This year I have been teaching a high school Logic class at my son’s school. It has been a blessing to journey with my merry little band of philosophers. This week we have been studying Seneca and his complex syllogism on virtue. Seneca was a Stoic and argued that “the virtuous life is the happy life.” He gets there by saying, “He who is prudent is temperate; he who is temperate is constant; he who is constant is imperturbable (calm); he who is imperturbable (calm) is without sorrow; he who is without sorrow is happy; therefore he who is prudent is happy, and prudence is sufficient for the happy life.” I certainly believe the Bible advocates for a virtuous life and that it will lead to happiness. Christians, however, need to link virtue to glorifying Jesus.
We know from Galatians 5 that one yielded to the Holy Spirit is marked by self-control. But is the Christian life really always marked by calm and lack of sorrow?
Recently I have had to have some difficult conversations with a friend. This friend has been very humble and respectful, and I pray I have also been gracious yet convictional. But, in the end I am left with sorrowful emotions. I have cried, felt sick to my stomach, and laboured over how to remain loving yet faithful. I hurt over the status of our friendship and the difficult subject matters we are addressing. I haven’t betrayed my friend’s privacy but have brought a couple of brothers into the discussion to seek their wisdom on how to address the situation. They have been very affirming and encouraging on how I have addressed my friend. My sorrow is not conviction over doing something wrong, but the appropriate emotion. When we love as the gospel calls us to love, there will be sorrowful moments.
As I have reflected on the Stoics I was reminded of the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” Jesus’ close friend Lazarus has just died. The next verse explains his emotional response as rooted in his love for Lazarus. Jesus’ response was in line with being self-controlled, it was natural, and it was good. There were times that Jesus was sorrowful, and there are times that we should also be sorrowful.
As I discussed Jesus weeping over the death of Lazarus, one of my students was reminded of Jesus clearing out the temple courts with a whip?! Likely included in that group was armed Roman soldiers. That certainly isn’t a picture of what we would typically think as calm and self-controlled. But as my students rightly concluded, this was Jesus and he was perfect so it didn’t conflict with being self-controlled.
In the end, Seneca and the Stoics are helpful, but Jesus is more helpful. I don’t want to be known for flying off the handle, but if you caught Jesus on that day in the temple you might think he lacked self-control. I don’t want to be marked my melancholy, but when people betray us or when we are taken advantage of or when we lose friends we are going to become sorrowful. Frankly, I worry more about the guy who doesn’t get angry when he should and doesn’t get sad when he should.
Jesus’ gospel gives us a glorious taste in this present world of what will be fully consummated in the future. But, it is only a taste. The sorrows and trials of this life only serve to make the next life even more happy. Virtue does lead to happiness, but it is not my virtue. I am clinging to Jesus’ virtue as my ticket to eternal happiness.