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  • Writer's pictureVince Larson

Stoics, Suffering & The Gospel

Updated: Oct 8, 2021

“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”(Romans 5:3-5)

This passage, bookended on both sides by powerful gospel proclamations, is one of the most hope-filled, life-giving passages in the New Testament, because it contains one of the boldest claims in all of Scripture:

“We know that suffering produces… hope”

How in the world can suffering produce hope?

In our world, suffering often produces grief and grief results in depression over your past and anxiety towards your future. At least this is how I’ve experienced it.

The Stoic Philosophers had a wonderful way of dealing with this. Epictetus, who had experienced much suffering growing up as a slave, eventually gathered crowds of people from all walks of society to hear his wisdom. He once said something that he believed would cure the soul of much of its depression and anxiety.

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.” - Epictetus

In other words, most of what’s happening in life is outside of my control. And much of the anxiety and depression I experience results from my obsession over things I can’t control, past or future. Truth be told, I can only really control my own thoughts, actions and attitudes. And when I separate those two domains (what I can and can’t control), and focus my thoughts, actions and attitudes on what I am actually able to control, many of the sources of depression and anxiety in my life lose their grip upon my soul.

Epictetus’ admonition echos strongly in the Serenity Prayer:

“God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.”

This outlook is so powerful in its paradigm-shifting ability, that countless treatment programs, not the least of which is Alcoholics Anonymous, use this prayer as a sort of backbone for their entire approach to healing and sobriety.

Epictetus and the stoics envisioned a world where difficulty and suffering surround us and constantly buffet our lives. The Stoic approach to life then, is to harden yourself against life, which, in the end, is mostly suffering. That was what they saw as the path to true joy, and freedom from anxiety… letting go of your illusion of control, accepting life’s difficulties, and letting them shape you into a stronger person.

But were they right?

Is this life suffering?

Is the path to freedom accepting this?

Is it focusing solely on your response to this?

Well, there is a lot of truth in this perspective. Because of the fall in this of our world, in many senses, this is true. Sin has affected every corner of creation, and all of us feel it’s effects deep in our bones. We are victims of the sins done against us, and also perpetrators of sins against others. On top of that all, nature is careening out of control, with tsunami’s, earthquakes, diseases, and other outcries against the sin that is ripping her apart. Because of sin, our world, in it’s fallen state, is a place of suffering.

In that sense the stoics are correct. But there is far more to the picture, and the gospel gives us a fuller, freer, and far more hopeful picture.

While the scripture doesn’t shy away from the brokenness of this world, and the depravity of our own fallen hearts, it also paints a picture of a God who loves us in spite of all that, and promises to rescue and renew all of creation, through the work of Christ.

This God, who reveals himself as a benevolent Father, is in charge, and sovereign, even when things seem out of control. He promises that all things are working together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose. Not all things are good, but God is working them all together for our ultimate good. And in the end, he’s doing all this, in such a way that will result in revealing his glory.

What does that mean for me?

While I’m going through suffering, how does that give me hope?

It gives you hope because none of your suffering is meaningless. God doesn’t waste a hurt. Even though bad things still happen, there’s a promise that ultimately every one of those things will be used for your good. There’s not one stray molecule in the universe that God is not sovereign over. And our God, our loving, benevolent Father is committed to you. And while you may not be able to control all the forces at work outside yourself, there is nothing at any time that is actually out of control. They are all working together for you.

So as your suffering comes, you have the opportunity to focus on what you can control: your thoughts, words, attitudes and actions.

Sure, you could give up, and throw in the towel, and say “what’s the use!”, but you can also persevere. The gospel gives you every reason to keep going! And as you do, that perseverance produces a profound sense of character within you. The fires of this fallen world forge a deep sense of integrity and wholeness within Gods children. So suffering is at work, building perseverance, and character within you, which ultimately result in hope. Hope that not only are you being transformed more and more into the image of God’s son or daughter, but you are also learning to trust more and more of your life to Him. Through suffering you are learning to place more and more of your hope in Him, His process, His plan and His future, waiting for you in eternity with Him. This is how we glory in our suffering.

“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”(Romans 5:3-5)

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