Archive for February, 2010
Rejoice in all the Good Things
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 21, 2010
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 Luke 4:1-13 Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
In today’s reading from Deuteronomy, we heard the story of the journey of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery to settling in the Promised Land. For Swedenborgians, this story is not just one of historical interest. For us, the journey from Egyptian slavery to the Promised Land is a story that symbolizes our own inner growth. We are on that journey in this life. It is a journey from the limitations of self-interest into the blessings of Godly love and love for each other. The New Testament story about Jesus is in keeping with this story. In our New Testament reading, we heard about Jesus’ temptations. This account is the only time temptations are mentioned in the Gospel narratives, but the last line in the story brings up a most important point about Jesus’ temptations. In my translation it reads, “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time (Luke 4:13). It’s that “opportune time” that interests me. It means that the devil wasn’t done tempting Jesus at the end of this story. It suggests that the devil would come back and tempt Jesus again at some opportune time. In our theology, we are taught that Jesus was tempted all through his life, not just in this one occasion after His baptism. That teaching is consistent with the suggestion we read about in Luke, the devil left until an “opportune time.” The pairing of the journey from slavery to the Promised Land and the temptation of Jesus also makes theological sense from a Swedenborgian point of view. It is through temptations that we are brought into the Promised Land of the soul. It is by temptations that we are brought into the blessings of love that God gives us as a heavenly gift. And when we feel something of the heavenly joys of love that God gives us, we give thanks to God and rejoice in all the good things He gives us.
Swedenborg teaches that there isn’t one single devil who opposed God. Rather the devil in the Bible means all the hells taken together. So for Swedenborg there are devils in the plural, but not one single devil who is the opposite of God. This means that when Jesus was tempted, He fought against all the whole hells together. It was in his human form that Jesus was tempted. For the hells cannot approach God as He is in His essence. God’s flaming love is too pure and holy for any devil to come near it. In fact, even the highest angels cannot come near God as He is in His essence. It is with God’s Divine Human that we can become united, and it was for the purpose of union with the whole human race that God took on the human and came into our world. And through his human form, God was able to interact with the hells, be tempted by the hells, and ultimately bring them into order. Through Jesus’ temptations, he grew out of everything the earthly human form received from Mary, and He put on the Divine Human. This happened progressively throughout Jesus’ life. With the resurrection, Jesus and God became fully one and God and Man became one being.
We come to God in a similar way. We grow out of a self and world orientation and into a God and heaven orientation. For most of us, this process happens through temptations. Temptations happen when what we know we should be doing conflicts with what we are used to doing from our birth. Swedenborg’s view of our human nature is both positive and negative at the same time. In our infancy and early childhood, God and the angels are particularly close to us. They impress on our character an innocence and a love that remains with us throughout our lives. These early experiences of love and innocence are called remains because they remain with us. Sometimes they are buried deep in our unconscious mind; at other times they are present and fully conscious to us. These remains are God’s dwelling with us. God is with us in the psychic memory of those early states of love and innocence.
But as we grow up, we acquire a sense of self. This is a natural process in human development. We look to our own needs. Often, our own self-interest dominates our consciousness. We want to impress the world with who we are; in fact, we want to impress upon the world what we are. We expect the world to yield to us. We also acquire a sense of the world. We want the good things of this world. Perhaps we have high ambitions and want wealth and fame. Perhaps our wants are more modest and we want a fancy car, nice clothes, good food. If these desires don’t grow out of order, they are perfectly natural and appropriate for our development. These things we acquire upon reaching adulthood—a sense of self and a sense of the world constitute our “natural level.” Swedenborg calls this the natural level because it is formed by nature. Self and the world are two things that nature gives us with birth.
But we are born for higher things. It is also natural for us to progress above and beyond these two desires for self and for the world. If we continue our personality development, we grow into a love for God, which is the opposite of self, and we grow into a love for our neighbour, which is the opposite of the world. This progress happens through cultivation of spirituality. By this I mean that we learn what it means to love God and what it means to love our neighbour. The first stage in this spiritual development is one of knowledge. We learn the 10 commandments. We learn life lessons from the stories of Jesus in the New Testament. These days, people are also learning truths from other world religions. Over the past few years, I have noticed interest in Buddhism and Sufi poetry from those near me. I, myself, learned much helpful spirituality from the religions I studied in graduate school such as Taoism and Hinduism. The truths that teach spirituality do not have to come from formal schooling. We learn them from our parents and from the world around us, too. I think almost everybody has learned some form or right and wrong.
The spiritual truths we learn are lifted above our natural level. They form a higher level of our consciousness. The level of our consciousness that our spiritual truths are in is called the rational mind. But knowing is not the final goal of spirituality. We need to make our lives conform to what we know to be true and good—we need to act rightly and think truthfully. This is where temptations come in. Our natural level has been formed to adapt to the demands of the world and our selves. Sometimes there is conflict between what we have learned spiritually and the life we have been living. I don’t think that this conflict has to be there. I believe that for some people, their grasp of truth is enough to keep them from harmful actions and thoughts. These people would avoid wrong and think truthfully according to what they have learned. For others, and I am in this category, there is a conflict between the way I have been living and what I know to be right and true. Then temptations happen to us. The truths in our rational mind act upon our self-limiting behaviours and strive to bring them into conformity with the higher ways of living we have learned.
In my own life I can this dynamic in my own sense of rightness. If someone else disagreed with me, I would typically react in one of two ways. Either I would argue with them, and try to convince them that I was right and they were wrong, or I would think to myself that they were wrong and simply avoid their company. One can easily see how these reactions would isolate me from my fellows. It would also create enemies who didn’t like me. And it also got me into trouble with some of my professors in school. It was the program of AA that taught me how to escape from this self-defeating behaviour. There is a line in one of their books that said something like, “We had to resign from the debating society.” I didn’t like hearing that. As it turns out, I was actually on the debating society in high school. They also asked me, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” I struggled with this teaching. I began by disagreeing with it. But day after day, week after week, I went to AA meetings and this would come up time and again.
I don’t quite know when it happened, but I ultimately found myself less and less argumentative. And when I let go of this self-defeating behaviour, the Promised Land opened up before me. I was able to actually listen to others who differed from me without difficulty. That was a milestone. I could listen. And I think that the primary ingredient in healthy relationships is the capacity to listen. I was still free to speak my peace, but others didn’t have to agree. I could remain in relationship with others who saw things differently than I. I found more friends than I had known before. My own mind was more at peace with the world. I was able to love others who were different from me. This is the kind of thing that temptations bring us. And it was those truths fro AA that set me on my course of self-ammendment. We struggle with limiting behaviours and desires, and put away those desires that limit our love for God and for our neighbours. When we do this, God fills the void with love and positive feelings. God is continually working with us, teaching our rational mind and giving us the power to implement in our natural lives what we have learned. This is what is symbolized by the deliverance from slavery. When we are living in our natural level without thinking, we are slaves to our lower nature. But God does not leave us there. God teaches us how to rise above our limits and how to come into the peace, innocence, and joy of heavenly love.
This is the first week of Lent. In traditional Christian churches, people give up something for Lent. Some quit smoking; some give up red meat; some quit drinking. I would commend this to you. But I would suggest something a little more spiritual. I would ask you to think about your life. Maybe there is some aspect of your personality you are finding causing conflict in your relations with others. Maybe you have stopped talking with God. Maybe you just wish to look back on your life and see if you have made spiritual progress. Then, we can remember God and give thanks. We would never change without God’s leading. As the Source of all that is good and joyful, it is God who gives us those very heavenly loves and joys. We can take no credit for our deliverance from the slavery of self. It is all the work of God. We then find a new best friend in the risen and glorified Jesus Christ. And we also find harmony and happiness in relationship with our fellows. Then, as the writer of Deuteronomy says, “You and the Levites and the aliens among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given you.”
Experiencing the Mountain Top
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 14, 2010
Exodus 34:29-35 Luke 9:28-36 Psalm 99
There are two aspects to the Old Testament and New Testament stories that tie them together. One is the glowing faces on Moses and Jesus. The other is the mountain top where each one communed with God. There is a further connection between these stories and our Valentine’s Day celebrations today. In Swedenborg’s system of correspondences, mountains symbolize the holy things of love. They represent love for God and love for each other. It is no coincidence that when Moses’ face shines from his encounter with God; and when Jesus’ face shines through a union with His divine origins, they happen on a mountain top. The Mountain top is where union with God is represented. And union with God means an intense feeling of love—for God is love itself.
We can understand why mountains might represent a close connection with God. When we are in the mountains, we feel a special sublime feeling. I recall when I was at a Swedenborgian church camp in Maine. There were mountains all around us. And one day we had an outing when I and some of the teens climbed a tall mountain nearby. I was younger then, and enjoyed the climb. But when we got to the top, there was the wonder of the view that appeared before me. We saw down to the valley, and across to other mountain tops, and tiny houses and villages. The view was breathtaking. It was not the kind of thing one saw very often. There was a kind of sacred awe I felt as I surveyed the depths below me and listened to the air blowing by me. It is this kind of feeling that led the ancient peoples to think that mountains brought one close to God. I felt the same way when I went to the mountains here in Alberta. Carol and I went skiing in both Banff and Jasper. I had been camping in Banff before we went skiing there. And seeing the mountains for a second time, I recognized some of the peaks. Being in the mountain valley, looking up, I felt that special wonder again that mountains give me. Then when we went skiing, we took the lift way up the mountain to the top of the ski run. We looked across the valley to the peaks on the other side, and stood up there in the still, quiet mountain air. The view of the other mountains across the valley, and the look downward into the valley itself, made the skiing all the more delightful. And when I got down to the bottom of the ski hill, I wanted to go back up not just to ski some more, but because I wanted another look at the view from the mountain top.
These feelings are behind the Biblical use of mountains as a place where one can meet with God. When Moses received the tablets of stone with the Law on them, he met God on a mountain. And his encounter with God shone in his face. When Jesus was transfigured upon the mountain top His face shone like lightning. In the transfiguration, Jesus was in union with God the Father who is Jesus’ soul. When the Father had so filled Jesus with his presence, Jesus shined with His innate divinity. This union with the Father came and when throughout Jesus’ life on earth, and was fully completed forever with the resurrection.
We experience union with God from time to time in our lives. There are those rare mountain-top experiences when we feel really close to God. But most of the time, our union with God is a gradual process in which throughout our lifetimes we grow inward into greater love and upward into clearer thought.
There is a direct connection between our relationship with God and our love for our wives, husbands, or life-partners. As God is more fully in our hearts, our love for our partner grows more deeply. This is because as we receive love more deeply, and as we act more wisely, we have the ability to express that love and wisdom with another person. And love and wisdom are both given us by God, and depend on our relationship with God. In his book on marriage, Swedenborg writes,
Love for the sex and marital love come by an influx of good and truth from the Lord. Good and truth, we have said, are the universals of creation and so are in all created things, in each according to its form. Good and truth also proceed from the Lord not as two but as one. It follows that a universal marital sphere pervades the universe from first to last, from the angels to the lowest forms of life (CL 92).
Marital love also comes of this sphere, because in humans and angels this sphere flows into the form of wisdom. The human being can increase in wisdom to the end of his life in the world and afterward to eternity in heaven. As wisdom increases, his form is perfected. This form does not receive love for the sex, but love for one of the sex. With her he can be united to the inmost, in which is heaven with its happiness, and this union is one of marital love (CL 93).
Our relationship with God is compared to a marriage. God is the groom and the whole church, or those who are spiritually united to God are the bride. This marriage of God as groom and church as bride is the source for the love that lovers feel for each other.
We also deal at this point with the marriage of the Lord and the Church, and its correspondence, because without knowledge and intelligence on this subject one can hardly know that marital love is holy, spiritual, and heavenly in origin and is from the Lord. . . . In order to place the relation in some light of the understanding, we give a separate chapter to that holy marriage, which is with and in those who constitute the Lord’s Church; these and no others have true marital love (CL 116).
Our marriage to the Lord also bears offspring. Of course the idea of offspring is a correspondence, too. With the union of love and wisdom that come from God, a person comes into truth and good, and these qualities of the soul grow and grow to eternity. This truth and good are the offspring that are born from the marriage of God and the Church.
The spiritual offspring, born of the marriage of the Lord and the Church, are truths, from which are understanding, perception and all thought; and goods, from which are love, charity and all affection. Truths and goods are the spiritual offspring which are born of the Lord and the Church, for the reason that the Lord is good itself and truth itself, and these are not two in Him but one, and because nothing can proceed from the Lord except what is in Him and He is. . . . The human being has understanding, perception and all thought by truths, and love, charity, and all affection by goods, for the reason that all human life is referable to good and truth (CL 121).
It only takes a little reflection to see that if a person is filled with love, and acts wisely, his or her relationships will be better, more tranquil, and more harmonious. The actual capacity to love is given us by God. The more we have let God into our hearts, the more we will be able to express and feel the delights of love. Paul gives us one of the most memorable statements about love that western culture has. He tells us ,
1If I speak in the tongues[a] of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames,[b] but have not love, I gain nothing. 4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-8, 13)
How much more satisfying will be our loving relationships if we have the kind of love Paul talks about. We will not be boastful, proud, rude, or self-seeking—the kinds of things that block love, or make a loving relationship difficult. We will keep no record of wrongs, nor rejoice in evil. What Paul is talking about here is forgiveness, which is essential for us fallible humans. Swedenborg tells us that God gave us marital love in order to make us the happiest we can be. I think that when relationships are at their best, we do find that life is happy, perhaps the happiest we can know. In his own way, Swedenborg gives us another beautiful statement about love. It isn’t as famous as that of Paul, but I think it is equally beautiful and I will close with it.
The states of this love are innocence, peace, tranquility, inmost friendship, full trust, a desire in mind and heart to do the other every good; and from all these blessedness, satisfaction, joy, pleasure, and in eternal fruition of these, heavenly happiness (CL 180).
Seeing God Face to Face
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 7, 2010
Isaiah 6:1-8 Luke 5:1-11 Psalm 138
I find the Bible readings for this morning both interesting and comforting. They both concern a meeting between man and God. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah sees God above the awe-inspiring cherubim. And in the New Testament reading, Simon Peter, James, and John meet Jesus while they are fishing. In both passages, God comes to the people—they don’t seek Him out. And God comes to the people where they are in life. He doesn’t appear in a period of prayer, or meditation—He comes right in the middle of their lives. The first response of the people to whom God comes is the same. They both feel conscious of their own unworthiness. Isaiah says, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts (6:5). Likewise, Simon Peter bows down at Jesus’ knees and says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). The striking thing about these responses is that they come from the people themselves, not God. It is Isaiah and Peter who see themselves as sinful, not God. And God stays right there with them; He does not depart. He cleanses Isaiah with a coal taken from the temple and despite his fear, Peter follows Jesus straightaway.
I take two basic ideas from these readings. One is how God sees us. And the other is God’s response of cleansing when we are brought into His presence.
I was comforted by the way God acts when He appears to Isaiah and Peter. Both men feel their own unworthiness, in fact, their sinfulness. Yet this is no offence to God. God comes to us regardless of our own spiritual state. We don’t have to be perfect for God to come to us. We need not be saints to encounter God. In so many passages in the Old Testament, we hear of God being angry, or punishing, or even vengeful. But Swedenborg teaches that these are all appearances. They are ideas about God that were given to a primitive, warrior people, who themselves thought that way. So they saw God that way. But Swedenborg sees God very differently. He makes a beautiful statement about how God views the human race. He says that God does not see our evils. And furthermore none of those dreadful images of God represent who God actually is.
The Lord imputes good to every person, but hell imputes evil to every person. That the Lord imputes to man good and not evil, while the devil (meaning hell), imputes evil is a new thing in the church; and it is new for the reason that in the Word it is frequently said that God is angry, takes vengeance, hates, damns, punishes, casts into hell, and tempts, all of which pertain to evil, and therefore are evils. But . . . the sense of the letter of the Word is composed of such things as are called appearances and correspondences . . . when such things are read these very appearances of truth, while they are passing from a person to heaven, are changed into genuine truths, which are, that the Lord is never angry, never takes vengeance, never hates, damns, punishes, casts into hell, or tempts, consequently does evil to a person (TCR 650).
In another place, Swedenborg tells us that God cannot even look at us sternly,
as He wills only what is good he can do nothing but what is good. . . . From these few statements it can be seen how deluded those are who think, and still more those who believe, and still more those who teach, that God can damn any one, curse any one, send any one to hell, predestine any soul to eternal death, avenge wrongs, be angry, or punish. He cannot even turn Himself away from humanity, nor look upon anyone with a stern countenance (TCR 56).
God doesn’t even judge us, let alone damn anyone to hell.
That the Lord imputes good to every person and evil to none, hence that He does not judge any one to hell, but so far as a person follows raises all to heaven are evident from His words: Jesus said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all persons unto Myself” (John 12:32); “God sent His Son into the world not to judge the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17); Jesus said, “I judge no man” (John 8:15) (TCR 652).
And God’s love extends to the whole human race—good and bad. “The love of God goes and extends itself, not only to good persons and things, but also to evil persons and things” (TCR 43).
What would it feel like to see God face to face? Perhaps like the Bible passages we heard this morning, meeting God face to face might make us feel our own unworthiness. In the presence of infinite goodness and infinite love, we would probably see how far from infinite goodness we are. This brings to mind the second aspect of these Bible readings. In Isaiah, God purifies the prophet with a coal taken from the altar. And in the New Testament, despite his own feeling of sin, Peter drops his nets and immediately follows Jesus. When God comes to us, He brings us purification.
What purification means is seen differently in different churches. Some Christians say that Jesus bore our sins, and our sins are atoned for if we believe. Swedenborg sees the matter differently. For Swedenborg, our sins have become a part of our personality. They are in our emotions, our thoughts, and our behaviours. They are part of who we are. In order to be purified, we need to examine ourselves and see for what it is each self-limiting thought and response. We need to weed the garden of our personality and root out those aspects that would choke off the fruit of the Spirit.
Sins are removed so far as a person is reborn, because rebirth is restraining the flesh that it may not rule, and subjugating the old man . . . . Who that yet has sound understanding, cannot conclude that such things cannot be done in a moment, but successively, as a person is conceived, carried in the womb, born, and educated . . . . For the things of the flesh or the old man are inherent in him from birth . . . as an infant grows, reaches childhood, then youth, and then begins to think from his own understanding, and to act from his own will. Who does not see that such a house which has been thus far built in the mind, . . . cannot be destroyed in a moment, and a new house built in place of it? Must not the lusts . . . be themselves first removed, and new desires which are of good and truth be introduced in the place of the lusts of evil and falsity? That these things cannot be done in a moment every wise person sees from this alone, that every evil is composed of innumerable lusts; . . . therefore unless one evil is brought out after another, and this until their connection is broken up, a person cannot be made new (TCR 611).
Even though this is a lifelong process—indeed a process that continues to eternity in the next life—the good news is that everyone can be reborn if they are but open to God’s influence. Swedenborg states this in no uncertain terms, “Since all men have been redeemed, all may be regenerated each according to his state” (TCR 579). This idea of rebirth is inclusive, rather than exclusive. It means that everyone has their own path to take in the process of spiritual rebirth. One person’s path may be very different from another’s. Our path may be very different from someone else’s. The variety of ways in which people are reborn are as infinite as there are faces in the human race.
All may be regenerated, each according to his state; for the simple and the learned are regenerated differently; as are those engaged in different pursuits, and those who fill different offices . . . those who are principled in natural good from their parents, and those who are in evil; those who from their infancy have entered into the vanities of the world, and those who sooner or later have withdrawn from them . . . and this variety, like that of people’s features and dispositions, is infinite; and yet everyone, according to his state may be regenerated and saved (TCR 580).
There is a powerful force emanating from God that draws everyone in the whole human race upward to heaven.
There is actually a sphere elevating all to heaven, that proceeds continually from the Lord and fills the whole natural world and the whole spiritual world; it is like a strong current in the ocean, which draws the ship in a hidden way. All those who believe in the Lord and live according to His precepts, enter that sphere or current and are lifted (TCR 652).
I find these passages remarkably refreshing. It isn’t only people who have been brought up good who are regenerated, but even those who Swedenborg says “are in evil.” When I read this, I think about those unfortunate young people who are brought up in neighbourhoods where gangs dominate the culture. Or others who have had difficult upbringings. All these can be reformed and regenerated—each according to his or her upbringing and state of mind.
I think the main point in all this is to be open to God when He comes. In Revelation, Jesus says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Let us all listen for that knock. And let us all, regardless of what state we are in, open the door and eat the holy supper with our Lord.
Reacting from Fear or Acting with Faith
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
January 31, 2010
Exodus 16:1-18 Mark 14:66-72 Psalm 55
We are continually being drawn into closer and more intimate union with God. This happens to us sometimes gradually and almost imperceptibly, sometimes in crises in our lives, but it happens continually. Swedenborg writes,
. . . divine love (and therefore divine providence) has the goal of a heaven made up of people who have become angels and are becoming angels, people with whom it can share all the bliss and joy of love and wisdom, giving them these blessings from the Lord’s own presence within them (DP 27).
Since God is a God of love God wants to give us everything He can to bring us into greater and greater joy and happiness. Again from Swedenborg,
The more closely we are united to the Lord, the happier we become. . . . These times of happiness, bliss, and sheer delight intensify as the higher levels of our minds are opened within us, the levels we call spiritual and heavenly. Once our life on earth is over, these levels keep rising forever (DP 37).
But growing toward God means changing. It means leaving behind old ways of thinking and old ways of finding happiness. As we let go of old ways, we come into new ways. And as we do this we are continually growing closer and closer to God.
Change is not always easy for us. When we are comfortable in a certain way of life, we don’t want to let go of it. But change is the very nature of life. The Buddhists say that everything is impermanent, and that everything changes. The secret to happiness for them is to let go of attachments. This means letting go of attachments to everything. There is certainly wisdom in this. Change will come to us whether we choose it or not. Our bodies grow and age. I know that I am now unable to practice the martial art Kung Fu, which I practiced in my early teens. So I have accepted this with grace and now practice the slower discipline of Tai Chi. People will come and go out of our lives. Friends move away for various reasons—work, or their children, or other reasons. Or we, ourselves, move away for the same reasons. And the friendship is put to the test over long distances and the new life our friends experience in their now distant locations. And on a more sombre note, our loved ones die and enter the spiritual world. It is hard for us to accept these changes and losses. At times they can be a real challenge to our faith. But we need to trust in God and accept that through it all He is with us, and guiding us into greater union with Himself.
With all the changes we must go through, we can react in two ways. We can react from fear of the unknown and the new life that we must grow accustomed to. Or we can act in faith. Faith that through all these changes God is bringing us into closer and more intimate union with Himself.
The journey to God involves leaving behind self-interest and coming into interest in our fellows and love for God. All the events that come to us in our lives—all the challenges, the choices, the loss and heartache—all of these events are guided by God’s divine providence. Everything that comes our way is given us to lead us away from self and into relationship with God and our neighbours.
We begin life wanting things to go our way. That is to say, we begin with self-interest playing the dominant role. But after the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, we learn to let go and let God have His way. Swedenborg illustrates the nature of self-interest in His book Divine Providence. He describes it in its extreme form for the sake of illustration. For most of us, self –interest doesn’t show itself in such an extreme form. But I think that we can recognize elements of our own life in this description.
As for love of eminence and wealth for their own sake . . . it is a love for our own self-importance, and our sense of self-importance is wholly evil. . . . What we inherit is the sense of self that encompasses us and that we participate in by virtue of our self-love—especially by our love of being in control because of our self-love. This is because when we are wrapped up in this love we are totally focussed on ourselves and therefore immerse our thoughts and feelings in our own sense of self-importance. As a result, within our self-love there is a love of doing harm because we have no love for our neighbour, only for ourselves. When we love only ourselves, we see others only as outside ourselves, either as completely worthless or as simply nothing. We regard them as inferior to ourselves and think nothing of doing them harm (DP 215).
I don’t think that many of us see others as completely worthless. Nor would many of us think nothing of doing others harm. But what about that sense for self-importance? What about seeing others as inferior to us? What about that love of being in control? We can see Swedenborg’s description of the self-interested person as being on one side of a spectrum. On the other side would be Jesus’ life of total giving and love. Most of us would fit somewhere in between these two poles. That means that for most of us, letting go of self-interest would play a role in our spiritual development.
But we don’t always want to give up a life that we are accustomed to. In moving toward God, we need to change our thinking, our loving and enjoyments, and our acting. We can want to hold on to the self-interested life and its enjoyments. But the only way we can find heavenly happiness is by dismissing the enjoyments that serve self first. Then we will find that heavenly loves for God and our neighbour are more fulfilling and more pleasant. Finding these loves means letting go of others—something we so often resist. In our Bible reading from Exodus this morning, the Israelites complained about their life in the wilderness. They were reacting from fear of the new life that they were unsure of. Things got so bad that they even wanted to return to slavery in Egypt rather than go forward with God’s promise of prosperity. And in our New Testament reading Peter turned away from Jesus out of fear when Jesus was arrested.
We can take these images as symbols for our fear of moving toward the new life God has for us. The Old Testament image of liberation from slavery is a powerful symbol for our own spiritual growth. When self-interest dominates our lives we are slaves. We are at odds with everyone who opposes us, or everyone who doesn’t do things our way. We think we know what is best for others. We become argumentative. Our cup is so full that we have no room in it for new wisdom. From this perspective, it is easy to see that love for others, and toleration of differences is a liberating choice. We are so much more at peace with our neighbours and ourselves, for that matter, when we let God bring His divine love into our hearts.
We play an active role in this process of growth out of self-interest. We need to dismiss the attachment to self whenever it appears in our lives. We need to ask in every occasion of conflict, “What role am I playing in this?” We also need to ask ourselves, “What can I let go of that is self-interested in this encounter?” Opportunities for growth pop up everywhere in our lives—from great decisions to small matters. When I decided to complete my divinity studies and be ordained into ministry it took a huge leap of faith. I had a life in Florida and a job that I had become accustomed to. But all my life I had that call from God to enter the path of ministry. I followed that call with faith, and now I am in a profession that I love. My personal life is also much richer. But to arrive here, I needed to let go of what I was accustomed to and trust in God’s leading. I had to let go of what my self had become accustomed to and move forward into the promised land as the Israelites did. Then there are those small things in life that challenge our self-interest. I remember playing cards with Carol recently. She made a phone call just before we started, and had a somewhat lengthy conversation with the other person. I sat there waiting to play cards, listening to half of a conversation. I grew impatient. I dealt out the cards. Then I picked up my own cards and looked at them. But wasn’t I getting impatient and a little bit mad sitting there listening to half of a conversation, wanting to play cards? It was a phone call Carol needed to make. And she was cheering up a friend in it. But all this didn’t make me more accepting of the situation. It wasn’t a big issue, and we did play cards, and I won. But there you have it—self appearing in the littlest of situations.
We need to get a grip on self in order to be liberated from the frustrations that arise from it. Then we can sensibly feel the heavenly happiness God is bringing us into. We need to do the work to win the prize. We need to let go and let God. This is how spiritual growth looks from our perspective. But it is actually God working in us that gives us the power to grow toward Him. Swedenborg tells us that God is giving us the power to come into the joys of heaven. He writes, “However, these joys enter us only as we distance ourselves from compulsions to love what is evil and false, which distancing we do apparently with our own strength, but in fact from the Lord’s strength” (DP 39).
We let go of the limitations of self when we trust that there is a better way. When we have faith in the words of God that we read in the Bible, we can accept the changes that come to us graciously. When we live in faith, we don’t fear for the future. When we live in faith we are ready to take the next step toward God. The choice is ours. Will we cling to outmoded ways of living because of a fear for new life? Or will we live in faith and move forward ever upward and inward into communion with God and heavenly joy? As the psalmist sings in the passage we read this morning, “Cast your cares on the Lord and He will sustain you.”