: Theology

A Brief, Biblical Response to the Stoicism of Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss seems like a very likable guy; the kind of guy who, if you met him and didn’t know he was famous, you’d still want to get to know. He is very personable in his podcasts. I enjoy listening to him.

Who Is Tim Ferriss?

I have profited from several things in Tim’s books, most notably his first book, The 4-Hour Workweek. This #1 New York Times bestseller catapulted Ferriss to fame in 2007. He followed this with three other books (each of which also became a #1 New York Times bestseller), including his most recent, Tools of Titans: the Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers

In addition to his writing and associated public speaking, Tim has enjoyed wide influence as an investor (especially to start-ups), an advisor to companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Evernote, and as a philanthropist.

But Ferriss may be best known through his weekly podcast, The Tim Ferris Show. With more than 150 million downloads, the podcast was chosen as “iTunes Best of 2014,” and again in 2015 and 2016, as measured by “most downloaded.” The success of his books and podcast is truly remarkable.

I’ve listened to dozens of his podcast interviews, and have benefited from many of these conversations. Almost every guest proves to be fascinating, and in no small part to Tim’s excellent interviewing skills.

The Conversation I’d Love to Have with Tim

In fact, when hearing his podcasts, I have sometimes prayed that I would find myself seated on a plane next to Tim (after I received a complimentary first-class upgrade, of course). This is probably the only way I would ever be able to get to chat with him.

If I were privileged to have a conversation with Tim, there’s so much I’d like to ask him. Most importantly, I’d like to find out if he’s ever heard a clear presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. My guess is, that like most Americans, he has not. Also like many Americans, Tim may believe he has heard the biblical Gospel. But my hunch is that, as I believe to be true even among a large percentage of American churchgoers, he would struggle to clearly articulate the essence of the Gospel. What a privilege it would be to share the good news of this message with Tim.

After all, I would think that even a person who is skeptical about the message of Christianity (as they currently understand it) but who loves to learn would be interested to know the essential message of the most famous person in the history of the world. (And by the way, it isn’t something like, “Live a good life and you’ll go to Heaven when you die.”) My experience is that even most who don’t consider themselves religious believe it benefits their understanding of the world to hear a concise presentation of the main message of the largest religion on the planet. Tim is a voracious learner, and I think he would willingly listen to a three-minute, conversational summary of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Tim and Stoicism

In the last few years, Tim has become a devotee of Stoicism. His April, 2017, TED talk on the subject garnered well over two million viewers in the first three months. By this, as well through his podcast and other means, Tim makes clear that he has found—as have a rapidly increasing number of others—a lot of intellectual satisfaction in Stoicism.

I really appreciate the fact that although Tim lives on the cutting edge of technology and culture, he seeks wisdom from old paths. In the long run, however, I believe Stoicism will greatly disappoint him. I’d love to tell Tim that there is another ancient path that welcomes those who, like Tim, search for truth. It’s footing is much more sure, and it leads to a destination infinitely more glorious than that of Stoicism.

After watching his TED talk, I’ve become concerned enough for Tim (and those he has influenced) to write a brief, biblical response to his Stoicism. Although I am an academic*, this isn’t an academic response. Rather this is more of a pastoral response**, which is what I think would best serve most readers of this blog.

What is Stoicism?

Stoic philosophy originated in Greece around 300 B.C. The name was taken from the Greek term for “painted porch” because the founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, famously taught his wisdom from the painted porch of his home. Eventually the center of Stoic thought shifted from the Greeks to the Romans. From about the time of Christ onward, the most influential teachers of Stoicism were Roman thinkers, particularly Seneca (ca. 4 B.C. – A.D. 65), Epictetus (ca. 55 – 155), and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180), whose Meditations is surely the most famous book on Stoicism ever written.

Stoicism is built on a worldview that thinks of God not in reference to a personal being, but rather as of the totality of all things and often referred to as Nature. It is sometimes presented as monistic, meaning that “all is one,” and that the collective whole is a living, reasoning (despite not being a person), material, entity. At other times Stoicism is also considered pantheistic in the sense that the divinity attributed to the totality of all things is also present in every interconnected part of the whole.

Stoicism operates on the belief that everything is material, even thoughts and emotions, since they are produced by and have effects on the body and thus must be of the same substance. By extension, Stoics usually conclude that there can be no existence after the death of the body, thus they conclude there is no heaven or hell, only annhiliation. Seneca described the state after death as “non-existence.”

In view of these things, the Stoic maintains that the wisest course is not found in a wholesale abandonment to pleasure, to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Rather the happiest (“eudaimonic”) life is found in a rigorous self-mastery that minimizes pain. A great deal of pain, sorrow, and misery are unavoidable, so on balance it is better to reduce the impact of uncontrollable events upon one’s emotions than to attempt to increase happiness by the pursuit of pleasure. As the Stoic uses logic and reason to strengthen virtue and minimize the vicissitudes of the emotions (especially destructive ones such as anger), he or she increasingly experiences a tranquility that softens the force of suffering.

It is impossible, of course, in the scope of this article to thoroughly present the philosophy of Stoicism. If you want to know more, a simple Google search for the term can take you to many sites, both academic and popular, devoted to that purpose. For book-length introductions to Stoicism see this academic volume or this one, or this more popular one. But in brief, Stoicism is a monistic/pantheistic philosophy designed to make one a better, more peaceful person and to improve one’s life in this world, but in this world only.

Biblical Christianity and Stoicism

The main differences between biblical Christianity and Stoicism can be summarized in the three most important events in the life of Jesus Christ, events reflected in the three best-known and most widely celebrated Christian holidays, namely Jesus’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

1. The Incarnation of Jesus. Stoicism maintains that everything is a part of God. Christianity teaches that while God is present everywhere (that is, “omnipresent”), He is personal and distinct from His creation. A Stoic believes he or she is part of God; Christians believe that they are united with Christ by faith and that they are indwelled by the Spirit of God, but not that they are God or contribute a part of the totality that is God.

Stoics also believe that the tree in the yard is part of God. Christians believe that while God is present around and through the tree, He is separate from the tree and the tree is not part of God. As the apostle Paul said when speaking to Stoic philosophers, God, the Divine Being, “made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24), including the tree. At the very least this implies that God existed before and is not the same as the tree.

On that same occasion Paul declared of God, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), nevertheless we “should seek God” (verse 24). That’s because living in God’s omnipresence is not the same as being a part of God. So while we live as surrounded by the presence of God as much as a fish is surrounded by the ocean, we are not God any more than a fish is the ocean.

Further, Christianity teaches that God is Spirit (John 4:24), but also that He added humanity to His divinity. The second Person of the Trinity (that is, one God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), enfleshed Himself and, while remaining fully God, became fully man. As God, He entered the world supernaturally through a virgin birth by a human woman. His name was Jesus. He was tempted in all ways as we are, and endured great suffering, but never sinned in word, deed, thought, or motive.

The incarnation means that God didn’t simply send a message to help us cope with life, He became one of us. He didn’t merely inspire wise men with a philosophy to help us, He took on flesh to rescue us. God didn’t just send principles of wisdom, he sent “Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). And Jesus Himself did not point the way to God, rather He declared, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

In short, Stoicism is a philosophy, a way of wisdom. Christianity is about a person, Jesus Christ. Yes, He was an example and a teacher of wisdom, but much more than that He is God Himself in a body; the personification of wisdom, doing for us what we could never do for ourselves. He lived the only life ever that earned the approval of God the Father; a perfect, sinless life that deserved acceptance into Heaven.

2. The Crucifixion of Jesus. Christianity declares that our greatest need is not merely principles of wisdom to cope with life, but the forgiveness of our sins against God. Regardless of how earthly wise we may be or how good a person we become (through Stoicism or anything else), the problem is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The Bible says that each of us “will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5). After the final judgment, many will “go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). What does it matter if we cope with life but stand condemned by God at the end?

What’s the solution? It isn’t found in ourselves. No matter how wise or good we become, no amount of wisdom or goodness can offset our sins. The solution is found in what God has done for us in Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to be merely an example or a great teacher, rather He came to offer His sinless life to God as a substitute for the lives of sinners. That substitution culminated in His taking the place of sinners on a Roman cross. There He received the wrath of God that we deserved so that we might receive the eternal life with God that Jesus deserved.

There’s no greater coping mechanism for this life than the inner peace and freedom that comes from knowing that, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), and that eternal life and joy with God await after death. What a difference between the porch and the cross!

In a nutshell, Stoics believe that our greatest problem is outside of us (the world) and that the solution lies within us (logic and reason). Christianity maintains that our greatest problem is within us (our sin) and that the solution lies outside of us—in the life and death of Jesus Christ. As the apostle Paul summarized the contrast, “Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23).

3. The Resurrection of Jesus. The declaration of the bodily resurrection of Jesus was the biggest stumbling block to the Stoics addressed by the apostle Paul in Athens (Acts 17:32). They recognized that the resurrection changes everything.

The literal, physical resurrection of Jesus after three days in a tomb moves the entire issue from a discussion of which philosophy is superior to a matter of proof. The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate proof substantiating all His claims. The various miracles of Jesus demonstrated His claim to be God, for He did what only God could do. He dispelled storms with a word (Mark 4:35-41)***, banished evil spirits (Luke 4:31-37 and here), restored limbs (Matthew 12:9-14), healed every disease (Matthew 8:16, 12:15; Luke 6:19), and raised the dead (Mark 5:21-43; Luke 7:11-17; and especially John 11:1-44). These were designed to display His divinity and validate His teaching.

But the ultimate confirmation of all that Jesus said and did was to rise from the dead. What greater proof of any claim could anyone offer than this? And although some have tried to refute it, returning to life after three days of complete death is the supreme testimony of Jesus’ authority.

Christianity stands or falls on the reality of the resurrection of Jesus. If it’s true, then it is the most important event in history. Zeno, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius are dead. But Jesus is alive. And He promises to return (Matthew 24:44; Acts 1:11; Revelation 1:7), after which all will stand before Him at the Last Judgment (Revelation 20:11-15).

In closing . . .

If a person rejects the love of God offered through Christ, then Stoicism may be his or her best option. For my part, I’d rather have a neighbor who seriously pursued Stoicism than one who wasn’t as intent on becoming a better person. And doubtless the principles of Stoicism can produce a measure of equanimity and wholeness that many a sincere practitioner did not experience before. But even if evaluated from a this-world-only perspective, the supernatural joy and peace and forgiveness produced by the Holy Spirit in this life for those who know God through Christ surpasses anything generated by a mere philosophy, no matter how profound.

Much more importantly though, Stoicism does nothing for a person in the next life. Indeed, Stoicism denies the existence of a life beyond this world. But God has put eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We don’t want this life to be all there is, and intuitively we sense that we were meant for something more than eventual meaninglessness and imminent annihilation.

The Bible teaches that once created, every person will live forever, either in Heaven with God or in Hell without Him. Some will know immeasurable joy, unbounded love, inextinguishable peace, and blessings beyond number and description in the experience of God Himself; but some will suffer in darkness and unending misery.

How good of God who, without obligation to do so, warns us of the danger ahead before its too late, and opens His arms to welcome all who will come to Him through Jesus. Why embrace what can never fully satisfy and will only fail you in the end?

God made your heart, and your heart will be restless until you find the only thing that can satisfy your heart—God Himself. He is findable. He is knowable. The way is through Jesus. He is worthy of all your trust. Even now.

This invitation from Jesus is for all who read these words: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30).

 

 

*I have a Ph.D. in theology and teach in a theological seminary.

**I have also pastored for more than two decades (mostly before my academic career), including fifteen years at one church.

***To read any of these biblical references online, go to www.esv.org and type the reference (such as “Mark 4:35-41”) into the search box in the upper right corner. This is the website for the English Standard Version of the Bible, a translation I highly recommend for both readability and accuracy to the original Hebrew and Greek of the Bible.

Photo credit: guides.co

Theological Reflections on a Kidney Stone

I had a kidney stone a few days ago. More specifically, my right kidney rebelled against the rest of my body and impaled itself on a kidney stone six days ago. And in its infinite kidney wisdom the kidney decided to do this at 2:00 in the morning.

By 3:30 a.m., Caffy was driving me to the nearest emergency room. And I do mean nearest. If Mayo Clinic had been but a mile further, I would have interrupted my groaning long enough to jab my finger toward the first ER and screamed, “No! There!”

It’s been almost twenty years to the day since my last kidney stone. I have to say that I’ve not missed the experience one bit. Prior to that I’d had several.

My kidney stone autobiography

I was sixteen when I entered the joy-filled world of kidney stone alumni. My doctor told me that to his knowledge I was the youngest person in the history of our town of 8,000 ever to become a member of that fraternity. I remember him saying, “It’s all downhill from here. You won’t feel pain like this when you die.”

Another memorable appearance of the accursed stone occurred one Sunday morning in my mid-30s while I was pastoring in the Chicago area. I doubled-over in pain during a prayer meeting with the deacons just before the beginning of the worship service. They shoveled me prone into the back of a station wagon and took me to the hospital. I was in agony, but I had the satisfaction of being the best-dressed man in the ER.

My most recent one—the one twenty years ago—hit me with body blows on and off for several days before delivering the knockout punch that landed me in the emergency room. One wave of dull pain struck while I was teaching a classroom of seminary students. It wasn’t yet severe enough to go to the hospital, but I had to lie on the floor to complete my lecture. I’d like to see the class notes of the students from that day.

My nurse at the ER last week confirmed what every woman who’s endured both experiences has told me: having a kidney stone is more painful than having a baby.

A doctor once likened the movement of a kidney stone to that of a hard, jagged beach ball passing through a drinking straw. At first you are afraid you are going to die; then you are afraid you aren’t going to die.

If fully human, could Adam and Eve have had kidney stones in the Garden of Eden?

All this has made me ponder the age-old question I’m sure every theologian wrestles with: Before the Fall, could Adam and Eve have had kidney stones?

I’m inclined to say no, because the Bible gives no indication of suffering in the Garden of Eden before the entrance of sin. But my question is more of potentiality: since Adam and Eve were fully human, was it possible for them to have a kidney stone?

[Okay, so in the aftermath of a kidney stone when you’re pumped full of drugs, you think about weird things. But if you weren’t similarly interested in such things you wouldn’t still be reading this!]

It seems to me that if there could have been no kidney stones in the Garden of Eden, at least one of three things had to be true.

  • External factors were different

First, the external factors leading to kidney stones may have been absent. Food and stress, for example, would not have led to the formation of stones. Whether it’s certain types of food we eat today, additives to the food, and/or the processing of the food that contributes to kidney stones, these would not have been a part of Adam and Eve’s diet. And as to stress, it hadn’t been invented yet.

  • Internal factors were different

A second possibility is that the bodily processes that produce kidney stones nowadays were different before sin changed everything. In other words, on the microscopic level our first parents’ kidneys may not have functioned in every way as ours do today.

For instance, suppose that we know that a particular fruit presumably present in the Garden of Eden causes kidney stones in people today. Even so, in this scenario the way Adam and Eve’s bodies interacted with that fruit then would be different than the way people’s bodies did after the Fall. The fruit would have passed harmlessly through their bodies though the same fruit produces kidney stones in our bodies, similar to the way some people can eat peanuts with no problems while others will die if they swallow just a handful.

  • God protected them

Finally, it may be that while Adam and Eve, with the right combination of factors, could have developed and suffered kidney stones, they did not simply because God protected them from those factors. He ensured that they did not become excessively dehydrated, eat anything harmful, etc.

Kidney stones and eternity

Whatever may have been true about the absence of kidney stones back in the Garden of Eden, they are very present in the present. Theological speculation about Adam and Eve’s potential for this urological torture does nothing to ease the pain of someone writhing in an emergency room with it. In this fallen world and in these sin-spoiled bodies, the plain fact is that many of us will groan with the stones.

But what about the future? On the dark side, while in agony I did have moments when I thought, “What if I had to suffer like this forever, with no hope of relief?” More unbearable than the kidney stone pain was the thought of repeating forever what one man was described by Jesus as crying, “I am in anguish in this flame” (Lk. 16:24). That’s not to say that I think there will be kidney stones in Hell, but to say that if I could barely withstand three hours of non-stop pain, I cannot conceive of an agony that endures forever.

On the other hand, my thrashing on the ER bed was occasionally punctuated by thoughts of the hope that because of the Gospel of Jesus Christ I will someday have a new body that will never experience pain again and will live in an eternal world of joy.

Jesus, who had lived in that world and had never known pain, willingly became a man with a body that could experience pain and lived in a world full of pain. He accepted the unspeakable agony of the Cross so that we might be delivered from this body and world of pain, and enter the indescribable joy of His presence in glorious, pain-free new bodies.

Thank You, Jesus. Maranatha.

Who Could Sin After Seeing the Transfiguration?

One of my favorite stories in the Gospels is the Transfiguration of Jesus. I sometimes imagine that if I could go back in time and be present for any event in the Gospels prior to the crucifixion, I would choose the Transfiguration.

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:1-9, ESV)

What actually happened here? Of course, there’s no way we can fully understand it this side of Heaven. But did Jesus “simply” reveal the glory of some of His divinity as Moses and Elijah arrived on Earth (having momentarily departed Heaven), while the omnipresent Father spoke so as to be heard in that geographic location?

Or did Heaven and Earth overlap in such a way so that the place where Jesus stood was at that moment neither fully Heaven nor fully Earth, but rather He and His two visitors conversed in a temporary nexus between the earthly world and the spiritual world?

Or third, and applying the terminology of our three-dimensional world to a spiritual realm, did Heaven press so closely to Earth at this point that although Moses and Elijah were still in Heaven they were literally at the “edge” of it, and God’s voice came from across the border of Heaven to Earth, and Jesus’s face and clothing shone because of His immediate proximity to the heavenly realm and the glory of God? Or is there a better analogy? Only God knows.

In any case, a short time after this incomparable experience, possibly less than a week after the Transfiguration we read where Jesus’s disciples “argued with one another about who was the greatest” (Mark 9:34).

Think of that. Peter, James, and John saw—not in a dream or a vision, but with their eyes—Jesus transfigured. “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” Have you considered how He must have looked? His appearance surely took their breath away.

Then they saw Moses and Elijah—men in the front rank of Jewish history; heroes they’d heard about heard all their lives—appear out of thin air, as if beamed down from Heaven. And they heard Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus, speaking with voices more real than those you hear on your television when White House reporters ask questions of the president. We can only wonder at the specifics of what the disciples heard this heavenly duo say to the Man with the sunlike face.

And then they heard the voice of God. This alone would shake a person to the core, stunning their senses. They see the face of Jesus suddenly begin to radiate a brilliant light, they see Moses and Elijah appear from the past (imagine how it would affect you if Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon suddenly stood before you), then God in Heaven speaks directly to them in an audible voice.

Despite all this, in a matter of days they join with the other disciples in arguing about which of them is the greatest. If I’m Peter, I’m saying things like, “Ha! You wouldn’t think you’re the greatest disciple, Matthew, if you knew what I saw the other day.”

In other words, after this unearthly, next-worldly, never-to-be-forgotten experience, they still sinned. And of course, biblical theology tells us that this Transfiguration-watching trio didn’t wait several days until that argument arose before they sinned again.

At first, it’s almost hard to believe that a person could sin after such an experience. And yet, it’s just like every other encounter with a glimpse of God’s glory in Scripture. From the appearance of the pillar of fire in the Exodus, to the consuming blaze and heart-melting sounds atop Sinai, to Isaiah’s vision in the temple, to Paul’s pre-death visit to Heaven, to the revelation of Christ, Heaven, and the future to John on Patmos—they were experienced by sinners who nevertheless remained sinners after the experiences, despite “the surpassing greatness of the revelations” (2 Corinthians 12:7).

Though many observations could be made, two stand out to me as I think on these things.

First, the depth of human depravity. Nothing we experience in this body, no matter how frightening or glorious, can stop us from sinning. We could visit Hell or Heaven, and though the experience would doubtless have some indelible impact, no amount of terror or beauty could wring all the sin out of us. We could behold something that would take our breath away, but soon we’d breathe again. Just as surely, we could see something that would cause us in the moment to resolve never sin again, but soon we’d sin again.

Second, the greatness of the grace of God that He would still love and save creatures who are such sin factories that even after He allows them to glimpse the most glorious things in the universe they still choose to sin. When we come to Jesus for rescue from the sin that saturates us, God immediately forgives every sin we ever have or will commit. After that, though, we still do sin, even though He sends the Holy Spirit who causes us to loathe it and to fight it and to long for release from it. Knowing every sin we will commit after He forgives us, He loves us still and determines to keep us forever.

There’s only one experience that can cleanse us from all traces of the cancer of sin’s presence forever. It’s what the Bible calls “the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). This is the final, everlasting, freedom from sin that those “who have the firstfruits of the Spirit” (that is, the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit given to all the followers of Jesus) “groan inwardly” and “wait eagerly” for (Romans 8:23). And whether in the grave or alive when Jesus returns, He will transform the bodies of all His people to be fit to live forever with Him in a sinless, perfect, and glorious Heaven.

That’s because, as Philippians 3:20-21 puts it, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”

In other words, one day all we who are in Christ will experience our own transfiguration, changed suddenly by the power of God from “our lowly body to be like his glorious body.”

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)

 

Coming in July, 2015 from Crossway Books and available for pre-order now: Praying the Bible