A little over a year ago, after hearing over and over again about the wisdom of the Greek Stoics from Tim Ferriss, I finally decided to start exploring some of their writings. I read through Ryan Holiday's The Obstacle is the Way, which was a great crash course in Stoic thought. I discovered two of my favorite thinkers from this world- Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.
As a person well-versed in the Bible from my work over the years, I began to see a lot of overlap between Christian values and Stoic thought. To be clear, there is just as much that does not overlap and conflicts. (For example, Stoics focus on self-reliance where as the Christian faith is built on trusting and depending on God.) But the basic tenets of Stoicism were also values I see showing up time and time again in the writings of Solomon, Jesus, and Paul. Here are a few basic staples of Stoic thought:
- We must learn to not be controlled by our emotions or passions.
- Materialistic pursuits are to be cast aside for higher virtues.
- We have a moral obligation to seek the good of the community.
- Ego and Pride are things to be fought against in pursuit of humility and wisdom.
- While we may not have control over the trials that life brings, we do have control over how we respond to them.
- Personal virtues and personal discipline/self-control are to be pursued with diligence.
I want to spend the next few weeks unpacking some of the things I've learned over the past year in how the Stoics and the Christian faith intersect. (To be clear, by no means am I an expert on Stoicism.)
Worrying Isn't Helpful
A little over two years ago, I received a letter in the mail letting me know that I was being sued for a lot of money that I didn't have for an event that occurred at a time I wasn't present on a property I didn't own. I didn't know anything about lawsuits, lawyers, or how it all worked. I just knew that the best case scenario was that this was going to be expensive, even if I 'won.' It was.
One thing I learned about lawsuits (among many things), is that they take a LONG time. For us, around two years. Two years of an uncertain outcome, putting financial plans on hold, writing checks, and just waiting. Just. Waiting. The fear of the unknown often takes more time and does more damage than the end result.
Jesus said something in the Sermon on the Mount that really came to life for me during this time of waiting. He said, "Do not worry about your life. Who can add a single hour to their life by worrying? Do not worry about tomorrow, let tomorrow worry about itself. Today has enough troubles on its own." He was right. I knew he was right, but it didn't make it any easier.
Marcus Aurelius put it like this: "In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices." He also wrote, "Choose not to be harmed, and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.”
With the resolution months away (and seemingly never-ending), if I chose to spend my time in anxiety and worry I would be paying into that lawsuit more than was being asked. If I chose to spend my time in worry, I would be more irritable and short with my kids, wife, and other friends. If I chose to spend my time in worry, I would become stingy and greedy with my money (and not generous.) While the lawsuit might forcibly take away my money, it can't force me to think or behave in a certain way. I am the one with that power and that choice.
Marcus Aurelius wrote, "It can only ruin your life if it ruins your character." We don't often have control over the trials and circumstances that come into our life. In a broken world, injustice and disease and betrayal and loss are inevitable. But we do have a choice in how we respond. We have a choice in what we think about and how we think about it. Paul wrote, "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Jesus said, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."