John Calvin on Death and Grief

Christians should cultivate a firm, hopeful trust in God’s fatherly goodwill towards his children, even in the darkest of times.

It is difficult for many of us to imagine John Calvin doing something so human and vulnerable as grieving. Nor is it any easier to picture him being interested in compassionate pastoral care to bereaved friends or to members of his flock. Often, our mental image of him is of a cold, academic man, interested in God’s glory in a way that excludes too much kindness or tenderness towards fellow human beings. This is not an accurate image: as will be shown, Calvin felt his grief intensely and wrote long letters to bereaved friends and acquaintances in order to comfort them. But be as that may, it is not part of our cultural picture of Calvin or his tradition.

A result of this perception in some strains of the modern Reformed tradition is the sense that when we are seeking to comfort our friends and congregants, we have somehow stepped outside of our tradition. Reformed theology and practice may be strong and rigorous, we think, but it is not comforting. Certain aspects that might be theoretically true, it is felt, might need to be glossed over or rejected outright to avoid causing more grief than comfort to the suffering. However, this understanding of Reformed theology may well have been strange to Calvin, who seemed to find, and expect others to find, great comfort within his understanding of the Christian gospel.

His theology of grief included two major insights. First, he expected himself and encouraged others to keep a rule of moderation in grief, based on the tension between our humanity and the obedience we owe God. Second, though perhaps more fundamental, Calvin believed that Christians should cultivate a firm, hopeful trust in God’s fatherly goodwill towards his children, even in the darkest of times. These two guideposts can be seen in the ways Calvin commented on grief when he read about it in the Bible, and they were worked out in practical ways as he sought to console the dying and the bereaved in his community and correspondence.

Calvin’s Own Experience of Grief

It seems right to begin with Calvin’s personal life, in order to establish some credibility on Calvin’s behalf. It is, after all, easier to say what ought to be thought and felt about grief when one has not experienced much of it personally. But Calvin was no stranger to grief in his own life, and far from treating grief as a mere theological or academic exercise, he spoke out of experience and familiarity. Two of the greatest tragedies he experienced in his life were the deaths of his infant son, Jacque, and his wife, Idelette.

Though Calvin had initially been reluctant to enter into marriage, he was eventually persuaded by his friend Martin Bucer to marry Idelette, the widow of an Anabaptist man and several years his senior. She already had two children from her previous marriage. Despite his initial hesitation to marry––he seemed to have been convinced only by the thought of having more time to work, being freed from household demands­­––he grew to love her.    Soon they had a child together, a son, but he died only twenty-two days after his birth. They never had more children. Though Calvin cared for his wife’s children and toward the end of his life comforted himself with the thought of his spiritual children in Geneva and elsewhere, he remained sorrowful over the loss of little Jacque.[1]

Seven years later, Idelette was also dead, having suffered from long illness and never having really recovered from the death of her son. Calvin, who was far less stoic than popular imagination makes him out to be, was devastated, going so far as to call himself “half a man.”[2] He frequently spoke of being overwhelmed with emotion in his letters to close friends. In a letter to Farel four days later, Calvin expressed his anguish, saying that he “do[es] what [he] can to keep [him]self  from being overwhelmed with grief.” In a similar letter to Viret, he says this:

Although the death of my wife has been exceedingly painful to me, yet I subdue my grief as well as I can. Friends also are earnest in their duty to me. I confess that they profit me and themselves less than could be wished, yet I can scarcely say how much I am supported by their attentions. But you know well enough how tender, or rather soft, my mind is. Had not a powerful self-control, therefore, been vouchsafed to me, I could not have borne up so long.[3]

To those who grew up with an image of Calvin as harsh and unyielding, his assessment of himself as overly emotional and even soft comes as a bit of a surprise.

Nor did Calvin suffer grief only at the deaths of his family members. In a letter that is more fully examined below, he writes of his sadness upon the plague death of a student who had been boarding in his house. Upon hearing the sad news, he was so utterly overpowered that “for many days I was fit for nothing but to weep. And although I was somehow comforted and upheld before the Lord by those aids wherewith He sustains our souls in affliction, with regard to human society, however, I felt as if I were not at all myself. “[4]

Here again, we find a Calvin at the mercy of his emotions, overpowered and struggling to work normally. We find Calvin similarly affected in a letter after the death of another friend:

Couralt’s death has left me such a wreck that I can no longer put up with the pain. By day there is nothing that can occupy me without continually thinking about it. Added to this terrible pain by day are the severe agonies by night. Not only do the sleepless hours continually torment me, to which I am accustomed, but the entire nights in which I do not even close my eyes drain all my power, and there is nothing that could be worse for my health than that.[5]

Some interesting facts come to light in these letters. First and most obviously, Calvin was not afraid to admit that he suffered intensely when people close to him died, though he seems to have considered his propensity to intense grief with mixed feelings. At any rate, he felt like it was proper to subdue his grief and not simply let it have its way over him. It seems he felt a middle way was best, between the extremes of stoicism on one hand and undisciplined mourning on the other. This becomes even clearer in his treatment of grief in the Bible.

Calvin’s Treatment of Grief in the Bible

Considering how highly Calvin prioritized the words of Scripture, it seems appropriate before going any farther in Calvin’s personal life to stop and consider what Calvin has to say about death and mourning as they appear in Scripture. To this end, we will examine the commentaries he wrote, especially on the deaths of Sarah, Rachel, and Isaac in Genesis and on the death of Lazarus in the Gospel of John.

The primary impetus in the commentaries on these texts is to encourage a moderation that avoids the extremes of emotionless stoicism on the one hand and wholehearted, despairing grief on the other. First, Calvin explicitly refuses to criticize Abraham for mourning over the body of his dead wife. Though he acknowledges that it would have been a sin if Abraham had done so in order to “cherish and augment” his grief, he denies that Abraham did so. It is perfectly legitimate, he says to mourn privately over the death of someone you love, so long as you exercise self-control and do not give yourself entirely over the grief. [6]

Not only is it a perfectly human thing to do, it has theological value in that you mourn at the same time over the fruit of sin and the doom to which it has put all humanity. It is theologically justified to mourn over death, because it is the result of sin. We, even more than Abraham, have reason both to mourn and to avoid the extremes of grief because of the resurrection, whose comfort Abraham had to largely go without.[7]

This moderation in grief applies not only to the bereaved but also to the dying themselves: Calvin criticizes Rachel’s death because she despaired so much that her son did not comfort her, and she gave him a name reflective of her despair: Son of My Suffering. Even the dying shouldn’t despair in light of God’s providence and kindness, and should rather be full of a gratitude to God that “infuses … sweetness to mitigate our grief.”[8]

Another mark of moderation comes in the burying of the dead. Calvin is firmly in favor of burial rites, seeing in them the hope of the resurrection. This holds true even of the patriarchs, though their hope was dimmer and less fully realized than ours, who live on the other side of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection. Though pagans might bury their dead only in order to comfort themselves, God’s people must never lose sight of the fact that burial is a sign of expectation rather than a useless, empty gesture. [9]

In his comments on the death of Isaac, we see another aspect of a good death. As we should exercise moderation in our grief both as bereaved and as dying people, so should we avoid the fear of death. Calvin speaks of old men who still cling to life with all the enthusiasm of a young man with a certain amount of disdain: long life is a blessing from God, but it is blighted and incomplete if, having lived a long life, a person still fears death. Believers should use their lives in part to prepare for death, so that, having a good conscience, they should have used their life to prepare for their death, and, having a good conscience, they are not afraid to meet God once they have died. Only the wicked need fear what comes after death.[10]

While his reasoning on these texts can strike the modern reader as extremely speculative, especially on the subject of the patriarchs’ hope for the resurrection and the intense meaning he gives even the smallest actions, Calvin’s dual argument––for the appropriate-ness and humanity of grief on one hand and for a pious moderation in grief on the other––finds even firmer footing in the New Testament. In his commentary on John 11, when Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead, Calvin finds ample vindication.

To begin with, Calvin is deeply impressed with Christ’s grief and tears when he comes face to face with Lazarus’s death. His weeping arises out of his own humanity and experience with grief and also from sympathy with Mary and the others who were crying–– another mark of humanity: do not most people struggle to stay dry eyed in a funeral, even if they did not know the bereaved well? Calvin is of the opinion that Jesus also weeps for the sad situation of the entire human race, which is subjected to evil. Calvin insists that Jesus feels our sorrow as strongly as if it had been his own. If Christ, both God and perfect human, is able to feel grief and to mourn, it is certainly not sinful for us to do the same.

Calvin thinks that if our grief is sinful (and some grief certainly is), it is because we suffer ours without restraint. Jesus’s grief never got the best of him. His feelings were “adjusted and regulated in obedience to God.” He goes on to say that human grief can be sinful in two ways. The first, which has already been covered, is impetuous and ungoverned grief that leads us to despair. The second way grief can be sinful is if we grieve over something we should not grieve over, if it arises from an unlawful cause or goes to an unlawful end, for example, if we grieve over small, unworthy things, or if we grieve because we are too devoted to earthly existence. Grief in itself, especially grief over the death of someone we love, is not inherently sinful on either count.[11]

Calvin’s Care for the Dying and Bereaved

Calvin expected and understood that the time just before death would be especially terrifying and spiritually trying, even for the faithful Christian. He therefore instructed the pastors of Geneva to pay special attention to visiting the very sick in order to encourage and reassure them. This was to be done by reading scriptures, reminding the dying person of the guidance and protection of Jesus Christ even in death, and taking their spiritual temperature. If they are not taking God’s judgment seriously enough, the pastors are to remind the dying person both of their own sinfulness and God’s coming judgment. On the other hand, should the dying person be at the other extreme, scared of death because of a troubled conscience or excessive fear of God’s judgment seat, the minister is to remind her of Christ’s goodness, so that the dying person is comforted and is no longer so afraid. All of these exhortations must be scripturally based.[12]

Furthermore, Calvin instructs the pastor to care for the physical needs of the afflicted as well as the spiritual. And they were to do so even at great danger to themselves. This was illustrated particularly graphically when the Genevan Company of Pastors visited victims of the plague that periodically swept Geneva, and occasionally died themselves as a result.[13]

Besides visiting and comforting the dying themselves, Calvin comforted, and instructed the Company of pastors to comfort, those who were bereaved.[14] Returning to the letter already mentioned, which Calvin wrote to the father of a student boarder in his home who had died of the plague, we can see his sense of pastoral care at work.

First, Calvin fulfilled the apostolic command to “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15). From this section comes the quote already highlighted, that “for many days [Calvin] was fit for nothing but to weep.” During this section, he also provides a kind of eulogy for the son, saying that he was “a youth of most excellent promise,” whom he loved “as [his] own son” because the son for his part treated Calvin with all the love and respect of a father. Thus, Calvin legitimizes the father’s grief by acknowledging his own, and lets the grief be specific: he is not speaking academically of grief in general, but of the particular grief of a lost son, and of a particular lost son: Louis.[15]

Then, Calvin names and acknowledges the grief of the family. In this case, he is particularly worried for Louis’s younger brother, Charles. They were apparently especially close brothers, and Calvin says he does not doubt “but that the poor child would be steeped in sorrow and soaked in tears.” For this he provides a specific comfort: he hopes that his brother, with whom Charles was staying, would be able to provide help and solace. Potentially, he hoped to ease some of the father’s own worry about his other son, who apparently was also living away from home. Closing his account of his own grief and worry, he demonstrates what he must have hoped was true also for the letter’s recipient: refreshment by prayers and meditations on Scripture. Having expressed his own grief in order to provide solidarity and some form of credibility––he does not want the father to think he “boasts here of firmness or fortitude in dealing with another’s sorrow”––he addresses the father’s own grief, hoping to lighten it by communicating what he had found useful in his own experience of suffering.[16]

First, he names and rejects certain consolations, which must have been in his time as widespread and vacuous as certain phrases in our own––“heaven gained another angel,” “he’s in a better place.” He explicitly does not tell the father, for instance, that he should not grieve because everyone is doomed to die. It is interesting to note that Calvin implicitly ruled this out by recounting his own grief without any sense of embarrassment. Nor does he shame the father into hiding his grief in order to protect his reputation. Instead, Calvin points the father to the “one sure and certain source of consolation,” which is the knowledge of God.[17]

This consolation appears to rest in God’s benevolent fatherhood towards both the father and his dead son. God’s will toward us is for our good: this is the encouragement Calvin wants the father to take. Therefore, he is not to curse “cruel fate” or “blind death.” These things are in the hands of a God who is neither cruel nor blind, and who “does not ordain or do anything except what He foresees to be just and upright in itself, and also good for us and our salvation.”[18]  Therefore, out of a sense of piety and gratitude, we should accept whatever happens with as much equanimity and gratitude as we can.

The understanding of God as a kind Father who intends good for his children is especially vivid in another letter Calvin wrote, asking the recipient to inform a father of the death of his grown daughter. Though he fully expects his letter to cause the father a great deal of pain, his first words of consolation to her friend, and through her friend to her father, is that God “guided her even to the last sigh, as if visibly he had held out a hand to her.”[19] The rest of the letter is essentially commentary on that sentence––an extended retelling of her death and the grace with which God eased her passing and encouraged those who were with her. The immense value Calvin placed on a good death is visible here and in similar retellings of his wife’s death. It is enormously comforting to the living, he thinks, that a dying person clearly shows their love of God and knowledge of the gospel as they pass.

However, despite the emphasis on God’s goodness and on putting bereavement in the perspective of the gospel and the rest of life, present in this advice and in Calvin’s own words about his grief in the letter to the father and elsewhere, it is clear that he does not mean for the bereaved simply to shrug their shoulders, say a prayer, and move on with their life. He makes this clear a little later in a vivid way, denying that God “requires us to put off common humanity, that … we should be turned to stones.”[20] All Calvin is asking for is a sense of proportion based on the Christian gospel, recognition of other blessings in the bereaved man’s life, and also a continued sense of gratitude to God.

In other words, a sense of submission and gratitude should temper our grief, and our grief should not run away with us. Perhaps this is why Calvin insists in his letters that he is striving to keep to his daily work schedule as much as he can, even when in the depths of grief for his wife or his friends. Both grief and comfort come from the hand of God. Because of this, Calvin advises avoiding asking such questions as “Why did this happen?” or “Why me?” as essentially useless, tormenting the asker for no reason. It was not done as punishment, but by the will of a good, loving, and fatherly God. We must “do Him this honor, to believe that He is more wise than the smallness of our understanding.”[21]

Finally, at the very end of the letter, Calvin makes known that he has asked other pastors––Bucer and Melanchthon in this case––to write similar letters of sympathy and consolation.[22] Calvin is not intending to be the only pastoral voice the father hears. It takes a community to walk with a grieving person. As an institutional reflection of that fact, pastors in Calvin’s Geneva were expected to visit the recently bereaved and the dying­­––in fact, anyone who had been confined to bed for three days or longer. [23]

Calvin’s message is similar, if more spirited and urgent, to those facing imminent death. In two letters he wrote to pastors trained in Geneva who were awaiting martyrdom in Lyons, we find encouragement in the untamed goodness of God, even in the face of something so terrible as death by burning. Though he says some things to them that are peculiar to their situation of impending martyrdom, some is applicable to any Christian facing their final days or hours.

First, Calvin does not sugarcoat the situation. Once all the likely sources of help for the prisoners have been exhausted, he tells them so. Though he is gentle about it and expresses his wish that it had not turned out this way, he tells them that God has closed all the doors to their help, and they must prepare themselves for martyrdom.[24] It is interesting that Calvin does not hesitate to attribute this apparent failure to God, or deny that it is God’s will they die.

The strong belief in the essential benevolence of God comes into play here: even in a bad situation, even in prison facing being burned at the stake, God’s will is good and we should receive it with as much calmness and gratitude as possible. They are to pray that God would “subdue [them] to his good pleasure.” The word “good” is operative here: even now, God’s will for his people is not evil or arbitrary, and their death is not useless.  In the other letter, this theme is even stronger:

Now, although these tidings have proved sorrowful to the flesh … yet we must submit ourselves to the will of this kind Father and sovereign Lord; and not only consider His way of disposing of us just and reasonable, but also accept it with a gentle and loving heart as altogether right and profitable for our salvation, patiently waiting until he palpably show it to be so.[25]

Even when we cannot see or understand it, or when it involves things that are evil on their face, God’s will is good and ordered to our benefit. One day, Calvin suggests, we will be able to understand for ourselves. Meanwhile, we must trust that it is so.

Nor does Calvin think that God has abandoned the prisoners to their fate. He expressly cuts his own condolences short, because he seems to believe they are extraneous. He is sure that God is providing them with much sweeter consolations than any he or another pastor would be able to give. This does not, however, stop him from giving some.[26]

Much as he does not deny the grief of the bereaved, he does not deny the anxiety and even the anger of those preparing to die. Indeed, in the exhortation mentioned above, it is assumed that there must be a part of them that does not want to submit meekly to martyrdom, or else they would not have to pray to be subdued to God’s good pleasure. He acknowledges that it must rankle and hurt to see that enemies have defeated them so completely.[27] Still, just as he holds out hope that one day we will understand God’s good will, so he denies that the apparent victory of the wicked will last forever. Even the dying have good reason to hope.

Conclusion

There is comfort to be found in Calvin for the dying and for the bereaved.  At best he provides a “boost,” a place of higher ground where those dealing with grief or tragedy can see beyond their immediate situation into the broader, hopeful future of God’s good will towards them. At worst, he offers hope and encouragement that things will get better, and that one day the bereaved and dying will be able to understand and rejoice in God’s plan. There is a promise that even the things we do not understand or cannot bear to face will turn out to be for our salvation, and we will see it clearly soon enough. Calvin’s theology of grief provides an antidote to despair and excessive inwardness or self-occupation.

On the other hand, it provides ample room for human emotion, even overwhelming human emotion. Grief cannot be allowed to rule the Christian––self-control and submission to God’s good will is paramount. Nevertheless, it is proper, even good, to allow oneself to grieve. No one is expected to be a machine, suppressing hurt and shock at losing close friends or family, or remaining emotionless in the face of impending death.

All of this is possible because the sovereign, kingly God is also God the Father. Without the strong sense that God’s will for his children is unfailingly good, that no matter what happens, it is his will for our salvation, Calvin’s whole theology of grief would become nonsense. That God has his way and his way is good is absolutely paramount, and is the light that sheds hope through Calvin’s understandings of the darkest places of human experience.

Editor’s note: This essay was originally a final paper for a course on Calvin this past fall at Princeton Seminary. The topic was chosen in the aftermath of the death of the author’s father, Dr. Michael D. Bush, Vice President of Theology Matters, who died on Oct.23, 2017. She relates: “This course of study turned out to be providential: Calvin was my best friend through the early stages of my grief. His words helped more than those of any living person.”


Sara Jane Nixon
Sara Jane Nixon
Sara Jane Nixon is the pastor of New Dublin Presbyterian Church in Dublin, Virginia. She is a graduate of Princeton Theology Seminary.

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