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Fear, Courage, and Love: What Stoicism Got Wrong

Call of The Wild

bible“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” – 1 John 4:18

For the longest time I assumed fear’s natural enemy to be courage, as if courage was the antonym for fear. I believe this comes from a stoic world view that I and many men lean towards, “ Just tough it out“, “ Face your fears“, etc. On the whole those sentiments are needed in much of life and shouldn’t be quickly discarded, but if we never deal with our fears, whether they be financial, social, marital, or pending government collapse, we can’t be at peace and can do a good deal of damage to our relationships and even our own health.

Reading the verse of 2 Timothy 1:7 a few weeks ago I realized I had put the word courage in there as I quoted it to myself. It should read:

“For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control (or sound mind some translations)” – 2 Timothy 1:7

I then remembered 1 John 4:18:

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” – 1 John 4:18

This is something we often forget but it is key to not allowing fear to rule our lives and being burdened with the walls a stoic approach creates to dealing with fear.

Stoic Philosophy

True Stoicism

Stoic philosophy started around 3rd century BC, as a way of life taught by the Greeks. It gained popularity with the Romans as an intellectual approach to life but it is really a form of religion where nature and the universe are the ultimate deities who’s actions were governed by reason and who’s final purposes were already set in motion (fate). A good life could be obtained by virtuous living. After all, the universe ran according to order which reason and logic can see is ultimately necessary and good. As Seneca, advisor to Roman emperor Nero, states in one of his epistles:

Seneca“Virtue is nothing else than right reason.” – Seneca

On the surface many stoic philosophies are very appropriate and would share the same tenants as Christianity and other religions; not being too attached to things of this world, respecting other people as equals, hard work, being comfortable on limited means, and many more. However there are major differences which I won’t go into here since this article is geared towards the modern stoic.

The Modern Stoic

When we talk about a stoic man today it usually refers to someone who is hardened and displays very little emotion, regardless of the circumstance. He isn’t necessarily concerned with living a virtuous life but does look at the world through a logical lens, depending on his faculties of reason much more heavily than his heart and emotions. That type of man can be relied on for a cool head when one is needed, such as buying a car or house, or not giving in to impulsivity to break a marriage, or give up on a business because times are hard. The result is a life that looks very good and indeed has many good things about it. But, when matters of the heart arise, as they so often do in us humans, it is a struggle for him to relate. He feels out of sorts, which makes him uncomfortable, because feelings in general make him uncomfortable.

When the heat gets turned up in life his default reaction is to bury the emotional response, wall off his heart, and set his mind to pushing through. “ Just Man Up“, is his response for life’s problems.

The Fear and Courage Dynamic

Mark Twain“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” – Mark Twain

Courage is the necessary response to fear if we do not intend to be ruled by it, but courage cannot exist without fear. Often times when we face our fears head on we can come to the realization that there was nothing to be afraid of to begin with. Take for example, someone who is afraid of dogs. Over time, with exposure to some loving canines, those fears are abated. In this case, the lack of knowledge and experience led to the fear. So, what about the fears where knowledge only causes it to increase? For example, the risk of a new business venture, marriage, public speaking…going to war?

Faith vs. Fear

bible“Immediately the boys father cried out, ‘Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!'” – Mark 9:24

There are some passages in the Bible that just hit me as being so very real-life and I am so thankful for them. Mark 9:24 is one of them. It’s such a cool story and is something most of us will never experience. Here is the whole passage:

19 “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

20 So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.

21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

23 “‘ If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “ I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

25 When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”

26 The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.

What I love about this story is that it doesn’t show a father who is completely sold on the idea of Jesus, God incarnate, and is very honest about it. Some would say that faith and fear cannot exist alongside each other toward the same item; either we have faith in a thing or we don’t. I think it is more appropriate to say fear and faith cannot share the same space. In the story above, the father was maybe 70%-80% in faith towards Jesus, but there was some portion of him that was not in faith towards Jesus. So, we want to get to the 100%, walking out life in faith with everything, but there is often cynicism and fear of being taken advantage of, that keeps us from doing so.

I like to think Jesus answered both prayers in this story; he rescued the boy, but also helped the father overcome his unbelief!

How Love Conquers Fear

How does this all tie together with love? In short, love increases faith to the point where fear is completely driven out or is so miniscule it’s effects on our lives are non-existent. Here is an example to drive the point home, though it is not a human example (which would be too easy) it should suffice.

Buck was the hero of the story, Call of the Wild by Jack London. A massive dog with the appearance of a massive wolf. All the leanness, cunning, and wolf-like appearance of a Collie (his mother) and the bulk and strength of a Saint Bernard (his father). As the story goes, he was stolen and taken up north during the Klondike gold rush of the late 1800’s, beaten, starved, traded and sold, and overall had an unkind, though not always unpleasant, life until he meets a man named Thornton, who rescues and fights for Buck and nurses him back to health.

For Thornton, however, his love seemed to grow and grow. He, alone among men, could put a pack upon Buck’s back in the summer travelling. Nothing was too great for Buck to do, when Thornton commanded. One day (they had grub-staked themselves from the proceeds of the raft and left Dawson for the head -waters of the Tanana) the men and dogs were sitting on the crest of a cliff which fell away, straight down, to naked bed-rock three hundred feet below. John Thornton was sitting near the edge, Buck at his shoulder. A thoughtless whim seized Thornton, and he drew the attention of Hans and Pete to the experiment he had in mind. “Jump, Buck!” he commanded, sweeping his arm out and over the chasm. The next instant he was grappling with Buck on the extreme edge, while Hans and Pete were dragging them back into safety.

Chapter 6 – Call of the Wild by Jack London

Final Thoughts (Particularly for Fathers)

Many of us have rigidity down pat and we need to soften a bit. If you want children who obey and are confident and don’t get involved in the stupid things their friends do, love them. If you want wives that aren’t stressed, love them too. If you want to feel less stressed and fearful, then let God increase your faith by showing you his love. Enjoy the nature he created, the great stories in scripture that speak to you, the friends you have…you get the idea. And, don’t forget to love yourself a good deal too.

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