Why Stoicism is not Biblical

My grandfather used to have a saying, which he passed down to my mom. “Don’t let anyone get your goat.” If one understands what this means, it’s good advice. What Grandpa and my mom were saying was don’t let anyone else control your emotions. Growing up, I was told repeatedly to control my emotions and that the show of emotions is weakness. For an emotional child growing up in the Word of Faith cult, being formed into a Vulcan did not come naturally. Frankly, going to a Pentecostal school during the week and a WOF church on Sundays made the Vulcanization of my emotions when not in worship a bit schizophrenic.

However, I’m not writing about my upbringing. Instead, my opening paragraph is merely illustrative. Grandpa’s advice was good. I still hold to it, minus the goat. We should be in control of our emotions and actions and not allow others to control us through emotional manipulation. But there is another thought in that first paragraph that I wish to unpack. Is the very fact that we as humans have emotions and display them a sign of weakness?

Stoicism

Stoics hold that emotions such as fear, envy, passionate love arose from false judgements. They teach that virtue derives from laying aside our passions, even our own human nature, including sorrow and joy. For them, one who attains moral and intellectual perfection is one who is immune to misfortune.

We read in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that he has learned the secret to living “in any and every circumstance” and “to be content in whatever circumstance.” (Phil. 4:11, 12) Other places in the Bible speaks highly of patience and endurance. Patience is even listed as a fruit of the Spirit. But is this the same as stoicism? Does the Bible offer us more when it comes to managing emotions?

Bullinger writes in his third sermon of his third decade, “If a man, once wounded with sorrow and sadness, quietly rests himself upon the spiritual consolation of his God and creator” he will be replenished with cheerfulness. The apostle Paul, who wrote of contentment in all situations also expressed sorrow and grief while maintaining patience and temperance.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Cor. 4:8-9)

This is not a stoic, emotionless patience. What Bullinger and the apostle Paul is describing is a type of patience that is active and has its hope in One who is outside of ourselves. Stoics, in their attempts to paint the picture of patience, robs us of our humanity, as if such a thing could be done. The fact is true stoicism is impossible to achieve. Anyone who comes close is a broken shell, not a highly evolved intellectual Vulcan. Even Jesus Christ, whom we should seek to emulate for He is God and the perfection of humanity, wept and showed anger, joy, and compassion.

True Humanity

The Bible is full of passion. In both the Old Testament and New, we see those who rejoice, those who are in mourning, those who are afraid, and those who despair. Such emotions are not to be denied. They are an integral part of our humanity. However, the Bible does tell us to bridle our tongue and praises patience as a virtue. It does so without admonishing the expression of emotions. Emotions are not antithetical to Godly virtues, but loss of control is and so is impatience.

Yesterday, my priest messaged me to tell me he’s worried about me. He was able to sense through my FaceBook comments that something was not quite right with me. I didn’t realize I had telegraphed my frustrations and worries, but somehow, I did. He recorded his morning prayer for me, and during the devotional, he quoted from Luke 20: 34-36.  

Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. But keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.

Fr. Aaron said that “Jesus is warning the church to not allow themselves to be weighed down by the cares and the things of this world.” Yes, we have cares in this world. We have an earthly life and emotions. As Christians, we do not deny these things. We are not stoics. However, in order to have that peace and patience Paul described, we must look toward God for our patience.

The first passage of Scripture I quoted from in this post was from Philippians 4. After Paul says that he can be content in whatever circumstance he’s in, he reveals his secret. It’s not found in stoic philosophy. Paul is not a Vulcan either. He writes, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:13) The Him in this verse is God. God gives us all that we need to manage this life. We just need to look to Him and not on our circumstances.

We have emotions. Emotions are a good thing. They’re human, but we can’t allow emotions to control us, and we can’t allow the circumstances of this world to control us. We bear things, not with stoicism but by embracing the God of this earth with joy and satisfaction.

Explanation of Featured Image

The featured image might seem odd in a post about stoicism. I used this picture to illustrate the difference between generating joy within us and true joy that comes from above. Legend has it that when St. Bartholomew was skinned alive for the cause of Christ, he suffered and went to his death joyfully, knowing that the sufferings of this life pale in comparison to the joy that awaits those who are faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ.

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