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)

Found at Apple Store: Metanarrative

Yesterday I did something most of you will probably consider insane (I know my wife did). A brand new Apple Store was opening up in Fayette Mall here in my home town of Lexington, KY. Since I have been waiting to purchase a new iPhone for myself and my wife, I decided to get up extra early and get in line to ensure that I could pick up a couple of phones (the free commemorative t-shirt was a nice incentive as well). But I have to be honest, there was something in me that also wanted to experience the grand opening of the store. As a borderline Apple fanboy, I follow the going ons of Apple and have read about the exciting and energetic openings at other locations. So even though the main purpose was to get iPhones, I was excited to just go and experience the atmosphere.

I arrived at the mall at 6:00am and found myself number 16 in line. The first person in line had showed up at 6:30pm the evening before (now that’s crazy dedicated). I quickly made some friends with the people in front of me and we chatted off an on while we sat in chairs the mall had put out for the first 20 people in line. We were able to leave the line as we wished and people respected your spot. The time actually passed by fairly quickly. I brought a book to read. UK Basketball was discussed. It was fun. As time neared the store opening, more and more Apple employees began arriving and mingling along the line, talking to people about why there were there or what product they hoped to buy. As the time for opening came, all the employees began chanting inside the store and they suddenly streamed out of the store and high-fived everyone in line. They were excited. Once they were all back inside the store, the store manager came out and gave a little speech. He asked if Lexington was ready for the Apple Store. We all shouted loudly that we were ready. He then asked the Apple Store employees if they were ready for Lexington and they enthusiastically shouted that they were likewise ready. And after that, they let the line start streaming into the store. We were greeted with high-fives and raucous applause and shouting by all the Apple Store employees. After making my way through all the employees, I headed towards the iPhones, were I was promptly greeted by Kyle who helped me secure two new iPhone 4s, along with some other accessories. I was out the door in 15 minutes, a satisfied Apple customer.

So why did I just share this little story with you? Because our culture would have us believe that there is no over-arching grand story of which we all share in. And because Apple proves to us that even though our culture says it believes the metanarrative is dead, it cannot help but seek out a part within one.

Jean-François Lyotard, a 20th century french philosopher, coined the term “metanarrative”. It refers to a system of thought that seeks to give a comprehensive meaning to history, society, and culture by appealing to universal truths. The Bible is a metanarrative. It provides a way of thinking about the world that is rooted in truths that are absolute for every single person who has ever lived or will ever live. Lyotard saw metanarratives as part and parcel of the modernist movement. He went on to also introduced the term “postmodernism” to the realm of philosophy, which was a way of thinking that rejected metanarratives (hence, it is post-modern). There are no absolute or universal truths. Truth is whatever you desire. Truth is relative and malleable and flexible. But postmodernism has a problem. No one lives this way and no one wants their neighbor to live this way either.

And what I see in Apple in this little experience I had, is that the idea of a metanarrative is still very much alive and well. As I listened to the people in line talk with the different Apple employees, I got a sense that many of them were simply there for the experience. A few people were there to get an iPhone or iPad (which have been in short supply since their launch earlier this summer), but the majority of the people in line around me just wanted to be apart of the grand opening. I myself thought this would be a cool experience (and it was), but if I already had what I needed, I certainly would not of waited in line for 4 hours just get high-fives and black Apple t-shirt. Yet, there were several there for what seemed like solely that purpose. But I would propose to you that one of the reasons several hundred people came that morning to the opening of the new Apple store was because it was an opportunity to be apart of something bigger than themselves. Apple provides that opportunity. Buy their products and you’re apart of this global family of Mac users. Speak the language of Macs and iPhones and you can make instant friends. Being apart of the Apple community means something. Just ask the guy at the front of the line wearing his “I left my heart in Cupertino” t-shirt.

But why do we seek this? What draws us to reject the Me of postmodernism for a smaller role in larger story than we could never create by ourselves? Why do we go to the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls to feel small? Why do we stare at the stars in silence? Why do we passionately defend our chosen story in the comment section of blogs? I would suggest that something ancient within us compels us to seek a larger story. Even when we consciously state that “I am the captain of my soul”, we blindly act in ways that give ourselves away to another captain. We are simply acting out the etching of our heart. You see, we were created for this. That great Preacher from the past stated that God “has put eternity into man’s heart…” Postmodernism cannot account for this inner-drive toward community. But the Bible can. The real question is not “Is there a metanarrative that rules the world?”, but “Which metanarrative is the right one?” I believe it is only the Bible that can account for the totality of man. Only the Bible can account for what we find in our world. It is the only metanarrative that can account for it all.

I think the one thing that really struck me from my whole experience at the Apple store was before we entered the store, the employees began chanting “We are Apple”. We. Are. Apple. The metanarrative lives on indeed.