Miracles and Magic
There seems to have been a great upsurge of interest recently in the supernatural: ESP, astrology, reincarnation, the psychic, the occult, oriental mysticism. This is probably a reaction against the cold logic of scientific materialism on which our society has been allegedly based since the turn of the century. Many people feel that science has somehow let us down. We were led to believe that science, through its advanced technology, would transform the world into a paradise, bringing “peace on earth, goodwill toward men,” without our having to bother about giving “glory to God in the highest.” In fact, science apparently ruled God out, and denied the very existence of supernatural or spiritual forces and phenomena, proposing to reduce all human behavior to mathematical formulae. Well, it has become very obvious to us now that human behavior is not governed by logic or mathematical principles, nor by sane rational arguments. People act on emotions more than they do on reason. Even wars are won, not by force of sophisticated weaponry (as was expected) but by the power of the human spirit.
As part of the reaction, science itself has begun to extend its frontiers of investigation. Scientists no longer assume that the universe is just a piece of elaborate machinery (as Newton supposed it to be) ; rather it is a structure manifesting mind, choice. Psychic phenomena are being studied as data. Even the old concepts of space and time have been questioned. Nobody knows for certain any longer whether a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, or whether two plus two really equals four! This lack of confidence in the rationality of the universe has permeated every branch of study. We can no longer assume that African witch-doctors are all humbugs and charlatans, or that Chinese acupuncture is something puerile to be treated as a joke, or that ghosts and hauntings and poltergeists are all figments of an over-excited imagination. Scholars and critics are beginning to look at the miracles recorded in the Bible in a new light. Are they so impossible after all?
We are asking ourselves: What is a miracle? A tape recorder or telephone would have been regarded as miraculous a hundred years ago…. We say they are not miraculous because they operate according to scientific laws. But what is a scientific law? In fact, I believe that scientists will be turning more and more to the study of the inner reaches of the human mind, the so-called unconscious…
What, then, is a miracle? I would say that, in a miracle, power flows down from the spiritual world and causes matter to behave temporarily according to spiritual laws instead of the laws of physics. The case of Elisha and the widow’s oil would come under the heading of a miracle rather than ESP. The oil went on increasing so long as the woman poured it out into her neighbors’ vessels, and only stopped increasing when there were no more vessels to fill. Here the oil was behaving according to the spiritual laws of increase governing love, wisdom and such like commodities, which grow in the degree in which you give them out. The same applied to our Lord’s feeding of the five thousand with five loaves and two fishes. Swedenborg would say it operated according to Correspondence: physical occurrences corresponding to spiritual ones.
Before our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world and glorified His humanity, correspondences from the spiritual world worked much more powerfully than they do today. The Red Sea divided for the Israelites, but drowned the Egyptians. The walls of Jericho fell at the blast of a trumpet. Fire came out of the ark and destroyed the people of Bethshemesh. A heathen altar exploded. Two hairy bears killed the children who mocked Elisha on account of his baldness; these and many other instances were pure correspondences. That kind of miracle does not take place today, because of the change in the relationship between the physical and the spiritual worlds effected by the Redemption and the taking on by God of a Divine Human nature. In that sense the age of miracles is passed. But it is nevertheless still possible for us to open up a channel, so that increased spiritual force can pour into a situation and produce what we think of today as a miracle; or, if from hell, as magic.
Before I deal further with this, I want to touch on a specific branch of the subject, which is generally called “spiritualism,” or, more accurately, “spiritism.” By this we mean getting into personal contact with individual spirits on the other side. Techniques for doing this have been known through the ages. In the Old Testament it was called “having a familiar spirit,” and was condemned absolutely. Witches who had familiar spirits, or men that were wizards, were to be stoned to death (Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 20:27, etc.). That sounds severe; but at that time hell was so strong that if the Israelites had not taken drastic measures to stamp out other-world communication, the church could never have survived, let alone acted as a means of holding heaven and earth together until the Lord came and “took over.”
Swedenborg himself communicated with spirits as a matter of course; but in his case it came unsought. He resisted it for nearly five years until he was convinced beyond doubt that the Lord willed him to have such contacts for a specific purpose, and that the Lord was protecting him. And Swedenborg strongly warns his followers not to seek such other-world interaction, because of the dangers involved. He explains that there are spirits good and bad in close contact with every one of us. We attract or repel them by our own effort of will. If we cherish beautiful thoughts of love and gratitude, then good spirits, and even angels, draw closer. If we harbor evil thoughts of resentments and jealousy, then the good spirits have to withdraw and evil spirits take over, fanning our evils into flame and doing everything possible to ruin us. But good spirits are always there, doing their best to mitigate the influence of hell and win us back to a state of goodness and truth. The whole process owes its effectiveness to the fact that we, and the evil spirits who are with us, are unaware of what is taking place. If the evil spirits knew they had power over us, they would destroy us. They do not destroy us only because they think, while they are with us, that they are us, and so (apart from trying to make us more like ourselves) they love us as they love themselves! On the other hand, if we on our side deliberately seek contact with spirits, then the evil spirits recognize us as “other than themselves,” and see us as fair game for their cunning. They impersonate, with great skill, any individual on the other side with whom we want to get into touch, until we are completely sold on the whole thing. Then gradually, not too obviously, they begin their destructive work. Hence it is that “sorcerers have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8)
Of course, it is theoretically possible to get through to good spirits; and when the Lord opens someone’s spiritual eyes, as He did in the case of Swedenborg, and the saints who saw beatific visions, then evil spirits are kept away. But if you deliberately seek interaction with spirits, especially if you do so from mere curiosity, or to prove something you want to prove, then the odds are you will get through to evil spirits and not to good ones. Therefore you are well advised to keep away from séances and from the whole business of spirit communication. Be content with any insight the Lord gives you, but don’t try to gate-crash into the other world for your own purposes. Then your guardian angels will have the best possible chance of protecting you and gently guiding you, without interfering with your freedom; and all will go well.
Some people ask about demon possession. I believe the only real demon possession today is what we have been talking about, where people deliberately hand themselves over to evil spirits. Otherwise, what may appear to be demon possession is probably the effect of a damaged brain, which would come under the general heading of insanity. If a person is insane, his spiritual development is “frozen,” as it were. If he goes insane at, say, fifteen years of age, he wakes up in the other world as if he were fifteen, even though in fact he may have lived on in a mentally deranged condition until he was eighty or ninety years of age. In other words, demon possession today does not affect a person spiritually; he is protected from its influence. This is one of the benefits that have come from the Redemption. Jesus Christ fought and conquered the hells, and made it impossible, from then onwards, for evil spirits to “possess” individuals on earth, except with the individual’s free consent.
That is all I am going to say now about other-world interaction. Much more interesting to me is the fact that we can be channels of power from the spiritual world – not from any specific individual spirit, but from heaven itself, or, of course, from hell itself. And this is probably the real area of miracles and magic, as operating today. The simplest way to get power from heaven (or rather, from the Lord through heaven) is by Prayer. It can operate at any distance.
Miracles can occur in relationships. A marriage may be on the rocks; every human thing has been done to save it, but to no avail. Then God is allowed to work on the situation; a miracle occurs, and the couple live happily together ever after. To recapitulate: a miracle is when forces operate from God through heaven, which effect changes in our material lives which could not be produced by any physical force, or even by any psychic power emanating from ourselves. A miracle is an eruption of spirit into matter; and although we can be used as a channel for the flow of spiritual power, the Source must be God, not ourselves. The results need not be dependent on us, and will be unpredictable by us. We cannot command them; we can only invite them and open ourselves to receive them. They are not the result of any effort on our part, but depend upon a Divine intelligence and love, outside and above us. It is God who works miracles, no one else.
Have you had any miracles happen in your life? I am sure you have! If not, you haven’t really lived! Expect a miracle, and one will probably occur. God’s hand is not so shortened that He cannot redeem. He will touch us and bless us, if we bow expectantly before Him. And blessing is the highest form of miracle.
Meditation and Prayer
I have been reading lately about brain waves. Scientists can measure the frequency of the electrical vibrations in our brain by an Electro Encephalograph. When these vibrations get below a certain frequency (say, fifteen per second) you normally drift into a light sleep, full of dreams. At lower frequencies, a deep and dreamless sleep. Lower still, coma, such as is produced by an anesthetic. Some remarkable people, such as Yogis, have trained themselves to remain conscious during these low-frequency brain states. They can induce anesthesia on themselves, and undergo major surgery, fully conscious but without feeling a thing. Probably you and I cannot do this, but it is fairly easy to retain consciousness when you would normally be in a light sleep and dreaming. You are then outside time and space, no longer bound to your physical body, but in close touch with your subconscious…. Emanuel Swedenborg could induce a state of coma on his physical body, and be fully conscious in the Spiritual World, among people who had died as to their physical bodies but who were very much alive in a non-physical environment. In this region of “life after death,” love and thought are the basic substance of reality instead of the atoms and molecules of physical matter. There is an appearance of time and space, but this is derived from states of love and thought and their sequence.
I am not suggesting that the ordinary run of people will ever be able to handle these very low-frequency brain waves, but all of us can slow ourselves down to the dream state and still remain conscious. We do it in day-dreaming. Day-dreaming is often mere self-indulgence and can be a waste of time, or worse! However, kept under discipline, the day-dreaming state can be the most creative and productive time of our whole lives. You relax yourself completely, and allow your bodily functions to slow down, including your breathing. Gradually your consciousness slips out of time and space into the inner spiritual dimension. Keep a careful watch over it, and see that it does not slip back again. This is not easy for most of us. It is surprising how few people, in this restless age, ever really sit still! Here is something for us to work on. Relax all tensions in stomach, throat, eyeballs. Imagine you are sinking into the ground, or floating in a sea of nothingness.
In this state you can be in direct touch with the wonderful computer in your subconscious mind which controls so much of your normal waking life, and you can program it as you wish, clearing it of the undesirable promptings which cause your bad habits and unwholesome tendencies, and implanting suggestions which will bring you health and joy. Also, your brain is operating at its most creative level when you are in this hyper-relaxed state, and will produce solutions to problems which baffled you when you were consciously struggling with them.
More important is the fact that, in this condition of semi-drowsiness, if you send out waves of hatred, resentfulness, jealousy, revenge, or contempt, they will boomerang back onto yourself, by an immutable law, as Jesus Himself taught when He said: “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you again.” On the other hand, if you send out waves of love, sympathy, healing and peace, these also will boomerang back onto yourself by the same law, and you will have a blessing….
I have still to mention the most important use to which this meditative state can be put: it can help us to draw near to God, and thus greatly enrich our prayer life. Meditation and prayer are not the same thing. People who do not believe in God, or who think they themselves are divine, can meditate but cannot pray. On the other hand, prayer is ineffectual without meditation. God is within us, deep down inside us, the “Ground of our being,” as Tillich says. Therefore, we can hardly expect to reach Him in prayer unless we meditate. But for this purpose our meditation must be God-centered. So often it is merely an escape from the hard realities of life. Our minds drift into self-appraisal, self-glorification. We think of our past with nostalgia, especially remembering incidents in which we figured prominently; and look forward to our future, planning this and that, imagining what we shall do and be. God is upstaged, even forgotten. We say we will “confess our sins,” but still it is our precious self that we are analyzing, our own weaknesses, mistakes, humiliations. We say we will give thanks unto the Lord, but still it is our own happiness and pleasure that we are glorifying, not God’s generous love. If our meditation is to help us in our prayer life, it must be focused entirely on God; and, if God is in focus, we ourselves and everything around us will be out of focus and slightly blurred – which is what you have in a good photographic portrait.
Prayer must be concentrated on God. If you were with the President of the United States, or the Queen of England, or some other great and famous personage, you would not waste time babbling away about yourself; you would be thinking about the important person you were with. So it must be if we are meditating in the presence of the Lord. You must lift yourself up into nearness with Him; let Him hold you and support you. Only when you are completely concentrating your attention on Him can you really communicate with Him: and prayer, as Swedenborg defines it, is “talking with God” – communicating with God and receiving enlightenment from Him. Etymologically, “to pray” means to ask for something, as when people used to say “I pray thee, give me this,” or, “I pray thee, do this.” But it is a mistake to think that prayer is asking God only for material things. God’s blessing is what we want, the infilling of our hearts with His love and our minds with His wisdom. We need His guidance for the better living of our lives, and His strength to bear what comes to us. There is no harm in praying for material things, of course; you can ask your heavenly Father for anything that is important to you. But if you meditate deeply in your prayers, your requests will tend to be on that spiritual level, and material things will cease to be important.
Obviously meditation is necessary for intercessory prayer, prayer for other people. You must get through to them first! Go into the silence, and then concentrate your thoughts on someone you love, or for whom you feel compassion. Picture him in your mind’s eye, and visualize him looking towards you and seeing you. Then lay your hands gently on him, holding him. Pray earnestly to the Lord to bless him, to give him the very best that he needs; and the Lord’s life will flow through you as a channel to your friend for whom you are praying. And, of course, you will be blessed also in the doing of it….
When I was in South Africa, our little New Church Mission of 5,000 members seemed to be stagnating, neither going backward nor forward. I felt it needed a spiritual shot in the arm. So my wife announced at the next annual Women’s League Conference that she was starting a “Prayer Sisterhood.” The members should undertake to pray for the Mission every Thursday morning at 6 a.m. Stamped postcards were to be handed out, and those who were prepared to take on this prayer commitment were to put their names on these cards and mail them to Headquarters. After my wife’s speech, one of the African ladies came to the front and burst into tears. Asked what was the matter, she said they were tears of joy; this was the first time she had ever heard of a white person who understood about prayer! That was in November, 1960. In January, 1961 an indigenous African Church that I had never heard of before, applied to join our Mission. Others followed, and by the end of 1961 we had a total membership of 30,000 and a new vitality had come into every aspect of our church life. I could tell you much more but this is not the place for it; I mention it now merely to illustrate the point that when a large number of people are praying together for the same objective, no matter how scattered they are geographically, conditions are created in which miracles can happen. Not that we can force the hand of God – obviously! – but we can give Him a greater opportunity to work for His Kingdom in this heavily resistant mass of humanity which we call mankind.
Spiritual power is like atomic energy. It comes from God, and it is always available, but hidden from our everyday consciousness. Use it wisely, with love; do so in the immediate presence of your heavenly Father who is love itself, and your influence for good will be incalculable. And what a joy, this daily period of meditation and communion with God! There is nothing more calming and restorative than prayer.
It is like climbing Mt. Sinai, as Moses did to receive from God the Commandments of the Law, and to mediate between God and his fellow human beings. “And it came to pass, when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the two tables of testimony in his hand, that the skin of his face shone.” And thereafter he became the most practical, efficient and influential servant of God in recorded history, who took an undisciplined horde of ex-slaves and welded them into a nation under God which endured for centuries.
Meditation and prayer are not enervating; they are restorative, invigorating, revitalizing. The three disciples with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration could not stay up there indefinitely; they had to come down into the plain, and bring their newly enlarged spiritual consciousness into their future relations with their fellow men. You cannot truly love God without serving your neighbor, and you cannot truly serve your neighbor without loving God. Prayer and activity, labor and rest. Filling and emptying out. Both are necessary for the satisfactory life. Which do you find most difficult in your present stage of development? In our culture, “doing” is generally found to be easier than “meditating.” Concentrate, therefore, on meditation and prayer and you will find yourself experiencing the joy of heaven, even here in this world of sin. The Lord gives heaven to all who come to Him for it: who ask, seek, knock. Thank you, Lord!
For over a century now, scientists have been dedicating their labors to the alleviation of suffering, with such success that the average person in a civilized country today can go through life without ever experiencing severe pain. For example, the extraction of teeth used to be a form of torture, but I had a molar drawn a few weeks ago and felt no pain at all. Of course, there are exceptions. Child birth, for instance. And how about cancer, muscular dystrophy, and many other diseases that seem to be worse now than they used to be? Also we must bear in mind that while the medical doctors are working hard to improve the health of mankind, prolong life and relieve pain, another set of scientists are devising fiendish methods of destruction, by which the whole human race could be exterminated in a matter of hours, so that, in fact, life on this planet is more precarious today than it has ever been before.
Anyway, if you extend the meaning of suffering to include mental and spiritual pain, then we are none of us exempt. Suffering is one of the terms of our human condition. Our minds and spirits, as well as our bodies, are vulnerable. We can be hurt by our circumstances. Other people can hurt us, deliberately or accidentally. Our loved ones can hurt us. We can hurt ourselves, and it is surprising how much of our suffering is of our own making. The more sensitive we are, the more vulnerable.
The Lord does not want us to suffer – that’s obvious! No loving father enjoys seeing his children in pain. On the other hand, pain can serve a use, insofar as it is a warning sign that something is wrong. I remember hearing a story when I was a child, about a man who was granted a wish, and his wish was that he should never experience pain. Later, he was sitting by an open fire and fell asleep, and a red hot coal fell on his foot and burnt it away, and of course he never felt a thing. Too bad! Pain sends us to the doctor when something goes wrong; it is a useful indicator. But even when pain does not serve any specific use, it can, if properly handled, deepen our lives and give us opportunities for inward growth which would never come our way if everything was sunny and we never had a trouble in the world.
How true it is that, when everything goes well, we tend to ride lightly on the surface of life, and not put down any roots at all! In fact, we fail to be aware that there is a deeper dimension. I remember an incident in a movie where a father is trying to tell his son some serious item of information, but the boy is babbling away about his new girl friend and the party they are going to; till in the end the father slaps him on the face, simply to get his attention – to get contact with him on a serious level.
It has been pointed out that the Word of God came to us out of the agony of a nation taken into captivity. If all had gone well with the Israelites, would there have been any Isaiah? If Jesus had never been crucified, should we have had the Gospels? Suffering not only brings us inner growth and awareness, but it can stabilize and strengthen character. Compare Peter before and after the traumatic experience of the crucifixion. Before it, he denied his Master three times, saying “I know not the man.” Then, when the cock crew, he went out and wept. But only fifty days later, at Pentecost, this same Peter stood boldly before three thousand people, and lifted up his voice and addressed them . . . “Let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God has made both Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:14, 36)
“The Old and New Testaments are the words, stories and prayers of men who suffer. They do not try to hide the fact that they suffer. They find suffering integral to life. They resist it, petition God to remove it, question it, endure it, rebel against it, accept it. Then something happens to them – something as radical as New Birth.” (Elizabeth O’Connor, in Our Many Selves)
Having experienced suffering, and hated it, they eventually accepted it. That is the point. If you suffer, you must first try to discover what is causing your suffering; and, of course, you are obligated to do all you can to alleviate it. But if you cannot alleviate it, if you cannot ease it or do anything about it, you must accept it. Eat it up, digest it, extract the maximum nourishment from it, glorify it. Most of us cannot do this. When we are in pain, whether mental or physical, we bellow and scream. We become bitter, resentful, indignant. It hurts our ego most of all. If the pain comes from a broken relationship, we pour vituperation on the other person; it is all his fault! If we cannot blame an individual, we blame our circumstances, our society, our God.
I think one of the greatest tragedies in life is the loss of a child. The child is sick; the parents fight desperately to save it; they give all they have, but in the end the child dies. They look at the lifeless little corpse, and everything within them rises in agonized protest. “Where is God?” they cry. “There is no God!” I have heard of people who have become atheists because of such a loss. But, if suffering comes to you, and you accept it, live with it, make it your friend, you will find a kind of beauty in it. Superficial worldly ties will be cut, but spiritual realities will open before you in a new way, and the self-styled atheist may very well end up, in spite of himself, with a clearer conviction of the reality of God, than many who say their prayers daily but have never looked down into the depths.
The word “to suffer” used to mean “to bear with something,” “to allow it” – as, “to suffer fools gladly,” or “suffer little children to come unto me,” or “suffer me first to bury my father.” It might be a good thing if we could revive something of this older meaning of the word. In our western culture we say, “NO! Get up and fight against it! Resist! Tense your muscles! Grip hold of the arms of the dentist’s chair!” But is this the best way? Jesus, I think, would advise otherwise. He would say, “Relax! If anyone wants to smite you, let him! Offer him the other cheek!” Even in childbirth, I am told, it is best to relax, and, when the pangs come, to cooperate with them rather than to grit your teeth and try to resist them. “Cooperation” is the key word. If you want to float on water, don’t try to struggle, but cooperate with the water; see that you are in the right position, with your chin up and your face out of the water, then simply relax and float. A spiritually mature friend of ours is a bee keeper, and sometimes when he is mending the supers of his hives he accidentally hits his finger with the hammer. He does not resist the pain, but relaxes and lets it flow, absorbing it into his body; and he says it is amazing how quickly healing takes place. Also, of course, with bee stings.
Absorb the pain. Absorb the suffering and misery of life. Don’t be so concerned with your own sensations. Don’t resist the hurt, but accept it, whether it is physical or mental. This may take a period of time, varying with the individual and the nature of the suffering. Don’t try to hurry it unduly, whether with yourself or others. The would-be comforter at the funeral of a child, goes to the bereft mother and says, “Don’t be sad! The baby is in heaven, better off and happier than he would have been here!” The mother groans in her spirit and turns away. She is not ready yet for such advice. We need time to absorb our suffering if it is to benefit us. We must go out into the darkness alone and wrestle all night with the angel before we can get a blessing. The best way to help people when agony strikes is to sit quietly with them, listen to them, love them, help to ease the tensions, and just show that you care.
So far I have been speaking of suffering that comes to us unsought, as part of our human condition. We cannot avoid it, but we can control the way we react to it. And the way we react to it will make all the difference between whether it takes us to hell or heaven; whether we “curse God and die,” or “bless God and live.”
As we study the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, we realize that, humanly speaking, His crucifixion was not inevitable. The gospel accounts make it clear that Jesus could easily have avoided any confrontation with the authorities in the first place, and Pilate would have been only too willing to release Him if He had been a little more accommodating. The early Christian martyrs could have avoided agonizing death, by compromising with the official requirements – throwing a pinch of incense on the flame burning before a statue of the Emperor of Rome. But Jesus had said, “Take up your cross and follow Me.” “Submit to crucifixion, if need be, rather than compromise the high ideals of your faith.” The conscientious objector who submits to a prison sentence rather than go out and kill his fellow man, is “taking up his cross and following Jesus.”
Personally I have never had to suffer for my faith in any spectacular manner. But there is a kind of suffering we must all face, if we want to grow spiritually. It is painful to die unto self and be born again from God. The easy and pleasant way is to continue as we are, living according to the mores of our culture, accepting our society’s values, going along with the establishment, applauding when everyone else applauds, and condemning what everyone else condemns; being indignant with everyone outside our group who doesn’t think and behave as we in our group
think and behave. It is pleasant and easy to go with the herd, and do everything we are expected to do. On the other hand, if we begin to think for ourselves, and accept different values from those of our herd, we are snarled at, even bitten by our former hunting mates – and that’s not nice. But it is what we must face up to, if we are to follow in the footsteps of our crucified Lord.
Evidently, then, pain and suffering will come to us as a result of our efforts to grow spiritually, because we shall have to accept and adopt values which are higher than those of our society, and are therefore unacceptable to our society. We must have the courage of our convictions, and “face the music” – not feeling superior to our society, or condemnatory toward anyone, but just quietly doing what we believe Jesus Christ would have us do, for the eventual building up of His kingdom. As more and more people act in this way, the conscience of society will be stirred, new values will be adopted, and the general level will rise. This is actually happening around us today; it is part of the coming of the New Age.
What if we try to do God’s will but fail? The conscientious Christian who strives to live according to his faith but is frustrated by circumstances, suffers even more, perhaps, than the one who achieves his end but is crucified for it.
Frustration can produce real anguish, especially when we are frustrated in doing God’s will. The husband or wife who sees so clearly what is best for his or her spouse, and tries so hard to force God’s will upon the other party, but cannot do so . . . this is misery indeed! There may be two possible reasons for this situation. (1) You may be mistaken in thinking that what you want is God’s will; it may be only your own will, and it is your failure to get your own way which is so humiliating to your ego. Or (2) God may have a greater tolerance for the other person’s free will than you have. Or your timing may be wrong. God may be trying to get the message over to you, that at this particular time you should step to one side and let things be! In this connection I would remind you of our Lord’s own words: “Resist not evil,” and “Be still and know that I am God.”
To stand back and do nothing, is often the hardest and most painful discipline in the world, especially when blows begin to fall on you which might have been avoided. However, what we suffer in this way can be creative in the highest degree. It brings us into oneness with God Himself, who suffers anew at the hands of His children every moment of every day and night. He is still on the cross in this sense, and the nails are being driven through His unresisting hands. Creation itself is like the woman clothed with the sun in Revelation 12, who is “travailing in birth, pained to be delivered.” Suffering is all around us, and so long as it is creative, it is good. Death is all around us, and, so long as it is the doorway to heaven, it is good. Light and shadow are necessary for every perfect picture. There is no picture at all if the canvas is all white or all black; the harmonious contrast of light and shade brings out the beauty.
Participate wholeheartedly in the light and the shadow; accept them both, and rest content in both; and your joy will be full, and no man will be able to take it from you.
The Invisible Providenc
I suppose it is because of the insecurity of our times, that there has been a fantastic upsurge of interest in horoscopes, fortune telling, tarot cards, dream interpretation – anything that purports to enable us to catch a glimpse into the future. I have no doubt that the future is there, somewhere. We are assured that the Lord can see it. He, being outside time, can look into time at any point, past, present or future. He can see at a glance where you will be, and what you will be doing, in twenty years’ time, or a thousand years’ time. The Lord could easily let us see into the future if He wished. But He knows that if He did so, it would be impossible for us to grow and develop spiritually and become angels.
Just imagine what would happen to this world if everyone could see into the future. The human race would just about grind to a standstill. If you knew exactly what was going to happen to you, and how you would react, during the next twenty-four hours, and the next twenty-four years, all spontaneity would go out of life, and you would just act out the foreseen motions like a robot. You would drift along on the current of predestination, and how boring it would be! Like seeing a movie through the second or third time: it all seems rather pointless, since you know exactly how everything is going to work out.
What would become of our projects if we could see into the future? If Ben Franklin had known the laws of electricity beforehand, where would have been the thrill of his experiments with the kite? If James Watt had been familiar with steam engines, what interest would he have had in the bouncing lid of a boiling tea kettle? Where would be the spirit of adventure as we edged our way into the future, discovering things as we went? Just imagine a Presidential Year, with its campaigning and party Conventions: where would the fun be, if we all knew ahead of time who the next President would be? Not only would the fun go out of life, but, more important, we should lose our free will.
Man’s development as a spiritual being derives from his exercise of freedom and rationality. Consider freedom for a moment. Of course we are not free to do just anything we like; but the Lord gives us definite areas of freedom, and our characters develop according to the way we choose to act within those areas. Maybe the Lord could have created us perfect: angels and archangels from the word “go,” unable to think a mean or dirty thought, in love toward Him and in charity one with another. Perhaps God did make man like that in the beginning; but He also gave man freedom, and we know what man did with it, and where he has got himself with it at the present day. We are born on a dunghill, and each one of us has to decide for himself what he wants to become, and struggle upward back into the estate for which he was originally created, as a son or daughter of God. It needs to be done with man’s willing cooperation, because forced love is no love at all. Man works within the areas of his free will, and the Lord then takes over and completes the job – tightening, loosening, adjusting, pulling down, building up, as required. Why doesn’t the Lord let us see Him at work? Because, if we could see what He is doing, we should probably oppose it with all our strength, and hate Him, and turn away from Him. For, believe it or not, most of what the Lord does, simply negates what we have done! He turns our structures upside down, taking the emphasis away from where we have placed it, putting it somewhere else, and generally changing the character of our work till we can hardly recognize it.
We, being materialistically minded, think principally in terms of making a success of our worldly lives, getting our own way in everything, being admired and honored by our peers, and obtaining financial security for our old age. These are the aims we have in view, toward which we devote most of our time, effort and thought. But the Lord has quite different aims for us. To Him, these things are of secondary importance only. Obviously He wants us to stand on our own feet and develop wills of our own, but only so that we can turn to Him “as of ourselves,” and freely renounce the fleeting pleasures of this world in favor of the inexhaustible joys of heaven. It is the heavenly treasure He wants for us, which is infinitely superior to the earthly treasure we seek. So, in many cases, though not all, Providence works in direct opposition to our wishes; therefore we deny Providence, attributing everything to blind chance or bad luck. Better that way, than that we should attack the wisdom and love of God!
Especially does the worldly man deny Providence when he sees the wicked flourish as the green bay tree. “There you are!” he says. “The unscrupulous get on in the world! Look at me. I’m strictly honest in my dealings. I’m a God-fearing man. And see what I get! If there’s such a thing as Providence, why don’t I get a bigger slice of the cake?” If such a man realized what was really good for him, he would see that he was far better off through failing in his worldly ambitions than he would be if he got everything he wanted.
People are like plants in a garden. Some flowers, nasturtiums for instance, thrive best in a rocky sterile soil with the minimum of nourishment. Others, such as vegetable marrows, need the richest possible humus. Roses have to be cut back, whereas other blossoms need to be left alone. The gardener knows the individual needs of each species and treats them differently according to their natures. So with us. But we have to be unconscious of what He is doing, or we should accuse Him of injustice and hate Him. There are some people who have a golden touch, who seem to succeed in everything they put their hand to, without even trying. If they enter a sweepstake, they always get a prize. They just sail through life, and we think “How happy they are!” Well, these are the ones who need an easy and pleasant life for their maximum development. There are others who labor from morn till night and seem to achieve nothing. But in their own way they may be progressing spiritually just as fast as the so-called lucky ones. All of us have our lives custom-built for us by the Divine Providence, to give us the maximum opportunity for spiritual growth.
Someone told me the other day that this doctrine of Providence was only a “Rationalization of failure.” O.K., perhaps it is, if by failure you mean worldly failure. What it does is to reverse one’s values, making very little of worldly success or failure, but a great deal of spiritual growth. There is no harm in seeking high positions for oneself or acquiring wealth. What is evil is the lust of power and dominion, or the lust of possessions. It is against these two hellish motivations – love of self and the world – that Providence is ceaselessly working. So He has to operate in secret, invisibly, because these evil loves are innate in us all.
Swedenborg says that many people who are evil at heart speak favorably of God and Providence when they first enter the other world after death, presumably because they think they will get on better if they do so. But when they find that God and Providence are opposing their evil desires and intentions, they turn against God and blaspheme Him, and finally regard themselves as gods. So on earth men would oppose and blaspheme God if they were aware that He was working against their most cherished aims.
As an illustration of the secret operation of Providence, consider the human body. We are free to control our bodies to a certain degree. We can move our arms and legs, and perform wonders by the control of our hands and fingers. It is up to us what food we eat and what drink we imbibe – we can even become intoxicated if we wish! We can focus our senses; we don’t have to take in sense stimuli if we don’t want to. (“Two men looked out from prison bars; one saw mud, the other saw stars.”) Certain of our emotions are more or less under our control. These powers are necessary in order that our bodies may be a projection of ourselves, able to take us around and do what we want to do. But, owing to the wise provision of the Creator, most of our bodily functions are not under our control. Our digestive systems, our blood and nerve systems, our heart beats, are all unconscious; even our breathing is only partly under our control. If we had the handling of the metabolism of our body, we should doubtless make a complete mess of it! As it is, we strain our bodies to the uttermost, and God has to put us to sleep for seven or eight hours every night, so that He can put things right again.
Even then God cannot always cure us, because our physical bodies come under the laws of nature, which operate strictly according to the principle of cause and effect. This raises another whole aspect of the subject, which must be taken into account when we are considering the doctrine of Providence. All of us are living within the framework of nature, which is predetermined and fixed in its processes and operation. In our illustration of the flowers in the garden, the garden itself functions according to its own built-in laws, the chemistry of the soil, the effect of sun, rain and air, irrespective of which plants are planted where. Then there are bacteria, molds, funguses, worms, insects of all sorts, contributing to what we call the balance of nature, which man upsets at his peril. It is of Providence that the laws of science (which God created) should operate in a constant manner, even if so-called “natural disasters” sometimes result; otherwise the whole setup would fall to pieces. God does not interfere with His own natural laws. He has ordained them for very good reasons; without them our majestic universe could not function. It is by discovering these laws and working with them, that man can develop a sense of responsibility for himself and his environment. The whole situation would be chaotic if God kept changing or suspending the laws of nature for special cases. This He will not do; but He does provide that each of us can have the maximum opportunity for benefiting spiritually from our contacts with our natural environment, in whatever situation we find ourselves. Evidently, then, the circumstances of our outer lives are not very important, one way or another. The important thing is OUR REACTION TO THEM.
Whether we are rich or poor, lucky or unlucky, healthy or ailing, strong or weak, clever or not so clever, there will be plenty of material available for the building up of an angelic character. And the Lord is with us, close to us, though mercifully out of sight, striving constantly to wean us away from our evils and draw us to Himself. The appearance is that we are doing it on our own, because only what we do in freedom, as of ourselves, can become part of us and have any permanent effect on us. We must act as if everything depended on us. We must take the initiative. We must exercise our best judgment in all things. Only when we ourselves are acting the best we know how, can Providence benefit us to the maximum degree. But: “If we do our best, God does the rest.” We can safely leave the outcome to Him.
Man’s inability to see the operation of Providence in the present and future was demonstrated to Moses when he wanted God to show him His Glory. God said, “I will put thee in a cleft of the rock as my glory passes by, and I will cover thee with my hand while I pass by. And I will take away my hand, and thou shalt see my back parts, but my face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:22, 23) We can see God’s back parts in the past if we want to, and the regenerating man takes delight in seeing evidences of Divine Providence in past events. One can see such evidences even in wars and natural disasters, which can contribute to the spiritual welfare of those who want to be regenerated. Particularly can one see the operation of Providence in one’s own past life. But in the present? Hardly at all!
I say “hardly at all,” because I do believe that, as we progress spiritually, a kind of intuition tells us that God is working with us. Though we cannot see His face, we feel the pressure of His hand upon us. We ask, “Which way, Lord?” and His hand seems to edge us this way or that. Thus, by waiting on the Lord over a considerable period of time, we become so aligned with Providence that we always act in harmony with it. This gives us an enormous increase of power and effectiveness, because it brings us into partnership with the force that created and runs the universe. “Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass.” As for the future, cannot we leave it safely to the Lord? It is a kind of insult to Him, at any rate a lack of faith and trust in Him, to be continually worrying about how things are going to turn out. Saul went to the Witch of Endor, and the gloomy forebodings he got from her so unnerved him that he lost the battle and tried to commit suicide. All too often, when people do get what they believe is a glimpse of the future, it is only some evil spirit tempting them to their undoing. Far better not to bother your head with such things! We are living in dangerous times: so what? Do the best you can in the present, and the future will look after itself. Even the time of our death is under control; the Lord knows when it will be, and all provision will be made for it.
The natural man is quite uninterested in seeing evidence of the operation of Providence in the past, but is desperately eager to see it in the future. On the contrary, the spiritual man delights to see Providence in the past, can feel it in the present but does not want to see it; and, as for the future, he prefers to leave that entirely alone, trusting in the goodness and wisdom of God.
So I will end by quoting Swedenborg’s Recipe for Contentment, which, in a sense, is his rendering of our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, especially the part about lack of anxiety for the morrow.
Rx for Contentment
Jesus in the Boat
Jesus Christ was Son of God and Son of Man. He was divine and human. As a human being, he had to grow up and mature, and suffer limitations, just like any other man. But every now and then, increasingly often as he grew older, his consciousness would slip over, right beyond human ken, and he would do things which no mere man could do.
The incident of the storm on the lake illustrates the two sides of his nature; and, coming as they did in immediate juxtaposition, they seem to have caused his disciples the utmost astonishment. First, there was Jesus the man, tired out, physically and emotionally, from hours of teaching in the tropical heat. As evening came, he desperately needed rest; he must be alone for a while in the peace and quiet of nature. So he asked his fishermen disciples to take him across in one of their sailboats to the other side of the lake. The eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee was practically uninhabited, save for a few remote pagan villages. It was bare scrubland, a fringe of the Arabian Desert. There he would be able to enjoy a peaceful night’s rest. So weary was he that he lay down to sleep on a cushion in the stern of the ship. Hush! The Master must not be disturbed!
But Nature thought otherwise. The Sea of Galilee is notoriously treacherous. It occupies a deep rift in the mountains running north and south. The winds blowing across it hardly touch it; but if they happen to veer round into the line of the trench, they roar through it as down a funnel: and woe betide any sailboat that doesn’t get its sails furled within minutes! The disciples had long experience of these sudden squalls and they were legitimately afraid. It seems to have annoyed them that Jesus was apparently oblivious of the danger, lying there fast asleep despite the whistling of the wind, the battering of the waves, and the water sloshing over the side and rapidly filling the ship. “Master,” they cried shaking him perhaps, “carest thou not that we perish?”
Then came the extraordinary transformation. From being a weary human, fast asleep, Jesus rose to his feet and addressed the wind and the waves in a voice of authority and with a commanding gesture: “Peace! Be still!” Instantly the wind ceased to blow, the waves subsided, and there was a great calm. Now the disciples were more afraid than ever, but with a different kind of fear: fear of the awesome presence of God in their midst, whom even the wind and waves obeyed. And the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.
They had already realized that Jesus possessed strange powers. One morning, some months before, after they had fished all night and caught nothing, he had said to them, “Let down your nets”; and when they had done so, against their own judgment, they had taken such a big catch that their nets had broken with the weight! But … to get up and command the wind and the waves, and be obeyed, that was an act of God, not of man! Some months later, according to Matthew, Jesus demonstrated his power over the sea in an even more spectacular manner, by actually walking on the water. He urged Peter to walk along with him. Peter set out, but lost his nerve, became afraid and began to sink, at which Jesus had said: “0 thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?”
These fleeting glimpses which the disciples had of Jesus operating from his divine nature, give us some idea of what Jesus is like today. For, after the crucifixion, his human nature, stripped of all limitations, was “united with the Divinity of which it was begotten.” Resurrected entire from the sepulcher, body and soul together, Jesus declared to his disciples, “All power is given unto me in heaven and on earth.” He still has the same love and compassion. He still helps his disciples in the same kind of way. He is a partner with us in every enterprise, however hazardous. He is sleeping in the stern of every vessel, however rough the passage.
Sleeping? How can the glorified Lord Jesus, the Divine Jesus as he now is, lie asleep? Well, of course, he cannot sleep now! He has overcome, outgrown, all limitations such as weariness and exhaustion. But he still appears to be asleep, until we summon him to our aid, until we say in the depths of our extremity: “Wake up, Lord, and save us, or we perish!” Do you think it would be a good thing, if Jesus were always awake and active in our situation with his divine power, a kind of Prospero, touching everything with his magic wand, so that trouble was barred from us, nothing ever went wrong, we were insulated? We should have a nice easy time, no doubt: carefree, no responsibilities, everything going smoothly; sunshine and blue skies, the lake always calm, and just that soft wind to billow out our sails and carry the ship along without our having to use the oars. (Sounds like a TV commercial!) But, if life were that easy, should we grow or mature? Our selfish ego would go unchecked, and we should just drift sweetly and easily, without resistance, down to hell. We know, in training our children, that if we do everything for them and give them everything they want, satisfying their slightest whim, they grow up selfish little brats. “Spoiled children” we call them, and spoiled they will be! So, Jesus deliberately withholds Himself from us, up to a point. He places us in a state of equilibrium between heaven and hell. We have calm weather followed by squalls. Angels give us words of encouragement, after which He allows evil spirits to insult us. Our moods are like the waves of the sea, ever on the move, up and down. We are seemingly left to our own resources; thus we develop a sense of responsibility. We must caulk our ship so that it does not leak; we must master the techniques of sailing and navigation. We must learn the signs of the weather and how to follow the stars. If Jesus were always available to waft us to our destination by a touch of magic, we should never concern ourselves with any of these things. Life would be much easier, but we should learn nothing. And how dull it would be!
Science and technology are already going far toward making life dull in this way. Take photography, for instance. With the old-fashioned cameras, it used to be a challenge to take a good photograph; and what a joyous sense of achievement when the picture came out well! But with today’s automatic cameras which do all the thinking for you, you get a perfect picture every time, and what’s the point of that? In the old days on the farm, when water had to be fetched from a stream or a pump, and wood gathered and chopped, and kerosene lamps trimmed, and cows milked by hand, there was work for everyone in the family, including the children, who consequently felt needed and important. Our teenagers today are bored to death, and go on drugs to relieve the monotony! Boredom is the cause of much of the mal-ease in our contemporary society and is due to the handing over of so many of our tasks, our routine duties, and the minor decisions we used to make, to the automatic machine. Life has become far too safe and easy.
As for the fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee, they have been equipped them with outboard motors, thus abolishing sails and oars. Squalls still cause danger, but the Israeli scientists will doubtless learn eventually how to control the weather, redirecting the winds, carrying the rain into the desert where it is needed, and perhaps pouring a heavy plastic foam on the waves to keep the water calm. But will the fishermen be any happier? Probably not. Happiness does not come from outer circumstances but from within. It depends on spiritual weather conditions, not physical. It comes from a satisfactory handling of our spiritual storms, which originate in a region beyond the reach of technology: the region of feelings and emotions, of good and evil, love and hate, heaven and hell; a region where Jesus alone has absolute authority. And Jesus deliberately hides himself at the bottom of the boat. He does not push himself forward. He waits till we cry, “Lord, carest thou not that we perish?” Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity. At our invitation, he awakes, rises in full majesty, and calms the storm with a gesture and a word. “Peace! Be still!”
As we make a habit of claiming the Lord’s protection and entrusting ourselves to his care, he may go into active partnership with us in the handling of the ship. He will not take over the control; that will be our prerogative. He will see that we remain at the tiller. But he will advise us and tell us what to do; and we shall be wise to follow his advice, as the disciples did against their own judgment when he told them to put down their nets, and they made that amazing catch. So he may say to us, during the storm: “Furl your sails, tack this way, swing her around,” or whatever. There will be a beautiful partnership between us and Jesus, and this is life at its very best: we working with him. He will not have to calm the waves. The storms may even become more violent; but we shall be able to handle them better, because He will be very much awake, working with us.
Most of us have not yet reached this stage in our development. We are still, shall I say, in the early days of our discipleship, when we want to do everything unaided. Jesus is our Master, sure! But it has not yet occurred to us that He can help us in any practical way. He is fast asleep, we are carrying Him in our boat. He talks well, but He can’t really look after Himself; we have to look after Him. Now there is a storm brewing; but see! He is lying there unconscious of the danger. We shall have to try to wake Him up. “Lord, carest thou not that we perish?”
Unfortunately, that is still the attitude of many of us towards Jesus, in the churches, in the economic field, in politics, in our personal lives. It does not occur to us to let Him take over, or even that He could take over if we let Him! The storm increases in violence; we are desperately afraid. “What will become of us? What will become of the human race? The whole world is in danger! We shall all be destroyed!” It is, of course, right and appropriate that we should do our best to control our situation, as far as we can. God has given us intellectual and physical gifts, which we should use to the utmost of our ability. We should spare no efforts to survive the storm in our own strength and navigate the ship to the desired haven. We must act, Swedenborg says, as if everything depended upon ourselves, yet we should be fully aware, all the time, that in fact we are utterly dependent on the Divine Providence of our Lord. This realization will remove all fear from our hearts. We should do the best we can, and then say: “Master, I have reached the end of my tether. You take over now!”
What a joy and comfort to know that Jesus is with us in the boat, even though seemingly asleep! – and that He has all power in heaven and on earth! Jesus is in the war areas of the world; He is in the White House and on the Hill. He will respond to our nation’s call, as soon as we seriously make it – even before! “Before they call I will answer,” says the Lord through Isaiah, “and while they are yet speaking, I will hear.” (Isaiah 65:24) “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the waters roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof.” (Psalm 46)
I guess we are all afraid of something, sometimes. What do you fear most? We are not likely to be in danger in a storm at sea; in fact, most physical dangers have been removed from our ordinary daily lives, thanks to science and technology. But as I look around I see that almost everybody has that little devil of fear somewhere in his breast. There is fear of the future – of old age, sickness, want. There is fear of other people, what they might do to us; fear that someone might get ahead of us, or take something that we should have; fear of not being acknowledged or properly appreciated, or given our due. Then there is fear of ourselves, our own weakness and inadequacy; fear that we might not make the grade or measure up to what people expect of us, or what we expect of ourselves. All these fears are instantly put to rest if Jesus is standing in the boat. “Peace! Be still!” he says, and there is an immediate calm.
How about fear of other people and what they can do to you? All this fades into insignificance if Jesus is with you in the boat. Someone gets ahead of you or takes something you think you should have. What does it matter? Suppose you are not properly appreciated – so what? The Lord loves and appreciates you! Luxuriate in His love, and the rest becomes unimportant. That goes also for our fear of ourselves. He knows our weaknesses and inadequacies, and He loves us in spite of all. We don’t have to “measure up” to anyone. There will always be someone cleverer than we are, or more attractive, or richer, or more successful. But on the other hand there will always be someone less clever, less beautiful, less rich, less successful; and that is perfectly in order. Just be content to be yourself, a child of God.
Our whole value system changes when Jesus is with us. We no longer crave the satisfaction of our worldly itches, but instead seek our joys from the Lord; they are there for the taking. Evil spirits leave us in disgust when they find we are ignoring them. We experience a wonderful feeling of peace. “Perfect love casts out fear.” “In quietness and confidence is our strength.”
In just such a way can Jesus calm the tempest in each of us. And eventually, as we work alongside him in the boat, we shall reach the final stage. We shall no longer need the boat! We shall be able to walk with Jesus on the water! Even though the wind is boisterous, we shall not be afraid, for the Lord will stretch out His hand and hold us. Then at last the waters will be at peace forever, and there will be a calm such as we have never experienced before. We shall be filled with a deep awe, and shall worship Him, saying: “Of a truth thou art . . . not just the Son of God, but God himself!”‘ God-with-us. The Creator Himself in human form.
Worry and Anxiety
I am not thinking just now of the healthy kind of worrying which is part of the stress and tension of normal living, as when we find ourselves in some perplexing situation and wonder just how we ought to act. I am thinking of the worry and anxiety which people experience when they think of various troubles and disasters which might happen to them or their loved ones at some future time, but which have not yet happened and may never happen. It seems foolish and irrational, but the fact is that most of us experience such fears of the future, some more distressingly than others. They rob us of our sleep at night; or, if we get to sleep and then wake up in the middle of the night, we start thinking of all the terrible things that might happen, and then we can’t get to sleep again.
People try to insulate themselves from worry in various ways, according to their temperament. Some plunge into work, in the hope that tremendous and continual activity will prevent them from having to think of the future. Others choose play, immersing themselves in a ceaseless round of amusements and superficialities, from which they dare not let up. Some try to make themselves brave by continual boasting. But such avoidance of confrontation with the specter of the future does not remove one’s worries, it just pushes them underground; and from the subconscious they work outwards, producing unhealthy tensions, physical sickness, and eventual despair.
Note that worrying people usually have a strong and fertile imagination. Unimaginative people don’t worry. The unschooled peasant cannot visualize anything worse than what he has actually experienced, and so there is nothing for him to worry about. Animals and birds do not worry, they just take life as it comes. (They are nervous if they see you approaching them, but that is the realistic and sensible worrying which I referred to at the outset.) Worriers about the future are usually people with vivid imaginations, some of whom might make a name for themselves by writing short stories, judging by the way they are able to work out in their minds every little detail of some appalling tragedy that might take place! The imagination is a wonderful gift from God, which He has given only to man. It makes us creators in our own finite way. But the same powers of creation which we have inherited from our heavenly Father can be used also for destruction; and that is what the worriers are doing with their wonderful imaginative powers. The basis of all anxious thinking is insecurity, the fear that things might go wrong. Undoubtedly it is true that almost anything might go wrong in this physical universe, where our very lives are dependent on forces we don’t fully understand and cannot fully control. We didn’t bring ourselves into the world in the first place; we don’t really know where we came from, nor how we got here, nor where we are going. There is plenty to worry about, you see, if we are set on worrying. Sometimes we worry about things over which we obviously have no control. We worry about our children, after they are grown up and are living their own lives. People worry about the war in Southeast Asia, about the Middle East situation, the trouble in Ireland. Of course it is right to be deeply concerned over what is happening to our fellow human being everywhere, and we must do what we can to influence the political situation; but beyond that, worrying is a waste of energy. There is a kind of false pride in it – the feeling that we ourselves are so important. Well, the world had to get along somehow before we were born, and it will doubtless get along after we are dead; so just let us leave those things over which we have no control to God. Let God be God!
Since our own influence is so small and the future is so unpredictable, is it any use our trying to plan for the future? Certainly we should try. We are “project oriented” by nature, and much of the interest and joy of life consists in planning various projects, working them through, and hopefully achieving some pre-arranged end. Swedenborg tells us that this is true also of the angels in heaven. Much of their happiness is derived from projects; only he doesn’t call them projects, he calls them “end, cause, and effect.” The angels lose themselves in some particular project and work at it avidly until they have completed it. Then they turn to something else, and so on to eternity. That is what Swedenborg means when he calls heaven “a kingdom of uses.” And we know how important it is for us also to have our projects, in our work and in our hobbies: either short-term projects like writing a letter or preparing a meal, or long-term projects like taking a university degree or raising a family. If our projects could never fail or go wrong, we should not enjoy them nearly so much. I have just finished a minor project of framing a picture. I had to cut the glass to fit the frame, which was a delicate and exciting operation, because at any moment the glass might have cracked in the wrong place and everything would have been spoilt. But it would not have been nearly so much fun, I think, if there had been no risk of failure, if success had been predetermined from the outset. Much of our spiritual development comes from our having to deal with materials which may break or go awry, so that we have to exercise caution, and be resourceful and versatile, able to cope with the unexpected, to respond to sudden needs of improvisation. When we can trust ourselves to improvise, much of our worrying ceases. You set out to drive a car across town. You don’t know what problems are going to face you on the way, but you don’t worry, because you know from past experience that whatever happens you will probably be able to improvise your way through. It is the person who has never learned to improvise who is the worst worrier.
Even if things happen for which we are totally unprepared, we still have the assurance that the Lord is with us, that He has foreseen it, and that His Divine Providence is over everything. When I say that Providence is over everything, I do not mean that the Lord necessarily causes it, or even wills it, except in the general sense that the Lord made the universe the way He did, with its built-in laws which operate independently of man. If an earthquake takes place, and the ground opens and swallows up someone’s house, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Lord had anything against the owner of the house. What it means is that Lord made the earth as He did make it; He made it very hot and let it cool; and as it cools it contracts, and, being made of the material it is made of, certain tensions are created during contraction which, when they reach sufficient stress, tear the surface apart. Moreover, the Lord must allow some things to go wrong through man’s own misuse of his freedom. If He did not permit man to embark on dangerous and destructive projects, man would never learn the difference between good and evil. When the nuclear bomb destroyed Hiroshima, could the Japanese victims have truthfully said: “This is the Lord’s doing, we must calmly submit to the ways of His inscrutable Providence?” No! Not everything that happens in the universe is according to the Lord’s will. But nevertheless the Divine Providence is over everything that happens, in the sense that He knows it is going to happen. He has foreseen it, and He has already planned everything from His side so that the best possible good will come out of it for everybody concerned. And when I say “everybody” I mean every man, woman and child considered as an individual, not just the human race as a whole, or the American nation, or any mass movement; or as we speak of animals and say that the killing off of the weak ones is “good for the species.” God loves you personally, however humble you may be. He wants the best for you, even if He does sometimes have to allow things to go wrong for you. However adverse your circumstances, however sick your body, He will see that nothing hurts the real You. “You” will come out of it all right! If you open yourself to receive the blessings He has in store for you, then death itself will not hurt you – it may even in fact be the ultimate cure!
Do you really believe this? – that you, as a person, are safe and secure in His protective care? – that, if you love the Lord, all things are working together for your good? Such an assurance will remove all fear of the future! Plan for the future you must, of course. Do everything reasonable, within your competence, to make things come out well. Say: “This is the project I am working on, Lord, this is how I want it to go. You know already, Lord, whether it will work out or not; and if you know it will not work out, I can trust you to make other and better arrangements for me. Maybe my intentions are wrong, Lord, my plans too self-centered. If so, please show me how to make a better plan, more in line with your will. Thank you, Lord!” Note here that you are using your imagination positively to produce the best possible results; and this can have a powerful influence on the situation, even on the physical level; we don’t know precisely how it does, but we know it does. By the same token, the negative use of the imagination can have a powerful adverse effect. This is what worriers don’t seem to realize, that by worrying they are actually helping to bring about the troubles or failures or disasters they so greatly fear. Evil spirits from hell are well aware of this, and one of their principal aims is to get you to use your imagination in this dangerous and destructive manner. They nudge us and egg us on, suggesting all sorts of things that might fail or go wrong, trying to persuade us to visualize the expected disaster as if it were actually taking place in all its grizzly details. Such thoughts on our part make it almost impossible for the Lord to help us; they drive away our Guardian Angels, God’s messengers to us, and leave us alone in the gloating company of those evil ones whose sole aim is to destroy us, and who have power over us just to the degree to which we are thinking negative thoughts. A sense of Guilt or Failure is one of the things they insinuate into us; they remind us of all the mistakes we have made: stupid, foolish, idiotic! They make us utterly disappointed in ourselves; we feel we are a mess, on our way to perdition. When the devil carries a man off to hell because of his evils, you can be sure the devil put them in him in the first place, and got him to accept them as his own! The thing to do is to send the devil packing, which you can always do if you want to, in God’s name. Remember how Jesus said: “Get thee behind me, Satan!” And we can say the same, if we find our imagination drifting into anxiety and worry, “Get out, you! I don’t want any part in you! I am the Lord’s child, I am in His keeping! All will be well, all will be very well!” And then, if you are in bed, roll over into another position, make yourself comfortable, relax every muscle (and check up carefully to see that every muscle is relaxed!) ; fix your mind on some Psalm or other passage from God’s Word which you know by heart (if your mind wanders, pull it back again!) ; feel yourself in your loving Father’s arms, and go off to sleep. In the morning you will wake up thinking: “How ridiculous for me to worry like that over such and such a thing! It will probably never happen. And if it does happen at its very worst, what of it? So what? I am in the Lord’s hands! All will be well, all will be very well!”
It isn’t only in bed that you can obtain help from the Lord in this matter of worrying. Any time is prayer time; and a habit of “tuning into God’s radio channel” during spare moments throughout the day can keep you constantly in the security of His presence and in an atmosphere of peace. Worry can be caused by too much attention to externals; in other words, by putting values in their wrong order. If we saw the correct relative importance of everything in God’s eyes, we might not worry nearly so much. It is because of our ego that temporary things, our possessions and our physical bodies, seem so important to us. Place the Lord in the center of your life, and you will soon find that the only treasure you value is in heaven, where neither moth nor rust corrupt and where thieves cannot break through nor steal. That is the only safe-deposit with absolute security!
As for the future, why do we think it is so desperately important? It isn’t really, you know! Our culture is future-oriented, but we should be much better off if we ceased to bother about it so much. If it were so important, the Lord would let us see it; but He does not do so, because He wants us to live in the “now.” He wants us to prepare for Eternity, yes; but Eternity is not in the future, it is a continuous succession of “nows.” In our culture we devote so much energy to preparing for the future that we lose all capacity to enjoy the present; and when the future comes for which we have been so anxiously preparing, we are still getting ready for another future, until we die; and then perhaps it is too late. Make all reasonable preparations for the future, of course; but confine your feelings, your emotions, your joys and your sorrows, to the Present. Learn to live fully in the present, savor it, give it your full attention, for it is the only little bit of time which, at this moment, is actually yours. Remember what I said about the animals and birds: they never worry, but take life as it comes. And remember what Jesus said, in one of the best-known but least observed passages in all literature, “Take no thought for the morrow (or, be not anxious about tomorrow) for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:34). And again: “Take no anxious thought, saying, What shall we eat, or what shall we drink? or, wherewith shall we be clothed? – for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”
|PRIDE AND HUMILITY|
I was once giving a talk on the subject of PRIDE, discussing its many ugly manifestations, and I chanced to remark that in my opinion HUMILITY is nearly as bad as pride, and that pride and humility are in fact two faces of the same coin. A lady came to me afterwards in some bewilderment, and asked what I could possibly have meant by saying that humility is similar to pride! Surely humility is the direct opposite of pride? Is it not good to be humble before God? Were not St. Francis and St. Teresa humble? How could any Christian, let alone a minister, disapprove of humility?
Well, of course, she was right. Many of the saints in the Middle Ages were genuinely humble. But true humility is so rare in this 20th century that I had almost forgotten it ever existed! Today, humility is generally of the spurious kind, which tends to emphasize rather than diminish one’s sense of self-importance (“I am not worthy; I am a sinner”); and self-importance, no matter what its basis, is the evil of pride which I had been considering.
Humble people generally take themselves far too seriously, concentrating obsessively on their own spiritual condition. All states of mind which encourage concentration on the ego (pride, humility, self-accusation, guilt)—all are dangerous. To say you are the “chief of all sinners” is just as boastful as to say you are the “chief of all saints!” When a person says to you: “I am of no importance; ignore me! I am a doormat, trample on me!” you can suspect his sincerity, because if you take him at his own evaluation and treat him like a doormat, he will probably be deeply offended! Try it and see.
There is a story of two ministers working in a church. The senior minister fell on his knees at the altar rail, and said: “Lord, have mercy on me, I am the greatest of all sinners!” His curate fell on his knees beside him and said: “Lord, have mercy on me, I am nothing but evil from head to foot!” Hearing them, the old caretaker, who was sweeping the church, laid down his broom and came forward and knelt beside them saying: “Lord, have mercy on me; I too am a sinner, as thou knowest, O Lord!” The curate turned to the rector and said indignantly, “Hark at him! Who does he think he is?”
The human selfhood is very versatile; it takes on many forms and puts on all kinds of disguises. What it wants is to be taken notice of. It is like a dog that doesn’t mind being kicked so long as it is not ignored. There are different ways of being conspicuous and feeling important. You can do it by bragging; by self-pity; by running other people down, and moaning over the state of the world. Or you can do it by making a big point of confessing your sins and hugging guilt to yourself, even for evils you never committed! All these feelings are suspect, if they serve merely to bring “self” downstage and make it conspicuous. To pat oneself on the back, and to beat oneself on the chest, are both equally bad if done merely to emphasize one’s own importance.
The problem of how to be humble without pride is no new one. Bunyan grappled with it. He said: “Lord, I am completely humble, I am an insignificant worm, all my pride is laid aside.” Then he thought, “That’s pretty good! I’ve done that pretty well!”—and immediately realized he was proud of being humble! So he tried again: “Lord, take away my pride in being humble!” Then he found he was proud at being no longer proud of being humble! And so you could go on. There is no end to it. This all confirms my view that pride, boastfulness, pomposity, self-pity, humility, self-accusation — they are all in the same basket. The only way to get relief is to empty the whole lot out of the basket, and fill it instead with Bread from heaven.
Man himself is nothing but an empty vessel. He is not the source or origin of any of his thoughts or feelings; if he were, the whole universe would collapse in confusion. He feels he is, of course, but this is only an appearance, allowed so that he can enjoy the life that is within him as if it were his own. Actually it all comes originally from the only Source of life—the Lord himself. It percolates down to man through many channels, taking on the character of those who receive it on the way and pass it on to him. In general, it can reach man through heaven or through hell. Evil thoughts and desires come to us from hell. The evil spirits are very cunning at making us believe they are from ourselves. They dress the ideas up in such a way that we fully believe they are our own. And if we allow ourselves to be bamboozled into accepting them as our own, then they become our own, and we take on the character of the evil spirits who gave them to us. The spirits even tried to do this with Jesus when he was tempted in the wilderness; but Jesus perceived where the temptation came from, and said, “Get thee behind me, Satan!”—which we should say also.
In our early adult lives we are most of us dominated by love of self and the world, no matter how much we pose and posture as the humblest of creatures. Our job is to empty all this out, and let the angels fill us with the Lord’s love and wisdom. This is not so difficult as it may seem, despite the propaganda of hell that shrieks at us with dismay and threatens us with all sorts of horrors if we so much as contemplate giving up our evils. Actually we are specially adapted to hold the Lord’s life. Our will-faculty is designed to contain his love, and our intellect is designed to contain his wisdom, and we can only be really happy and at peace when his love and wisdom are in us. It was for this that we were created—to be finite vessels containing his infinite Life. In so far as we do contain it, and acknowledge that it is from him and is not our own, we are his children, in his image and likeness; he loves us, and we love him. This is how things are with all the angels. They are still “self-conscious,” in the sense that they are intensely aware of being only finite vessels. They still have the two doors under their control, one from hell and the other from the Lord; but they freely and joyously choose to lock the door from hell and open the door from the Lord, and so the Lord enfills them from himself. They are filled to the brim and running over, and feel his glorious life as their own. They are like a glass filled with the choicest wine. The higher the angel, the more keenly sensitive he is of being only a finite vessel distinct from God, yet the more fully and gladly aware he is of being filled with God’s life.
You probably do not qualify as one of the highest angels, yet even in our lowest estate down here in the first grade we can begin the process of emptying out self, and can experience something of the joy and lightness of heart which results from having the Kingdom of God within us. No longer do you care whether people notice you or not, whether you get due acknowledgment for the good you do. You no longer have that nagging sense of guilt unredeemed and sins unforgiven. On the other hand you can be much more objective in admiring your own work—a luxury which the old ethic forbade absolutely. For example, an artist paints a picture which he knows is good. Someone tells him it is good, but according to the old ethic he has to say: “No, it’s a poor thing!”—because, being a Christian, he has to be humble whereas to accept praise would be boastful! Of course it’s all hypocrisy—he knows perfectly well it is not a poor thing, but that is the stance he is supposed to take. But by the new ethic he can be honest and realistic, for he knows that he himself is only an empty vessel; the life within him, the skill and inspiration behind the picture, came from the Lord through heaven, so to praise the picture is perfectly appropriate. Maybe it did not all come from heaven; there are faults in the picture, which may have originated in hell. He can judge these quite objectively, just as if the picture were painted by someone else. He can say: “That aspect of it is good—it’s fantastic! That part needs improving, and that part is definitely poor. But on the whole it is by far the best picture I have ever done!” He can acknowledge success without pride, and failure without shame. Compliments do not turn his head, and criticism cannot floor him.
How does all this fit in with the teaching that from time to time we must subject ourselves to a deep self-examination and practise repentance for the remission of sins? Well, self-examination is much easier under the new ethic than the old, because we can assess ourselves more objectively and frankly. However, repentance is going to be of a different nature, because we now know that the evil in us is not actually our own, any more than the good in us is our own. We are merely a vessel, which can be filled either from heaven or from hell. Ideally it should be filled only from heaven, and we can sometimes attain this ideal. I myself have attained it, just at rare intervals; and on those occasions I have experienced such a lightening of my old ego that I have felt myself in heaven already! Then I fall back, and the evil spirits swarm in and tell me I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul; I must stick up for myself and make a striking impression, and be offended and hurt if I am not admired; and so on and so on. That is the great sin, of which we should all repent and from which we need to be saved: not any sin of commission or omission, but a sin of attitude, of turning from heaven to hell, from God to self.
Only when we have realized all this can we understand what Jesus meant when he stated as one of the basics of the Christian life: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Humility, as I define it, is not meekness. Humility is sad and downcast, despising oneself; meekness is gay and serene, filled with quiet joy, the joy of acknowledging one’s utter dependence on the Lord, and delighting in all he has given us. Humility can involve us in false guilt and misery, but meekness leads us straight into the glorious presence of God. Humility says: “Tread on me, for I am a poor wretched creature; it will do me good to be trampled on!” Meekness is so little self-conscious that it hardly notices whether anyone is treading on it or not! Anyway, it is so buoyant that even if it is knocked down it just bounces up again, with neither a swelled head nor a bruised heart. Humility admits that all its possessions are not worth much and should be down-graded; meekness has no possessions of its own, all it has is on loan; some of it beautiful, some of it not so good. Humility is introverted; meekness is extraverted. Humility is full of mud and pollution; meekness is a clear mountain stream. Of Moses it was said: “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.” (Numbers 12:3.) Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
So much for humility. How about pride? Regarded as a “self” I am nothing at all, not worth considering. But as a child, of God I am important indeed! “My soul will make her boast in the Lord,” says the Psalmist; and Paul says, “I make my boast in Christ Jesus.” There is no harm in that kind of boasting! To conclude, I will quote the words of Jesus himself, which are repeated in slightly varying forms no less than six times in the gospels: twice in Matthew, once in Mark, twice in Luke and once in John: “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for the Lord’s sake, the same will find it.”
|THE YOKE OF SUBMISSION|
|A yoke, as you know, is part of the harness of the labouring ox: a beam of wood across the top nicely curved to the shape of the neck, and a peg through on each side in front of the shoulders. The yoke is strapped to the plough or cart, so that as the ox presses forward into the yoke his energy is channeled into useful work. Jesus had probably made dozens of such yokes in the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. Perhaps he had the slogan written up in Hebrew over the door: “My yoke is easy!”
During Old Testament times, however, a more sinister meaning had been given to the symbolism of the yoke. After a victory in battle, the successful general would yoke the defeated king to his chariot and make him drag it along like a beast under the lash. Thus the yoke became the sign of SUBMISSION. If a vanquished city wished to capitulate to an invading or besieging army, the leading citizens would appear on the top of the walls wearing yokes. The prophet Jeremiah put a wooden yoke on his own neck to indicate to the people that they must submit to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. Hananiah, who favoured resistance, took off Jeremiah’s yoke and broke it. But the Lord said to Jeremiah: “Go, tell Hananiah, You have broken the wooden yoke, but I will make in its place yokes of iron.” (Jeremiah 28:10, 13.)
Against this background of usage, with the yoke symbolizing submission and even slavery, the calm statement by Jesus that his disciples must take his yoke upon them acquires a bite which is lost to us today. “You must submit to me absolutely. You must become my captive, even my slave.” There is nothing soft or sentimental about that!
Christ is the imperious King. He demands that we bear his yoke, giving him a total commitment of all we have and are. We must come humbly out of our walled cities, with yokes on our necks and the keys in our hands. “Great Conqueror,” we must say, falling on our knees before him, “we surrender unconditionally. We hold nothing back. You shall be our Master for ever.”
What I am telling you is very unpopular these days, especially in a nation brought up to the ideal of the freedom of the individual. There is a Master who has absolute claim upon our property, our time, our talents, our life. Everything we think and say and do must be submitted to his scrutiny and rejected if it is not in harmony with his will. Nothing can be hidden from him, and it is useless for us to try to have any private life at all behind shut doors. Even if we make our bed in hell, he is there.
But wait a moment! There is another side to this. If you are prepared to submit yourself to God without reservation, and when you actually do this, the whole situation changes. Once you are committed to him as a slave, you find him no longer a demanding task-master but a loving Father. Having accepted his yoke, we find that, in fact, it fits us perfectly and does not gall us in the least; it is an “easy” yoke. Having undertaken to carry his heavy burden and hitched it up on our backs, we find it as light as a piece of styrofoam!
Many people in the past—saints and ordinary folk like ourselves—have proved this to be the case, and have recorded their experience: that “it is not so difficult to live the life of heaven as is commonly believed.” For, once you have given yourself up to the Lord, he takes all your responsibilities off your shoulders.
How difficult, how complicated, is the life of him who tries to live for himself. Always he must be considering his status; on no account can he afford to “lose face”. He is in a perpetual state of anxiety lest someone should creep up and outdo him. He must be building up his ego all the time. He must be praised; but if anyone else is praised or preferred before him, it is bitterness and gall. Much depends on his possessions—his property; if he loses a few pounds or dollars, it is like the extraction of a tooth! And so he is in a perpetual state of fear: afraid of himself and his own inability to live up to the image he has of himself; afraid of humiliation, afraid of loss, afraid of sickness, afraid above all of death. A heavy yoke indeed!
On the other hand, once you no longer belong to yourself but to the Lord, all these fears and inadequacies and jealousies disappear. If people misunderstand you, what does it matter? It does not touch you, because you are the Lord’s. If they criticize you, you agree with them—they are probably right! You can no longer be hurt, because your pride is no longer swollen, red and “touchy”. As for temptations to do foolish and wicked things, they no longer affect you, because Jesus is at your side. You just say, “Lord, please handle this situation for me,” and the battle is won. And so you are at peace, with a peace the world can neither give nor take away. And with that peace comes joy.
Religion is a paradox; it works by opposites. Evil spirits offer you everything you could desire: freedom, pleasure, glamour, excitement, fun, a real good time; but, once you attend to them and accept their blandishments they rapidly reduce you to a condition of slavery. “He who commits sin is the bond-slave of sin.” They are like the spider who invites and entices the fly into his parlour and then gobbles it up! Our Lord’s way is the complete reverse of this. He offers us (or seems to offer us) nothing but hardship and renunciation, a total sacrifice, a yoke, a cross. But if you accept him on those terms you discover that in fact “his yoke is easy and his burden is light.” And beyond the cross is—glorification! The Lord is not really the hard task-master he would appear to be. He is meek and lowly of heart, and, if you take his yoke upon you and learn of him, you will find rest unto your soul.
For years I have been trying to lighten the load of people’s religious lives—and my own also. So many of us find religion a serious and heavy-going business, whereas it should be light as air. We find it solemn and gloomy, whereas it should be joyous and uplifting. I have wondered and worried over this. Where have we gone wrong? Well, here is the answer, right before us! We are failing to enjoy the full lightness and joyousness of the Christian life because we have not taken the first essential step of accepting Christ as our Master! We are not enjoying the easy yoke because we have not taken on Christ’s yoke at all—fearing it might be too heavy! We shall never experience the joy of intimacy with our heavenly Father until we have first submitted ourselves to him as a Conqueror. We must empty ourselves out of self before we can be filled with the healthful spirit of his grace. He is standing here by our side, ready and waiting to fill the tank of our car with the highest grade of spirit, but unfortunately the tank is already full—full of dirty water!
WE must take the initial step, which will have to be a negative one—”Thou shalt not!” We must stop battling against the forces of heaven, which many of us have spent our lives doing in the past. Battling for what?—for the proud privilege and honour of being an evil spirit in hell! We must wave the white flag and give in to our masterful Lord. We must yield ourselves up in unconditional surrender and take his yoke upon us. Only then shall we experience wholeness and peace.
One point on which people seem to be in doubt. They realize there must be a full submission but do not see how this fits in with the continued exercise of their freewill and responsibility. They suppose that the only way to renounce self completely is to stop living in the world, to give up the rat race and go and live in a convent or a monastery. But no! To renounce the world means to live in the world but renounce its evils. Submission to the Lord does not mean laying down one’s tools. The ox in the yoke pushes forward and does his Master’s work; in fact, the very purpose of the yoke, as we saw at the beginning, is to channel his energy into useful labour. The captive and the slave are not expected to sit around idle. The sign of the yoke is that they must work harder than ever, but on their master’s behalf and in his interests instead of their own. So with the son of the household; he works the hardest of all, as his father’s representative and heir. We shall still have to go on exercising our free-will and sense of responsibility, but as the Lord’s agents, his children, responsible to him.
The yoke is not only a symbol of submission but is also actually a help to more efficient and useful labour in the Lord’s vineyard. The “rest” which Jesus offers us is not a cessation of activity, rather it is a rest from anxiety, tension, worry and fear, a rest from temptation and the itch of self-importance. “Come to me,” says Jesus, “all you who labour and are heavy laden in that sense, and I will give you rest. Bend your necks to my yoke, and learn of me so that you can do the job better. For I am meek and lowly in heart, and you shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
PURGED WITH FIRE
|Once when I was a little boy I saw a distorted image of myself in a shiny copper tea kettle. I found that as I drew closer to it with my face, the image became more distinct. But when my lips touched it I squealed with pain, for the kettle was full of boiling water! My lips swelled up so that I couldn’t speak for the rest of the day. Consequently my tender imagination was appalled when I first heard of Isaiah’s experience in the temple in Jerusalem (Isaiah 6). The Lord was sitting on a throne; there was an earthquake and the temple was filled with smoke . . . Isaiah cried: “Woe is me! I am undone, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips; and I have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then flew one of the seraphim with a burning coal which he had taken from the altar, and laid it on Isaiah’s lips, saying “Your iniquity is taken away, your sin is purged.” Then the Lord said, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and Isaiah answered, “Here am I, send me!” How could Isaiah speak these words, I wondered, after having had a burning coal touch his lips?
I have since come to realize that pain, arising from preoccupation with one’s own self-image, is often a necessary preliminary to commitment to the Lord’s work. The pain is valuable because it teaches us that self-love gets us into hot water! We must turn away from concern with our own image and look upwards to the Lord and outwards to other people.
Isaiah needed that burn on the mouth to check his former course and redirect his activities into new and more important channels. Hitherto his life seems to have been very like yours and mine, full of yieldings to the lower selfhood. His lips had spoken lies and his tongue had uttered perverseness. “Woe is me!” he cried, “for I am undone — my lips are unclean!” They needed to be purged with fire.
The lips, the mouth! What a wonderful organ is the mouth! We take in our food by it; we communicate with others by it, speaking words of sympathy, love and encouragement. With our lips we kiss. Yet what a cause of stumbling they can be! The alcoholic takes in poisonous drink by his mouth. The same lips which can sing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts,” can also tell the smutty story and foul up the whole environment — so that we “dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” To cleanse the mouth is to go a long way towards purifying the whole person, for, as Jesus said, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Purging the lips, therefore, goes much deeper than (say) washing the hands. Our hands represent our actions merely, but our mouth is the door of a passage leading into and from our innermost being. And it is the inner, secret area of desire and motive which must be purified if we are to become messengers of God — apostles who are “sent” on His affairs.
Purification involves the breaking down and removal of the self-centered ego. When Isaiah said “Woe is me, I am undone!” he meant it literally. The “I” in him was being undone. Only when our inherited selfhood is reduced to rubble by the battering-ram of temptation can we be rebuilt as a temple in which the Lord of hosts can sit on his throne.
Purification implies a simplification, a stripping away of everything which is of inferior quality and which causes a lowering of the value of the whole personality. He who wants the best should not fritter away his time, talents and energy on the second or third best, or fourth best. Ambition to excel, to achieve certain ends, to make a name and reputation, to amass possessions — these need not be evil in themselves, but they will have to be relinquished if they detract from what is of absolute value. Pleasures and amusements and petty social vices, in which we indulge in company with other men and women of the world, may be innocent enough, but we shall find ourselves having to drop them as we advance in the spirtual life — not from any motive of asceticism, but because they tend to devalue our personality. You cannot serve God and mammon.
Jesus said, “If your eye is single, your whole body shall be full of light.” By the single eye is meant integrity, purity of purpose, the concentration on essentials, and the minimizing, if not the entire removal, of inessentials. The essentials of religion were defined by the Master himself when someone came up to him and asked, “What exactly is this new teaching you are putting over?” Jesus answered: “You shall love the Lord your God with heart, mind and strength; and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Love to the Lord, and love of people — these are the essentials of a heavenly life. How readily some of us busy ourselves with inessentials in order to escape the responsibility of these essentials!
It is so much easier and less demanding to plunge into all kinds of activity, running busily hither and thither, being useful, doing good works, pointing out what’s wrong with everybody and trying to put things right . . . going round and round the perimeter but never actually penetrating into the heart of religion. “Be still and know that I am God,” says the Lord. Stop trying to put the world to rights and look inwards for a moment. “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me?” says the Lord. “Wash you, make you clean!” And again, in a very telling phrase: “Be clean, you that bear the vessels of the Lord.”
How can we be made clean, spiritually? In Isaiah’s vision the purification was effected by fire. Fire is the best consumer of garbage; it is also the best antiseptic, if we can take it. Fire, in the supreme sense, is the glorious, glowing, all-consuming and all renovating Love of God. The Lord is the Divine Sun of heaven, shining in its strength. He is Love itself; and to come near this flaming Source of all love is to be purged of every element of dross. To live in close daily contact with the Lord is the only effective antidote to the corrupting influence of the Second Best. For, when the Lord is felt to be near, we cannot from very shame escape the challenge of the Best. How can we wriggle out of our responsibility for the things that really matter, when we are conscious that the Lord Jesus Christ is standing over us and reading our thoughts, penetrating right through to our hidden motives? The fire of his Love and Wisdom burns up all our rubbish!
Once, at an open-air communion service at camp, we were each given a slip of paper and invited to write on it any problem we might want to bring before the Lord, any resentment we wished to get rid of, anything from which we wanted release and purification. We then walked one by one to the campfire burning in the middle of the circle, threw the slip of paper on the glowing embers and watched it go up in smoke. I personally was deeply helped by this simple act of symbolism.
Purification by fire is a kind of washing, which in Greek is called baptism. John baptized with Jordan water, whereas Jesus, who came after him and was mightier than he, baptized with the Holy Spirit and with FIRE. Water washing is surface cleansing; fire purifies the heart.
Isaiah, in the framework of Judaism, had to go into the temple to meet God and have his lips purged with fire; but today you don’t have to enter any particular building, for the Lord Jesus Christ is here with us in the temple of his Divine Humanity. But, like Isaiah, we must have a personal encounter with Him. Do not shrink or hold back, even though it may be painful. You are as qualified for “baptism by fire” as were the apostles of old, on that memorable Day of Pentecost described in the Book of Acts; and the Lord is as available today as he was to them. We have but to know a minimum of truth concerning the Lord’s nature and His holy Word, and He will fill that truth with the rushing mighty wind of his Spirit and the fire of his love, till they overflow and fill the whole place where we happen to be. The fresh wind will blow away the paralyzing and suffocating smoke of our past sins and mistakes. And the tongues of fire flickering over us will inspire us to new expressions of joy and praise, enduing us with power from on high.
There is probably quite a lot in you that needs to be purged away. You can’t do the purifying, but the Lord can and will. Malachi saw God as a refiner of silver, seated at his crucible over the fire, purging the sons of Levi. And, as I began these remarks with a little boy looking at his distorted image in a shiny copper kettle and trying to get it into focus, so I will end with a vision of our beloved Lord gazing into our molten souls. Whenever we shun an evil because it is a sin, that evil floats to the surface as scum and he scoops it off, and watches for the next to come up. He continues to do this until he sees his own image reflected without distortion in the smooth liquid surface of our personality and life. Let us all reflect him in purity and simplicity, and the joy and peace of heaven will begin upon earth, and the New Age will dawn.
|How would you define dirty, filthy? I asked a group of friends the other evening, and we had some fun trying to get a satisfactory definition of dirt. Why is it that if a boy plays in the mud he gets dirty, but a woman can put a mud-pack on her face and she is not dirty! To be sweaty is dirty, though it comes from one’s own skin. And so on. Our conclusion was that dirt is something that is socially unacceptable, that indicates slovenliness and lack of care of one’s body, that smells bad, that contains elements of decay . . . so one could go on describing dirt without ever reaching an over-all definition.
By and large, people were dirtier in Biblical Palestine than they are in Britain today, because of the shortage of water, especially in the desert. I have no doubt that Jesus and his disciples were very sweaty and would not be socially acceptable here. In fact, the Pharisees who were meticulous in their washing, according to their own hygienic and dietary traditions, accused the disciples of being dirty — not washing their hands in the proper way before meals, nor their cups and pots and brass vessels. (Mark 7: 2-4.) I can just imagine them saying: “CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO GODLINESS!” But Jesus retorted rather sharply, reminding them that their rules of cleanliness were not commanded by God but were merely the traditions of men. Then, in an important statement, Jesus defined what HE meant by dirt. Calling the people to him and claiming their full attention, he said: “Hearken to me everyone, and understand. There is nothing from outside a man that, entering into him, can defile him, because it does not enter into his heart but goes into his stomach and so passes on. But the things that come out of him, these are what defile the man. For from within, out of the heart, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evils come from within; they defile the man.” (Mark 7:14-23.)
There you have what Jesus meant by dirt. It is from such inner corruptions that you must be cleansed by spiritual washing if you are to get to heaven. And it is from these that the saints are said to have been cleansed in Rev. 7:14 — “These are they who came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” And Isaiah says, at the very beginning of his prophecy: “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes: cease to do evil, learn to do well . . . Come now and let us reason together, says the Lord. Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1: 16-18.)
Jesus was simply restating this when he said on Easter Sunday evening in the upper room: “He that believes and is baptized (or dipped in water) shall be saved; but he that does not believe shall be damned.” (Mark 16:16.) The Lord himself does not, and could not, damn anyone; but spiritual dirt does, so long as we let it cling to us. It separates us from those who are clean, and lands us among those who are as dirty as we are, in hell. “Like attracts like” — it is the Judgment. But a course of baptism — or spiritual washing — will put us right.
God created you and me and all of us pure and unsullied. Spiritually speaking, there is no such thing as inherited dirt or hereditary sin. There is nothing wrong with the human ego as it leaves the hands of the Maker. Those who tell us that the ego is evil and must be destroyed, are telling us we must destroy ourselves, which would be to undo the creative work of God. The human ego is a vessel — a vessel perfectly designed to hold the love and wisdom of God; a beautifully patterned wine glass (each of us with our own distinctive markings and patterns) meant to contain and hold the pure wine of the Life of God. Unfortunately, however, we most of us start off by filling it with dirty, stinking water, from hell. You could change the analogy and think of the ego as a leather bucket, which is sodden with dirty water and oozes thick black fluid into itself. Before putting into it clean spring water you must empty it out and scour it round and disinfect it and dry it; then, and only then, can it be used to contain and hold the Water of Life from God.
How does one cleanse one’s own ego? We must clean it with that very same Water of Life — the truths of God’s Holy Word, the teachings of Scripture. Any truth that reveals God’s nature can make us clean if we absorb it and model our lives upon it. So Jesus said in the upper room: “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.”
In the past it has generally been assumed that, by baptism here, Jesus was referring specifically to the Sacrament of Baptism used as a sign of admission into the Christian Church. But a better interpretation of our Lord’s words would be: “He that believes and is washed clean shall be saved.” When a minister baptizes a baby and makes the sign of the cross on his forehead, he is dramatizing and making a public declaration of the intention and determination of the parents to bring the child up as a Christian, so that he or she may be spiritually cleansed in the Christian manner. But the act of baptism does not itself cleanse; it is only a symbol of the cleansing which will result from the living of a Christian life. Unfortunately many a baptized child fails afterwards to become a cleansed Christian. On the other hand, millions of good-living people who have not had Christian baptism — Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems — are cleansed spiritually by living according to the tenets of their own religious faith. All who are clean will go eventually to heaven.
Look again at that terrible list of dirty evils which are said to proceed out of the heart of man and defile him. The catalogue is very inclusive. I am sure we can all see some of these grimy spots and blotches on our own hearts when we look in the mirror of our Lord’s perfect purity. But how easily they wash off when we orientate our thoughts according to the instructions laid down in God’s Word! For example, read carefully and prayerfully through the Sermon on the Mount, and try to bring your attitude towards life into alignment with it. All your hatred and jealousy, your greed and covetousness, your competitiveness, your arrogance and your pride — disappear! Of course they will come back again after the first washing, for they will bubble up from within, and the cleansing must go deeper than the mind, right down to the heart. But the Word of God, when properly understood and accepted and painstakingly applied over a period of time, will penetrate through and cleanse even the heart, changing its direction from love of self and worldly pleasures, to love of God and the neighbour. That is spiritual washing in its complete and final form.
If we are spiritually dirty we should be as ashamed of it as civilized men and women are ashamed to appear in public with dirty bodies and untidy or dirty clothes. Like the Pharisees of old, most of us are very concerned with outward cleanliness. Let us be even more concerned with inward cleanliness, using the solvents and the scouring abrasives and the sweet oil of God’s Word. Submit to a thorough purging and polishing of the heart, soul and mind. Have proper pride in yourself, keeping yourself clean and neat and tidy, spiritually as well as physically. “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart; who has not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive the blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.” (Psalm 24: 3-5.)
The teachings of the Word are often likened to the waters of the River Jordan. That is why baptism is associated with Jordan water. John the Baptist baptized in the Jordan, as we know. Even today, if a minister takes a group of tourists to the Holy Land, he has to be prepared to baptize some enthusiastic member of the party in the Jordan! This symbolism of the Jordan goes back to Old Testament times, when crossing the Jordan signified entry into the spiritual Canaan. We remember how Naaman the Syrian general was told by Elisha to wash or dip himself seven times in the River Jordan to be cured of his leprosy. He was annoyed at this, the River Jordan being rather an insignificant stream in Naaman’s eyes, familiar as he was with the magnificent rivers of his native city. “Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” he said. “May I not wash in them and be clean?” He went away in a rage. However, his servants dissuaded him from deliberately avoiding the cleansing regimen; so, in the end, he went down into the little river and dipped himself seven times, according to the instructions of the man of God; and his leprous flesh came again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean. (II Kings 5:14.)
The symbolism here is fairly obvious. By the great rivers of Damascus are meant the teachings of worldly wisdom, the prolific waters of science that flow through our great universities and medical schools. The church says: “Go to the Bible for cleansing,” and the worldly-wise man raises his eyebrows and turns away in disdain. “The Bible is naive, it’s outdated! Who bothers about the Bible these days? Haven’t our intellectuals proved that the so-called Incarnation of God is only a myth? And as for these sins you speak of” (says the modern man) “this so-called spiritual dirt, it is only a form of mental sickness that a competent psychiatrist will be able to straighten out for you. You should feel no more guilt over so-called sin than you would over a broken leg or an attack of asthma.”
Such people are scornful of the Jordan and want to wash instead in the rivers of Damascus, the waters of worldly wisdom. But such waters are powerless to cure our spiritual ills. Only Jordan can do that. Dip seven times in Jordan. Go back to the Word of God and immerse yourself over and over again — seven days a week! Love the Lord your God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. Be guided by the Lord through his prophets, and have faith in the Divine Providence. Strip off all accessories of mind and soul, all complexities and fussiness, all self-concern and boastful conceit. Be pure and simple (naive if you want to call it that!) Become again like a little child, as Naaman did in Jordan: “for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
|BLAME NOBODY BUT YOURSELF|
|The psychiatrist Dr. Mowrer used to say to his patients when they came to him in trouble: “Blame nobody but yourself!” This annoyed some of them. They would protest, “But it wasn’t my fault! The other fellow was to blame.” To this Dr Mowrer would reply, “Maybe. I am not questioning that. But, don’t you see? The other fellow is not my patient. He has his own problems, no doubt, but he has not come to me for help. You have done! It is you I am dealing with, not him. For us to blame the other fellow would be a sheer waste of time. If your own condition is to be improved, we must find out where you are to blame, and deal with that.”
If ever we get into any kind of trouble, we ourselves are usually to blame in some degree. It takes two to make a quarrel, and we sometimes provoke people without realizing it. Even if we are absolutely innocent and entirely sinned against, it still rests with us as to how we react. Some people get hurt more easily than others. They even take pride in it, saying, “I’m so sensitive !” — as if it were something to brag about. But the really mature soul is not hurt by slights, insults, annoyances and frustrations which get the weakling down. The very fact that you are hurt is the thing for which you should blame yourself. Think of the martyrs who underwent agonizing torture, praising God with their last breath. Nothing that anyone could do had power to hurt them. They were immune. “Fear not them which kill the body,” said Jesus, “but are not able to kill the soul.” Nobody has power to hurt the real you. Nobody, that is to say, except yourself.
Suppose someone hits me on the jaw and breaks one of my teeth. This is extremely painful, physically, but it does not hurt me spiritually. On the other hand, if I get furiously angry with him, and desire to hit him back even harder than he hit me, and break, if possible, two of his teeth, then I am hurt spiritually. Fortunately this is under my control! I can check the feeling of hate, overcome my resentment, bring myself into a state of forgiveness as a child of God. Then I am spiritually unharmed. If I do receive spiritual harm, I have only myself to blame.
Jesus said: “Resist not evil; but whosoever shall smite you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you.” Some say that this teaching is highly impractical and dangerous; that if we never attempted to defend or protect ourselves we should be exposed to all sorts of abuses. But I don’t think this is what Jesus meant. A Christian is surely entitled to protect himself and his property in a reasonable and responsible manner. If I am going along a dark alley and some shady character attacks me and tries to snatch my wallet, I must surely defend myself. In civilized communities the citizens pay the police to protect them. It is a policeman’s duty to apprehend a thief or would-be murderer; he would be to blame if he did not. But this is all in the realm of outer action. It does not affect the soul. What defiles a man is anger, hatred, fear — feelings which come out of his own heart. When you resist an assailant, you should do it without anger, just as you would kill a poisonous snake or ward off a mad dog without anger. A policeman quelling a riot is not harmed spiritually if he uses force discreetly and moderately as circumstances require. A man who discovers a burglar in the house need not feel shame if he resorts to violence and kicks him out or straps him to a chair until the police arrive. He will not develop a guilt-complex as a result, and have to go to a psychiatrist! What makes a man mentally sick is resentment and harping on grievances, real or imaginary, wishing he had been avenged, and thinking up all the cutting things he might have said but did not.
As a matter of fact, if you really and truly keep your heart free of hatred, fear and malice, it is amazing how little occasion you will have to use force in self-protection. Many of the dangers of worldly life will slip away like water off the back of the proverbial duck, and leave you unscathed. This the early Quakers discovered. Spiritual integrity has a wonderful protective power, even in this world. And, of course, in the spiritual world integrity is inviolable.
Perhaps at this moment you feel bad about something somebody did to you. There isn’t one of us, I suppose, who doesn’t have some drops of poison in his memory, corroding his inner thoughts and feelings. When we die and wake up on the other side, this is the kind of thing that will come to the surface. “There is nothing covered,” said Jesus, “that shall not be revealed, and hid that shall not be known.” Everything will be there, nothing lost. Poison that has been in your heart for thirty, forty or fifty years is still corroding you, though you may long since have ceased to be conscious of it. After death, there it will be! The annoying situation will return to you in vivid retrospect, and your reactions will be noted. If you still feel hurt or resentful, that will be a tug towards hell. Or perhaps it was something bad you yourself did, back in your youth or in more recent days. The circumstances will be re-enacted. Do you think, “That was mean of me — I shouldn’t have done it!” Or do you think, “That was pretty smart, I wish I’d gone a bit further with it!” Rejoicing in the memory of evil done will give you another tug towards hell. Too many tugs like this might be fatal. You just can’t risk having them.
So let us be sure to repent and let the Lord clear away all the residue of bitter memories while we are still in this world where these matters can be resolved. Whenever we recall something in our past life which we recognize as being evil (whether we did it to someone else, or someone else did it to us) open it up and expose it, face it and examine it. Ask the Lord to remove the sting and heal the wound with the oil of his love. Ask for forgiveness for yourself, and give forgiveness freely in your mind to those who have trespassed against you. After that you will have no more trouble. The pressures and tensions will be released. Your heart will become healthy, so that you will be less capable of sin in the future, and less affected by the sins of others. No matter what the world does to you, no matter what the provocation or temptation, you will be quietly at peace. “A thousand shall fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand, but it shall not come near you. The Lord will be your strength and shield.” Again: “Thus says the Lord who created you: When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, neither shall the flame kindle upon you. Fear not, for I am with you. I have called you by your name, you are mine!”
You have only yourself to blame if and when things go wrong. But when you are freed from evil and guilt, and begin to enjoy a deep and heavenly happiness, then all credit goes to the Lord! Would you have it otherwise?
|When we speak of guilt, we must be clear what we mean, because the word has been used in so many different senses. For example, in law an accused person can be advised to “plead guilty” of a crime he has not committed, in order to gain some technical advantage; this does not make him guilty in any moral sense. On the other hand, certain moralists tell us we all share the common guilt of the slums, poverty, crime and war, even though we personally have had nothing to do with them. Theologians used to say that Jesus took upon himself the sins of the whole world and bore the punishment for them, though he himself never committed a sin. This strikes me as being nonsensical. No one can bear anyone else’s sins or take on anyone else’s guilt. As I understand it, guilt is the ugly black mark on your soul caused by your own sinning, your own choice of evil rather than good. You deserve to be punished for it, and perhaps you will be some day; but whether you are punished or not, the guilt is there. Even if you do not admit you have done wrong, the guilt remains — that black mark, that scar, that twist of the soul resulting from sin against God or against one’s fellow man. Only the Lord can remove the scar or straighten out the twist; and he can do it only if we realize it is there, feel distress about it, repent of the sin, and go to him for forgiveness. Then, when we are healed, we must be desperately careful not to repeat the sin in the future, for if we do the black mark or the scar will become many times worse, and eventually indelible.
Is guilt the same as remorse? Not really, though the two are mutually involved. Remorse is when we see our guilt and are horrified by it, wishing we could have our time over again so that we could avoid it. Remorse should lead us to take steps to have the guilt removed; but, if it does not do this, then the remorse is wasted emotion and does actual harm. Conscience is also involved in guilt. Conscience tells us that the guilt is there. It gives us that “guilty feeling” which should lead to remorse and thus (hopefully) to repentance, forgiveness and amendment of life.
As an illustration, think of the little warning lights on the dashboard of your car. If a red light comes on, your attention is drawn to a fault of some sort: the battery is not charging, the oil pressure is too low, or the fuel is running out. So you stop at the next garage, pay the price, and have the fault put right. A feeling of guilt is a danger sign and should be taken seriously. If you are wise enough to attend to it, it provides a precious opportunity for reconciliation between man and man, man and wife, man and God. Of course, if you are cynical, atheistic and complacent; if you have lost all your ideals, and if you care neither for God nor man, then you will experience no feeling of guilt. The warning lights on the dashboard will no longer operate, and your condition will be serious indeed.
Jesus told a little story about a Pharisee and a publican who went into the temple to pray. Said the Pharisee: “I thank thee, O Lord, that I am a clean-living man. I attend church regularly, pay my dues, and do all the things required of me. Many people have done harm to me (as thou knowest, Lord!) but I have borne it with patience and charity. Now, look at that vile publican over there! How did he get in here? I know his type — filthy morals, a quisling of the Romans, an extortioner and thief — ought to be thrown out on his neck! Anyway, Lord, I thank thee I am not like him!” The publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes to heaven, but smote his breast, saying: “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13.) The point of this story is that the publican, not the Pharisee, went home justified or forgiven. Why? Because he had a sense of guilt, and, so long as there is a sense of guilt, there can be forgiveness and absolution. Whereas even God himself cannot forgive someone who thinks he is entirely blameless! Doubtless the Pharisee had lived an exemplary life in the conventional sense. He had kept the commandments from his youth up. But don’t you see? He was ruining it all by his attitude towards the publican! He had broken the great and over-ruling commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
If only we would use the same skill in excusing our neighbour’s faults that we use in excusing our own! But few of us can do this. It gives us far more pleasure and satisfaction to condemn other people, because it makes us feel superior to them. It builds up our self-esteem, which is why we so seldom feel guilt in connection with it. Criminals who steal and murder and rape, generally know very well they have done wrong (society tells them so if they have any doubt about it); but the Pharisee was proud of being as he was! He actually thanked God that he was a better man than the publican! That is why pride is such an insidious sin. A proud man feels no guilt, and so cannot be forgiven.
Do I detect a certain pharisaical pride in our churches today? Could it be that our Christian Church of modern times is descended from the respectable Pharisees rather than from the rough-looking, uncouth men who surrounded Jesus? We should, of course, base our outer conduct on that of the Pharisee rather than on that of the publican. But beware of this one sin of pride which destroyed all the credit gained by the Pharisee in his God-fearing life. In that one important respect we should imitate the publican who smote himself on the breast and cried, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Are you a sinner? Am I a sinner? Doubtless we are all sinners in one way or another. The mere fact that we have an ego which, from the moment it begins to develop, drags us powerfully down towards love of self and the world, makes it inevitable that we shall have sinned thousands of times, in thought and intention if not in outward act, and probably in act too if we will only admit it. There is nothing peculiar about this. We are all in it together, and we should learn by our mistakes. That is what the church is for: it is a society of people who know they are sinners in need of forgiveness, and are involved with one another, helping each other in the painful process of spiritual growth, building one another up with understanding and sympathy.
I wonder where the idea came from that churches are only for good people, and that a poor creature who has got himself into trouble cannot join a church fellowship because he is not “good” enough? If a member of a church has a moral lapse or defaults in some way, he is usually made to disappear! Good church-members say, “Naturally he would not dare to show his face here after doing that” whereas actually the whole membership should drop what they are doing and rally round to bring the poor fellow back into the fellowship and rehabilitate him.
A sense of guilt, then, is a healthy and normal part of the regenerating process. But unfortunately, in our complex and sophisticated society, it sometimes flies off into fantasy and becomes a neurosis, causing mental sickness and even physical sickness, so that a psychiatrist once told me that 80% of all the patients who came to him for treatment were suffering from a false sense of guilt. On the analogy of the dashboard of the car, suppose the little lights get out of adjustment and keep coming on and off, warning you that the generator is out of order when actually it is O.K., and that the tank is empty when you have just filled it up. You have been to the garage and had everything put right, but still the red lights keep flashing. It nearly drives you crazy!
Many people have a sense of guilt, not about anything in particular but a general feeling of failure to live up to the demands of our society which lays so much stress on success. They cannot measure up to what they feel they ought to be, or achieve what they feel they ought to achieve. We knew a very attractive young man, who had good brains and was musical, and had inherited quite a lot of money from an uncle. Always he was condemning himself because he was living in comfort. I asked him what he really wanted from life, and he said he wanted to make a million dollars. I pointed out that he was quite well off, but he said that meant nothing because he had inherited it. He wanted people to be able to say of him, “That’s a smart guy, he has made a million!” At the age of 28 he shot himself, leaving a note to say he was a useless failure. He had a false sense of guilt which killed him.
On a less spectacular scale, people feel guilty because they fail to live up to their New-Year Resolutions. One person decides to give up smoking, another resolves to keep to a slimming diet. They fail, and are overwhelmed with guilt, feeling utterly spineless, hopeless, worthless. Maybe we harbour some smouldering resentment against someone who has hurt our feelings, or we hate someone, or we feel furiously angry about something; but instead of facing up to it rationally and deciding whether it is worthwhile feeling hurt or resentful or angry, we push it under the mat, where it goes rotten and stinks and breeds maggots and the rats get at it. Or perhaps we have in very truth done something mean and shameful, but when our conscience yaps and barks at us, instead of listening to it and repenting and trying to put things right, we gag and muzzle our conscience and push it all down into our unconscious and try to ignore it. Later, these unresolved tensions begin to show themselves in all kinds of neuroses and mental disturbances. We feel impelled to do strange things, like giving expensive presents to people we scarcely know, or lying down in freezing cold bathwater, or exhausting ourselves with violent activity, doing things we don’t really want to do or need to do. Eventually we get sick, and this seems to give us a twisted sense of satisfaction, as if we were punishing ourselves as a kind of expiation.
The Roman Catholics understood this psychological phenomenon long ago and provided for it by prescribing penance in the confessional. Penance has a therapeutic value, because after the confessed sinner has undergone punishment of some kind he feels he has atoned for his sin and so no longer hugs the guilt to himself. But you don’t have to walk from London to Canterbury with peas in your shoes (a standard act of penance in the Middle Ages) or climb the steps of St. Peter’s on your knees! If you really feel the need to pay a price to remove a sense of guilt (as was the case with someone we heard of who had killed a friend by accident) why not take up some service to humanity, such as working for paraplegics or brain-damaged children? That would be a penance worth doing, and would effectively take one’s mind off oneself!
Here is a general formula for dealing with guilt which I have always found useful. If you have sinned or made a mistake or got into a mess, first repent. Pray to the Lord for forgiveness. Pay for what you have done by making whatever restitution you can. Then forget the whole thing and move on to something else. Learn from it, and then forget it. If the memory comes up again to haunt you, simply hand it over to the Lord and dissociate yourself from it. The subject is closed. As for guilt because you don’t measure up to what society requires, remind yourself that you are not in competition with society. You are YOU.
If you are depressed because you find you cannot stop doing something which you despise yourself for doing, the first step is to accept quite humbly that you are indeed a weak human being! Don’t simply wallow in your shame, or you will have no power to change yourself at all. Be like the publican in the parable and say, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” Realize and acknowledge that you are dependent on God for everything good. Go to him when temptation strikes, and in his presence you will be able to overcome. We need to have less pride, and more self-respect.
Now, how about guilt in our relations with the Lord? This is a different kind of guilt from what we have been considering; rather, it is a sensitive recognition of how petty and mean we all of us are when placed beside the beauty and holiness of God. Such a guilt-feeling naturally increases as we advance in the spiritual life and become closer to God; so we find the saints using exaggerated terms of disgust and self-reproach: they are vile, they are excrement, they are noxious insects . . . But we need not take them too seriously, for at the same time they are overwhelmed with awe and wonder, and feel themselves lifted up into the aura of the Lord’s infinite pity and compassion. Such a sense of guilt is health-giving, as it involves an utter abandonment of the lower self, a complete submission to the Lord’s will. The creature is soft in the hands of the Divine Creator who can remodel it into his own image and likeness. This results in a new creation, pure and spotless in his sight, all guilt removed for ever.
|THE TORMENTS OF THE DAMNED”|
|There are quite a few scary references in the Gospels to the torments of the damned: “the fire that is never quenched, the gnawing of worms, the gnashing of teeth.” What are we to make of them? How could a God of Love torture anyone?
Many people today just do not believe in hell. The fashionable cliché goes likes this: “I don’t believe in hell; I think that hell is here on earth.” But that is a direct contradiction! If they believe that hell exists here on earth, then they believe in hell! What do people mean when they say that hell is here on earth? Probably they are referring to the violence and murders that seem to have reached an all-time high in our sophisticated civilization. But I suggest that a better definition of hell would be “Evil at work in men’s hearts.” When a murder is committed, hell exists in the heart of the murderer, not in the murder itself, which may dispatch the murdered person straight to heaven! There is no hell present in an accidental killing, say from a car crash, appallingly tragic though it may be. Hell is hatred, jealousy, resentment, anger, contempt of others, unforgivingness. It is nursing a grievance, feeling offended, clinging to the memory of old grudges. It is love of self and the things of this world at the expense of God and the neighbour.
Hell is not a place but a state of mind. People who have had their eyes opened into the other world speak of hell as a place, because, by the law of attraction (“birds of a feather flock together”) those who are evil at heart tend to gang up with others who are similarly evil, and where many are in league together, as in the other world, one gets the impression of hell as being a place. We hear of the gloomy shadows of the nether region, the spiritual underworld, the hide-out of the damned — those who have rebelled against the Kingdom of God. Nevertheless, hell is essentially an evil state of mind; and if you accept that there is hell anywhere on earth, and if you believe that when people die they take their nature with them into the other world, then you must believe that there is a hell in the other world.
The question still remains: Are there punishments in hell? How about the torments of the damned? Who does the tormenting? God? Surely not! The punishment of an evil-doer comes stabbing up from the disorderly condition in which he is living. It is never inflicted by God, who in fact mitigates it as far as possible. Take the example of a drunkard. What a hell that poor man is in! He is a slave of his craving for alcohol; he has locked the chains on himself in a prison of his own devising. God would stop him if he could, but the man won’t let him. The final development is delirium tremens; and no torture of the Inquisition itself was worse than that!
I once attended a lecture by the late Rev. James Pike, one-time Bishop of California, who had some interesting observations to make on the subject of heaven and hell. He remarked that he could not believe in the conventional heaven and hell, because the kind of person who would be in heaven would never tolerate the thought that there were have-nots or deprived souls suffering torment down there in hell. He said: “We would stage a demonstration; we would do a protest march; or, if that didn’t work, we would go down ourselves and live in hell side by side with those poor wretches, as a ministry of sympathy. In the end, God might relent and come down too, and see for himself how dreadful conditions were down there, and would eventually perhaps clear the whole place away!” Bishop Pike’s satire was disturbing, but always healthy. How much better, this, than the point of view of Tertullian, who thought that the joy of heaven consisted in being able to look down into hell and watch the torments of the damned! Or good Christian people in the Middle Ages who would wile away a dreary afternoon watching a criminal being hanged, drawn and quartered in the market place, or burned to death at the stake. At least the tastes of the majority of people have improved in this direction; not many of us would relish watching a torture. So Jim Pike was a product of the New Age. I liked his liberalism and humanity. Remember also that he was only satirizing the conventional idea of heaven and hell. In fact, the inhabitants of hell are not being deprived of anything! Heaven is as available to them as to anyone else. Pike seemed to be thinking of hell as a kind of Nazi concentration camp, but it is not like that at all. If there is barbed wire around hell, it is to keep the inhabitants out, not in; but they will get in, even tearing themselves on the barbed wire in their eagerness to continue their quarrelling and indignation and mutual accusations — barking and snarling at one another like a lot of dogs, never so happy as when they are at each other’s throats! Their ideal is to be able to indulge every wandering lust, to gratify every whim, and ride roughshod over everybody. The result is a mad-house situation which they seem to enjoy, despite the galling frustrations and misery of it all. At any rate, they are happier in hell than they could be in heaven.
Hell is in little everyday things as well as in major wars and world-shaking assassinations. You get a glimpse of it in some households on earth where husband and wife nag and bicker. Hell fire? — hearts aflame with anger, burning with lust and hatred. Gnashing of teeth? — the perpetual argumentation and quarrelling of self-centred men and women, rubbing each other up the wrong way. We can be in hell, and we often are, though it does not seem so bad here on earth because the physical body cushions it. In the spiritual world one’s feelings and emotions are no longer hidden, and so influence us more completely.
I mentioned “galling frustrations” as being a cause of misery in hell. It is in this area that punishments seem to be inflicted — even severe punishments which could be regarded as torture. There are certain limits of perversion beyond which God in his mercy will not permit even the devils to go. Stop them He must, for their own sakes and for the preservation of the minimum of order within their society. So, if an evil spirit tries to plunge deeper into evil than the limits set, then the Lord allows pain to rack him until he thinks better of it and desists. It is then that he curses God for torturing him. But in fact it is the perversion itself that causes him pain, just as fire hurts us if we put our hand in it, or sulphuric acid or caustic soda. Evil spirits being what they are, they cannot be controlled except by pain. But the torture ceases at once as soon as they stop what they are trying to do.
Having now straightened out our ideas somewhat on the nature of hell, let us consider a specific evil which Jesus said is punishable in hell. This is anger with one’s brother (Matthew 5:22). Anger is not necessarily an evil thing. Jesus was scathing in His denunciation of hypocrisy, and thunderously angry with those who ill-treated children. (“It were better for such a man if a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Matthew 18:6.) And as is well known, Jesus violently overthrew the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, so that it was said of him, “The zeal of God’s house has eaten him up.” Maybe we need more of this passionate concern for the rights of other people, especially the weak, and for the sanctities of religion. Such indignation on other people’s behalf can be a flame which sterilizes and heals. On the other hand, Jesus was never angry on his own behalf, nor did he ever attempt to defend himself by word or deed — except to withdraw. Even when appealed to by Pilate to say something in his own defence, he remained silent.
How different it is with us, and how easily anger runs away with us! We are annoyed by somebody, “justifiably” of course. We ask ourselves, How can he act that way? The more we think of it the more our indignation increases. The thing rankles. It “burns us up” we say — and that is exactly what it does do. Indignation is a fire that grows with feeding until it destroys us. Annoyingly enough, it does not destroy the person we are angry with — he gets away scot-free; but it torments and tortures us in our own little jail. It puts our wellbeing and peace of mind on the rack.
Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount: “Whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment.” In the Authorized Version we read: “Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause,” but this qualification is omitted in the Revised Standard Version and most modern translations. Probably it was not in the original, but was added by some copyist who could not believe that Jesus was condemning justifiable anger. But it is the anger itself that is damaging, whether there is a cause or not! Anger, indignation, self-justification — these constitute the hell-fire which consumes all who expose themselves to them. Strangely enough, some people seem to enjoy being burned, in a perverted kind of way. They hug their resentments to their hearts and won’t give them up.
I know a man who says proudly that he “cannot suffer fools gladly”. He does not even try! It probably makes him feel superior to say this, as it demonstrates to himself that he is not a fool! But a feeling of moral superiority is a psychological poison which can corrode the vitals. Is it not the height of folly to drink psychological poison — and be proud of it? Then there is talk of “righteous indignation” and “duty.” Many people go to hell from a sense of duty. It is their duty to correct somebody, to put somebody right, to revenge themselves on somebody — to get even with them and put them in their place. I am sure there are many evil spirits in hell who would willingly give it up and go to heaven, only they feel it their duty to remain in hell! Honour demands that they should not lose face. They must hold on to the bitter end. It is a matter of principle!
There are people in this world who are suffering from indignation-poisoning without realizing it. They will assure you that they have no ill-feelings towards anyone; they feel nothing but Christian love towards the whole world. Then a few days later you will hear them being quite violent about some teenager who gets under their skin or into their hair, or their mother-in-law, or the screaming child next door, or a barking dog, or some lousy storekeeper that swindled them. This may seem a very trifling matter, but emotions, like fire, grow if not checked, and after death may burst out into a blazing fury.
Indignation can be just as tormenting if it is directed against situations. Maybe your situation is hard, unjust, undeserved. But you hurt only yourself by being resentful. Try, by all means, to change and improve your situation; but to be mad about it will only result in your being bound and gagged and handed over to the jailer, the tormentor, who will torture you until you come to your senses. And what if you never come to your senses? . . . Now I am being scary! How about the “eternity of the hells”?
To end on a more optimistic note, there is actually no need for anyone to submit to spiritual torture. The torturer is in our own employ; we can dismiss him at any time and send him away. He is certainly not employed by God, who is love and mercy personified, and who, I believe, suffers with us in Divine sympathy. The jail or torture-chamber is not in one of the dungeons of the royal palace; it is in our own hearts, and we built it there. We can will it away and it will disappear. No one need be in hell — it can only be by their own perverted choice. It may seem that God casts people into hell, and that appearance is reflected in the Bible, especially in the Psalms; but it is only an appearance; how could our Creator and heavenly Father be so cruel? The whole thing is a horrific fantasy, a nightmare! Wake up! Come out into the sunlight and turn your face towards heaven, and there will be rejoicing among the angels on account of your liberation.
|FORGIVE AND FORGET|
|Of all the demands which our Lord makes upon his followers, none is more difficult, I would say, than the simple requirement that we should forgive other people their trespasses against us. If someone has been rude to us, or done us a bad turn, or hurt our feelings, then, every time we meet him, or even merely think of him, the bitter memory of the wrong recurs and nags at us. Nor is it of any use to say, “I forgive him!” It seems to make no difference. It is like having a splinter in your finger. What is the use of saying, “I’ll forgive and forget it,” when it is still there, festering in the wound? Obviously we must get it out first. But how?
Well, first of all we must try to find the answers to two questions: “Why did he do this to me?” and, “Why was I so upset about it?”
No one can judge another person’s motives, but we can make a few likely guesses. Suppose it was a case of rudeness; you may not have been the intended target. He was probably angry at something else altogether, but you happened to be there when he was lashing around, and so you got hit. That is often the case in a family when husbands and wives hurt one another, or parents and children. We strike out indiscriminately, and those who happen to be nearest get the blows. Or again, the person who attacks us may have a guilty conscience, and may be afraid we will attack him, and so he gets in first. I saw that once in a car accident. The driver who was obviously to blame jumped out and began pouring abuse on the other party. It was a kind of self-defence. Or, quite possibly, the person who attacks you may really believe he is in the right and you are in the wrong. You may have unwittingly given him cause for annoyance, and he may (rightly or wrongly) feel justified in attacking you. Try to put yourself in his place and see whether he has any reason to feel a grudge against you. If so, that might easily explain his conduct. There is a saying, “To understand all is to forgive all,” and although this may be an over-statement, yet a full understanding is undoubtedly a help towards forgiveness.
Now for the other question: “Why was I so upset about what the other person said or did?” Almost always it was because he touched my pride on a tender spot. Or, if not my pride, then he robbed me of something I possessed and valued. In nine cases out of ten, we are angry because either our love of self or our love of the world has been assaulted. Yet we know and admit that these loves are too strong in all of us and need toning down and putting into the background. Perhaps if some rude, fellow tells us what he thinks of us, he may be nearer the truth than we realise! We should be grateful to him for drawing our attention to our danger-points, and thus aiding us in our self-knowledge and true humility. “Blessed are you, when men shall revile you and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you.” You should say, “Thanks! How right you are!” If we were not so touchy (“sensitive” is a kinder word) we might never have noticed the affront which is rankling so much in us. At any rate we should have forgotten it long ago. And our touchiness may be just as great an evil in the eyes of the Lord as the rudeness of which we are complaining. Perhaps worse!
Very well, we have now tried to see the situation as it really is, from the other person’s point of view, and our own, and the Lord’s. What are we going to do about it? Somehow we have got to bring LOVE into the situation, for love is the only healer. That is why Jesus said: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you or persecute you.” You should really be sorry for this annoying person. It has been said that “a trouble-maker is usually a troubled person.” Do what you can to help him, to build up his self-esteem (which is probably too low) and bring him into the circle of your concern. And certainly pray for him, as Jesus urged. If you are praying for him you will soon stop hating him. Go and talk to him in a friendly way, and say how sorry you are that things have gone wrong between you. Love heals all relationships. You must have something positive to fill the void when you have thrown out your hate, otherwise the devil will soon come back, bringing seven others with him, and your last state will be worse than your first! You must replace hate with love.
Suppose the person rejects your friendly approach and goes on being unpleasant? Well, Jesus said you must go on forgiving him, until seventy times seven. But this will get easier as you go on. If you have fully forgiven him once, nothing else that he does will have the power to hurt you. It is like smallpox: once you have had it and recovered from it, you are immune from further attacks. And here is an amazing thing: your newly-found love for the trouble-maker, and your prayers for him, will very probably bring about a change for the good in him! Perhaps not all at once, but eventually. A new relationship will develop between you and him, and he may quite possibly end up by being one of your best friends.
When we have exercised Christian Forgiveness in a few varied situations, we begin to develop a forgiving attitude towards the whole of life. The truly forgiving person does not merely employ his powers of forgiveness in an emergency, when some specific wrong has been done him. He does not place himself on a pedestal and say, in a condescending manner, “You have wronged me, but I forgive you!” Rather, he ceases to notice whether people have wronged him or not. He realises that life is full of troubles as well as full of joys; we are all in a mixed-up condition; but by and large life is good, and we must take the bad with the good. Influences are reaching us from both heaven and hell; we are in balance between them, in a state of equilibrium. By seeking to lay the blame on others, we tip the scales towards hell; by looking for the best in others, we tip the scales towards heaven.
The importance of this subject of forgiveness cannot be over-stressed. It is basic to our salvation. If we are harbouring a resentment against somebody or some situation, or if the memory of something rankles and festers in our mind, then all further progress on the road to heaven is blocked for us. Everything we do thereafter is just so much waste of time; it will get us nowhere. Our contact with the Lord will be cut right through; for, as he himself said, “If you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” And, if our heavenly Father does not forgive us, we are sunk!
We need God’s forgiveness every moment of every day. Our debt to him is infinite, for our very life comes from him. Remember the parable of the king who forgave his servant ten thousand talents (say a million pounds) but the man would not forgive his fellow servant a hundred pence! The king sent for the man. “You scoundrel!” he said to him; “I remitted the whole of your enormous debt when you appealed to me; were you not bound to show your fellow servant the same pity as I showed you?” And so angry was the master that he condemned the man to torture until he should pay his own debt in full. And Jesus concluded the story by saying, “That is how the heavenly Father will deal with you, unless you each forgive your brother his trespasses.” (Matthew 18:32-35.)
That is strong speaking, is it not? Unforgivingness is an unforgivable sin. Jesus was very gentle towards ordinary sinners. Remember how he dealt with the woman taken in adultery: she should have been stoned to death according to the law, but Jesus refused to condemn her, saying instead, “Go in peace and sin no more.” But unforgivingness, by its very nature, cannot be forgiven, because the person who refuses to forgive others denies the validity of forgiveness itself, and so cannot be forgiven by God. God forgives him from his side, but the man is unable to accept the forgiveness, since he doesn’t in practice approve of it! “With what judgment you judge you shall be judged.” If you condemn others, you are automatically condemned. Let us remember this next time we feel inclined to pull someone’s character to pieces! Criticize him if you will, but always with the proviso: “Well, he is bad; but then I am probably just as bad in other respects. We must just try to get along together as best we can; and may the Good Lord have mercy on our souls!” If we are to be forgiven, we must make forgiveness important to us by forgiving everybody and everything that owes us a debt, large or small.
Here is an exercise for you to try out. Each night for one week, before going to sleep, think back over the day and see whether anyone or anything has annoyed you. Write it on an imaginary blackboard. Then picture yourself wiping it out with a duster. Wipe it out so thoroughly that you will never remember it again with any other emotion than amused tolerance. Then turn to the Lord, the Great King, and ask him for reconciliation and a renewal of your loving relationship with him. You know the terms and conditions well enough: you have repeated them every day of your life. But now try really to mean what you say: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Or, if you prefer it, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.” And make a vow that in future you will never get past that key phrase in the Lord’s Prayer until you have, in fact, forgiven the whole world.