I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. - John 14:18
There is a kind of tension between this beloved verse and an equally beloved one from our second lesson: “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). John pictures us as static and the Lord as in motion. Matthew pictures us as in motion and the Lord as static.
We need both images. We need a sense that wherever we are, wherever we are heading, the Lord is reaching out to us. We also need a sense that the Lord is constant, unchanging, and that it is up to us to make the first move, so to speak. We need to have the bread of life brought to us where we are in the pews. We also need to come to the altar to receive it.
Our theology makes it quite clear that the first image reflects the deeper truth. To turn to Soul-Body Interaction (§14), “God alone acts: we let ourselves be acted upon and react to all intents with apparent independence, although this too, more inwardly, comes from God.” The language is clear, simple, and unequivocal. “God alone acts.” There are no ifs, ands, or buts. It means far more than can be expressed by simply saying that “we are but vessels having no life of our own,” true as that is. It takes at least a lifetime to learn what it means. Some people believe in reincarnation because they are convinced that one lifetime is not nearly enough.
A brief digression may be in order. The marvelous search program Jonathan Rose developed turned up 579 references to the word “experience” in the writings. I checked the ones in the first volume of Arcana Coelestia, in The Doctrine of the Lord, The Doctrine of Faith, and True Christian Religion. The vast majority connect experience with learning. In more than half of them, Swedenborg is saying, “I have learned this from experience.” In many other instances, he refers us to experience as our best teacher. My favorite instance is found in Arcana Coelestia §933, where he is talking about our alternations between spiritual warmth and cold in the process of regeneration: “The only way we can become really sure that our state is like this during regeneration is from experience—actually, through reflection on experience.” Books help, but apparently there are some things we cannot learn from books.
But back to our theme. God alone acts, but at the same time, our theology is equally insistent that we must not regard ourselves as simply passive. There is a particular image that develops nicely if you trace it through the writings. In the Arcana (§§8176, 10299), Swedenborg speaks of the folly of standing with our hands at our sides, waiting for influx. In The Doctrine of Life § 107, he pictures us as “standing motionless, mouth open and hands at our sides, waiting for influx.” Finally, in Divine Providence §210, we have the full picture: “standing with hands at our sides, mouth open, eyes closed, holding our breath, waiting for influx.” It is only fair to say also that simpler forms of the same image occur from time to time along the way, perhaps reminding us how often we need reminding.
The question of what we do and what the Lord does has been with Christianity for a long time. In traditional language, it involves the question of law and grace, law representing our responsibility and grace representing the work of the Divine. Calvin came down so hard on the side of grace that he could talk about predestination, giving the impression that there is nothing whatever that we can do about our eternal destiny. This, of course, runs counter to the many places in the Gospels where the Lord urges us to do what is right and loving and to clear statements that we are judged according to our works. It is rarely noted that in the Epistle to the Romans, before Paul makes his famous statement that we are “justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28), he has already described God as one “who will render to everyone according to his deeds: to those who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life: but to those who are contentious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath—tribulation and anguish upon the soul of everyone who does evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile” (Romans 2:6-10).
Actually, we are dealing with a paradox that lies at the heart of religion itself and that thoughtful people of all religions have encountered. I recently ran across a Hasidic proverb that puts it nicely: “Everyone should wear an overcoat with two pockets. In one there should be a slip of paper that says, ‘I am nothing but dust and ashes.’ In the other there should be a slip of paper that says, ‘For me the world was created.’” We are infinitely precious in the Lord’s sight, and we have no intrinsic worth.
If we lose touch with either of these pockets, we are in trouble. Either we are sunk in hopeless depression or we lay claim to divinity. Either we see ourselves as utterly powerless or we see ourselves as omnipotent.
This is not just a matter of abstract theology. It touches very directly on our attitudes toward each other, the attitudes which determine how we treat each other. We need on the one hand to realize that we do matter to each other. We matter very much. We are tremendously important to each other. At the same time, our self-importance is nil. It is frighteningly easy to let our recognition of our importance slide into a need to have that importance recognized by others—not for their sakes, but for ours.
How important are we to each other? Imagine a whole day in which everyone you met was in a foul mood. Everywhere you went, you could tell that you were unwelcome, that you were a problem, something rather ugly and smelly to be disposed of as quickly and unfeelingly as possible. The husband, the wife, the children, the parents, store clerks, the boss, colleagues—encounter after encounter with resentment, anger, rejection. Now imagine a week of that, or a month. It is just about unthinkable. It is one of the reasons, perhaps the main one, that imprisonment rarely straightens people out. The whole environment says that you are nothing but dust and ashes, and there is nothing in the other pocket to counteract it.
Our need of each other is inseparable from our need for the Lord. Our value to each other is inseparable from the fact that we are precious in the Lord’s sight. As the Johannine epistles insist, the two great commandments belong together. “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar: for if you do not love the brother whom you have seen, how can you love God whom you have not seen?” (I John 4:20). Or again, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (I John 4:8). Only as we realize that another individual is precious in the Lord’s sight do we begin to see the person the Lord sees.
Let us not for a moment, though, fall into the notion that loving the Lord and the neighbor is simple. There are days when it is, days when our spiritual sun is out and we feel warm all over. But then there are the cloudy days and the stormy days, days when we are easily wounded because we are feeling our hurts, days when we are besieged by our own pride or our own resentments.
These, oddly enough, are the days when we are truly free to change. They are the days when we feel most remote from the Lord, most left to our own devices. To turn to the Arcana (§1947), “. . . even though it seems exactly the opposite, there is more freedom in temptations than outside them.” In a way, it is quite obvious. We most free when we are faced with a choice, and we are faced with a choice when there are two voices within us clamoring for our attention.
These are the times that make a difference to us, the times when the promptings of self-love or love of the world can be consciously identified and rejected. These are the pivotal times when we find out whether our repentance is “of the life” or simply “of the lips”—in contemporary language, whether we are willing to walk the walk as well as to talk the talk.
It is natural, inevitable, that at such times we feel left to ourselves. It has to be that way if our choice is to be genuine. The same passage from the Arcana that tells us these are times of freedom also assures us that the Lord is “more present” with us than ever; and this too is diametrically opposite to the way it feels.
There is a lot in the writings that has a definite “New Age” feel to it, but this would not seem to be one of them. Sometimes, that is, we can do ourselves real harm by “going with the flow.” New Englandy as it may seem, there are times when the current flows in the wrong direction, times when we need to swim upstream.
That is not the whole story, though. There are also times when the current is flowing in the right direction. There are Sabbath states when we are forbidden to labor, when we are commanded to rest in the Lord. The six days of labor are the states of temptation when we must at all costs act “as if of ourselves” (Arcana Coelestia 8888). What we must not do at any cost is claim the Sabbath rest as our own achievement. The moment we do, the peace of the Sabbath is destroyed. Helen Keller once observed that “There is joy in self-forgetfulness,” and I think our theology is telling us that there is no real joy anywhere else. The moment self-consciousness creeps in, things begin to spoil.
Again, there is no real line between our relationship to the Lord and our relationships to each other in this respect. Self-consciousness has its necessary place in our lives. It is at the heart of self-examination, which is a very private affair. Its place in our private lives is much more limited. I don’t know who said that the greatest gift we can give another person is our undivided attention, but I wish I did. There are times when we need to give ourselves our undivided attention as well. It ought to be socially permissible to call time out once in a while. “Wait just a minute—I need time to think.”
We had a student at SSR recently who identified strongly with his native American heritage. One of the first things he told us about himself was that he had a basic mistrust of quick and easy answers. If he did not seem to be responding, that did not mean that he hadn’t heard or wasn’t paying attention. It was much more likely to mean that he had heard something worth serious consideration; and when you stop to think about it, that makes all kinds of sense. He didn’t walk around with pockets full of conversational small change, but he had an adequate supply of twenties.
There is the familiar prayer attributed to Saint Francis, the prayer for the courage to change what we can, the patience to accept what we cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference. The “as if of self” principle takes this from the behavioral level to the spiritual level. May we grow in our acceptance of both messages, the message of our accountability and the message of our need. and may we support each other thoughtfully through dark days and bright.