Life can so easily get us down. Most of the time we ask, how can we survive? Lasting joy seems utterly out of reach.
The Stoics were a group of people in the ancient world who sought to find lasting joy while living a normal life. They wanted to move past depression, anxiety, anger, worry, and all the other negative emotions that often dominate our lives.
The Stoics were not, contrary to the common misconception, proposing that we be emotionless. They wanted to experience the blessing of positive emotions and minimize the impact of negative emotions. As the Stoic Seneca (4 B.C.–A.D. 65) wrote in his Letters to Lucilius: “Above all, my dear Lucilius, make this your business. Learn how to feel joy” (Letter XXIII, 55).
In this article, I want to explain how the Stoics suggested that you could find joy and then compare and contrast it with a biblical view of joy based on 1 Peter 1:3–9.
With so many hard and even awful things, how did these ancient writers think that you could find joy?
1. Let go of unnecessary negative emotions. According to the Stoics, there are many things that keep us from lasting joy that do not need to. For example, most of the things we worry about never happen and are not even likely to happen. We get nervous even when things are going well. As Seneca said: “The mind at times fashions for itself false shapes of evil when there are no signs that point to any evil” (XIII, 28). Even if bad things could possibly happen, “It is indeed foolish to be unhappy now because you may be unhappy at some future time” (XXIV, 57).
2. Don’t seek your joy in changeable things. People, pleasures, and places can bring us joy. However, if they are the ultimate source of joy, then we will inevitably lose that joy when we lose those things. Seneca put it this way: “For his joy depends on nothing external and looks for no boon from man or Fortune” (LXXI, 190). For example, if our joy depends on our business doing well, we will lose our joy when our business fails. If our joy depends on laboring honestly, then we have a source of joy that is independent of circumstances (or fortune).
3. Re-interpret suffering and hard things. The Stoics did not seek out suffering. They believed that one could live a virtuous life in spite of suffering. They also saw that living rightly in the face of suffering could actually strengthen a person. Seneca compared learning to live virtuously in the face of suffering with training to fight well:
The only contestant who can confidently enter the lists [i.e., engage in the conflict] is the man who has seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent’s fist, who has been tripped and felt the full force of his adversary’s charge, who has been downed in body but not in spirit, one who, as often as he falls, rises again with greater defiance than ever (XIII, 26).
Responding well to suffering strengthens our character, and that is just one of the many ways we can reinterpret suffering to de-fang it.
4. Find a source of joy independent of fortune or circumstance. For the Stoics, that source was within oneself. Seneca said: “Do you ask me what this real good is, and whence it derives? I will tell you: it comes from a good conscience, from honourable purpose, from the right actions, from contempt of the gifts of chance, from an even and calm way of living which treads but one path” (XXIII, 55). Living rightly and responding well to what happens is something you can always do and that fortune and circumstance can never take away.
I think there is much to commend the Stoic perspective. We should let go of unnecessary worries, not found our joy on changing things, see the benefit of suffering, and find a joy independent of our circumstances. In my view, there is a large overlap with the Christian perspective, but there are important areas where our faith takes up the good insights of Stoicism and provides a much more solid context for lasting joy. Consider this in light of 1 Peter 1:3–9.
1. Christianity like Stoicism calls us from placing our joy in changeable things. Peter recognized that this world would bring us suffering and take away from us things that we value and find joy in: “You may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1:6).
2. Christianity reinterprets suffering in a way similar to Stoicism. Suffering builds character. 1 Peter 1:7 is a bit difficult to translate, but the point is that suffering is like fire that makes your faith shine forth. When Jesus Christ is revealed, it will result in praise, glory, and honor.
3. Christianity finds joy in our character. We rejoice in the salvation of our souls, of who we are as human (1:9). We are being re-made, and this is something the world cannot take away from us. What is truly valuable that we possess? Our faith. It is of greater worth than gold (1:7).
4. Christianity finds joy in a relationship with Jesus. Here is where Christianity puts us on much better ground than Stoicism in finding lasting joy. There is a relationship with someone that is not changeable and is a source of continual affirmation and love. “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy . . .” (1:8).
5. Christianity finds joy in the hope that all things will turn out well. Again, Christianity here redeems the insights of the natural world. It promises a world where the suffering we experience will be eliminated. It provides us a certain and unalterable hope that does not change based on circumstance. We have been born again into a new hope and an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade. “In this, you greatly rejoice” (1 Pet. 1:6).
Stoicism represents one of the best human attempts to find lasting joy, and it is one from which we can learn much. As the Church Father Tertullian said, “Seneca is often one of us.” However, our faith provides us with a source of joy that is far better than anything the mind of man could have imagined: virtue based on God’s powerful transformation, a relationship with someone who will always love us, and a hope that will not disappoint. That is a sure ground for lasting joy, if we can learn to see it.