Calvin and His Ailments: Pastoral Productivity in the Midst of Pain

Desiring God 2014 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor, the Vine, and the Branches: The Remarkable Reality of Union with Christ

I have no idea why I was asked to talk about Calvin and his ailments. Maybe it’s because I’m a hypochondriac and everybody knows that, and they just said, “Why don’t you talk about diverticulitis and other things.”

Calvin’s Constant Ailments

It seems like there’s almost nothing Calvin didn’t have. He suffered from childhood weaknesses, physical weaknesses. And then, when he went to various colleges at the University of Paris, they had a very strict monastic regimen, and he never got over that regimen of going to bed late at night and getting up early in the morning, only having a few hours of sleep, and then reading by candlelight. He destroyed his eyes reading that way. Then he just continued that way through life. Theodore Beza, in his Life of John Calvin, says that his ailments were partly his fault, like a good Calvinist he’s sympathizing by blaming him. Beza says part of his health problems were due to Calvin not taking care of himself.

So when he writes about Idelette taking care of him, it’s not just a chauvinistic kind of thing. He was sick all the time. He had chronic asthma, migraine, headaches that kept him awake at night, pleurisy and tuberculosis that caused him to spit up blood regularly, hemorrhoids — sometimes he would go riding horseback thinking that that would get rid of his hemorrhoids — kidney stones, gallstones, severe arthritis, and constant bouts of influenza with raging fevers. Other than that, he was very healthy.

Charles L. Cook, a medical doctor, wrote an excellent piece, if you’re interested, in the book edited by Timothy George call John Calvin and the Church. Cooke stated:

These ailments could cause severe pain or severe difficulty in breathing. All are capable of producing severe weight loss, anemia, and weakness.

He probably died of septicemia. So he was septic. His blood was poisoned, which probably led to renal failure, and that’s how he died.

A Recognition of Godward Lament

Contrary to what people think about Calvin, he broke the mold when it came to suffering. He did not reflect the stoicism that, sometime later, Calvinists have been known for. Repeatedly, he says, “We’re not made of stone. I disagree with those stoics of our day who say that you cannot cry and you cannot weep. It’s precisely what God wants us to do, to crawl into his lap and weep.”

Some of the most moving pieces of his theology are when he’s reflecting on the suffering of others. He hardly ever talks about his own suffering except when he’s writing his private letters. For the most part, he doesn’t talk about it. It’s very much a part of his theology of the cross. He thought this is what we should expect. He wasn’t anticipating Joel Osteen. He really thought that this isn’t our best life now, and really this is preparation for everlasting life. By meditating on the resurrection to come, the resurrection of the body, and our glorification, this life actually isn’t something to hate, even though it is painful and difficult.

So I’ve learned a lot, and in my forthcoming book on Calvin on the Christian Life, the last chapter is on how he dealt with all of these things by looking to the future.

Bruised by the Lord’s Hand

A great way to end this very quickly is Beza’s conclusion to the Life of Calvin:

The interval to his death, he spent in almost constant prayer. I have also heard him say, “Thou, O Lord, bruises me, but it is enough for me that it is thy hand. In this way, resigned in himself and consoling his friends (he was always consoling others), he lived till the 19th of May, on which day we ministers are want to have our private censures and to dine together as a mark of our friendship. Pentecost Sunday and the dispensation of the Lord’s Supper being to follow two days after.

And when he died, weeping was heard throughout the city. The city council gave him trouble on everything that he ever wanted to do to determine the life of the church — not the city at all, but just the life of the church. But the one thing they passed without any grumbling was his request to be buried in an unmarked grave in the common cemetery in a pine box. To this day, people don’t know where exactly Calvin is buried. He said, “There’s nothing that man’s nature seeks more eagerly than to be flattered.”

He was kicked out of Geneva, then called back, but he loved where he was in Strasbourg. And he said, “I’d rather die on a thousand crosses than go back to that ministry in Geneva.” He said, “But then when I remember that I am not my own, I offer up my heart promptly and sincerely,” and that’s exactly how he died. Even the English Ambassador to France was denied access to view the body because the ministers of Geneva wanted to honor his request that Christ be honored, that he was not his own, that he belonged to someone else. And it’s not about Calvin. It’s about the Savior he served.