“Calvin’s Little Book on the Christian Life is the best breakup book. I will die on this hill.”
It sounds funny, but I meant it. It was a series of post-college breakups, not Bible College, that made me love theology. Through seasons of hurt and disappointment, I found that the curated instagram captions, articles, mountain-top experiences, and feeling-focused best sellers on which my knowledge of God was built were not enough. In the face of real hurt, my fluffy and flowery theology didn’t hold up. Somehow I stumbled upon a copy of Calvin’s Little Book on the Christian Life, and found it strangely comforting. These works that had previously seemed cold, stodgy, and distant suddenly seemed steady and sure, like an invitation to turn my shaky gaze toward what will last, a lens by which to see my own circumstances as providential kindness. It was the beginning of the realization that the history of God’s preserved church serves as both a grace and a guide, that sound doctrine is not only inherently practical but also inherently beautiful.
In difficulty, we need a theology of pain that won’t collapse under heartbreak, rejection, disappointment. We need creeds that affirm God’s character in circumstances that call Him into question. Songs that retell, again and again, the Gospel’s good news. Catechism questions rehearsed in ordinary time that they might be recited through tears, “What is your only comfort in life and death? That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ…” 1
We don’t need to hear simply that “God is good,” or that “everything happens for a reason.” We need to be reminded, as Calvin writes, that the very order of creation declares that “this most gracious Father has us in his care, who we see was concerned for us even before we were born,” and that “therefore nothing that is needful for our welfare will ever be lacking to us.” 2 That “as saints endure suffering, they experience God’s providing of the strength He has promised to give in times of need. And so their hope is also made strong.” 3 That “in the midst of the bitterness of tribulations, we should recognize the kindness and mercy of our Father towards us. For even in such tribulations, He doesn’t cease to promote our salvation.” 4
In a world that’s hard, hostile, and often disappointing, we need a theology that will hold. A knowledge of God that isn’t threatened by terrible news. A framework through which to make sense of all that’s busted, to see that God is bending it all toward glory. There’s no greater comfort than to know Him, and to find that through His Word and His Church, He can be known.
Borrowing from Puritans who pilgrimed before us, we learn to pray what feels hard, “Go on with thy patient work, answering ‘no’ to my wrongful prayers, and fitting me to accept it.” 5 Tracing God’s faithfulness in the lives of saints like Elisabeth Elliot, we see that “He will not necessary protect us—not from anything it takes to make us like His son.” 6 Feeling acutely that “our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you,” we empathize with Augustine, who reminds us that in all of our searching and longing, we’re really looking for God. 7 Regular repetition of the doxology’s familiar melody tunes our hearts to truly say,
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Praise Him all creatures here below.
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
1 Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1; 2 Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.XIV.22; 3 Little Book on the Christian Life, 62-63; 4 Little Book on the Christian Life, 70; 5 Valley of Vision, 139; 6 Passion and Purity, 85; 7 Confessions, I.i