In light of certain struggles in my life, I am often tempted to fall into a stoic approach to unpleasant or difficult circumstances. However, there is a certain discomfort and it feels a bit like whistling past the graveyard. I say to myself, “I don’t care” when I really do care and the pretense of not caring rarely becomes a reality, and yet I persist. I don’t always recognize right away that I have fallen into that trap until my lack of peace catches up with me, but still I try to fit stoicism into some Christian form. I torture it and twist it and try to make this round peg fit into a square hole.
How does one distinguish between stoicism and the shedding of temporal concerns and worldliness that naturally flow from the process of sanctification by God? Do they achieve the same end in the Christian’s life, a weaning from the world? Is there such a thing as Holy Stoicism? What does it look like in comparison? What contrasts are there? What are the characteristics of stoicism that sets it apart from properly turning from worldliness as applied to believers? Would God call us to a stoic approach toward worldliness? If stoicism leads to more time for reflection, then would it not be a proper tool to use or a proper attitude to the degree that it aids us in our Christian growth?
As I reflect on extreme stoicism, I see that there are problems with it indeed. Perhaps it is the fact that stoicism does not actually acknowledge sin? Is stoicism a man centered philosophy that denies the power of God to bring about real transformation in our hearts? Is stoicism the lazy man’s spirituality? Yes, I think it is lazy and simplistic. On the surface it might seem good but it is egotistical and denies God. I try to pepper my days with it but it never works out very well.
Stoicism depends on the strength of the individual’s will power. On the other hand, as a follower of Christ, it takes great faith and dependence on the means of grace to turn from worldliness (a requirement that stoicism does not embrace).
Stoicism then lives in the house built on sinking sand. When the great tragedies of life present themselves to the stoic, ultimately, the stoic has no help but to help himself. If he has been unsuccessful in his pursuit of stoicism, he will fail and the house will crumble. Then stoicism will be revealed as shallow and ineffectual and non-restorative. It is also non-redemptive, as man’s natural strength to overcome worldliness fails (and it will fail), there is no redemption, no forgiveness, no genuine sanctification.
Stoicism says “deny yourself” and replaces that self-denial with nothing. Christ says deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me. And where does “follow me” lead the true believer? The answer is a vastness of wealth that the stoic will never experience nor achieve. It is a narrow path that does require the shedding of worldliness but the path is divergent. The Christian’s repudiation of worldliness and self-denial begins with our calling and ends with unity with Christ. It is indeed not stoicism that weans us from worldliness but God who weans us from it through His sanctifying work.
I return again to Thomas Boston: The Crook in the Lot
There is not in anybody’s lot, any such thing as a crook, in respect of the will and purposes of God. Take the most harsh and dismal dispensation in one’s lot and lay it to the eternal decree, made in the depth of infinite wisdom before the world began, and it will answer it exactly, without the least deviation, “all things being worked after the counsel of His will”.
Since He makes the crook, there is, doubtless, a becoming design in it, which we are obliged in duty to fall in with, according to that, “Hear the rod.” And, indeed, if one did not shut his own eyes, but is willing to understand, he may easily perceive the general design of it to be, to wean him from this world, and move him to seek and take up his heart’s rest in God. ~Thomas Boston~