The will of God and Epictetus

Finally, in the room of all other pleasures put this – the pleasure which springs from conscious obedience to God.

(CXXXIII, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, trans. by Hastings Crossley, 1909)

I find this phrase very striking – talk in Christianity about the “pleasure which springs from conscious obedience to God” typically seems in the background – indeed, Christians usually talk about what one must give up to do so. Yet, it seems from a psychological perspective it is very important that there is a ‘pleasure’ which springs from doing the will of God, or else people won’t continue to do it long-term.

My impression is that Christians very much do believe that doing the will of God tends to, in the long run, lead to happiness, joy, and so on (‘pleasure’ in a sense) in both this life and the next – it’s just that they often don’t straightforwardly express this.

New Thought Christianity is therefore unusual in this respect, where a sentiment like Epictetus’ is front-and-centre. Consider Emmet Fox, here in Around the Year (1958)

A tragic mistake that is often made is to assume that the will of God is bound to be something very dull and uninviting, if not positively unpleasant. Consciously or not some persons look upon God as a hard taskmaster, or a severe parent. […] The truth is that the will of God for us always means greater freedom, greater self-expression, newer and brighter experience, wider opportunity of service to others – life more abundant.

I wonder to what extent the more typical Christian expression is related to the idea of ‘carrying one’s cross’. This comes from a passage in the Gospels, where Jesus tells his disciples each must ‘take up your cross, and follow after me.’ This is often interpreted to mean carrying a burden for a long period in one’s life. There are a couple problems with this interpretation.

The first problem is that it seems the more important part of the saying has to do with dying to one’s ego, not to carrying a burden. Indeed, dying to one’s ego involves lifting a burden off of oneself (egoistic desires). Similarly, when one carries a cross to one’s crucifixion, the period of time where one is carrying something heavy is actually quite short.

Contrarily, Jesus says ‘my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’. Some have said that in this case he is speaking ironically, because they are tied to the idea that doing the will of God is like carrying a heavy burden. It seems it’s just the opposite, though – when people let go of egoistic fears and desires, they are unburdened, and when they start to do what they believe aligns with God’s will for their life, they tend to have experiences of joy and so on.

Here is the full passage from the Gospel of Matthew:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

(Matthew 11:28-30)

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