The Roman Senator, Seneca the Younger, in an essay titled “On Tranquility of Mind,” section 12, wrote of those whose lives are full of activity but no real purpose. Rushing here and there, being involved in everyone’s business, their lives are full but without purpose. And the busyness can often lead to disaster due to the fickleness of the Roman goddess Fortuna (Fortune). She may bless or bring calamity.
“For if a man engages in many affairs, he often puts himself in the power of Fortuna, while his safest course is rarely to tempt her, always to be mindful of her, and never to put any trust in her promises.”
Though Seneca noted, in section 10, that “All of us are chained to Fortuna,” he advised that the less we do the less we tempt capricious Fortuna. Continuing the discussion in section 12, Seneca recommended that individuals always have an acceptance that their plans may fail. This failure, of course, is due to the fickleness of the goddess.
“Say, ‘I will set sail unless something happens,’ and ‘I shall become praetor unless something hinders me,’ and ‘My enterprise will be successful unless something interferes.’ This is why we say that nothing happens to a wise man contrary to his expectations — we release him, not from the accidents, but from the blunders of mankind, nor do all things turn out as he has wished, but as he has thought; but his first thought has been that something might obstruct his plans. Then, too, the suffering that comes to the mind from the abandonment of desire must necessarily be much lighter if you have not certainly promised it success. We ought also to make ourselves adaptable lest we become too fond of the plans we have formed, and we should pass readily to the condition to which chance has led us, and not dread shifting either purpose or positions — provided that fickleness, a vice most hostile to repose, does not get hold of us. For obstinacy, from which Fortuna often wrests some concession, must needs be anxious and unhappy, and much more grievous must be a fickleness that nowhere shows self-restraint.”
The Scriptures say some very similar things. For example, Jesus spoke of a man who unwisely left God out of his plans.
And He told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”‘ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. (Luke 12:16-21)
The half-brother of our Lord, James, wrote something very similar in chapter 4, verses 13 through 16.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.
The fundamental difference between Seneca’s attitude and that of the Scriptures is the attitudes seen in the respective deities. For Seneca, the decisions of Fortuna are one moment beneficial and the next, injurious. “[W]e ought at least to reduce our possessions, so as to be less exposed to the injuries of Fortune.”
But in the Scriptures, God’s plans for us always have a purpose and are never capricious. In Jesus’ parable, the rich man left God completely out of his plans, not considering what God desired for him, not even behaving as if God existed. Jesus gave this parable as an example of the effects of greed and of not trusting in the Lord’s ability to provide for us.
James gave his instructions in the context of God’s place as the Lawgiver and Judge. One must always consider God and His desires when planning one’s own future.
In both cases, God’s permission or restraint is governed by His plans for mankind as Lawgiver, Judge, and Provider. The Scriptures never present God as permitting something one day and stopping it the next. He is never capricious. In fact, earlier James wrote of God that “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.”
So one can follow Seneca’s advice and refrain from doing much so as to not give fickle Fortuna more opportunities to harm you, or one can follow the Scriptures and go out to do much, confident that what God allows or restrains, He always does for a good purpose.
Living Jesus’ and James’ way makes for a much more peaceful and confident life: a mind with true tranquility.