Russell and Duenes

John Calvin: The Design of God in Afflicting His People

with 2 comments

I’m about halfway through John Calvin’s Institutes, and today was reading about God’s design in disciplining his children; a subject I’ve been confronting in ministry lately. I was struck by this passage from Book III, chapter 9, section 1.

Whatever be the kind of tribulation with which we are
afflicted, we should always consider the end of it to be, that we
may be trained to despise the present, and thereby stimulated to
aspire to the future life. For since God well knows how strongly we
are inclined by nature to a slavish love of this world, in order to
prevent us from clinging too strongly to it, he employs the fittest
reason for calling us back, and shaking off our lethargy. Every one
of us, indeed, would be thought to aspire and aim at heavenly
immortality during the whole course of his life. For we would be
ashamed in no respect to excel the lower animals; whose condition
would not be at all inferior to ours, had we not a hope of
immortality beyond the grave. But when you attend to the plans,
wishes, and actions of each, you see nothing in them but the earth.
Hence our stupidity; our minds being dazzled with the glare of
wealth, power, and honours, that they can see no farther. The heart
also, engrossed with avarice, ambition, and lust, is weighed down
and cannot rise above them. In short, the whole soul, ensnared by
the allurements of the flesh, seeks its happiness on the earth. To
meet this disease, the Lord makes his people sensible of the vanity
of the present life, by a constant proof of its miseries. Thus, that
they may not promise themselves deep and lasting peace in it, he
often allows them to be assailed by war, tumult, or rapine, or to be
disturbed by other injuries. That they may not long with too much
eagerness after fleeting and fading riches, or rest in those which
they already possess, he reduces them to want, or, at least,
restricts them to a moderate allowance, at one time by exile, at
another by sterility, at another by fire, or by other means. That
they may not indulge too complacently in the advantages of married
life, he either vexes them by the misconduct of their partners, or
humbles them by the wickedness of their children, or afflicts them
by bereavement. But if in all these he is indulgent to them, lest
they should either swell with vain-glory, or be elated with
confidence, by diseases and dangers he sets palpably before them how
unstable and evanescent are all the advantages competent to mortals.
We duly profit by the discipline of the cross, when we learn that
this life, estimated in itself, is restless, troubled, in numberless
ways wretched, and plainly in no respect happy; that what are
estimated its blessings are uncertain, fleeting, vain, and vitiated
by a great admixture of evil. From this we conclude, that all we
have to seek or hope for here is contest; that when we think of the
crown we must raise our eyes to heaven.
For we must hold, that our
mind never rises seriously to desire and aspire after the future,
until it has learned to despise the present life.
(Emphasis mine)

– D


Written by Michael Duenes

April 21, 2010 at 4:49 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I am not a scholar, but one of the things I have often struggled with in Christianity is the how varied are the ways that Christians view the world. The beauty in this world I accept as a gift from God. I pray for God to intervene in stopping wars, healing the sick, etc. I believe in life eternal through the blood of Christ, and that my existence here is just part of that eternal journey to heaven. This excerpt confuses me. Is the world actually an evil place for which we should not want to be in? What I understand here that it is God who allows the very things I pray for him to heal….hunger, injuries, war, abuse, disease…so, it really doesn’t matter that I pray for these things at all. Forget praying for peace in the world so our children can have a better future, for beating and abuse to stop so women and children can have a better life. Instead, should I revel in the evil displayed in this world because our God has a stamp of approval on it? Just despise my life, put on my blinders to evil, look to heaven, all will be well. I don’t think so. I see His crown in the eyes of a child, a beautiful sunrise, a person’s smile. I see my Lord here in this world and in the world to come.


    April 22, 2010 at 6:29 am

    • C,
      Good thoughts here. I understand what you’re saying. In the larger sense, we have to put Calvin’s comments in context. I think that he is generally trying to echo Jesus’ sentiments when Jesus says, “Whoever comes after me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple…So therefore, no one of you can be my disciple who does not give up all his own possessions” (Luke 14:26-35). This is not all that Jesus says, of course, but it is surely something that western Christians in particular need to hear. Jesus also loves the beauty and wonder of the world around him, for he made it all, and made it to be enjoyed and admired, though not idolized, as we so often do. The problem is that we try to make the world either an evil place or a good one, when in reality, it is both, and Calvin says as much elsewhere. The world is suffused with God’s glory and a reflection of it. When God finished his work of creation, he say that it was all “very good.” That cannot be negated. Yet at the same time, this world is fallen, marred and ruined due to sin. Paul says, “The whole creation groans as in the pains of childbirth.” It groans under God’s curse, for God cursed it in Genesis 3. Calvin would never advise against praying for justice, peace, and the advancement of God’s kingdom. He would agree with Jesus’ prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, ON EARTH as it is in heaven.” But he would also agree with the biblical teaching that we are to look forward to and expect “the new earth and the new heavens” that Isaiah and Revelation talk about. Paul says, “If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at God’s right hand. Set your mind on things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col.3:1-2). We Christians are not dualists. We hold that creation is good and admirable and lovely and enjoyable, and we hope for something far better, compared to which, this world is a tarnished and dim echo. I don’t know if at the end of my saying this, you and I would disagree.



      April 22, 2010 at 1:54 pm

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