Earlier this week a friend asked where he should start in reading Calvin’s Institutes. I suggested, as I often do, beginning with Calvin’s A Little Book on the Christian Life which is an excerpt of the larger work, and one focused largely on Christian living. Here’s a wonderful and timely extract from the new edition translated by Aaron Denlinger and Burk Parsons.
In whatever trouble comes to us, we should always set our eyes on God’s purpose to train us to think little of this present life and inspire us to think more about the future life. For God knows well that we are greatly inclined to love this world by natural instinct. Thus, He uses the best means to draw us back and shake us from our slumber, so that we don’t become entirely stuck in the mire of our love for this world.
We all, throughout our entire lives, want to act as though we were longing for heavenly immortality and striving urgently after it. Indeed, we judge it shameful not to distinguish ourselves in some way from the brute animals, whose condition would be much the same as ours if we didn’t hope for eternity after death. But examine the plans, pursuits, and actions of whomever you wish, and you’ll find them to be entirely earthly. Thus we see our stupidity. Our minds, having been dulled by the blinding glare of empty wealth, power, and honor, can see no farther than these things. And our hearts, burdened with greed, ambition, and lust for gain, can rise no higher than these things. In sum, our entire soul, entangled in the enticements of the flesh, seeks its happiness on earth.
In order to resist this wickedness, the Lord teaches his people about the emptiness of this present life through constant lessons in suffering. Thus, so that His people don’t promise themselves lofty and untroubled peace in this life, He often permits them to be troubled and harassed by wars, uprisings, robberies, and other injuries. So that they don’t gawk with too much greediness at frail and tottering riches, or rest on those they already possess, He reduces them to poverty—or at least restricts them to very little wealth—through exile, barrenness of land, fire, or other means. So that they aren’t enticed too much by the advantages of married life, He lets them be frustrated by the offences of their spouse, humbles them by the wickedness of their children, or afflicts them with the loss of a child. However, there are times when God deals more gently with His people. Yet even when He does, so that they don’t become puffed up with pride or inflated with self-confidence, he sets before their eyes disease and danger to teach them how unstable and fleeting are those good things that come to men, who are subject to death. “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Psalm 119:71).
In the end, we rightly profit from the discipline of the cross when we learn that this life, considered in itself, is troubled, turbulent, attended by many miseries, and never entirely happy, and that whatever things we consider good in this life are uncertain, passing, vain, and spoiled because they’re mixed with many evils. And from this we likewise conclude that we should expect and hope for nothing other than trouble in this life, and that we should set our eyes on heaven where we expect our crown. So, indeed, we ought to realize that our soul will never seriously rise to the desire and contemplation of the future life until they’ve been soaked in scorn for this present life.