An easy mistake concerning Calvinism is that it somehow must necessarily reduce to a stiff-upper lip Stoicism, particularly in its teaching on contentment. “It is one heart-quieting consideration in all the afflictions that befall us that God has a special hand in them.” This is from the great Thomas Watson, and some might find it easy to think that he and the other Puritans were stuck on this one speed.
The apostle Paul says similar things, but the reason he doesn’t get tagged as a Stoic is that we have read everything else by him, and know that he knew how to weep with those who weep. He was a passionate man, and to charge him with Stoicism is laughable — even though he tells us that all things work together for good.
But we are forced into fair play with Paul because a bunch of people have read the whole Pauline corpus. That is not true of history’s whipping boys, among whom we may place the Puritans in the front row. The Puritans can be easily slandered as those who decontextualized the command to be content, turning it into a charge to “be tough for Jesus.” But the real problem is that we have decontextualized the need to not misrepresent our brothers.
Here are just a couple examples — examples that would be easy to multiply. Take the question of whether Christian contentment is consistent with someone being “sensible of his condition.” Watson answers yes.
“For else he is not a saint, but a stoic. Rachel did well to weep for her children, there was nature; but her fault was, she refused to be comforted, there was discontent. Christ himself was sensible, when he sweat great drops of blood, and said, ‘Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me;’ yet he was contented, and sweetly submitted his will: ‘nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.’ The apostle bids us humble ourselves ‘under the mighty hand of God,’ which we cannot do unless we are sensible of it” (Watson, The Art of Divine Contentment, p. 15).
If I may be sensible of my condition, may I talk about it? Should any of that leak into my prayers? Watson actually says that it should pour into your prayers. What about laying open your grievances before the Lord?
“Yes: ‘unto thee have I opened my cause;’ and David poured out his complaint before the Lord. We may cry to God, and desire him to write down all our injuries: shall not the child complain to his father? When any burden is upon the spirit, prayer gives vent, it easeth the heart. Hannah’s spirit was burdened; ‘I am’ says she, ‘a woman of sorrowful spirit.’ Now having prayed, and wept, she went away, and was no more sad; only here is the difference between a holy complaint and a discontented complaint; in the one we complain to God, in the other we complain of God” (Watson, p. 15).
In short, Watson was no more a Stoic than Epicurus was.
But this illustrates a common problem that committed Calvinists have. People do not just hear what you said. They also hear what they would do with what you said if they believed it. This is projection, not listening, but it still happens, and it happens a lot. And what they define as “believing it” is actually believing one half of the wrong end of it, but it still gums up the conversation.
For example: If I believed that God predestined everything, I wouldn’t lift a finger to evangelize the lost. If I believed that God predestined everything, then I would conclude that it would be sinful to complain to God about anything. If I believed that God predestined everything, then I would conclude that I was a little puppet made out of wood, with the strings running up to Heaven.
A careful opposition to Calvinism, say on the contentment question above, would say something like Calvinism ought to be Stoicism, given the critic’s understanding of the premises, and it is therefore a matter of great curiosity that it is nothing of the kind. That would allow interaction between the views that are actually held by actual people. It is a pity that this kind of thing is so rare — but it must be admitted that it has always been easier to debate with cartoons, especially with the ones you draw yourself.