01/26/20 Ephesians 4:1-6 “…I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” As we read the Bible, it is sometimes easy to forget that other societies, thoughts, philosophies, and cultures existed simultaneously elsewhere in the vicinity. For example, we sometimes forget that Paul went to Athens to preach about Christ, and that Athens had been a center of literature, philosophy, culture, and education for 3000 years prior. Although the ancient Greeks were known for their diverse religious system of gods, there were other philosophies of the intellect that were also disseminated. One such philosophy began in 300 BCE by a philosopher named Zeno of Citium, who founded the school of Stoicism. Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics defined by logic and its view of the natural world. Stoicism heavily influenced the Greek and Roman times, up through Marcus Aurelius, who was the emperor of Rome in 300 AD. It lost favor as Christianity became the stated religion in 4th century AD, although it has seen revivals in the late 1500’s and again in the 20th century. Because if its influence in education and thinking during the times of Christ and the early beginnings of the Christian church, it would not be surprising that Stoic influence made its way into the teachings of Christianity. The influential Jewish Stoic, Philo, lived during the days of Jesus, who no doubt was familiar with his writings. Philo taught that the only way to have real existence was to admit that one is nothing without the help of God, who is the source of freedom, logos (reason) and consciousness. He aimed to be the best possible servant of the Revelation and of the text that forms God’s Word. Paradoxically, the Jews ignored Philo's writings, but the early Christians saved them. The philosophy of Stoicism should be differentiated between what we think of as being stoic. To be stoic in today’s vernacular means to be without emotion, cold, expressionless, distant, and without personality. But that is not what I am referring to today. For certain, there are obvious differences between Stoicism and Christianity. Prior to and following Philo, the Stoic god, Logos, was known more as an impersonal god of nature, lawfulness, and order. Stoicism is not a religion, which influences people through a set code of conduct, rituals, ethics, and customs. But rather, it relies on moral self-discipline and is grounded in the principles of fortitude, justice, temperance, and prudence. Stoicism is all about virtue: doing what is right, living by a high moral code. From my perspective, the Stoic teachings for daily life are quite in line with what Christ taught, are worthy of our inspection, and I was surprised at how many teachings I had already incorporated into my spiritual beliefs. The Stoic, Epictetus, lived during the times when the books of Matthew, Luke, and John were being written, from 55 AD to 135 AD. His work entitled The Handbook, outlines his primary teachings, and curiously, the principles sound very Biblical, if not Christ-like. The first principle is that we can control some things and not others, and that much of our unhappiness is caused by thinking that we can control things when, in fact, we can’t. So, according to the Stoics, what can we control? Very little, seemingly. We can’t control what happens to us, including what happens regarding our physical health. We can’t control what others say or do, or the results of our actions. Epictetus claimed that all we can control are our thoughts, words, actions, and the judgments we make about people and circumstances. Although we cannot avoid fear and frustration, the Stoic philosophy asks us to investigate those feelings and determine if we have control over them or not. If we can control them, then we search for the causative behaviors and modify them in order to eliminate the fear or frustration. If they are outside our control, we learn to say, “Then it is none of my concern.” The second fundamental principal of Epictetus is this: it is not what happens to us that causes our distresses and worries, but how we think about them. This is so right on. Christ tells us in Matthew 6:34, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Epictetus wrote: “Starting with things of little value—a bit of spilled oil, a little stolen wine—repeat to yourself: ‘For such a small price I buy tranquility and peace of mind.’” We do not need to get upset over small things. For the price of a little inconvenience, we can buy back peace of mind. Stuff happens; life happens, and we make judgments about what transpires. If we judge something as bad, then many of us get upset, sad, or angry, depending on what it is. If we judge that something bad is likely to occur, then we usually become fearful and worried. If we judge something as good, we can become happy and lighthearted. These emotions are the product of the judgments we make. Things in themselves are mostly neutral in their effect. What might seem terrible to us might be a matter of indifference to someone else, and even welcomed by others. It is our judgments that introduce positive and negative values, and these judgments create our emotional responses. This is good news, because the judgments we make over what happens are entirely in our control. Things happen, none of which are inherently good or bad, and it is within our power to determine how they affect us. The paradox of Stoicism is that we have almost no control over anything, yet we have potentially complete control over our happiness and our frame of mind. Epictetus wrote: “Let silence be your goal for the most part; say only what is necessary, and be brief about it. On the rare occasions when you’re called upon to speak, then speak, but never about banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink—common-place stuff. Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them.” Ephesians 4:29 teaches: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” That is Stoicism. At the same time, the Stoics admit that life can be tough at times. They knew that it was easy to say, “I’m not going to let these external things disturb me,” yet it was difficult to remain unperturbed. To help people’s thinking, they created mental exercises. One was to write down, or reflect on at the end of the day, the times when they became upset by something trivial. By becoming aware, they could choose differently next time. Another method, used by Marcus Aurelius, was to remind himself each morning that he was probably going to encounter during the day a host of angry, stressed, impatient, and ungrateful people. He also realized these people would not be so intentionally, but as a result of their own mistaken judgments. By forearming himself, he hoped he would be better prepared to face the day. Epictetus suggested that we accept what the universe delivers to us, and embrace it, rather than expect it to provide what we want. Although those are excellent words when facing what the World had to offer, our awareness of God is deeper, broader, and offers more than just the World. To look to the world for worth, value, substance, and protection is limited because it only affects our physical natures. But to look to God as our Source for all value, answers, and good, is unlimited because it involves our spiritual nature.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” I would much prefer to follow the Divine One, and know those intentions for me, than that of the Stoic god who tells me, "So this is it, Patrick. Deal with it."
I must confess, though, that I subscribe to many of these Stoic principles. They are helpful while walking on this earth. I can sense the Divine Logic of God speaking to my mind through their philosophies, just as I can hear the same logic in the words of Christ, and Proverbs, and in the Ten Commandments. Spirit is speaking to us and inspiring us to be rational, thinking, and logical. At the same time, God’s unfathomable Love fills us, and whispers to our hearts. God is Divine Logic and Divine Love.
It is my prayer that we will utilize all that God offers, the Divine Logic of the Stoics and the Bible, which appeals to our minds, and combine it with the Divine Love of Christ that shines through our souls. We are magnificent Children of God, each of us a distinctive blend of rationality, emotion, and spiritual qualities. Because of this dynamic mix, God provides a vast wealth of resources from which we can draw knowledge and inspiration for our lives. These resources are uniquely and finely tuned to our personalities, personal needs, and individual lessons, so that we can enjoy all of God’s Good, and live a joyous, Christ-filled, love-filled, abundant, and virtuous life.