John Calvin on Wriggling in Worship
In the conservative Christian culture in which I grew up, wiggling during times of worship was severely frowned upon. Regular admonishments to “sit still” for the duration of Sunday sermons and mid-week prayer meetings were reinforced by various means, some more dubious than others. So, for instance, I recall regularly listening—outside of times of worship—to one particular song on cassette tape which urged youngsters such as myself to “squash the wiggle worm” whenever we might “feel the urge to squirm.”
That song, perhaps because of its rather catchy tune by the musical standards of my childhood context, has become permanently etched upon my brain. It invariably pops into my head when I’m least in the mood for it (very often in church, in fact). In light of this, I was intrigued to discover recently in John Calvin an exhortation against “wriggling” in worship which superficially resembled the well-meant admonition of that song. Calvin’s rebuke of those who would squirm during worship—or more specifically, during times of prayer, which Calvin calls “the chief part of [God’s] worship”—occurs in the midst of his lengthy chapter on prayer in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. It follows immediately upon consideration of both God’s commandment to us to pray and God’s promise to hear us when we do. “When these two things have been established,” Calvin writes, “it is certain that those who try to wriggle out of coming directly to God [in prayer] are not only rebellious and stubborn but are also convicted of unbelief because they distrust the promises.”
Though these words from Calvin quickly had me humming the tune to the song noted above, it should be immediately clear that the kind of “wriggling” in (or, rather, “out of”) prayer that Calvin has in mind is different in kind from the wiggling which children might be prone to during worship. For one thing, the squirming Calvin has in mind would seem to pertain as much, if not more, to private prayer than corporate prayer. For another, it would seem to flow more from an attitude of one’s heart than from ants in one’s pants. Thus Calvin names this wriggling a symptom of rebellion, obstinacy, and ultimately unbelief. This wriggling, then, is a serious matter, and worth exploring a bit more. What is Calvin urging us to avoid?
Calvin’s condemnation of wriggling occurs in the midst of a lengthier exhortation to pray to God “with confident hope,” that is, “with firm assurance of mind that God is favorable and benevolent to [us].” The confidence in prayer which Calvin urges can only be known and exercised by true believers, those “to whom, through the preaching of the gospel, [God’s] kindness and gentle dealing have become known.” It is a confidence which is explicitly enjoined upon us in Scripture: “Let us therefore go boldly unto the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16). It is a confidence which should not be confused with casualness; it excludes “terror” but coexists with “reverential fear.” It is a confidence reflected in the personal name by which we address God: “relying upon the word of Him whose majesty would otherwise terrify us, we dare call upon Him as Father,” because “He deigns to suggest this sweetest of names to us.” It is a confidence which extends not only to who God is, but to those things we seek from Him in prayer: “If we would pray fruitfully, we ought therefore to grasp with both hands this assurance of obtaining what we ask, which the Lord enjoins with His own voice.” It is a confidence ultimately rooted in the reality of what Christ has accomplished for us in His life, death, and resurrection, and what He accomplishes for us even now in His ongoing work of intercession on our behalf: “our prayers depend upon no merit of ours;” “Christ comes forward as intermediary, to change the throne of dreadful glory into the throne of grace.” Thus “we are particularly bidden to call upon [God] in Christ’s name.”
The wriggling in prayer which Calvin denounces is a reluctance, or indeed an absolute failure, to approach God with this very confidence. It is, in other words, a betrayal of the boldness which believers should have on the basis of Christ’s atoning and interceding work for them; a betrayal in practice of the gospel. Wriggling of this kind assumes an official character in the Roman Catholic church, which sanctions prayers to certain saints in glory—the Virgin Mary, Paul, Augustine, etc.—on the basis that, in Calvin’s summary of Roman teaching, we ourselves “are unworthy to approach God intimately.” Calvin readily admits our lack of worth to approach God so confidently through Christ. But it is Christ’s worth, not ours, that matters, and Christ’s worth, not ours, that informs our confidence. To place confidence in intermediaries other than Him is to challenge His surpassing worth, and ultimately to deprive Him of His proper office: “Those who account Christ’s intercession worthless unless George and Hippolytus and such specters come forward leave nothing for Christ to do.”
But Protestants are not immune from the kind of wriggling which Calvin denounces. Our own wriggling assumes less official forms; it manifests itself, perhaps, in the simple neglect of prayer, especially during times when we are peculiarly aware of our own failure to love God and love others as we should. We treat God like an offended spouse, who might benefit from some time to “cool off”—in light of some unkind word or deed on our part—before he or she should even be approached with an apology. We thus betray our own lack of faith in God’s glorious gospel, which points us to Christ’s work rather than our own, and our standing in Him through faith, as the basis of our admission into God’s holy presence in prayer.
Or, perhaps, it manifests itself in a tendency to reorder the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, prioritizing “Forgive us our sins” over those petitions which actually occur earlier and express a concern for God’s glory, the advancement of His kingdom, and the accomplishment of His purposes. We should, to be sure, approach God in a spirit of repentance, as Calvin directs us elsewhere in his chapter on prayer. But if, in prayer, the first words out of our mouths are words of confession, it may reflect a conviction on our part that God won’t hear anything we say until we’ve first cleared the score with Him, which itself reflects our confidence not in what Christ has done and does for us, but in our own merit—even if that supposed merit consists only in our readiness to admit our guilt.
To “wriggle out of coming directly to God” in prayer, then, is a serious, gospel-denying matter. It is a squirming which we as adults are frankly more prone to than our children, having a more cultivated, even if proper, sense of all the reasons why God shouldn’t receive us into His presence when we seek Him. Let us, then, follow Calvin’s advice, even if it does not lend itself easily to a catchy tune. Let us squash the wriggle worm. Whether or not we ultimately succeed in fixing our children immovably to the church pews and training their eyes upon the pulpit, let us labor to fix the eyes of our hearts—and theirs—upon Jesus Christ and His atoning and interceding work on our behalf. And may a fixed and firm vision of Him, and all God’s promises to us which rest upon Him, bolster within us a boldness to “draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
Dr. Aaron Denlinger is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College.