More Calvin, I’m afraid. I am reading the section on the Christian life. In particular the section on self denial and bearing the cross. In it, Calvin comments on the tribulations that afflict Christians. He himself was no stranger to afflictions, being regularly stoned on his way to teaching and preaching.
In affliction there are, of course, the things that trouble everyone: poverty, illness, bereavement etc. And there is also suffering for righteousness’ sake i.e. because one is a Christian. These are not to be handled as the Stoic would, by ignoring all emotions and waiting patiently. Rather the full range of emotions must drive us to dependence on God alone. (Calvinists are often accused of being fatalistic, like the Stoics, and I suppose some are, but clearly Calvin knew nothing about it!)
I found this quote most interesting because it resonated with me. Speaking of Peter and his response to Jesus’ prediction of his manner of death (John 21:18), and his subsequent obedient life, Calvin says,
…even though he obeyed the divine command with the utmost fervor of heart, yet, because he had not put off his human nature, he was pulled apart by a double will. For while he contemplated that bloody death which he was to die, stricken with the dread of it, he would have gladly escaped. On the other hand, when it came to his mind that he was called to it by God’s command, having overcome and trampled his fear, he willingly and cheerfully undertook it. This, therefore, we must try to do if we would be disciples of Christ, in order that our minds may be steeped in such reverence and obedience towards God as to be able to tame and subjugate to his command all contrary affections. Thus it will come to pass that, by whatever kind of cross that we may be troubled, even in the greatest tribulations of mind, we shall firmly keep our patience. (Institutes, III.viii.10)
What struck me about this was his reference to the existence of a “double will”. All through my Christian life I have struggled with this phenomenon – a desire to do the right, in obedience to Christ, but at the same time a fear that it might hurt in some way. I’m in my 3rd decade as a Christian and I have come to believe that all Christians share the same kind of problem to some degree or other. What has troubled me though is the lack of treatment of this subject in any of my reading. Biographies of Christians, from my recollection, seem to present the subject of the biography as a great, fearless hero of the faith who would boldly and joyfully go into the most appalling situations for the sake of the gospel, and experience no emotion other than joy, joy, joy.
My own experience has been one of almost constant battle with self. I would much rather sit at home with a coffee in hand, reading nice books, writing blog entries, than going out and meeting and ministering to real people. People bring pain, sorrow, confrontation, anger. Oh, and sometimes joy too. In the quote above, Calvin recognises that such problems exist and are to be expected. This does not mean that he has a natty technique of avoiding the pain and keeping the joy – we still must “tame and subjugate … all contrary affections”. Nevertheless, his recognition that it is present and an expected problem is a great comfort and encouragement.