Beware of Stoical Dangers
One of my favorite qualities about myself is my ability to “get through things.” It may run on the Harris side, but regardless, it consists of being able to disengage my emotions when I have to get through something. And I do not mean anything traumatic, only the stuff of normal life.
One example is a job I had for a few years which was not only monotonous and unfulfilling, but looking back I believe I was truly unnecessary to the team. I was not being used anywhere near what I judged my potential to be, and the work I did was almost entirely nonessential. My leadership was not utilizing the data I produced, and if I was to go missing for a week or a month I am certain no one would have been the worse for it. But, true to form, I held on to that job for a few years because, well, it was a job! Jobs are not held for the fulfillment they provide but for the money and my young family needed the money; and I cannot help but look back on that with a little pride. I did what I had to do and I got through it: “Huzzah!”
Another example may be fatherhood. Having kids is a great joy but (there is always a but) three kids under four years old requires some serious cutbacks elsewhere in life. I have had to change entire habits, routines, ministries, and hobbies. Hunting and fishing are activities I now do only in my dreams, and that when I sleep! Even personal time and reading has taken a significant hit. So at 3:30 AM several mornings ago, when I held my crying 6 month old, I dug deep and got through it because I had no choice. It is my duty to get through it. So I did.
To some extent I share a natural affinity to the ancient stoic. While the Epicureans ate, drank, and made merry, the stoics embraced a more narrow rule. Through discipline and resolve they mastered the ability to clench their teeth, wrinkle their brow, and suffer through the toils of life. They devoted themselves to virtue and shunned the gluttonous pleasures the hedonistic majority enjoyed. There is a curious appeal to such a code: to the ability to do without things, to live lean, to put on a smile and drink the hemlock allotted to you. Even so it is a pagan philosophy that comes with great danger, and as a pagan philosophy it has no business being married with the life and philosophy of a Christian.
I freely admit there is nothing wrong with getting through certain challenges even in the Christian life. We do not always feel like reading the Bible or singing in church or being kind to one another. The reality is things often are not going as well as they could be, and the Christian’s duty to remain faithful to the Lord remains whether he feels like it or not. It is in the nature of emotions to come and go, and it cannot be expected that they will always align perfectly with our current duties. So sometimes we do what we have to do and get through it. There is no problem with that.
But over a prolonged, drawn out period of time this mentality is a breeding ground for hypocrisy and destructive secret sins. The duality of doing one thing externally while not “being there” internally is a damaging habit if ignored, running afoul of an inner rule which draws us towards consistency in desires and in behavior. I have many times been appalled at the moral failures of Christian men who had previously put a good face on for years, hiding what was festering just under the surface. Eventually that hypocrisy will ignite, and starving internally while playing the stoic is one way to arrive at such an outcome.
The underlying error here is this: gritted teeth Christianity is not Christianity, for mere external obedience has never been the Christian’s obligation. How frequently throughout the Bible have we seen warnings against mere external obedience? Throughout the Old Testament the people of God were warned “these people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” The greatest command is not an external one but an internal one: Love the Lord your God with all your heart. God desires worship in sincerity, a united heart, a real delight in Christ. A heart that will break forth with songs and praises to a God who has done great things. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” This is something external check marks can’t produce.
Stoicism in contrast is an “anti-philosophy”, meaning it is not a philosophy that allows you to go full bore into a positive direction. It is defined by what it is not, by limits and doing without. Stoicism believes in “thou shalt nots”: It is against carousing and indulgence, against undue delight in pleasure, against extravagances. If you asked the average man on the street what they thought of Christianity, they would likely codify it in similar terms. “They are haters, they are against this, they think that is wrong”—and perhaps our prohibitions should emerge to the forefront in a world that is so lawless. But at its core, for those who taste and see, Christianity is not a negative philosophy of “Nos” and “Not that’s”, but an expanse of life and pleasure beyond our deepest longings. John Piper coined the phrase “Christian Hedonism” and that gets at this same idea: there is pleasure here in Christ of which the world has no duplicate. There is light and glory found united to Him that makes all other roads dark shadows. There are the first fruits of future glory dispensed on the believer; at His right hand are pleasures forever more. There are no limits or restraints on His fullness. Christ is the unending fountain of all fullness and life, in Him is a bounty that will never spoil or fade.
Can you imagine this richness producing stoical Christians who are trying to just get through life? The veil of the temple has been torn from top to bottom, our damning sins are wholly atoned for by the blood of Jesus, the Comforter has been given to us--heaven has nothing better it could possibly give--and we live in air-conditioned homes calloused and jaded? Frustrated that kids our taking up our free time? There is suffering to be sure in this life--even in modern societies--there is a Pilgrim mentality we must take on as we walk through a world that is not our home. But that does not mean we walk with grim and hardened faces; not at all! We have deeper waters to draw from, even should we find ourselves in the teeth of great suffering.
For those of you more temperamentally like me, beware of stoical dangers. Beware of checking boxes and being brave for duty. Remember the goodness of God showered on you daily and the presence of Him who surrounds His children. There is sustaining power and joy offered to you in the various struggles of life. Drink deeply of the fountain and return often. Read the Psalms daily. And when those bothersome emotions are not lining up with current tasks, instead of getting through it, seek Christ that He will tune your heart to sing His grace. Fight for the joy that is yours in Christ. Do not let Him to leave unless He blesses you.