What we believe shapes our lives and forms our behaviors. Theology never stays in the abstract, it always filters down to what we do and how we live. Most Calvinist pastors I have listened to are simply practical Christians. They may preach effectual grace one Sunday but the next Sunday extoll the responsibility of their congregants to behave like Christians. For those of us steeped in the soteriological controversies that may seem like an inconsistency but I see a Christian pastor being pastoral.
It is rare, in my experience, for a Calvinist pastor to tie Calvinism directly to its practical implications. Yet, that’s exactly what Pastor Tom Hicks over at The Founders Ministries endeavors to do in his article “Some Practical Implications of Calvinism”. While it would be fun to go through each point and discuss the inconsistencies contained therein, I’m going to focus on a single one.
Outside the core Master of Divinity coursework, I graduated with an emphasis in Pastoral Care. Pastoral care is a subject close to my heart. Fair or not, pastors have a great influence over the spiritual and emotional health of their congregation. So when your pastor says this…
“Calvinism helps calm our anxieties”
…Scripture teaches that God works all things for the good of His chosen people which means we have no reason to be anxious. We can know that everything which comes to pass is God’s love to us, no matter what we feel or how things seem. We, therefore, can quiet our fears because God governs all things for the good of His people.
…think of it in terms of real people, the truly horrible circumstances they can find themselves in, and the crushing emotional states that result.
At first read, I thought this was simply a case of intellectualism where a pastor steeped in seminary and theology is disconnected from the emotional lives of those God has give him to shepherd. But that’s not the case with Pastor Tom. I looked over his other articles on The Founder’s website and lo!
Practical Calvinism and Abuse Victims
Tom Hicks seems like a pastor steeped in the real lives of his congregates. He tackles one of the most difficult aspects of pastoral ministry: what to do about abusers and victims. Keep his above practical advice regarding anxiety from a Calvinistic worldview in mind as you read his description of victims.
Survivors of domestic abuse have been deeply affected by their abusers. They often don’t leave their relationships, even when the abuse is very severe because of the great fear that their abusers have worked to instill into them. Women who are abused usually want to protect their children above all else, and may be afraid of doing anything that might set off their abuser and cause harm to their children.
This is true. Now, put yourself in the shoes of an abuse victim who just listened to a sermon from Pastor Tom in which he said something like “We can know that everything which comes to pass is God’s love to us, no matter what we feel or how things seem“. Think about the implications. Their feelings of fear and of danger for themselves and their children, and the abuse that brought it on, are God’s love to them.
So we are left to picture an abuse victim already feeling conflicted about leaving the husband they married before God and church, already afraid for what the manipulative abuser might do, but now add the crushing guilt of feeling that it is her fault for not being able to understand and believe that all of his abuse and manipulation are actually God’s love.
Pastor Tom continues:
Survivors of domestic abuse feel terrible shame because the very person they had hoped would love them is the one who has rejected them, made them feel like they are less than nothing…
Yes, especially if that person is God. It sounds good and pious to say that God controls everything and so we ought to fear nothing, but transporting that doctrine to the real world not only proves impossible but harmful to people who are in actual pain. Not “Dang it, my electric bill is higher this month” discomfort, but actual “the person who is supposed to love and protect me is the one hurting me” pain.
Calvinism dies in the face of the horror of our lives.
God the Manipulator
Pastor Tom explains another horrifying aspect of abuse.
Because of their abuse, they are tempted to believe that they shouldn’t trust people at all. They often come to believe that they can’t even trust their own thinking, since they have been told over and over that reality is the opposite of what they think it is. The mind games in abusive relationships are truly stunning and difficult to understand unless you’ve seen it first-hand. And I have. Survivors often learn to be suspicious of everyone’s words and motives, since every “kind” thing their abuser said or did always had an ulterior motive.
Mind Games. You mean like “Scripture teaches that God works all things for the good of His chosen people which means we have no reason to be anxious” while at the same time unchangeably ordaining an abuser to come into my life, move into my home, father my children, hurt me, scar me, and make me anxious and fearful every day of my life? I wonder what Pastor Tom would say to an abuse victim who asked him this question.
Survivors also struggle when they go to church on Sundays. People in the church might ask, “How are you doing today?” with a smile, and the abuse survivor is forced to choose between lying and saying, “I’m fine,” or telling the truth
Abuse survivors also struggle with the expectation in churches that Christians should always be happy and joyful, never deeply struggling in their lives and with their faith.
And who could possibly be giving abuse victims this expectation, Pastor Tom? Could it be pastors telling them from the pulpit that if they just believed good doctrine enough they would never fear anything?
If his article is any indication, I am sure that Pastor Tom blessedly disconnects his Calvinism from his pastoral care towards abuse victims. But are the victims in his congregations and other Reformed congregations able to do the same? I’m not as confident about that.