23 Oct 2022

The following is taken from John Calvin: The Institutes of Christian Religion, book 3, chapter 9 on the above title:-(Edited by Tony Lane and Hilary Osbourne)

Before I quote the passage, it seems to me that what Calvin wrote is somewhat very much similar to what was written in the book of Ecclesiastes.

“Whatever sort of tribulation we suffer, we should always remember its purpose is to make us spurn the present and reach out to the future. God knows very well that we are naturally drawn to love this world. So, to keep us from clinging to it too closely, he finds good reason to call us away and wake us up. You would think that heaven and immortality would be the height of our ambition through life. We should be ashamed to be no better than the animal world, since our hope of life beyond the grave is the only thing which makes their position lower than ours. But when we look at men’s plans, desires and ambitions, there seem to be nothing but earthly values. How stupid we are! Our minds are so dazzled with the glare of wealth, power and honours, that we cannot see beyond them. The heart also, preoccupied with greed, ambition and lust, is in the grip of worldly attractions, and looks for happiness only here on earth. To combat this disease, the Lord makes his people aware of the futility of their present life by frequent proof of its misery. So that we don’t have false hopes of deep and lasting peace, he often allows us to be disturbed by war, riots, burglary and a variety of other disasters….
We profit by the discipline of the cross when we realise that this life is, in itself, restless, troubled and unhappy. Even the so-called blessings are uncertain, passing, empty and tinged with evil. From all this, we have to conclude that the best we can hope for here is a struggle. When we think of the crown of life, we must look up to heaven. We must realise that our minds never genuinely long for future joy, until they have learned to make little of this present life.

There are no half-measures in all this. Either we must have a very low opinion of this life or be trapped by an excessive love of it. If we have any thoughts about eternity we must fight hard to throw off this bondage….

Awareness that this life is like smoke or a shadow is not confined to scholars. It is common knowledge among ordinary people. Even so, we are to think about it as little as possible and make plans as though life here was forever. If we happen to see a funeral, or wander in a graveyard, we cannot help being aware of death and philosophising eloquently on the emptiness of this life. But this is very momentary and we forget it all immediately we move on. We not only forget death but also mortality itself, lying back in comfort as though we could expect life here to go on endlessly. If anyone reminds us that man is only here for a brief spell, we agree but pay little attention, inwardly convinced of our own indestructibility! So we must all agree that it is vital to be made aware, by experience, of the misery of the earthly life. Otherwise we go on gazing at it with mindless admiration, as if it contained everything that is good. If God finds it necessary to discipline us in this way, surely we must listen when he calls and shakes us out of lethargy? Then we shall be quick to despise the world and aspire wholeheartedly to the future life.”

It is interesting to realise that the book of Ecclesiastes is in the canon to drive home the point clearly that life on earth, in the fallen state, is meaningless, vain and it cannot satisfy ultimately. The preacher, observing and experiencing all the various areas of life, comes to the same conclusion again and again – “all is meaningless and a chasing after the wind”. He noted that God has put eternity in the heart of man; yet, man cannot know what is to come and he cannot understand all the contradictions in life ‘under the sun’. The afterlife, says the book of Ecclesiastes, is essential to this life and to understanding the truth of who God made us to be; we will find meaning only when the meaning extends beyond this life and world.

But we know that the good news (the gospel) is the key to getting beyond and over the sun and to gaining the life full of the meaning and purpose that God intended for us. Only eternity with God makes a life worth living and we will find such meaning only in Christ!

In the meantime, do not be discouraged when we encounter difficulties and sufferings here on earth as believers. Those whom the Lord has chosen and honoured with his friendship must be prepared for a hard, strenuous and testing life, full of many different troubles. It is the Father’s will to exercise his followers in this way, putting them to the test. He put Christ his first=born through the course, and has continued it with his children.
The bitterness of the cross for us is sweetened greatly when we think that the more we suffer hard experiences, the more sure we are made of our fellowship with Christ. By communion with him not only are our sufferings blessed to us, but they further our salvation in no small measure; we would realise that we are sharing fellowship with Christ in his sufferings. As he rose to the glory of heaven through a vale of tears, so we too are led there through various tribulations (Rom. 8:29; Acts 14:22). Even the holiest of men would feel too secure in their own strength, if they were not made to know themselves more thoroughly by the trial of the cross.