Emily, a former student of mine, had endured a semester’s worth of ridicule and abuse from her grad school professors and fellow students for professing her allegiance to Jesus Christ. During Christmas break she paid me a visit in my office. She sighed, “No one ever told me that to be a Christian would be this hard.”
Well, Emily, let’s be clear on one point: When Jesus called his earliest disciples to follow him, he never hid his scars. He didn’t then, and he doesn’t now. Never does he present his offer as though it’s a bargain.
Rather, straightforwardly he warns any would-be follower that trouble lies ahead. Few truths, if any, are more important to learn about Christian discipleship than this one, especially in this self-maximizing, “We-do-it-all-for-you” age.
And few pastors in Christian history have more clearly reminded believers of this central fact than did John Calvin. Along with self-denial and meditation on the future life, Calvin made cross-bearing one of the three cardinal features of every Christian’s journey through this life:
Each must bear his own cross. For whomever the Lord has adopted and deemed worthy of his fellowship ought to prepare themselves for a hard, toilsome, and unquiet life, crammed with very many and various kinds of evil. It is the heavenly Father’s will thus to exercise them. . . . Beginning with Christ, his firstborn, he follows this plan with all his children. . . . Why should we exempt ourselves, therefore, from the condition to which Christ our Head had to submit? (Institutes, III.viii.1).
But, though harsh and difficult, these troubles are not without purpose. In the same passage Calvin writes,
The apostle teaches that God has destined all his children to the end that they be conformed to Christ. Hence . . . a great comfort comes to us: we share Christ’s sufferings in order that as he has passed from the labyrinth of all evils into heavenly glory, we may in like manner be led through various tribulations to the same glory. . . . By communion with him the very sufferings themselves not only become blessed to us but also help much in promoting our salvation.
Come what may, and though even our closest friend should turn away when our enemy hurls taunts at us, our heavenly Father will never desert us, assures Calvin. God promises to be with us—to carry us through.
On the very evening before he was evicted from Geneva in 1538 by a white-hot determined group opposed to his reforms, Calvin wrote to his fellow Reformer, Guillame Farel: “If we had been serving man, we had been badly rewarded! However, we serve the One who never withholds from his servants that which he has promised them. Beyond measure, the Lord cares for us his servants.”
What’s more, through the discipline of the cross our Father keeps beckoning us to train our eyes on home. God makes our hearts pant for that coming day when our troubles will be over. These two actions of the Lord—both the carrying of his weary and embattled children in the present and the beckoning of them toward a heavenly future—make progress in the Christian life possible, says Calvin. Thus, our daily task and calling are obvious: we must remember our Lord’s powerful care for us today amid our distress, and dream about God’s promises for us tomorrow. In doing so, we can make sure spiritual progress.
- In Calvin’s day religious persecution was rampant and one could readily expect to suffer economic ruin, imprisonment, and even death for one’s faith in Christ. We live in a very different environment. Are we exempt from “cross-bearing?” If not, what does it look like for us?
- Can you relate to Emily’s story? What forms of embarrassment, abuse, or hardship have you endured because of your faith in Jesus and/or your efforts to follow him?
- Are there fellow Christians in this world who do still suffer greatly because of their faith? Tell some of their stories. How can we meaningfully support them?
- If Jesus suffered and died for us, why do his followers still need to suffer too?
- What two things does Calvin say we need to do to be able to endure suffering and self-denial for Jesus’ sake?