By Jason Duesing
At the outbreak of World War II with the imminent threat of German attack felt by many Londoners, the British government sought to inspire and instruct their citizens in their plight of endurance.
To avoid paralysis of daily activity or mass hysteria caused by an avalanche of anxiety, the leaders propagated a sloganeering campaign. Perhaps the most popular slogan was “Keep Calm and Carry On” as it resonated well with the stiff-upper-lip constitution of many Britons.
The idea of self-reinforced statements to bolster courage and focus energy, especially in the face of danger, is noble and proven effective for wartime morale or even sporting arena triumph. However, for the Christian, the temptation to anchor one’s daily faith to self-reinforcement tactics can prove dangerous.
In an age of cynicism, is it time merely to practice our stiff upper lip and “Keep Calm and Carry On”? Should we circle the wagons of paranoia and fear to bolster strength so we can ride out a dystopian storm while saying nothing?
The idea of hunkering down in the face of shifting morality is something Martyn Lloyd-Jones likened to the Stoicism referenced in Acts 17. Lloyd-Jones explained that in ancient times,
The Stoic was a serious and thoughtful man, an honest one who believed in facing the facts of life. Having done so he had come to the conclusion that life is a difficult business and a hard task, and that there is only one way of going through with it and that is that you must exercise firm discipline upon yourself.
Life, said the Stoic, will come and attack you, it will batter and beat you, and the great art of living, he said, is to remain standing on your feet. And the only way to do it is to brace back your shoulders, to set a firm upper lip, to go in for the philosophy of courage, and say, “I am going to be a man!” …
You just decide that you are not going to give in, you are not going to be defeated; whatever may happen to you, you are still standing, you are going on and you will stick it to the end. The philosophy of grit, the philosophy of courage, the philosophy of the stiff upper lip.
This kind of Stoicism that is high on morality, asceticism, and indifference, plays well in our day of mutual challenges to “just grind it out.” In fact, so prevalent is this mentality even among Christians that there is a version of it we might call Evangelical Stoicism.
Here, we self-philosophize when we counsel to “Remind yourself at all times what you can control and what you can’t.” Evangelical Stoicism is a philosophy of coping that says, “We cannot control the weather or the economy, but we can control our thoughts and actions.”
From dieting, to keeping up with technology, to pursuing academic studies, to dealing with trials, to enduring family gatherings or tensions, we easily drift into Stoicism whether we know it or not.
We are quick to medicate, avoid conflict, exaggerate, deflect, blame, and hide. We minimize public embarrassment, overcompensate for errors, redouble our efforts, and study how better to manage our public profile.
We are experts at “toughing it out.” We read leadership and self-help books about how to succeed, how to press farther. We have gotten very good at being proficient, and we know how to get by.
In the face of the decline of cultural morality, we hunker down and huddle up. Yet, simple joy, faith, hope, and thankfulness are conspicuously absent as we “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
This is not to say there isn’t any value in perseverance or endurance. Of course, Christ calls us to persevere, to remain steadfast. But often we live as if we are to do much on our own strength, apart from the Spirit.
When we practice this kind of Stoicism, we are engaging in a sort of passive cynicism. Instead of looking to Christ and the hope that is within, we are looking around, failing to rely on hope at all.
This is not what Christ meant for us when he said his burden was light (Matt. 11:29–30).
This Evangelical Stoicism on which we often stand just will not do. It is not consistent with gospel hope. As Lloyd-Jones said of Stoicism, “It may be very noble, I will grant you that, but it is noble paganism.”
In short, “Keep Calm and Carry On” is not a perspective of hope. The better way is rooted in focusing our eyes upward on something better than what is found in our shallow pockets of grit and determination. Like C. S. Lewis’s famous analogy, we need to cease playing in the mud when a holiday at the sea awaits.
Excerpted with permission from Mere Hope by Jason Duesing. Copyright 2018, B&H Publishing Group.
JASON G. DUESING (@JGDuesing) serves in academic leadership at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and is the author and editor of numerous books.