Suffering and Calvinism

[This post is a brief reflection, from one particular angle, on the good that I’ve seen from the influence of Calvinism within evangelical churches. This does not cover every criticism of the movement, some of which is legitimate but much of which fails to account for the internal motives at work.]

On the way to the Desiring God conference, I had the fortune to carpool with one of the senior members of our church. The fortune came with her testimony, which I had never heard. She had been a committed believer for most of her life, but several years ago her husband was diagnosed with cancer, challenging her assumptions about God and the course of this life. They were both well-educated with successful medical careers. Life was good, and their faith was a nice supplement to this good life. As a result, her faith had not matured much beyond what it was when she first believed. From the common presentations of the life of faith, she assumed that God’s beneficence was contingent, to some degree or another, upon her faith. As is so often the case, this understanding was brutally challenged by her husband’s severe affliction and eventual death.

As she tells it, their faith would have been lost, with confusion and cynicism taking its place, if it were not for Reformed theology. The God who existed for their material well-being was found to be an idol. The idol was replaced with — not her words exactly — the God of Reformed theology. They had come across the ministry of R. C. Sproul and discovered Calvinism for the first time. She was very explicit that the peculiar emphases of Reformed literature — God’s sovereignty in creation and redemption — were the succor that brought them closer to God, more trusting of God, more in awe of God, than anything they could have imagined. There was no happy ending that the world could see — he died — but they knew the depths of reconciliation that happen at the moments of greatest dependence. They knew the clarity of vision that only comes in affliction. They saw, for the first time, that God was most honored in their lives when he appeared to be most absent.

Needless to say, I was rather affected by her testimony. It resonated with moments and thought processes in my own life, and what I’ve seen in others. It may sound strange that doctrines like Unconditional Election and Eternal Security can have such practical consequences, but Reformed communities, including my church, are full of people who have been deeply affected by this theology. Contrary to many assumptions, these doctrines do not remove God from the real world, as if to place him in some distant realm of abstract forms — beautiful and coherent but distant. There are indeed Reformed believers who treat these doctrines in this way and for whom theology is the means for defending the rational integrity of the Reformed faith. If that were the bulk of the attendants and speakers at Desiring God, then I would have no desire to be a part of this fellowship. But, I believe that the motives behind such enthusiasm (for Reformed doctrine) are not as cerebral as often supposed. For most, the doctrines are quite close to the ground, where evil and death are still the enemy.


  1. Thanks for this post. While I am not a Calvinist, I can agree that contemplating God’s soverienty and providence helps us in times of suffering. I am grateful to Calvinism in that I callanged me to think about these issues, which I think really helped me through some tough times.

    God be with you,

    • Glad to hear. It should challenge all of us. This is partly why the continuing interest in Calvinism and Arminianism is, by and large, a sign of health in a church. It’s not always helpful, to be sure, when the line is hardened between the two. Moreover, a person’s theological interests may begin with this issue, but it should not end there. After all, classical Calvinism is not without its limitations, and Barth should be integrated to some extent into the old federal theology.

  2. It brings to mind something S. T. Coleridge said. He professed allegiance to neither school, but wrote of his being “tempted to characterize high Calvinism as (comparatively) a lamb in wolf’s skin, and strict Arminianism as approaching to the reverse.”

    • Very interesting! Thanks a lot for sharing. That image of “wolf’s skin” speaks for a lot of people when they first encounter Calvinist doctrine. As for myself, I had the fortune of having a best friend in high school and college who was a Presbyterian (PCA). He first introduced me to Reformed theology, so I always knew the sheep underneath.

  3. […] No, I’m not convinced. Bell is an anomaly — a fringe figure, with an enthusiastic fan base but still on the fringe. Who, then, truly represents far greater swaths of the evangelical landscape? Names like Al Mohler and John Piper, bloggers like Justin Taylor and Tim Challies, conferences like Desiring God and Ligonier, ministries like Sovereign Grace and Crossway Publishers, and parachurch organizations like The Gospel Coalition, The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and the CBMW. Despite this variety of networks and leaders, there is remarkable cohesion and a monolithic vision. This is where seminarians are being fed, and truly there is a lot of good (spiritual) meat to be found. I even attended last year’s Desiring God conference and largely praised it. At RTS, these ministries are where the students find sustenance, and I’m sure the same can be said for non-Reformed seminaries: TEDS, Southwestern, Gordon-Conwell are full of energetic young men with their ESV Study Bibles, a string of Crossway books on the shelf, and John Piper sermons on their laptop. Once again, there are far worse trends that could beset evangelicalism, so my criticism has to be tempered. In fact, I would say this is a mostly positive trend, as I’ve touched upon before. […]

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