John Calvin on Suffering

Institutes volume 1One of my goals for 2017 has been to work through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in its entirety, with the hope of engaging with it in 2018 by way of blogging. I have drawn on his work in the past: challenging comfortable Christianity and in thinking about God’s sovereignty. But the reason I am writing this post now – as one untimely born – is because over the past few weeks I have found myself drawing on the Institutes for both pastoral counseling and preaching. While this post will focus on some gleanings from Calvin and suffering, I hope that it will be an encouragement to the reader that studying theology has practical value. Theological study is far more than a rite of passage to pastoral ministry; it is a vital aspect of any pastoral ministry.

Distinguish between punishment and discipline

I am sure you have heard, ‘I don’t think God sends suffering, because he loves us.’ But when you read the Bible we learn that it is precicely because God loves us that he sends suffering. Calvin captures this well, “Children are beaten with rods, not to pay the penalty for their sins to God, but in order thereby to lead to repentance” (3.4.33). So he says that suffering in the Christian life is future and not past orientated, “While we as children of God are afflicted by the hand of the Heavenly Father, this is not a penalty to confound us, but only a chastisement to instruct us” (3.4.33). The point Calvin drives home is that when we face trials and afflictions God is growing us through the experience, he is strengthening our faith. When we suffer we generally think it is the result of three things: (a) the work of Satan, (b) the result of our sin, or (c) the absence of God’s love. Calvin deals with the first of those under the next heading and he encourages us to consider the possibility of the second along with the absurdity of the third. “He who in the end profits by God’s scourges is the man who considers God angry at his vices, but merciful and kindly toward himself” (3.4.34). Grasping this biblical truth is a comfort and balm for Christians who suffer: our Father loves us and in his sovereignty sends both happiness and hardship, to turn us away from sin and back to himself.

Learning from the suffering of Job

William BlakeDiscussing the sovereign will of God, Calvin (2.4.2) looks at Job 1, where Job suffers at the hands of the Chaldeans. Though it is the Chaldeans who kill his shepherds and ravage his flocks (Job 1:17), if we look back a few verses we learn that this stems from Satan (Job 1:12). However, Calvin writes, “Job recognizes the Lord’s work in it” (Job 1:21). Considering these three verses, Calvin asks, “How may we attribute this same work to God, to Satan, and to man as author, without either excusing Satan as associated with God, or making God the author of evil?” That is an important question to which Calvin offers an excellent answer: Satan sought to drive Job to desperation; the Chaldeans are motivated by greed or envy, or both; and God’s purpose is to exercise the patience of his servant. It is that last point that we battle with, even if it is undeniable as we read the text (Job 1:11; 2:6). Even if we emphasise that God allows this suffering to come upon Job, we cannot evade the fact that God is sovereign in Job’s suffering. Calvin argues that we must observe the distinction between purpose (or end) and manner. For while the deed (or manner) is simultaneously attributed to God, Satan, and men, the outcome is that God’s righteousness and the faithfulness of Job is made apparent and contrast with the wickedness of Satan and the Chaldeans. The point for us to take away is that God is sovereign in suffering, but his purpose is that he is glorified through our genuine and persevering faith (1 Peter 1:6-7).

True biblical hope

In a lengthy section on the continuity between Old and New Testaments, Calvin shows how the promises made to Israel were for future blessedness, eternal life in the presence of God. Calvin is astounded that some think God promised the Jews “nothing but a full belly, delights of the flesh, flourishing wealth, outward power, fruitfulness of offspring, and whatever the natural man prizes” (2.10.23), the same things many false teachers promise God’s people today. So in 2.10.7-22 he outlines a few conclusions we can draw from Israel’s faith that are analogous to our own: happiness is elusive and ephemeral, many of us experience it only in snatches; death still stalks our world and therefore we must hope for immortality; and the abundant blessings promised to God’s people are surely not known in this groaning creation. The hope for them, as it is for us, is to know God and enjoy him forever. Thus Calvin writes, “Souls, unless they be joined to God through righteousness, remain estranged from him in death. On the other hand, such a union when present will bring everlasting salvation with it” (2.10.8); “They whom he, who is judge of death and life, had received into his tutelage, care, and protection are not snuffed out even by death” (2.10.9). That is biblical hope: the certainty of an imperishable and unfading future kept for us by God as we are kept by his strength (1 Peter 1:3-5).

In conclusion, Calvin does not deny the joy of knowing God in the present life. But we should not deny its troubles. Taking Calvin’s three points together we can have confidence in our afflictions, which come from God and are designed for our good and his glory. Suffering comes in order to train our faith and fix our eyes on the hope that will not fail. For we know a God who is sovereign and in control. He will use all things for his glory and the good of those who love him.

Graham Heslop
I have an insatiable appetite for books, occasionaly dip into theology and am presently serving full time at Christ Church Umhlanga in Durban. Most often found on the beach, a soccer field, or my couch
  • Francois du Toit

    Good stuff bro!
    Do you have anything more I can read on God and his non authorship of evil? It’s something I’m still thinking through.

    • thanks Fran, I hope that the article was helpful even if it didn’t address the question of authorship. I would recommend a few books, admitting that I haven’t read them in their entirety myself: How Long, O Lord? (Carson), Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (Keller), and Where was God When That Happened? (Ash). The former is seminal, and the latter is according to many an excellent introduction to the question

      • What do you think of Feinberg’s “Many Faces of Evil” (I think it was your copy I read but maybe it was Dave’s).

        • that was my copy, which stares at me from across my office. Unfortunately I haven’t had a look at it. But another title I would add to my answer above: Evil and the Cross (Blocher)