John Calvin (1509–1564) was familiar with suffering. He faced challenges as a leader of the Reformation, ministered to people undergoing various trials, and experienced his own physical difficulties and the death of loved ones. He has been criticized as an aloof, intellectual theologian whose view of suffering may seem to some as less than sympathetic and pastoral. However, Hill’s selection of his writings shows that Calvin was tender and understanding toward sufferers.
This book consists mainly of quotations from Calvin’s commentaries and his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which are interspersed with Hill’s own comments. Calvin’s writings are applied to human suffering, including all sorts of pain and distress, serious illness, loss of loved ones or friends, natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and forest fires, poverty and hunger, accidents, persecution, and many other such events. Illustrations of suffering are drawn from the life of Calvin himself and other figures of history. Hill also quotes Seneca, Augustine of Hippo, John Milton, Joni Eareckson Tada, and others to throw light on the problem of suffering. Calvin turned particularly to the Psalms and to Job to comfort his congregation and readers. He rightly noted that in Job 32–37 Elihu corrected the view of Job’s three friends that suffering was only punitive. Like Elihu, Calvin dealt with many reasons believers suffer, including, among others, stimulation to prayer, trust in God’s power, teaching patience, encouraging hope, evidence of obedience, leading one to a higher relationship with God, being led to seek God’s help, having pity on others, and preparing for eternal glory.
Why God allows His people to suffer is given careful consideration (pp. 59–76). Hill wisely points out that it is more important that God has acted in Christ to justify the ungodly than that believers are able to understand and defend every action of God in allowing suffering. An example of this is Calvin’s comments on Job 8:13-22: “So then, let us learn not to put our trust in this world, or in any of the inferior means below. But let us lean upon God, seeing that he has given us our Lord Jesus Christ, to the end that being grafted into him we may drain such strength and sap from him that, although our life is hidden so that we are even as it were in death, we may not cease to continue still. And we may be maintained in a good and sure state, waiting till this good God has delivered us out of all worldly miseries and out of all the troubles we are obliged to suffer here, until he calls us and brings us into the kingdom of heaven and into the glory which he has purchased by the precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ” (p. 342). Hill also draws on Calvin’s biblical teaching that God ordains the suffering of His people for good (pp. 77–107). And as God’s people pour out their hearts to Him, He purifies and gives them grace to persevere (pp. 127–66).
The collection also includes such themes as “God governs all things at all times” (p. 49), “God cares about His people” (p. 52), “God is the supreme cause of all that happens” (pp. 59–76), “Good people suffer too” (p. 63), “Faith sometimes fails” (p. 113), and “Standing on the promises” (p. 115). The subtitle “Understanding the Love of God,” does not prove to be the major emphasis of the book; a better subtitle would be “Understanding the Heart of God” since other divine attributes besides love are addressed.
Ministers and teachers who care for God’s suffering people will find this book helpful. Any serious-minded believer who wrestles with the problem of suffering will find profit in this compilation of Calvin’s writings. Hill is associate professor emeritus of biblical studies and Greek at Geneva College.