Stoics in the Pews

Bust of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was an adherent to Stoicism

Right now my Bible Fellowship Group is going through the book of Philippians. I love this book. The way the Gospel permeates each theme and how Paul masterfully weaves it into every day life is brilliantly life-changing. We are at the point in our study where all the different themes Paul has mentioned are being brought together. Philippians 4:8-9 will be our text this Sunday.

In order to prepare properly for this week’s lesson, I quickly discovered that I was going to have to do some extra reading. Paul was not just listing random virtuous characteristics to which he wanted the Philippians to conform. No, Paul is engaging in a little contextualization by borrowing terms and ideas from the popular moral philosophy of the day: Stoicism.

I had a general idea about what Stoics believed (something about controlling emotions…hence our English word “stoic”), but in my reading, what I discovered was that despite this moral philosophy being over two millennia old, it’s over-arching view of reality (dare I say it’s metanarrative) still holds much weight in our world. What I discovered fascinated me, but also caused me to pause. I paused because I fear our church pews are filled with Stoics.

A quick and dirty summary of what the Stoics believed was that there is an absolute reality, a divine reason (the logos) that governs the world. Stoics were deterministic, meaning that they believed life was pre-determined for them. The goal of man was to discover and live inline with the plan of the logos. This is the highest virtue and the path to happiness. Self-control was highly valued. For to be consumed by emotions (anger, lust, envy, etc.), was to cloud your understanding of the logos. And if you didn’t understand and live in line with the logos, you would suffer. Suffering was to be avoided at all cost, because suffering said something about you. Either you were ignorant of the logos, or rebelling against the logos. The Stoic believed that it was only the virtuous man who was free. The wicked man was a slave. He desired things contrary to the logos. One stoic described the wicked man as dog tied to a cart, forced to go where ever the cart went. But the virtuous man had bent his will inline with the logos. Thus his will was the same as the logos.

It was at this point that I was utterly fascinated and utterly concerned. I was fascinated, because the parallels to Christianity are so close. They got some things right. But as the old cliché goes, close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades. I became utterly concerned because, since the Stoic view is so very close to Christianity, many who fill the pews each Sunday morning have bought into this way of thinking and living without ever realizing it. They have been conformed to this world and think they’re conforming to Christ.

This stoicism manifests itself in two ways in the modern day church. The first is in the pursuit of the mysterious will of God. This past fall, I had the privilege of leading a small group discussion on the book Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung. The book was dealing with the modern fascination when it comes to God’s will. The fascination borders on obsession to the point of paralyzation. We desire so much to do God’s will that choices become almost an impossible burden. Who you marry, what college and major, where you live and attend church become unbearable weights that crush us into doing nothing or changing our mind every other day. Because if you pick the wrong thing, you have just missed God’s best. You will be less happy because you somehow missed the mysterious will of God. This mindset wreaks of Stoicism like two-week old guacamole in the trash can (someone remind me to take out my trash later). Our Stoicism goes even deeper. The Stoics preached self-discipline to avoid the hazy understanding of the logos that emotions brought and some Christians will preach the exact same thing. Moralism becomes a means by which we get from God that which we want. We believe that moral living is in line with God and to know his will more clearly, we must live morally. Yet, the Gospel paints a much different picture.  The will of God is not mysterious (at least his will of desire or will of command). How we are to live is quite clear. God did not leave us groping for what it means to live in harmony with Him. Instead, He acted. He intervened. Jesus came, lived a life we could not live, died a death we should have died and has brought us into harmony with the Father. Do you want to live in harmony with the over-arching reality of this world? Embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For there is no other way to achieve it. Moral effort will bring no greater clarity. Moral effort will not bring you happiness. Moral effort will only deepen the brokenness of your relationship with God of the universe. The great paradox of the Christian Gospel is that only in abandoning moral effort as a means to salvation will you become a moral person. The abandonment of self is the only way to save self. The Gospel undermines and overthrows Stoic notions of living in line with the logos.

The second way  Stoicism manifests itself in the church is in regards to suffering. Too many Christians have embraced the idea that if they live a moral life or go to church every Sunday or read their Bible on occasion, they have obliged God to bless them. They are living in harmony with the logos. Therefore they ought to be blessed, to be happy, to be wealthy. Yet, they find themselves suffering. They find that the more they try to perform, the harder that life gets. Before long, they can take it no more. They go before the throne of God and vomit up complaint after complaint. They grumble, they murmur, they question the value of their fidelity to Him. All the while, they prove themselves aligned not with the reality that governs this world, but with a counter-reality. They are aligned on the side of the serpent, just as their fore-fathers were in the wilderness. Again, the Gospel teaches us something completely different. Suffering is not a sign that we are somehow out of line with the Father. No, sometimes suffering is the very mark of being completely in line with the Father. The greatest example of this is the passion of Jesus. The passion here refers to his suffering and death. Passion is what the Stoics refused. It is what they ran from with all their might. Yet, Jesus, Son of God,  the very Logos Himself, embraces His passion. For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross, despising it’s shame. Those who love the Gospel are those who embrace their suffering. Because to lose one’s life is the only way to gain it again. We fear not death, for we will be raised again, just as Jesus was resurrected on the third day. Self-sacrifice, not self-discipline becomes the priority.

What I find so brilliantly life-changing about Philippians 4:8, is that Paul clearly understood that there is only one thing that can kill the little Stoic that lives in all of us. That one thing is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Dwelling on it’s depth, it’s width, it’s height is a task for which we will be engaged for all of eternity, for it will continue to surpass our understanding. We will never exhaust the Gospel. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has worked such a marvelous salvation on our behalf.

 

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
(Philippians 4:8 ESV)
~sdg

One thought on “Stoics in the Pews

  1. I appreciate the thought you’ve put into this essay, but it appears that you’ve misunderstood in several ways the nature of the Stoics’ actual beliefs. Which is understandable, considering how much many of their terms have changed in general usage since their stuff was first put into English.

    “Suffering”, being one of the terms greatly misunderstood here. You’re correct when you say that the Stoics believed in avoiding suffering, but they used the term in much the same way that the Zen Buddhists do. “Suffering”, in the Stoic context, does not mean “pain”, or “adversity”; “suffering” is the misery we cause ourselves by failing to -accept- life’s imperfections and pain. So this idea that living a moral life will produce a life full of worldly wealth and free of hardship could not be further from the Stoic philosophy. To “vomit[ing] up complaint after complaint…grumble, [to] murmur,” is absolutely, 100% opposite what they taught. To endure the pain and suffering[modern definition] of the Cross is the very model of the Stoics’ ideal of acceptance. Paul’s joyful “prison epistles”, written while he was, well, in prison, parallel Epictetus’s call to remain “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy”.

    The idea that going to church and being moral would somehow oblige God to give us a wealthy, hardship-free life sounds a lot like prosperity theology, and has zero parallels in stoicism. The Stoics did not shun wealth per se, but were quite clear that it was not a thing greatly to be valued.

    Similarly, “passion” which the stoics said to avoid, does not have the meaning we now give it. It is used by the Stoics to mean the aforementioned emotional anguish and suffering caused by failing to accept the things we cannot change. And as such, it would be a thing to rightly avoid. In Matthew 6:25, we are told not to be anxious about our life; that anxiety we are told to put aside is part of what the Stoics are talking about when they say to avoid “passion[s]”.

    In addition, this paralyzing anxious obsession with God’s will that you mention: The Stoics, being at least partial fatalists, would never recognize that sort of thing as one in line with their beliefs. The Stoic’s desire to follow the universal reason [logos] should not be seen as some feverish, nervous attempt to follow some mysterious unknowable will, as the Stoic principles for living are straightforward and simple ones.

    In conclusion, other than the (obviously) pre-Christian pantheism and insistence that all being is corporeal, the practical philosophical ideals of Stoicism are nearly all completely compatible with the Christian life. If you’re interested in some concise insight into what the Stoics actually believed, I’d recommend William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy as a remarkably well-rounded look at the ancient Stoics and their ideas.

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