When Life Hurts

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Professor, Westminster Seminary California

Monks go looking for a cross, thinking that they are pleasing God by their stoic resolve. We encounter this sometimes in our own circles today, as believers often feel obliged to smile in public even if they collapse at home in private despair.

John Calvin counters, “Such a cheerfulness is not required of us as to remove all feeling of bitterness and pain.”

It is not as the Stoics of old foolishly described “the great-souled man”: one who, having cast off all human qualities, was affected equally by adversity and prosperity, by sad times and happy ones — nay, who like a stone was not affected at all. . . .

Now, among the Christians there are also new Stoics, who count it depraved not only to groan and weep but also to be sad and care-ridden. These paradoxes proceed, for the most part, from idle men who, exercising themselves more in speculation than in action, can do nothing but invent such paradoxes for us.

Yet we have nothing to do with this iron philosophy which our Lord and Master has condemned not only by his word, but also by his example. For he groaned and wept both over his own and others’ misfortunes. . . . And that no one might turn it into a vice, he openly proclaimed, “Blessed are those who mourn.”

The Sufferer’s Asylum

Especially given how some of Calvin’s heirs have confused a Northern European “stiff upper lip” stoicism with biblical piety, it is striking how frequently he rebuts this “cold” philosophy that would “turn us to stone.” Suffering is not to be denied or downplayed, but arouses us to flee to the asylum of the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit.

It is quite unimaginable that this theology of the cross will top the best-seller lists in our “be good–feel good” culture, but those who labor under perpetual sorrows, as Calvin did, will find solidarity in his stark realism:

Then only do we rightly advance by the discipline of the cross when we learn that this life, judged in itself, is troubled, turbulent, unhappy in countless ways, and in no respect clearly happy; that all those things which are judged to be its goods are uncertain, fleeting, vain, and vitiated by many intermingled evils. From this, at the same time, we conclude that in this life we are to seek and hope for nothing but struggle; when we think of our crown, we are to raise our eyes to heaven. For this we must believe: that the mind is never seriously aroused to desire and ponder the life to come unless it is previously imbued with contempt for the present life.

Yet precisely because “this life, judged in itself,” is filled with misery, the obvious evidences of God’s grace to us in the gospel fill us with hope. For our life is not merely judged in itself.

The Sufferer’s Hope

Only when the burden of this life presses us to lodge our entire confidence in Christ and the blessings of the age to come do we not only find the strength to endure this life, but also recognize bright beams of God’s kindness even in our temporal circumstances. “Since, therefore, this life serves us in understanding God’s goodness, should we despise it as if it had no grain of good in itself?”

Only when we are made certain that our only hope is in the kindness, love, and mercy of God — and not at all in the circumstances of our lives now — can we begin to wonder at so many blessings instead of complain at the slightest adversity. “When we are certain that the earthly life we live is a gift of God’s kindness, as we are beholden to him for it we ought to remember it and be thankful.”

In spite of some of his bleak comments, Calvin makes it clear that the misery of this present life is not natural. He longs to be liberated not from creation, but from sin. “Of course,” he says, the present life “is never to be hated except in so far as it holds us subject to sin; although not even hatred of that condition may ever properly be turned against life itself.”

Meditation on our frailty — even death — is not an end in itself. It is meant to lead us to hope in the resurrection. Ironically, it is the denial of death and the resurrection of the body that leads pagans to suppress the tragic aspect of life — even while “the brute animals and even inanimate creatures — even trees and stones — conscious of the emptiness of their present condition, long for the final day of resurrection” and know that “this earthly decay” does not have the last word. “To conclude in a word: if believers’ eyes are turned to the power of the resurrection, in their hearts the cross of Christ will at last triumph over the devil, flesh, sin, and wicked men.”

The Sufferer’s Realism

As it turns out, then, Calvin’s “meditation on the future life” is not a flight from this world, but a deeper identification with it. It is a realism and hope grounded in the gospel that opens us up to his grace and our callings in the world.

We are not monks, depriving ourselves of everything but the basic necessities. “And we also cannot avoid those things which seem to serve delight more than necessity. Therefore we must hold to a measure so as to use them with a clear conscience, whether for necessity or delight.”

Paradoxically, those who have let go of this life, those who are no longer slaves to its promises of health, wealth, and happiness, are free to enjoy its gifts as pleasures directing our gratitude to a generous Father.

Adapted from Dr. Horton’s forthcoming book, Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever (Crossway, March 31, 2014), 253–5. Footnotes removed, headings added, and posted here by the publisher’s permission.

From childhood Calvin’s life was filled with suffering and pain, and at the recent conference for pastors, Dr. Horton shared a six-minute small talk on his many physical ailments, saying, “There’s almost nothing he didn’t have.” You can watch it here: