When I first received the intelligence of the death…of your son Louis, I was so utterly overpowered that for many days I was fit for nothing but to grieve; and albeit I was somehow upheld before the Lord by those aids wherewith he sustains our souls in affliction, among men, however, I was almost a nonentity. …It is difficult, notwithstanding, you will say, so to shake off or suppress the love of a father, as not to experience grief on occasion of the loss of a son. Neither do I insist upon your laying aside all grief. Nor, in the school of Christ, do we learn any such philosophy as requires us to put off that common humanity with which God has endowed us, that, being men, we should be turned into stones. These considerations reach only so far as this, that you do set bounds, and, as it were, temper even your most reasonable sadness.”
(Letter to Monsieur de Richebourg on the Death of His Son, April 1541, Letters of John Calvin, vol. 1, p. 229)
We are humankind, not stones, as Calvin pointedly states. Stones are unfeeling, unthinking, unchoosing. But people feel, think, and choose. We who believe in Jesus are being remade in the image of the Man of Sorrows and Man of Joy. The sorrowing psalmist of the human condition bears our griefs. The sweet psalmist of God’s redemption communicates His joy. We do grieve honestly. But we do not grieve as those who have no hope. We grieve within an all-encompassing, unfathomable, exalted hope. We grieve our losses, certain of the death of death in the resurrected life of Christ. We grieve our sins, certain of mercy triumphant. We are truly forgiven and we will be made like the Man of Love. “It is finished” — once for all. It has been decided. Mercy, life, and glory get the last say.
John Calvin lived out “that common humanity…in the school of Christ” amid his own sins and sorrows and amid the sins and sorrows of others, keeping the piercing light of Christ in view. So his counsel was drawn from the Psalms, expressing candidly how human need reaches for bright divine hope. Some parts of pastoral counseling are casuistic, bringing wise advice to vexed decisions and uncertain opinions. But much of pastoral counseling addresses the human experiences expressed in “the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated” (Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 1, xxxvii).
This excerpt from Calvin’s letter exhibits a wise shepherd’s touch. He enters fully into his friend’s grief as if it were his very own. He validates his friend’s grief. Only then does he indicate the “bounds” of truth and righteousness, bidding to temper his friend’s grief with conscious hope, bidding to shape his future choices. This is not the image of Calvin as an abstract logician, the [mis]portrayal that distorts so many secondary and tertiary sources. This letter portrays the man himself. It shows a pastor of souls deeply occupied in the cura animarum (“care of souls”). He cared. He touched people. He was touched with the feeling of their infirmities. He dealt gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he knew himself to be beset with weakness.
Here is one contemporary application. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy dominates contemporary psychotherapy (whether secular or semi-Christian). Calvin would have had no truck with these modern stoics. Their analytic of human emotion is experientially impoverished. Their counseling method is impoverished by substituting technique for pastoral love. And their goal is impoverished, because self-management through cognitive rehearsal is faithless, loveless, hopeless, and joyless. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy never makes anyone capable of being “utterly overpowered” for many days with the grief of another. In his letter, Calvin opposes “any such philosophy,” thinking that it perverts Christian faith and mocks the psalmic richness of Jesus’ experience.