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John Calvin and Anxiety

Category Articles
Date March 21, 2005

A careful study of the history of the west reveals certain recurring types of anxiety. After centuries of suppression of the true Gospel, the early 1500s found Europe full of anxiety over guilt and condemnation. Following the collapse of both Rationalism and Romanticism, the present age is riddled with anxiety over the loss of identity and meaning. People simply do not know who they are and why they are here. What John Calvin has to say about anxiety is therefore very relevant to our present crisis.

If anxiety is the agitated state of mind caused by uncertainty, we may safely say that Calvin himself was very prone to it. He gave it much thought and sought to administer comfort and guidance to those of his day who suffered from it. Through studying it, he reached the conclusion that anxiety is universal. From youth to old age, he concludes, “we cannot be otherwise than continuously anxious and disturbed.” Not only do we know “by daily experience” the unresolved concerns that “distract our minds”, but “those who are extremely anxious wear themselves out and become in a sense their own executioners.”

The anxiety symptoms Calvin observed in himself were a tendency “to lose control and eat too greedily.” One of his dilemmas was whether to trust God implicitly or take precautions for his own safety. Some contemporary Dutch Christians suffer the same dilemma over house insurance and inoculations. Indeed, he was so sensitive that he checked himself for asserting God’s mercy “with so much anxiety as if it were doubtful or obscure.”

Calvin was also keenly aware of the grip anxiety held on others. The lives of kings may appear attractive, he notes, but “we do not see what torments harass them within.” Indeed, it is anxious dread that makes tyrants fill the earth with blood. All classes are subject to it, he notes: the greedy are anxious because they want more; workers worry about job security; scholars and students grow more anxious as the knowledge they crave recedes further and further from them. People’s craze for astrology, fortune-telling, magic and ‘new revelations’ reveals their anxiety over the future. In this connection, let us not forget Britain’s current thirst for ‘witchcraft and wizardry.’ The ultimate anxiety, however, is the dread of death. It invades even the slightest illnesses, because we are terrified of what they might lead to.

When we ask Calvin about the cause of anxiety, he is in no doubt about the answer. Its secondary cause is the disorder that now pervades the world, but its ultimate cause is sin. All the chaos and confusion we suffer, he asserts, is the fruit of our disobedience to God. This is why we should not promise ourselves “another day, hour or even moment.” At this point, Calvin’s psychology is superb. Little wonder that we are all anxious, he exclaims, for we are all sinners, we all deserve to die and we shall all be judged. A guilty conscience and anxiety are inseparable. And the sharper our stings of conscience, the more terrified of God we will be. At root, then, anxiety is a spiritual problem, based on our relationship to God.

How can this anxiety be relieved? Not by trying to appease God’s wrath by our own works. Such a vain hope will bring nothing but “wretched anxiety all our life.”

Neither can church prescriptions, such as the confessional, help us. Dividing our sins into “trunks, branches, twigs and leaves”, then weighing them in their “qualities, quantities and circumstances” in the ears of a priest will never relieve us of guilt. Instead, it has the cruel effect of launching us on a sea of sin without either anchor or shore. This is why the poor devotees of Rome are held captive in perpetual anxiety. They lie in a dark abyss of horror and despair from which no church prescription can ever deliver them. Or, to put it another way, they wander blindly in a labyrinth which has no exit. Lost, full of uncertainty about the eternal destiny of their souls and without hope, they are bound to be anxious.

This is man’s plight without God. His whole inner life is spent in a spiritual void and he is so constricted by sin without and within that, unless God delivers him, he will never escape. Whatever masks men wear to make them seem happy are nothing but futile bluffs hiding their true condition.

“How then,” he asks, “can they who are so burdened escape?” Only by the sheer grace, mercy and love of God, he replies. Because God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, those who believe in Him shall not perish but shall have everlasting life (John 3.16). Here, says Calvin, “Christ opens up the source of our salvation, and He does so that no doubt may remain; for our minds cannot find calm repose until we arrive at the unmerited love of God.” Our whole deliverance rests in Christ’s one offering for sin. It “ought to touch us to the heart when we perceive that God comes to seek us. He does not wait till we come to Him, but He shows us that He is ready to receive us although we were his deadly enemies.” Therefore we are to “come straight to Jesus Christ.” In Him we have a king who “preferred our salvation to His own life.” Indeed, “He put our salvation above every other consideration.” Because this is God’s remedy for sin, the root cause of all our distress, it is also His remedy for anxiety.

Trusting Him for all things in all situations, we find confusion replaced by order. A well-ordered life, regulated by God’s Word alone, through Christ alone, by faith alone, for God’s glory alone, is the only answer to our anxiety. Ultimately it is our lack of trust in our heavenly Father, the Sovereign God of providence, that produces anxiety.

This well-ordered life is worked out, says Calvin, by observing God’s boundaries. We need to keep within the limits He has set for us, not daring to stray outside them if we wish to be kept free from sinful anxiety. Do we observe the differences, he asks, between things revealed and things concealed, between Law and Gospel, shadow and substance, Church and State, faith and unbelief, obedience and rebellion, sincerity and hypocrisy, liberty and license, love and lust, self-control and lack of restraint, reverence for God and unhallowed familiarity with God, moderation and excess, modesty and vanity, use and abuse, just and unjust war, man and woman? We must apply this principle of boundaries with precision to every department of life.

The separations enforced by such boundaries, Calvin insists, are necessary in this dark world of sin, not only to establish us in the faith, but also to make human society stable, cohesive and even tolerable. Wherever these boundaries are trampled on, sin, chaos and their attendant anxieties inevitably follow. Hence Calvin’s concern for well-ordered, righteous personal relationships. Inordinate friendship with the ungodly, the least association with idolatry, male effeminacy and female masculinity, will only lead us into a rapid descent into “such confusion that everything is allowed.” By contrast, when we live within God’s boundaries it will bring both peace and spiritual prosperity.

Such a community was Calvin’s ideal for Geneva, and with Geneva, Europe. In it, men would pursue righteousness and shun sin; crime would be punished and goodness rewarded; disorder would be abolished and order established everywhere. Though such an ideal is unattainable here on earth, nevertheless his thoroughly-worked-out blueprint for such a commonwealth, coupled with his own superhuman efforts to achieve it, reveal a man of God driven by anxiety for godliness unrivalled in the history of the Church. How we need such a solution today! Not a Rome-dominated or a Secular Humanist European Federal State, but God-honouring, God-fearing independent nations, such as Switzerland and Britain have been in the past.

One other aspect of Calvin’s teaching must not be forgotten. Anxiety, he claimed, is not an unmixed evil. It alerts us to natural dangers. In the spiritual realm, it should drive us to flee to Christ from the wrath to come and warns us against sloth, self-righteousness and pride. Besides, when “worn down with cares”, “troubled by grief” and “stricken by terror” we will look to God all the more. Anxiety will also stimulate our diligence in watching and prayer. Watch anxiously and pray fervently, he counsels. Lastly, anxiety over the future will make us patient to wait for God to fulfill His promises and bring us at last into His desired haven.

The conclusion of the whole matter is that anxiety can be overcome by implicit trust. The worst kind of anxiety in the believer, Calvin rightly says, is over his relationship with God. Do I find Him “friendly or hostile”? Does He accept or reject me and my service? In other words: Am I His or am I not? Those who constantly waver between hope and fear, he counsels, should immediately receive God in His Word, Christ in His Gospel, the Holy Spirit in His grace. Then we shall be freed from all sinful anxiety, for while ‘fear hath torment,’ ‘perfect love casteth out fear.’

Calvin’s last word on the subject therefore reverts to God’s original remedy for sin. “We are continually tormented until God delivers us from misery and anguish by the remedy of His own love towards us.” By knowing this love shed abroad in our hearts “we obtain the benefit of a peaceful calmness beyond the reach of fear.”

Taken from ‘Our Inheritance’, Winter 2004, by permission

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