Why We Fear Calvinism, the Doctrine of Hope
We grow accustomed to the smallness of things because we dwell in small places: a particular dorm room, a specific job, a well-defined family and a reasonably consistent group of friends. We develop habits and rituals that help to define the borders of such spaces and in that familiarity we find a deep and satisfying comfort.
But, as any one who struggles in life understands, such stability is an illusion. The domain of our control only stretches as far as the reach of our hands and it takes but the barest of intrusions to remind us that there is always something more powerful lurking about out there. A friend stabs you in the back. A boss rips into you for poor performance at work. A professor slaps you with a surprisingly awful grade. An accident tears you or someone you love to pieces.
A girl and I broke up once. That was devastating enough in itself, but what sent me spiraling into depression was the moment I knew she had begun dating someone else. Why? It was because that moment demolished any hope that I could do anything to restore the relationship to the way it was. A friend of mine died from leukemia. Despite having fallen out of touch for years, I was shocked and inexplicably bereaved by her unexpected death. Why? Death meant the definitive end to our friendship and the loss of any shared future experiences we might have had. Another friend committed suicide. My grades in medical school were slipping. Friendships I had once counted on suddenly seemed foreign and uncertain.
So whom could I blame but God? Who else was capable of bringing about such specific and timely personal disaster in my life? Was this the Sovereign Lord, the maker of heaven and earth? Was this how He chose to spend his time, the manner in which He wished to display authority? It all seemed too cruel and whimsical. The simple declarations by Christian friends that it was somehow “meant for good and God’s glory” seemed trite. It let God off the hook too easily for such a gross violation of my desire and right to a normal, unperturbed life. Exactly who did God think He was that I should be given no say in the matters of my life?
Superficially, Calvinism excuses God to do as He pleases at the expense of our liberty and convenience. I fear a loss of control, but not because I challenge God’s right to sovereignty. No, I challenge His right to Goodness. And that is why I am so easily content to be a Christian when all is well: because God’s definitions of Goodness happen, at the time, to coincide with my own conceptions of it. I make no complaint of sovereignty when blessings and abundance flow my way. But when God’s will comes into conflict with my own, my apparent indignation is more easily expressed in terms of God’s right to act rather than His right to being Right.
So we throw Calvinism under the bus. I did, for a while. I thought I was refusing to believe that God was sovereign, but what I really refused to believe was that God was good. But over the course of a year, I slowly came to realize that, if God wasn’t good, nothing was. I gave in more easily to my baser instincts. I saw my selfishness, wounded pride, and cynicism well up in my heart like bile, poisoning my sentiments and sensibilities with bitterness and a deep dissatisfaction. I found that it wasn’t God who had taken control away from me; rather, I never really had control over myself to begin with. Denying God’s control over this world didn’t bring people back from the dead and it didn’t stop the world from being a crappy place. All it did was take away any true or deeper meaning to the madness and pathology that I continued to observe around and within.
It began to dawn on me that I could not have it both ways. I could not take good without evil, God’s companionship without his authority. The universe simply wasn’t made to be that way. So I gave in.
Did things get better? Nah. But I could dare to believe that God was Good. In the end, Calvinism is really about hope: the belief that God knows what he’s doing. It means that even evil itself is subject to his authority, that our groanings are the language of our yearnings for a place beyond, that such things are but shadows of a brighter land in which the object of our hope and affection, the author and perfector of our faith, waits with absolute certainty and power.
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. — Romans 8