Book 3 Chapter 8 Section 1-11
In this second chapter on self-denial, Calvin focuses our thoughts on what it means to “bear the cross”. He begins by stating that our example and model in this should come from our Lord, who, despite being the most beloved Son and completely sinless, was subjected to a “perpetual cross” while on earth. The only reason He carried His cross was “to testify and prove his obedience to the Father.” On the contrary, there are many reasons which make it necessary for us to bear our cross:
- To reveal our false confidence in the flesh – because we estimate our virtue above its proper worth
- To prove to us our great weakness and frailty – thus teaching us true humility
- To learn to invoke His strength – teaching us to daily rely on the grace of God, not our own strength
- To try our patience and train us in obedience – that we might “display striking proofs of the graces” He has given us to withstand such trials
- To prevent us from becoming corrupted by His indulgence – and so not become like the children of Israel who kicked against the father who reared them (Deut 32.15)
- To correct our past faults – treating us as children who are rightly disciplined (Heb 12.8)
- To suffer for the sake of righteousness – which is singled out as being particularly glorifying to God (Mat 5.10).
Calvin goes on to say that without trials there would be no such thing as patience. For patience only grows in adversity, never peace. God would have us display the glory of the gifts He has given us, that His grace and power may be demonstrated to the world. As Calvin says “But if God Himself, to prevent the virtues which He has conferred upon believers from lurking in obscurity, nay lying useless and perishing, does aright in supplying materials (i.e. trials!) for calling them forth, there is the best reason for the afflictions of the saints, since without them their patience could not exist.”
However, knowing that there are so many good reasons to undergo trials does not mean that believers possess a “total insensibility to pain” as if there feelings were desensitised. Our goal is not to be like the Stoics who aim to be so divested of humanity that nothing in life can affect them – treating adversity and prosperity, grief and joy all the same as if they were a stone. Even Christ himself experienced grief and “shed tears for his own and others’ woes.” We are caught between wanting to obey God and trying to avoid suffering. We by nature recoil from trials, but knowing that this is often the path we must take to obey our Father we press on, not knowing what lies ahead.
With so many good reasons for undergoing trials and tribulation its a wonder that we complain so much when we go through them! Seriously though, how hard it is for us to hold on to these truths in the midst of our sufferings. Most of the time it is only when looking back, often after many years, that we can see any positives from our ordeals. And yet Calvin reminds us that is in the midst of these trials, when they are at their fiercest, that we are virtue shines the brightest. Our patience, thankfulness and graciousness at the time of testing glorifies God and demonstrates to the world the reality of our faith.
Some trials are common to believer and unbeliever – for example disease, bereavement, redundancy and natural disasters. In addition when the believer takes a stand for his Lord he will often face persecution. In all these things, whether they come to us because we are believers or because we are living on a broken planet, we can view them all as the cross that we must bear. They can all be redeemed by embracing them for the sake of Christ. This is where the difference comes – not in the nature of the trials themselves, but in our offering of ourselves willing to God to bear them for His pleasure.
“Everyone who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” 2 Timothy 3.12