Stoic

Control.

The past few years, I've fallen in love with the teachings of the Stoics. (mainly the Big Three- Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus)  I find their teachings, for the most part, to line up really well with the teachings of Jesus, Solomon, and Paul. This is one of my favorite quotes from Epictetus. It serves as a solid foundation for one of Stoicism's main tenets:

"The first thing you need to do is realize this- Some things are in your control and others are not. Things in your control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are your own actions. Things not in your control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not your own actions."

Epictetus' main point is this- most of our suffering and frustration comes from trying to control things that are outside of our control. One of our most primal fears is losing control, and that causes us to do a lot of stupid things. The Stoic practice of reflecting on what is or isn't in your control in any given situation can really help alleviate frustration and bring clarity. Here are the things Epictetus says are in your control.

Opinion- meaning, the way you think about or interpret things. You can control that. This is a theme that pops up repeatedly in the writings of the Stoics. Seneca wrote:

"We are more often frightened than hurt. And we suffer more from our imaginations than from reality."

Pursuit and Desire- You are in control of the things that you chase in your life. The Scriptures tell us often that "you reap what you sow." You are in control of (and responsible for) the things that you pursue in your life (and what you settle for.) One of my favorite quotes from Marcus Aurelius is:

"A man's true worth is measured by the things that he pursues."

Aversion- we are also responsible for the things that we avoid in our lives. This of course could be positive and negative. If we avoid truth-speakers and accountability, we will pay the price. If we avoid the people and things which bring us harm in as much as is in our power, we will reap the benefit.

Now for the things not in our control-

Body- You can do everything within your power to take care of your health. And you should. Control what you can in that regards. But what you can't control is the inevitability of decay and death. Time works against us all. The more you fret about those parts of your health that you can't control, the more damage being done.

Property- Your stuff. Once again, you can be as responsible and diligent as you can about things, but you can't control how others treat them. You can't control their inevitable decay.

Reputation- This is one of the biggest challenges for me in this quote. We can't control what people think of us, no matter how much we want to or how important it may be. We can certainly do everything within our power to represent ourselves in the way we want, to say things carefully and thoughtfully and compassionately, but we cannot control how others think or respond to it.

Command- I read three translations of this Epictetus quote and they all used different words here. (Office, power, command.) I think the idea is that you can't control your political or social status and authority. Often times those are based on someone else's control. Do what you can, but don't fret about the parts of this that aren't in your control.

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So the thing that is in our control...ourselves. What we spend our time thinking about, our opinions on things, our words, our choices. We are in control of our ourselves. I think we often spend more time being frustrated with things outside of our control and not enough time working on our attitude, opinion, and personal discipline.

You are in control of and responsible for yourself.

While you might be responsible to some people, you are not responsible for them.

The Envy of Cain

When God accepted Abel's sacrifice and rejected Cain's, Cain had several responses he could have chosen. He could have celebrated the success of his brother. He could have asked his brother (or God for that matter) what about his offering wasn't acceptable and learned from his mistake. He could have stolen Abel's flocks and offered that up as a sacrifice. He could have just left the whole family and tribe altogether.  He didn't have to kill his brother. It didn't gain him anything. Such is the power of envy.

We tend to use the words jealousy, envy, and coveting interchangeably.  While that’s not necessarily a huge deal, it is important to understand the variations of the sin of envy.

When you are jealous, you are afraid of someone taking what you already have. A common expression of jealousy is what we feel when a friend or spouse gives attention that’s normally reserved for us to someone else. The etymology for ‘jealous’ comes from the French word for possessive. Jealously implies your ownership (or at least your perception of ownership.) So when we say we are ‘jealous’ or someone’s awesome vacation, we are using the word incorrectly.

Another word we often hear the Bible use is coveting.  This is tied to one of the Ten Commandments- “Thou shalt not covet.” To covet means to lust after or desire something that someone else has. To crave or obsess over it. It’s important to note that it is not wrong to be inspired by someone else’s success. If you see that someone has a great marriage or a healthy financial life and aspire towards the same thing, that’s fine and healthy. Admiration is a good thing. It becomes coveting when you want their wife or their money. So while jealousy is being afraid of losing something you have, coveting is wanting something someone else has.

Envy is slightly different than jealousy and coveting. With envy, we aren’t worried about losing something (jealousy.) We aren’t focused on taking something (coveting.) Envy is even more insidious. Envy is wishing that the other person lose their qualities or possessions or popularity so that you can feel better about yourself. It seeks the destruction of the other. What did Cain gain from the destruction of his brother?

Envy is toxic because it not only seeks the destruction of the other but it also eats away at your own soul. Solomon writes: “A heart at peace gives life to the body. But envy rots the bones.” (Proverbs 14:30) We become envious when we fall into the comparison trap. Someone is more successful, wealthier, more popular, more attractive.  We compare and feel inferior and build resentment. As Teddy Roosevelt notes:

"Comparison is the thief of joy."

Externally, While me might not literally murder people in the way that Cain did, we murder them with our words. Envy leads us to all sorts of destructive behaviors, and we need to be on guard for its ruinous effect in our lives.We gossip. We slander. We dismiss or reduce or explain away someone else's accomplishments and don't give them adequate honor or credit. We talk about how we could have the same success if we weren't committed to some other self-righteous pursuit.

Envy can be destructive and obstructive. Perhaps we don't go out of our way to tear someone down, but we also don't put forth any energy in helping them succeed. Either way, it is harmful. So how do we combat envy?

When looking at the seven deadly sins, the corresponding virtue to the vice of envy is kindness. While envy seeks to destroy and take away, kindness means to intentionally build up. So give someone authentic and sincere praise. Marcus Aurelius writes:

“Kindness is invincible, provided it’s sincere— not ironic or an act. What can even the most vicious person do if you keep treating him with kindness and gently set him straight— if you get the chance— correcting him cheerfully at the exact moment that he’s trying to do you harm. “No, no, my friend. That isn’t what we’re here for. It isn’t me who’s harmed by that. It’s you.” 

We have to learn to "rejoice with those who rejoice" (Romans 12:15), to celebrate and honor the accomplishments of others. Choose humility and curiosity rather than hostility. Admiration rather than comparison.

Envy is deceptive and it is poisonous. If you aren't aware of when it's happening inside of you, it can eat way at your joy and erode your relationships. Pay attention to your thoughts.

On the Shortness of Life.

Yesterday I preached a sermon on the goodness and value of time. You can check it out here. A friend shared this article last year and it's been sitting with me ever since. I've also been reading through Seneca's The Shortness of Life alongside the book of Ecclesiastes with some friends. All of that to say, I've been thinking about life lately. The kind of life that I want and how I want to spend what limited time I have.

If you want the abbreviated version of my sermon, here it is:  

Life is too short to waste it on bitterness from the past or worry about the future. The past and future continually fight to take our present away from us.

To be clear, I am not a doctor or trained to speak into the areas of trauma or clinical anxiety and not speaking about that. I'm only speaking from the wisdom of the Stoics, the Scriptures, and my own experience.

When we give into anger or bitterness and let it consume our thought life, we are paying with our present. We are missing out on what currently is because we can't get over the past. The same applies to the future, something which we have little control of. Jesus said it like this, "Who can add an hour to your life by worrying? Focus on today and its challenges."

Along with bitterness towards the past or worry about the future, a few other things can rob us of our time.  Filling our schedule until it's overflowing is one of them. "The busy life is a brief one," writes Seneca. That might seem counterintuitive. You might think because we have such little time that we'd want to cram as much as we can into it. The problem is that when our schedule gets so busy that we are constantly jumping from one thing to the next, we are always thinking about the next thing and never fully present to the moment we're in.

Another thing that robs us of our time is a lack of purpose and vision for our life. "Where there is no vision, the people wander around," writes Solomon. "Those who choose to have no real purpose in life are ever rootless and dissatisfied, tossed by their aimlessness into ever-changing situations," writes Seneca.

Know what you want to be about. Know who you want to do life with. Pursue those things with rigorous intentionality. Learn to grieve the past and then move on from it. Plan as much as you can for the future, but don't be consumed with worry about it. Enjoy the moments of life as they come.

Bread, Forgiveness, and Temptation. (Sermon On the Mount, Part 8)

Last week, I wrote about the familiarity and the boldness of the Lord's Prayer. I wanted to unpack the rest of that Prayer today. I see the next three statements as confessions of our weakness, commitments to keep trying, and pleas to God to meet us in the mess and help us out.

"Give us this day our daily bread."

In the Old Testament, there is this crazy story where Israel was traveling from slavery in Egypt towards their "Promised Land." They were in the wilderness, inexperienced, afraid, and complaining. God showed patience, grace, and provision. In their times of hunger, God sent them 'manna' from heaven. Like, literally the bread would fall from the skies. They were to pack only what they needed for that day, the rest of it would ruin. The next say, God would send more. This arrangement required a lot of trust (no stockpiling) and contentment (be grateful for eating the same thing day after day after day after day.)  In general, Israel failed on both counts.

Manna became so mundane to the Israelite palate that they began to complain about the menu. Think about that for a second. They were just rescued from slavery through a series of plagues, they were being led by a freaking smoke monster from Lost, and on the daily bread was literally falling from the skies and they were like, "This again?!?" Of course, we are no better. Sometimes, the blessings in our life become so routine that we no longer see them for what they are. We become entitled and ungrateful.

We, like Israel in those stories, also stockpile. We don't trust in what tomorrow will bring so we hoard and create a Plan B. This is a huge struggle for me. If I were to be honest, I think I have a backup plan just in case God doesn't come through. Of course, bread doesn't just mean literal food, but our every need. And God's presence. Jesus mentioned that He Himself was the Manna that came from heaven (John 6.)

So this prayer, "Give us this day our daily bread," it's a tough one. God, let me trust you enough to not make backup plans or worry about that. (See Matthew 6:25-34) God, let me content with the things You have provided. God, keep doing your part, and help me to do mine. Help me be grateful and trusting.

"Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."

I've already written a lot about forgiveness, and you can check some of that out here. This part of the prayer is also a confession, commitment, and plea. We are already praying for God to use us to bring His kingdom into our communities, but we are also being honest. We are going to blow it. We need God's forgiveness as daily as we need that bread. So that's our confession. (We'll blow it.) And our plea (But keep forgiving us.) And then our commitment. (We will forgive our debtors.)

To forgive means to 'give up' the need for retaliation. To let it go. I love the way Dallas Willard puts it in his fantastic book The Divine Conspiracy:

"We forgive someone of a wrong they have done us when we decide that we will not make them suffer for it in any way. This does not mean that we must prevent suffering that may come to them as a result of the wrong they have done."

Later on in this prayer Jesus adds: "If you do not forgive people of their debts, God will not forgive you of yours."  This is a really tricky passage. The traditional way that I have heard it explained is, "If you don't forgive other people, that is a sign that you haven't really experienced God's forgiveness. Forgiving is evidence of being forgiven." This idea is shown in the parable of the unjust manager. (Luke 6:1-13)

The manager owed his lender a large sum of money. After pleading and begging for his life, the lender forgives him of the huge debt. On his way out of the courtroom and back to his house, the manager spots someone that owes him a few dollars and refuses to forgive him of the debt. After hearing about this injustice, the lender finds the manager and puts him in jail until the debt is repaid.

Here's the point of the story- someone who has been forgiven has experienced the weight of their offense and understands what the other person has given up by deciding to not hold it against them. This pattern of asking for and receiving forgiveness creates a person of humility. That person will be happy to offer forgiveness to others because they recognize their own constant need of it.  Dallas Willard says it this way:

"If my pride is not touched when I pray for forgiveness, I have not prayed for forgiveness. I don't even understand it."

"Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one."

This portion of the prayer trips me up too. Why would God lead us into temptation? Why would he give us up to 'the evil one'? The common translation here isn't a great one. It's better understood, "Don't put us to the test. Keep us safe from bad things."  Of course, God doesn't always answer this prayer. But at least it's an honest one. A confession, a commitment, and a plea. A confession (I'm trying to be strong but I acknowledge if put to the test I could fail. I know trials can develop strength and character but they also suck.) A plea. (Help me out here.) A commitment. (I'm still about Your Kingdom because it is the eternal one.)

I almost intuitively reframe it to, "Save me from myself. I am my own tempter and my own worse enemy. I want to commit to this Kingdom movement in my community but I also know I'm a wreck myself. Please build me up even as you are wanting to use me for your kingdom here. Teach me how to trust and be grateful. Teach me how to own my sin and ask you for forgiveness. Let me be as good at forgiveness as you are."

Confession. Commitment. Plea. The Lord's prayer is a bold prayer, and really wrestling with it and internalizing it daily should lead to a life of humility, compassion, gratitude, wisdom, and generosity towards others.

Seeing Past the Familiarity of the Lord's Prayer. (Sermon on the Mount, Part 7)

Sometimes a thing can become so familiar that it's impact becomes negligible. For many of us, we have heard "The Lord's Prayer" so many times in so many contexts that we can recite it in the same way we might ride a bike- so automated that our mind's energy can be used to think about something else. But this prayer is familiar because it is great. It is not some magic formula recited to appease the gods, but an invitation for God to work in our lives in powerful ways. 

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  (Matthew 6:9-10)

It can be easy to read "on earth" as a global (non-specific) target and not a personal one. While we certainly should pray for "the world", that's also a prayer that's not very dangerous. We have to learn to distinguish between what's within our control and what is not. "For the things that aren't in our control, we can of course still pray, "God, do your work." But for the things that are within our control and influence, the prayer becomes "God, do your work through us." I think the Lord's Prayer is more about the latter. It's an invitation to God to use us for His Kingdom even if it comes at our expense.

The phrase "on earth" could also be translated "in this land." As in "my community." In other words, "God, I want to see Your name be made great, Your will be done, and Your kingdom come here in my community. But I can only really control myself, so here is how I am willing to be a part of your movement. Here is how I want to live my life and how I want you to work in my life so I can bring your Kingdom, will, and beauty into my community."

There are three commands attached to the phrase "on earth as it is in heaven."  So the prayer is really- "May your name be hallowed on earth as it is in heaven."  "May your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven." "May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

Hallowed Be Your Name. The word hallowed means "greatly revered or respected."  I like to think of this almost like a family name that carries weight and you want to honor it with the way you conduct your life. God, may your people here on earth represent the greatness of your name in the same way that the beings up there do. While it's easy to throw stones at the Church and say that historically we have blown it and made of a mess of God's reputation, the more helpful question might be- "Am I honoring the family name? What do people think about God when they experience me?"

Your Kingdom Come. When you think of the kingdom of God up there, what images come to mind? The Bible gives us a few ideas.  Beauty. Joy. Peace. Restoration. Unity. Openness. Rest. Honesty. Purity. So the prayer becomes,  "God, the way things look up there, use us to make that a reality down here." In our inner being, in our homes, in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods, in our cities. Wherever we have the ability to be of influence, God use us.

The first part of the Lord's Prayer is a plea for God to be active in our communities through us. The next part are the specific ways we are committed to seeing that happen. (Give us this day our daily bread... forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors... lead us not into temptation...) I'll unpack those more next week.