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Christianity Challenges the (Stoic) Spirit – The Gospel Coalition

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Joe Rogan, Jordan Peterson, Cameron Hanes, David Goggins, Jocko Willink. What unites them? They’re gurus of a new self-help philosophy and lifestyle: grind yourself to the bone to achieve greatness. Here’s a representative quote from Rogan:
You can choose to be the hero of your own movie right now. Write down your goals. Write down things you want to improve. Write down things you won’t tolerate from yourself. Write down things you’ve done in the past you never want to see yourself do again. And go forth from here as the hero of your own movie.

I’ve seen this mentality in many young professionals in recent years, even in the church. It’s a relentless drive to work harder, achieve more, and become the optimized self—the “hero” of your own life. After I began to read and watch what they were reading and watching, I concluded there’s a new vision of life emerging for young people—particularly men.
Consider some numbers, which document the scope of this emerging trend. The Joe Rogan Experience boasts almost 15 million subscribers on YouTube. Jordan Peterson’s YouTube channel has nearly 7 million subscribers and his bestseller, 12 Rules for Life, has sold more than 5 million copies. David Goggins’s book, Can’t Hurt Me, has sold more than 2.5 million copies. Jocko Willink’s channel has 1.69 million subscribers and his book, Extreme Ownership, has sold more than half a million copies.
This popularity, to my mind, is unsurprising. Young men in particular are experiencing existential and sociological crises on many fronts, as documented in Richard Reeves’s 2022 book Of Boys and Men. And in my observation, many disillusioned young people—primarily young men but many women as well—are seeking a more fulfilling, successful vision of life that includes personal responsibility, self-discipline, consistent virtue, and objective meaning.
Enter many of the figures cited above: self-help influencers who offer a secularized vision that affirms many good and biblical truths, but not one that is rooted in a biblical vision of the world. It’s a vision that resembles Christianity sufficiently to take hold of young believers’ hearts and minds, without them noticing it’s actually a syncretistic distortion. It shares some goals, some virtues, and some practices, but it differs in basic presuppositions. It’s the hustle mindset wrapped in the philosophical veil of ancient Stoicism.

Spirit of the New Man

Anyone who says he’s a god is understandably dismissed in the modern world. But the notion of achieving god-like greatness through relentless, near-supernatural tenacity is gaining a great deal of ground. Here’s a sampling of quotes from the thought leaders mentioned above:
You should be a monster. An absolute monster. And then you should learn how to control it. (Peterson)
An outlier will never allow someone to outwork them. . . . If you’re not the hardest-working person you know, then you’re not working hard enough. (Hanes)
It’s possible to transcend anything that doesn’t kill you. (Goggins)
This is the spirit of the new man. Achievement is the path to ascension. A pantheon of self-help gurus—all connected, appearing on each other’s podcasts and writing forewords to each other’s books—will cheer you on and offer guidance. Some of their tips are good. Discipline is good. Patience is good. Tenacity is good. Sacrifice is good. But then, so is humility. And reverence. And knowing one’s limited place in God’s creation.

This new vision of life resembles Christianity sufficiently to take hold of young believers’ hearts and minds, without them noticing it’s actually a syncretistic distortion.

This new vision of life resembles Christianity sufficiently to take hold of young believers’ hearts and minds, without them noticing it’s actually a syncretistic distortion.
What’s troubling about these gurus is that their self-help books have morphed into an all-encompassing way of life—a pseudo-religion—influencing everything from fitness to finance to family.
In some cases, this pseudo-religion has taken on a brutal and self-aggrandizing nature. In the past, most people would have found this unnerving. But public perception is changing. One reason for this change in the public zeitgeist is the additional layer of ancient Greek philosophy, namely Stoicism.

Stoicism’s Surge in Popularity

Hustle culture often exists under the philosophical veil of Stoicism—a way for an essentially atheistic enterprise to convey spirituality. Ancient Stoic writings include Epictetus, Seneca, and perhaps most popular presently, Marcus Aurelius. At a basic level, Stoicism is the philosophical exercise of not allowing external stimuli to conquer any part of your soul. It’s to detach hope or love from anything outside of you to guard yourself against the exhilarating highs and painful lows of life. Epictetus says, “Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it.”
As a secular substitute for religious belief, Stoicism seeks to both fill the meaning gap left in the absence of belief in God and to serve as a coping mechanism for negative experiences, failures, and even the knowledge of one’s eventual death. In the absence of the resurrection, Stoicism becomes a palatable option for those seeking to navigate the highs and lows of an uncertain and increasingly hostile world.
Stoicism’s popularity has risen in recent decades, due to writers like Pierre Hadot, Donald Robertson, and Ryan Holiday, who is perhaps the leading figure in its modern popularization. Currently, Holiday holds the 8th, 14th, 33rd, and 41st places in Amazon’s top philosophy books. His favored subject, Marcus Aurelius, holds the 3rd, 16th, 30th, and 44th places. The Daily Stoic YouTube channel has 1.22 millions subscribers, and his books have sold more than 2 million copies.
Although Holiday’s work interacts with many Stoic ideas, he often puts these ideas in service of self-optimization and personal achievement. See how easily Holiday marries human accomplishment with the Stoic tradition in the introduction to his best-selling The Obstacle is the Way:
One can trace the thread [of Stoic thought] from those days in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire to the creative outpouring of the Renaissance to the breakthroughs of the Enlightenment. It’s seen starkly in the pioneer spirit of the American West, the perseverance of the Union cause during the Civil War, and in the bustle of the Industrial Revolution. It appeared again in the bravery of the leaders of the civil rights movement and stood tall in the prison camps of Vietnam. And today it surges in the DNA of the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley.

3 Concerns

If this blend of Stoic thought and hustle ideology is gaining ground even in the church (and I suspect it is), I have a few concerns.
First, the self-aggrandizing nature of this vision of life is disconcerting and at odds with Christian humility. Self-improvement, hard work, stewardship, and so forth are all admirable qualities. But when they’re in service of an ultimate self who will stop at nothing to “crush it,” these traits become instruments of idolatry. Consider this quote from Cameron Hanes’s book Endure:
Being in Beast Mode is when it feels like you’re in a superhuman state of being, when in your mind you’re playing at a level above everybody else. Is this reality? Doesn’t matter. If you believe you are, you are. The mindset of a winner is unbeatable.
Hard work and pushing one’s limitations are admirable, but Hanes’s “Beast Mode” description turns self-discipline into self-exaltation. More striking is David Goggins’s moment of epiphany as he attempted his first 100-mile race: “The voices in my head were so penetrating, I had to bite back out loud. I was onto something. . . . God didn’t come down and bless [me]. I did this! . . . I am the reason I still have a chance.”
Second, a person’s value isn’t calculated by his or her yield. The underlying assumption of some of the quotes above (and elsewhere) is that one’s value and personal identity are wrapped up in effort or achievement. This isn’t the historic Christian understanding of a human being. All humans possess equal value as image-bearers of God. They cannot lose this status and their achievements don’t enhance it. “Winning” on the world’s terms is something altogether different than success in the kingdom of God.

‘Winning’ on the world’s terms is something altogether different than success in the kingdom of God.

‘Winning’ on the world’s terms is something altogether different than success in the kingdom of God.
Third, the use of Stoic practices to both harden one’s resolve to succeed and cope with failures, setbacks, crises, and personal tragedies is a dreadful substitute for the Christian way of persisting amid trial. Christians should hope in their returning Lord and in the resurrection he promises. Consider Paul’s words to a young church in ancient Greece grieving those who had died among them: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:13–14).
Paul can speak with such hope not because he’s stoically detached from the joy of being alive but because he actually has a hope: Jesus. Many neo-Stoics speak as if their main conviction is a sort of self-resurrecting power to lift oneself to new heights. Paul believes (as we should) that Jesus is the only One with the power to resurrect us from death to life. That’s real hope.
Andrew Kelley (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is a pastor at Hope Chapel in Hermosa Beach, California, and an adjunct professor at Biola University. He is the author of Thaumaturgic Prowess: Autonomous and Dependent Miracle-Working in Mark’s Gospel and the Second Temple Period (Mohr Siebeck, 2019). He and his wife, Stephenie, live in Gardena, California, along with their four children.
The meaning of the gospel can easily be distorted or lost. Let’s return to the real story—the true good news.

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Written by: Christianity Today

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