FIVE | How the Present Life and Its Comforts Should Be Used


QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Consequently, the one who directs himself toward the goal of observing God’s calling will have a life well composed. Free from rash impulses, he won’t attempt more than his calling warrants. He will understand that he shouldn’t overstep his boundaries. He who lives in obscurity will live an ordinary life without complaint, so that he won’t be found guilty of deserting his divinely appointed post. Indeed, in the midst of troubles, hardships, annoyances, and other burdens, he will find great relief when he remembers that God is his guide in all these matters. The magistrate will more gladly attend to his duties. The father will more gladly commit himself to his responsibilities. Each person, in whatever his station in life, will endure and overcome troubles, inconveniences, disappointments, and anxieties, convinced that his burden has been placed upon him by God. Great consolation will follow from all of this. For every work performed in obedience to one’s calling, no matter how ordinary and common, is radiant—most valuable in the eyes of our Lord.

125-126

SUMMARY

When it comes to this life and, particularly, its goods and pleasures, the Christian must avoid two extremes. We should not be so legalistic as to say that anything beyond necessity is sinful, nor should we give ourselves over to the licentious approach of gratifying our flesh’s every desire. Instead, we should use God’s gifts in the manner that He intended for them to be used, living a life of moderation as well as contentment. Finally, we should consider our actions in light of the callings that God has given to us, so that we know what is proper or improper for us particularly.

DISCUSSION

We come now to this little book’s final chapter, and although it is short, its density more than makes up for its brevity. Calvin’s aim is now upon how we are to relate to the goods and pleasures of this present life. Again, he is not interested in diving into any particulars but is setting his focus upon big-picture principles that can be gleaned from Scripture and applied immediately.

How should Christians view and use the goods and pleasures of this life? This question was not unique to Calvin’s day. Paul addressed this matter in passages like Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8, and Colossians 2, and believers still wrestle with it in our present day. Given how many caricatures of Calvin persist, many would likely expect Calvin to make a sweeping condemnation of any use of worldly pleasures for any purpose other than necessity. The Reformer, however, vehemently opposes this position, calling it “that inhuman philosophy” (116). Instead, he argues:

Would the Lord have dressed the flowers with a beauty that runs freely to meet our eyes if it were wrong to be moved by such beauty? Would he have endowed them with so sweet a fragrance that flows freely into our nostrils if it were wrong to be moved by the pleasantness of such fragrance? Isn’t the answer obvious? Has God not distinguished colors in such a way as to make some more pleasing than others? Again I ask, isn’t the answer obvious? Isn’t it clear that He made gold and silver, ivory and marble attractive—rendering them more precious than other metals or stones? In sum, isn’t it obvious that He has given us many praiseworthy things, even though they’re not necessary?

116

Of course, the answer is yes. It is quite obvious. Every child knows exactly how obvious it is that the Creator made His creation to be enjoyed. But some, in their striving after holiness, go beyond what God has commanded and make the ascetic life more virtuous than it truly is.

Yet we must also avoid the other extreme of licentiousness, of indulging our flesh and its desires. Again, Calvin points out the obvious:

How can there be acknowledgement of God if our minds are enchanted by the splendor of His gifts? For many people devote their senses to pleasures so much that their minds are buried in them. Many people are so fascinated with marble, gold, and paintings that they’re transformed, as it were, into marble, metal, or painted figures. The scent from the kitchen or other sweet odors so paralyzes them that they lose all spiritual sense of smell. And the same thing is seen with the remaining senses. It’s evident, then, that in our present circumstances we should considerably curb such freedom that leads to abuse. We should, rather, conform to Paul’s rule that we make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires.

118

Calvin points out a principle here that is found in Psalm 115:8 that those who worship idols become like them. Whenever we worship idols that are inanimate (such as “marble, gold, and paintings”), we begin to become inanimate ourselves. We become less human. This is because we imitate what we worship. As we worship the true and living God, we become more human since we are made in His image.

We can see the truth of this principle in the media of worship. Few today worship paintings, yet one of the most common household idols is the television, which is even evident in how many center their homes around it. Of course, online streaming has not diminished the television in any way but only made it all-encompassing, all-consuming. There is now no end to the entertainment, and consequently, we are fast becoming a people that ever crave entertainment yet cannot be entertained. We are becoming like our idol.

On the other hand, God has elected to reveal Himself through His Book rather than through images or video. Notice what this means. The act of reading is entirely different from the act of watching. The first is active, while the second is passive. While my seven-month-old can watch video intently, my four-year-old is just beginning to comprehend the grand idea that putting letters together forms words and putting words together forms ideas. Reading, unlike watching, is not a natural process. It requires training and focus, and we celebrate literacy as the chief marker of civilization. In other words, reading makes us more human while binging Netflix makes us less human. It is significant, therefore, that God speaks through written words on the page, so that through the very act of learning to hear Him we become more like Him.

But back to the errors at hand. Both legalistic asceticism and licentious frivolity are equally erroneous. Therefore, Calvin cites some principles for avoiding the “steep slopes in every direction” as we walk (112). First, we should do all things with moderation. He anchors this principle in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, where Paul calls us to hold the blessings of this world as if we did not have. Indeed, since our time here is fleeting and vain, nothing will be held onto for long. Many men have ruled the known world throughout history, yet not one of them still possesses it. Since we cannot keep anything that we possess, we should, therefore, enjoy God’s earthly gifts with open hands, knowing that they do not permanently belong to us. In this way, we will begin to live a life of moderation rather than of excess. Or to borrow Marcus Aurelius’ phrase, we will live with unrestrained moderation. Calvin counsels:

Therefore, even if the freedom that believers have with respect to external things cannot be subjected to a fixed formula, it should nevertheless be subjected to this rule: Let them indulges themselves very little. Rather, let them—by a perpetual intention of the heart—aim to eliminate their stockpiles of superfluous wealth, and to curb extravagance, and to take caution not to turn things given to them for support into obstacles.

120-121

Second, we should live lives of contentment, not excessively “longing after things” (121). Calvin warns that “those who keep this rule have made much progress in the school of our Lord, but those who haven’t give little proof that they are disciples of Christ” (121). If we can say with Paul that we know how to both abound and be brought low, to both hunger and be filled, then we walk in the sort of contentment that can only flow from the hands of Christ. Therefore, a lack of contentment, in the same manner, displays our ultimate discontentment with Christ.

Calvin does end up giving third principle that bleeds into the final section of the chapter. He points out the principle of stewardship, that everything we have belongs to God and has been entrusted to us. Of course, this also means that we will one day have to give an account before God of how we have faithfully (or unfaithfully) stewarded His gifts. Such an understanding will surely transform how we treat our bodies, relationships, finances, time, etc. by bringing us back to the first principle of moderation, helping us to truly understand that our possessions are not permanent.

The topic of stewardship then leads into Calvin’s final topic: calling. We should each use the goods and pleasures of this life as best suits the calling that God has given to us. By calling, Calvin means “every individual’s rank in life,” which acts as “a kind of post assigned to him by the Lord, to keep him from rushing about rashly for the whole of his life” (124). This kind of thinking is almost other-worldly today. With individual autonomy being a supreme virtue of our day, we revolt at the very idea of having a station in life that comes with responsibilities and duties. Indeed, this is (I believe) the great reason that secularism lowers birth-rates so significantly. To be a parent (even more than marriage) comes with explicit responsibilities and duties that come with very little material gain and benefit. It is a very clear fixed station in life, which is why secularists view abortion as a kind of sacrament to their autonomy.

The reality, however, is that we all have stations in life, whether we want to admit it or not, and that there is true freedom in knowing one’s purpose. Even though people have never been more free than we are today to make our own decisions about everything, one question still lingers: Do you feel free? Indeed, autonomy, like all sins, is itself a chain of slavery. There is great freedom in knowing that I am a Christian, husband, father, and pastor and in knowing what my scriptural responsibilities are for each calling. As Calvin noted, it gives me the freedom of not “rushing about rashly” my whole life. I know that I am called to know Christ, to love my wife, to raise my children, and to preach the Word (in that order of significance, by the way). As Christians, we should reject the world’s secular premise of absolute autonomy in favor of the biblical principle of calling. God has given each of us a station and a post to man, and we should each live accordingly. “For every work performed in obedience to one’s calling, no matter how ordinary and common, is radiant—most valuable in the eyes of our Lord” (126).


All quotations are from this edition.

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