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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.”
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