A young minister, newly turned thirty-three, sat down to write to one of his closest friends. He was a shy young man. In fact his best friends had thought he was in serious danger of becoming a life-long bachelor, and had done their best to match-make for him—almost succeeding until he discovered more about their choices! At last he had taken matters into his own hands, and now he was happily married.
He had already seen a great deal of life. Because of his Christian faith he had been forced to become a refugee from his home country. The first church he had served—or at least some of the leading figures in the city where he had been minister—had, to say the least, not treated him well. Amazingly, having asked him to leave, a few years later they later virtually begged him to come back to help them, and so he had returned.
All that was in now the past. He was settling again into his work. He was a remarkable preacher and teacher, and the church had begun to flourish. Young men and women were coming from far and near to be shaped for Christian service through his ministry. His influence was spreading. Eventually he became so famous that although in his own day people in his city once named their dogs after him, today many parents name their sons after him.
But on this day, as he sat down to write, he had a heavy heart. He and his wife were heart-broken. They had already had miscarriages. And now the only child who had survived birth, Jack, had also died.
His friend’s name was Peter Viret. And to him the young man wrote these words:
The Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound in the death of our infant son. But he is himself a Father, and knows best what is good for his children.
Remarkable words from a grieving heart—for many reasons. God had given him a deep sense that although life seemed to be falling apart his Heavenly Father had not lost control. Even this loss—in some sense especially this loss—was caught up into his Father’s purposes. At the same time there was a deep realism in what he wrote: everything can taste bitter to the wounded heart.
How wise that he did not simply write “God knows best.”
That would have been true. But it brings little deep-down comfort. But to be able to run into the arms of a Father who “knows best what is good for his children”—there is comfort there. Indeed, where else is there real and lasting comfort?
“Best” ? Can that be true? Was that because he thought of all his dear son would now be spared in this world? Certainly he believed that his dear Jack was with the Lord. Perhaps too he knew how little he understood of the intricacies of the Divine weaving of his purposes and the ways in which he uses sorrow to lead us to comfort, and loss to lead us to the only gain that lasts for eternity. Romans 8:28 was engraved into his soul: everything is worked together for the good of those who love God. And so, although he could not now understand as perhaps he might in years to come, how the Lord would use these dark days for his own gracious purposes, he rested his weeping heart in the loving heart of his Father in heaven.
Ten years later, now 43, he meditated on Jesus’ words to Simon Peter in John 13:7: “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” He reflected on how this applied to himself, and applies to us:
We should not be worried that we are ignorant of the things that God wishes to be hidden from us for a time. This kind of ignorance is more learned than any other kind of knowledge, when we let God be wiser than we are.
“Afterward you will understand.” Did Jesus ever speak more comforting words to troubled hearts than these? He knows exactly what he is doing. He also knows that at the moment we could not understand. But if he died for us, he can be trusted with everything. If his father gave him up for us, surely the Father will give us everything we need (Romans 8:32)? And we can go back to him again and again and again, to say: “Lord, I don’t understand. Hold on to me again. You know the deep pain and bitterness of feeling forsaken. Keep me near the cross so that I may be deeply persuaded how much you understand and care. And please, if you are willing, show me little by little what your purposes are.”
The young man dried the ink on his writing paper, and dated the letter: 19th August, 1542.
He paused as pen met paper to add his signature. Then he wrote his name: John Calvin.
The thirty-three year old John Calvin did not know—nor desire—that his name would become one of the most famous in all Christian history. And few who heard his name would ever know that deep down, underneath all the fame, beat an aching heart comforted only by the knowledge that God is himself a Father and knows best what is good for his children.
Perhaps it was this that led him to write the only hymn that has ever been attributed to him:
I greet thee, who my sure Redeemer art,
My only trust and Saviour of my heart,
Who pain didst undergo for my poor sake;
I pray thee from our hearts all cares to take.
Thou art the King of mercy and of grace,
Reigning omnipotent in every place:
So come, O King, and our whole being sway;
Shine on us with the light of thy pure day.
Thou art the life, by which alone we live,
And all our substance and our strength receive;
O comfort us in death’s approaching hour,
Strong-hearted then to face it by thy pow’r.
Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness,
No harshness hast thou and no bitterness:
Make us to taste the sweet grace found in thee
And ever stay in thy sweet unity.
Our hope is in no other save in thee;
Our faith is built upon thy promise free;
O grant to us such stronger hope and sure
That we can boldly conquer and endure.
This piece was kindly created by Dr. Sinclair B. Ferguson, professor at Redemeer Seminary, Dallas and an assistant minister at St. Peter’s Free Church of Scotland in Dundee.