“There is nothing in afflictions which ought to disturb our joy,” proclaimed John Calvin. The fact that John Calvin said these words might not surprise you. But what you may not know is that Calvin suffered from chronic asthma, migraine headaches, pleurisy, kidney stones, hemorrhoids, gallstones, severe arthritis and frequent influenza accompanied with raging fevers. God greatly afflicted him.
For several reasons, Calvin sometimes gets more flack from his critics than he deserves. To be fair, his fans probably give him a little too much credit as well. But to say that Calvin gets a lot of hate is an understatement. I’ve heard people say that he was cold and harsh — especially in his writings. Is this true? If you spend time studying his work, you’ll find that he was an advocate of great joy.
Count it All Joy
You’ve probably read this verse a thousand times, but let’s read it again: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2).
What James does not say is, “Christians will be exempt from suffering.” No, he says something that no other major religion teaches: that Christians should count it as joy when trials arrive. Why?
James answers the question in the next verse. “For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:3-4).
The people that James writes to are struggling with trials of various kinds — fractions in the church, temptations to worldliness, persecution, etc. For his audience, life is hard. Maybe you’re in a similar season. Maybe in this season, you find yourself facing trials of various kinds. One of the beautiful things about the Christian faith is that Christians can find joy amid suffering.
In hard seasons, God reveals and removes your idols and makes you rely more on him. God makes you more like Christ, and therefore, you can rejoice.
In one of his commentaries, Calvin comments on this verse and says, “The Lord then afflicts us in various ways, because ambition, avarice, envy, gluttony, intemperance, excessive love of the world, and the innumerable lusts in which we abound, cannot be cured by the same medicine.”
God in His wisdom knows that we need various kinds of trials to sanctify various areas in our lives.
Calvin continues, “It is, indeed, certain, that all the senses of our nature are so formed, that every trial produces in us grief and sorrow . . . but this does not prevent the children of God to rise, by the guidance of the Spirit, above the sorrow of the flesh. Hence, it is that in the midst of trouble, they cease not to rejoice.”
One thing I appreciate about Calvin is that he’s a realist. He knows suffering is hard, for he suffered mightily himself. He recognizes the anguish of a hard season. But I love that he reminds us that we can rejoice amidst trials. Indeed, we are commanded to do so (Philippians 4:4).
When trials come, we cry and weep and lament and cry out to God. It’s painful, but as Calvin mentions, it’s not joyless. By the Spirit’s help, you can rejoice and count your sufferings as joy, not only when hard seasons have passed, but when you’re directly in the middle of one. Joy is available right now.
Finally, Calvin adds one final comment: ”When he (James) bids us to count it all joy, it is the same as though he had said, that temptations ought to be so deemed as gain, as to be regarded as occasions of joy. He means, in short, that there is nothing in afflictions which ought to disturb our joy.”
Did Calvin Practice What He Preached?
After less than nine years of marriage, Idelette, Calvin’s wife, died. He never remarried. He never had children. In his biography of John Calvin, Bruce Gordon rightly makes note that Calvin had many shortcomings, but Calvin was not incessantly harsh and stoic like his opponents portray him to be. In fact, the death of his wife almost left him undone.
He prayed, “The Lord Jesus Christ support me also under this heavy affliction, which would certainly overcome me, had not he, who raises up the prostrate, strengthens the weak, and refreshes the weary, stretch forth his hand from heaven to me.”
Calvin was able to experience joy even amid the deepest and darkest pain.
God answered Calvin’s prayer. Calvin did not just write about joy because it’s the right thing to do. He wrote about joy because it was what he saw in the Bible, and what he experienced in his own life.
Calvin was an influential figure, but also an afflicted one. Many today falsely accuse him of having burned people at the stake. He was often pressured and harassed by the city council who sought to control his church. And surely he never found out why his opponents named their dogs after him after he died. Calvin didn’t need the “why” behind every trial. For Calvin, trials are occasions of joy. It was enough for him to know that all trials are sent from God and for our good. As he once said, “Thou, O Lord, thou bruises me, it is enough for me to know it is thy hand.”