Does suffering to build character make
sense under Calvinism?
This question was posed on a Christian forum, asking whether it makes sense that God in Calvinism causes us to suffer in order to develop character. The poster wanted to know is there any real purpose to making believers grow in character by pain and growth when, according to some Calvinists, the believers are already saved. I'm sharing my replies to him here.
One poster shared how God decrees the MEANS as well as the ends, and that’s right under a Calvinistic understanding. God could decree means to help build a believers character. Still, again under Calvinism, God appears to choose some of the most torturous, horrible means against his elect, in order to build character.
God could have decided on something less terrible, something that would’ve grown our character without costing us the loss of a child, our health or freedoms. Sports, for example, that’s one heck of a character builder right there.
Instead we are often bereft of loved ones, physically afflicted and imprisoned. If God could bring us to a place of good character without those terrible things, and under Calvinism He can, then it’s up to us to decide if those torturous ordeals are truly the way an all loving God would express His sovereignty. Not to mention the fact that some suffering destroys a believer in Christ, ruining their faith and ultimately ejecting them from the church. Under Calvinism, God prepared those means too.
I think the thing to try and remember is that (at least according to many scholarly Calvinists) God does no damage or violence to the will of a person by causing them to gravitate towards certain extremes, either the extremes of sin or the extremes of righteousness. God (again according to Calvinists) changes your will so you start wanting what He wants you to want.
You really do want these new righteous things, you want them because God has altered or reoriented your will and caused you to want them. Why a God of love and mercy wouldn’t do this saving reorientation for everyone is something a Calvinist may have to wrestle with.
Calvinists have a kind of private definition of free will, unique may be a kinder word than private. If we insist "both God and man make choices freely," a Calvinist could reply "I’m 100% in agreement, free choices all round!" This can cause confusion and frustration because they’re clearly not using the commonplace understanding of free will. They have an understanding of freedom that’s tailored to the systematic.
For sure the Lord doesn’t owe anyone. He’s saving the elect and died for the world because He’s loving, kind, generous, long suffering, everything we love about Him. You mean you wouldn’t wrestle with the fact that, according to Calvinism, a God of perfect love could rescue everybody, while also not violating their free will. The persons desires could remain unmolested and still they’d be justified, having some kind of sanctification too. Yet, God decides instead to pass over people, to turn a blind eye and doom them for all eternity.
I’ve known Calvinists who have wrestled with the idea and lost their faith, and others who’ve wrestled, held firmly to their beliefs and landed themselves in a mystery. Anyway, I’d love to take a swing at those 3 questions, but not from the perspective of a Calvinist, more as though from an outsider perspective, looking in on the possible consequences of Calvinism. I’d prefer to do that because, in my experience, Calvinists tend to insist there’s a purpose to pain and suffering even when there’s no apparent reason to assume so. It’s often just asserted. For example, if John Calvin wrote there’s much to be gained by suffering, that would satisfy many Calvinists, but it’s not very persuasive to people outside of the camp. So from an outsider perspective.
Q. Does suffering to build character matter in Calvinism?
I think if it’s on the subject of salvation, no. As a consequence of Calvinism God can save anybody He pleases in any state of character and by any means that He pleases. He can have mercy upon anyone for his own glory, and if he wanted to save some characterless bum who’s suffered next to nothing, while damning a thoughtful, kind, character filled man who’s gone through everything, he could do just that.
Q 2. Does character building play any role in such a worldview?
I’d say yes. It’s a part of the grand design and probably a kind of mercy for the people who’ve known the joys of possessing good character. Suffering goes hand in hand with character building for the believer (and punishment for the unbelievers,) so it’s got a usefulness to God in the grand opera we’re playing out at the command of the eternal secret decree of God.
Q 3. Can God use suffering, to draw or turn us to him, or does he just turn us towards him right away?
He would use suffering as an instrument, an instrument either to drive people into unbelief or for the sake of rescuing the elect. Character building could result from either situation or none of the above. Even the Gospel itself could be used as a weapon, grounds to punish the unappreciative false Christian with greater blindness, according to Calvin. That’s a sound logical outgrowth of the systematic, in my opinion. So the same glorious gospel that saves could be prepared by God to condemn people. God could simply turn people without causing them to suffer horribly, I know Christians who are ashamed of the lack of drama and hardship their coming to faith stories have, they’re dedicated Christians nonetheless. They’ve suffered nothing and gained everything. I celebrate that.
While I know many thoughtful, kind unbelievers who have suffered terrible episodes of abuse, depression and harassment (sometimes at the hands of professing Christians.) Those terrible events only leading them further and further away from the idea of a God who loves and cherishes them.
― Tyrone Cormack