Boethius: There is No Such Thing as Unfortunate

It’s so easy to look around at life and see how bad things are. Whether it’s the wars raging on around the world or the economic troubles here at home; disease and death or loneliness and depression.

Everywhere we look, there seems to be another problem.

Sometimes it feels like God will never answer another prayer.

Sometimes it feels like everything in the world is spiraling out of control.

Sometimes it feels like everything in life will always just be unfortunate.

But maybe we have this whole idea of what’s “unfortunate” backward.

Maybe there is no such thing as “unfortunate.”

If any man deserved the title of “unfortunate,” it would surely be Boethius.

A sixth-century Roman senator, Boethius spoke out against corruption in a crumbling empire but was only met with accusations of treason in return. For his alleged crimes, he was thrown in prison and executed a year later.

Wikipedia’s description of his execution is blunt:

“He may have been beheaded, clubbed to death, or hanged. It is likely that he was tortured with a rope that was constricted around his head, bludgeoned until his eyes bulged out; then his skull was cracked.”

Despite all that — despite rotting away in a prison waiting to be killed for standing by his principles — he used that time to pen a treatise that essentially concludes there is no such thing as “unfortunate.”

In the Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius the narrator is visited by Lady Philosophy who consoles him in his anguish.

Her medicine is both very Christian and very Stoic.

Lady Philosophy reminds Boethius of the futility of the “grass is greener on the other side of the fence” mentality, saying that “no one is easily satisfied with the state of his fortune.”

We can think that wealth or honors or power or fame or pleasure will bring us happiness, yet that happiness is constantly fleeting because we struggle so hard to find contentment in the world.

We think to ourselves that if we only had the next thing — if we could find a better job, get a new car, get married, buy a house, have kids, and live the American dream with the white picket fence — we think that once we get to the other side of that fence, everything will be roses and sunshine.

But then we get there and find things aren’t all that they’re cracked out to be. We want something more or we want something different or we begin to get worried about the uncertainties we face.

Yet if we take a step back and look at our situation from another perspective, we find that we’re the envy of others.

Even Boethius, waiting for his death, recognized this.

Lady Philosophy asks him, “How many are there, do you think, who would consider themselves almost in heaven if they attained the smallest part of what remains of your fortune? This very place that you call exile is a fatherland to those residing here.”

And then she gets to her thesis: “[T]here is no situation that is miserable unless you think it so. Likewise, every condition is blessed when a man endures it with an untroubled spirit.”

Whatever our lot on the Wheel of Fortune, her point is that our circumstances don’t really matter. At the end of our lives, we leave this world with as much as we brought into it. (1 Timothy 6:6-7)

Real “blessedness” — joy that is deeper than the flimsy happiness we get from pleasure or the circumstances we want for ourselves — must be found outside of our circumstances.

Christianity recognizes the flimsiness of the temporary things in life — all those things where we try to find happiness: careers, wealth, a wife, and so on. That’s not to say things are bad. 

There is no sense in denying ourselves from properly taking pleasure in the things God has blessed us with, but our focus is on eternity.

Scripture makes it clear that the things under the sun—the things here on earth—are not going to satisfy us.

If you pick up the book of Ecclesiastes, you might think it is the most depressing book in the Bible because of how much it talks about the vanity of life, the vanity of everything under the sun.

But the point of Ecclesiastes is that it’s the things “under the sun”—that is, the things here on earth, the temporary things in life—that leave us wanting more. It leaves us wanting something for eternity, because we were created with eternity in mind. We were created to have a relationship with God. That has to be eternal.

So our reward does not come in finding the good fortune we seek, but rather in storing up treasure where moth and rust cannot destroy. (Matthew 6:19-21)

When you shift your focus from the earthly to the eternal, you begin to taste the rest that heaven will provide; you find the joy and contentment that you are seeking in life. And your priorities begin to change.

An eternal mindset leads to cultivating a character that makes you become more and more like Christ. To become more like Christ through sanctification is the goal of every believer.

We must cultivate strong, Christlike character, and every storm life throws in our path is another opportunity to do just that.

This is something that Scripture teaches clearly over and over again.

Perhaps James puts it the most bluntly when he says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)

This can be a tough pill to swallow, because when we encounter devastating things in life, it can be hard to face those difficulties without becoming downtrodden; without becoming disillusioned about life and wanting it all to end.

But when we face those trials head on—when we face it with God’s grace and we face it learning contentment in the process—then we find that those trials actually help us become more like Christ.

It helps us cultivate stronger character so that we can face more trials later on. It helps us be an example to others who see us walking faithfully.

At the end of the day, it’s those seemingly “unfortunate” things in life that often help us grow the most. They turn out to be not so unfortunate after all.

Lady Philosophy concludes: “You have in your hands the ability to create the kind of fortune you want.”

So if you’re going through something unfortunate, embrace it as an opportunity to grow, to rely more on God for strength, and to cultivate the kind of character Christ modeled in His life.