We Are Not Made of Steel

Society often pressures us to “grin and bear it,” “weather the storm,” to “fake it till you make it.” In John Calvin’s words, we’re expected to me “men of steel, an anvil, so to speak, on which the hammer could make no impression.” But he also says this is a pure fantasy:

When those philosophers who valued virtue above all else sought to prove that affliction did not make men miserable, they had to invent a man of steel, an anvil, so to speak, on which the hammer could make no impression. Ultimately, of course, that was mere fantasy, pure folly on their part. Even supposing men were found who could put on a brave show in public, and pass for valiant and steadfast individuals, the fact is that inwardly they seethed because they were rebels against God. They reasoned from first principles: “I am indeed a mortal man. I must bear all things with patience. I have no choice. I must comply.” (They take necessity, you see, as their guiding rule.) “What would be the point of resisting? I must accept what I cannot avoid.” That, I say, is what they call patience: it is nothing but a form of anger, since they are in rebellion against God.

-John Calvin, “The Broken Blessed” in Sermons on the Beatitudes (Banner of Truth, 2007), pp.25-26.

Calvin believes that we are called to a different resolution in the text for this sermon, Matthew 5:3-4:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Blessed are those who grieve, for they will be comforted.

-Matthew 5:3-4

He recognizes in this text a future promise that can make all the difference. He explains,

Our Lord Jesus Christ, by contrast, does not lead us off into speculative byways which have no practical effect. He sets us on a firm foundation, so that, as long as we rest upon it, we will not be moved. And however many storms and winds arise, and however much heaven and earth are mixed and muddled, our happiness is always secure as long as we look to the kingdom of heaven.
So this is what the passage teaches: in order to taste the blessedness of which God’s Son speaks, we must learn first that this world is a pathway to something else; it is not a place where we are to rest or where real life is to be found; we must press further on and lift up our eyes to the heavenly inheritance.

-Calvin, ibid.

My only qualm with Calvin’s conclusion is that I’m not sure we must go to heaven to receive our heavenly inheritance. Some have. However, on that great day of resurrection, they, and our heavenly inheritance, and our heavenly Lord will come here with all their transforming power.

The “man of steel” myth is false patience; in fact, it is merely despair. Those who are in Christ are invited to real patience, to hope in what we do not yet see: Real change, a time when tears will be out of place and death will be no more. We are called to more than grit; we are called to hope. Thankfully, in Jesus Christ, God says “yes!” to all the promises we need.

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