings, falling upon the well-worn refrain that “God is love.” Calvin, however, is clearly arguing that God’s use of affliction is ultimately loving because He uses it to point us toward true satisfaction in Himself, just as a loving father disciplines his child for his or her own good. Indeed, Scripture is filled with God afflicting His people for their ultimate good, such as the Babylonian Captivity.
But back to topic at hand, on page 93, Calvin asserts that everyone, learned or unlearned, knows “this well-worn truth” that “man’s life is a vapor or shadow… but there’s nothing we bring to mind and think about less diligently than this truth.” He is right that even when we encounter death face-to-face at a funeral or cemetery and “eloquently philosophize on the emptiness of life,” we almost immediately return to living as though we were immortal. God rescues us from this delusional way of living through afflictions that remind us of this world’s vaporous nature.
“However, the contempt for this present life that believers should cultivate shouldn’t produce hatred of this life or ingratitude toward God” (95). Here is the path that we must walk by the Spirit’s strength and guidance. We should rightly cultivate a contempt of this life so that we may say alongside Paul that “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23). Yet we must not hate this life nor show ingratitude to God for it. As Paul also said, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me” (Philippians 1:22). While death was “far better” for the apostle, living meant that he was still able to serve Christ with his body, to pour himself out like a drink offering for Christ’s people (Philippians 2:17). We must long for the same attitude. We should also strive to say, “for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
Interestingly, Calvin sympathizes with the philosophers “who thought it best not to be born, or almost as good to die young… Because such men lacked the light of God and true religion, what could they see in this life that’s not foul and unfortunate” (97-98)? This way of thinking continues today, especially under the umbrella of anti-natalism, which is the belief that the greatest path to avoiding pain would be to simply stop having children altogether, for humanity to willfully commit suicidal genocide through a refusal to reproduce. Like Calvin, we may affirm the reasoning of such people to a point. However, we must not despair as those who have no hope of eternity. Instead, Calvin counsels:
Although we may be so moved with weariness and hatred of this life that we desire its end, we must be prepared to remain in it according to the Lord’s will. And so, our weariness won’t result in complaining and impatience. For the Lord has stationed us in an outpost, and we must keep guard here until He calls us home.99-100
Again, we fall back upon the reality that our life is no longer our own, but we belong, body and soul, to Christ.
Calvin then tackles the subject of fearing death. While he notes that there is a natural unease to the thought of death, Christians should not fear death. Indeed, “it’s entirely inappropriate that Christians should lack within themselves the light of piety that conquers and suppresses fear by a stronger feeling of consolation” (101). Furthermore, he writes that “no one has made much progress in the school of Christ who doesn’t look forward joyfully to his death and the day of his final resurrection” (103-104).
It may be for some that the fear of death is so prominent that Calvin’s words seem unbearably harsh. Yet Calvin is exactly right. If death is the pathway to life everlasting, then we should not fear death but welcome it. I believe some clarity that R. C. Sproul once made on this topic would be helpful. He remarked that while he was not afraid of death; he did have some fear of the process of actually dying. Perhaps this is in line with what Calvin is teaching. No one looks forward to the circumstances by which we will die, to the act of dying, yet as we who hope in the life and resurrection to come, we have no fear of death itself, for it is simply the beginning of our life in the presence of our Savior.
Lastly, Calvin turns his attention to how such meditations prepare us from life in the present. He then gives “our great consolation” that we read as the quote of the week. He goes on to say that “robbed of this consolation, we must either despair in our soul, or seek comfort—to our own destruction—in the empty comforts of this world” (107). Again, this is precisely what we find to be true in our secular society. Without the consolation of Christ and His promises, many have cast themselves into despair (just look at rising depression and anxiety rates) or seek comfort in hedonism, pursuing pleasure at all costs. Let us set a different example, a better example. Let us not despair this world, nor let us give ourselves over to worldly pleasures as feeble balms upon our sin-sick souls. Instead, let us confess that this world is doomed to pass away at the coming of our Lord, but He still, for now, gives time for repentance, to turn to His mercy rather than receive His wrath. And so long as we have breath in our bodies, let us be ambassadors for our soon coming King.
To close, let us give the final words again to Calvin:
To sum up everything in a word: The cross of Christ finally triumphs in believers’ hearts—over the devil, the flesh, sin, and the wicked—when their eyes are turned to the power of the resurrection.108
All quotations are from this edition.