The Sun Standing Still
Reading through the Book of Joshua the other day, I chanced upon the following verses, which set me thinking on a number of different levels. “Then spake Joshua to the Lord, and he said in the sight of all Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon, and thou moon in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the Book of Jasher?” (Joshua 10:12-13).
What are we to make of this? Do you really think it happened literally? You must realize that for the sun to stand still in relation to the earth, the earth would have to stop revolving around its axis. And for the moon to stand still, it would have to cease orbiting around the earth. Astronomically speaking, these processes would have required immense force, and there would have been vast repercussions, affecting and probably destroying everybody then living. One of the lesser effects would have been that the moon would have fallen onto the earth! The Lord is the Great Economist. Would He have upset the sublime order and movement of the heavenly bodies, just to give the Israelites a little longer daylight? Could He not have produced a meteor, or a volcanic eruption, or something like an aurora borealis, to light up the sky if necessary?
The idea that a large meteor, or shower of meteorites, appeared at that time, has been seriously considered by scholars. Professor Velikovsky of Princeton has been studying the records of ancient peoples all over the world: China, Mexico, Peru, Babylon, Egypt, India – and he finds references in all of them to some strange natural phenomena which may have been contemporaneous with Joshua’s entry into Palestine. He thinks a huge comet passed close to this earth, and that showers of stones fell from its tail. The Bible informs us, in fact, that more of the enemy were killed by falling stones than by the swords of the Israelites. (“Hailstones” in verse 11 is an interpretation by the translator; the Hebrew just has “stones.”)
But need we bother about a literal explanation of the incident? Might it not be a spiritual metaphor? Do we take it literally when we are told, in the opening chapter of Genesis, that light came into existence on the first day of creation, whereas the sun and moon were not created until the fourth day? Or, do we take it literally when Deborah the Prophetess declared in a burst of ecstasy that “the stars in their courses fought against Sisera?” In ancient times, people were not so literal-minded as they are today. There is a wealth of symbolism and imagery in ancient literature, which enshrines truth on a very deep level, but has no bearing on what we understand by history or science. Much of this ancient literature was directly inspired by God, as our Bible is. Swedenborg calls it “The Ancient Word,” which preceded the Books of Moses. One of the books of the Ancient Word was the Book of Jasher, well known to the Israelites and quoted several times in their scriptures, but lost to us today. Evidently this Book of Jasher contained an inspired poem about the sun and moon standing still, perhaps actually mentioning Gibeon and the Valley of Ajalon; so Joshua, finding himself in that geographical region, and observing the shower of meteorites falling around him, quoted these ancient verses as a prayer to the Lord. And, lest future readers should make the mistake of supposing that the sun and moon actually stood still, the historian added the explanation: “This comes from the Book of Jasher.” (See also II Samuel 1: 18).
Was Joshua’s prayer not answered, then? Yes, it was definitely answered, but not necessarily on the physical or natural level. It was answered spiritually, which was probably the way he wanted it to be answered. For, if you study the text carefully, you will find he was not addressing the physical sun and moon at all. (Joshua would not have been guilty of such heathen idolatry). He was addressing the Lord Himself. “Then spake Joshua to the Lord, saying, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon, and thou moon in the Valley of Ajalon, until we have avenged ourselves upon our enemies.” It was to the Lord that Joshua was praying. His cry was, “0 thou Divine Sun and Moon, go not down upon us! Do not hide thy face from us, until the final blow has been struck!” And the historian continues: “So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day. And there was no day like that, before it or after it, that the Lord hearkened unto the voice of a man. For the Lord fought for Israel.” This was no command, then, to the physical sun and moon to stand still. It was a prayer to the Lord as both Sun and Moon; the prayer of a brave soul struggling against the forces of hell; a prayer expressed in the words of an ancient book of inspired heavenly imagery. “Is it not written in the Book of Jasher?
The Sun standing still in the midst of heaven! Swedenborg makes an interesting point in his book Heaven and Hell. “The Sun in heaven,” he tells us, “never sets.” It is, in fact, the sphere of the Lord Himself, the infinite God, as He first appears in His finite, created universe. It is a dazzling, pulsating aura of tremendous heat and light, radiating into and through the heavens, and reaching ultimately down into the hearts and minds of men and women on earth. The heat of that Sun is the divine Love, and its light is the divine Wisdom or truth. These together (Love and Wisdom) provide the Power which created and energizes and motivates the universe. Swedenborg goes further. He says that whereas the “celestial” angels, who are more in love than in wisdom, see the Lord specifically as a Sun, like our sun, only much larger and hotter, and redder in color, the “spiritual” angels, who are more in truth than in love, see Him as a white orb which suggests the likeness of the moon, only a million times brighter than our pale satellite – which is only a reflecter of light after all.
Over and over again, in the Bible, the Lord is called a Sun and a Moon: a Sun as to His Divine Love, and a Moon as to His Divine Wisdom. Only when we accept the Lord as our God, does the spiritual Sun and Moon shine upon us. This explains Genesis 1. The light of understanding must come first, in order that the process of regeneration may be got under way; then later, on the fourth “day,” we begin to accept the Lord, as represented by the sun and moon, “the two great lights, the greater to rule by day and the lesser by night.”
In heaven, the divine Sun never sets. It is always at its meridian. But its position is not static. It appears immediately before the faces of the angels. No matter in what direction an angel turns, the Sun is always directly in front of him. This is because he always has the Lord directly in front of his inward sight; he “looks toward Him” mentally; and, in the spiritual world, the whole outward environment is a projection or objectivation of interior states or relationships. Evil spirits, on the other hand, always have the spiritual Sun behind their backs, no matter which way they turn, since they never look to the Lord for anything. They live in their own shadow.
The prophet Isaiah, speaking of the New Jerusalem, says: “Thy sun shall no more go down, neither shall thy moon withdraw itself; for the Lord shall be thine everlasting light.” So it is with the Church when it is functioning properly. Love and wisdom from the Lord shine brightly before the faces of its members. When a Church declines or dies, “the sun becomes black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon becomes as blood” (Revelation 6:12). It is then the “end of the world,” as far as that Church is concerned. No matter how vigorously it may be thriving as an organization or club: increasing membership, new carpet in the lounge, a new lamp in the pastor’s study, fine ,choir, fine sermons, etc., etc. . . . nevertheless it is quite dead as a Church, if the divine Sun and Moon are not shining upon the faces of its members.
The story of Joshua is not so much concerned with the growth or death of a Church, as with the temptation combats within a Church, or within a member of the Church. You and I and all of us are living in two worlds simultaneously, and on the inner side are surrounded by spirits, good and evil. The evil spirits are bent on destroying us. Before we can occupy the Promised Land, we must, like Joshua, drive them out, which will probably involve a long and painful campaign. Only when we have “avenged ourselves upon our enemies” can we hope to enjoy heavenly peace and prosperity, with the Lord as our divine King. We are born with hereditary evils in our make-up: innate tendencies to selfishness, greed, jealousy, contempt, irrational fears and impure desires. From all these heathenisms, the evil spirits come forth, like maggots from rotting meat; they swarm into our lower nature, our ego. We do not create them; they come from hell. Nor are we responsible for them, unless we assume responsibility by encouraging them, or compromising with them, or abjectly yielding ourselves up to them. Joshua did not do that! He mobilized his forces in this spiritual warfare, and sent his enemies scattering.
This is no justification for earthly warfare between nations, in which people kill people. War is always wrong. War is hell. Even the wars described in the Bible were evil in themselves, though there was some excuse for them m the setting of their times. If this were merely human history, it would make sordid reading. But it is not mere human history! It is the Word of God. Its subject matter is human regeneration, and the battle-field is our own hearts and minds. Our foes are evil spirits from hell who are trying to enslave and destroy us. We must not yield.
The first thing that happens when evil spirits attack us is that the lights go out. The spiritual Sun and Moon disappear. We are plunged into total darkness. This is unnerving, to say the least! Terror seizes us. We don’t know which way to turn, what to do. Resistance seems hopeless. Our imagination gets out of control. Perhaps we think we are in the presence of fascinating and alluring creatures who hold out their arms to us in the darkness, inviting us to unholy pleasures, tempting us to join them in their idolatrous Baal orgies. Or we may picture them as cruel demons – enormous, terrifying, dominating us completely. Everything is exaggerated in the dark. Joshua, too, despaired of achieving anything when once night had fallen. His foes would certainly have ambushed his little band and annihilated them. So he turned his face to the Lord and prayed for LIGHT, light to see things in their proper proportion, as they really were; light to shine through appearances to reality, to expose the false propaganda of the Evil-One, to “call the bluff” of hell.
And warmth, too. The warmth of love from God. The inner acknowledgment that the Lord is the only Source of victory, achievement, peace. Joshua fixed his wavering attention on the Spiritual Sun of divine Love and the spiritual Moon of divine Truth … and they came floating back into his inner vision and remained there, directly before his face, till victory was won. “So the Lord hearkened to the voice of a man,” as He always does if we pray to Him, “and the Lord fought for Israel.”
Nobody can defeat the evil-one in his own strength, and it is no use our trying to do so. To struggle desperately and say, “I will achieve, I will get rid of this troublesome habit, this haunting fear, this unclean desire!” is bound to end in defeat and disaster, because it is backed by the ego or selfhood, which is on the enemy side! If anyone tries to conduct his campaign in that way, the light goes out for him at once; he stumbles in the dark, and inevitably falls. The correct procedure, the only way to success, is to ask the Lord to take over and fight for you, or, rather, to fight through you. You must do the fighting, but in His strength, in His light.
Before closing, I should like to touch on a practical point which people often raise. If the Lord is the Sun or Moon of the spiritual world, a dazzling orb high up in the spiritual firmament, how can we establish any personal relationship with Him? How can we confide in Him and feel Him intimate with us? Hasn’t this concept de-personalized Him? Well, of course, God is not really a great shining Orb! He is a divine Person, the only real, self-existing Person. If He were not a Person, He could not exercise Love and Wisdom, which are distinctly “personal” qualities. But He is Infinite, and we are only finite; so, if we try to visualize Him as He really is, we are dazzled. An angel can no more gaze at the Lord up there in the sky, than we can gaze at our sun, without using a piece of smoked glass or black film. If the angel could, as it were, look through a spiritual smoked glass(!), he would undoubtedly see the Lord as a glorious and beautiful Man, surrounded by an aura of flaming power.
Here is another point which bears directly on the question. God can, and often does, appear to the angels by projection, in a shape suited to their understanding. (An analogy could be made with the projection of a person’s face on a TV screen). In ancient times, God appeared to Abraham, Gideon, the Prophets, and many others, by infilling some particular angel with His Spirit, so that the angel spoke and acted as if he were God. Since the Incarnation, God has been able to appear to men in His glorified human body, as Jesus. Swedenborg saw Him in that form on several occasions, as did Paul and many of the saints. Doubtless His appearance is modified according to the recipient: aa African would probably see Him as an African, an Asian as an Asian, and so on. Because God has no fixed “shape,” His Humanity can adapt itself to any shape required.
As for the question, “How are we to think of God?” I would say, “Think of Him as the highest, most beautiful and wonderful Person your imagination can conceive of.” I personally like to think of Him as He must have appeared to Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration. “His face did shine as the sun, and His raiment was white as the light.” This would correspond to Joshua’s Sun and Moon. Or think of Him in His resurrection body, as He ascended up into heaven. Resplendent and glorious, yet available and intimate. Many degrees above our head, yet able to come down into our little life when we want and need Him.
It is so simple to take our problems to the Lord and let Him solve them. We should be doing it all the time; it should be a regular attitude on our part. Every morning we should say: “Lord, stay before my face this day; I want to be warmed by Your love and enlightened by Your wisdom. Nothing else matters.” If we can bring ourselves to do this, then we shall be safe against all the wiles of the evil-one. We shall walk in the light, and become children of light, and our day will never end. “The light of the moon shall become as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold as the light of seven days, in the day that the Lord bindeth up the breach of His people, and healeth the stroke of their wound.” (Isaiah 30:26).
Danger – Beware of Covetousness
If someone were to accuse you of being of a covetous disposition, you would probably deny it. I know I should! Yet Jesus referred so often to covetousness, envy, jealousy, that we are bound to conclude it was a common failing among the people with whom He came into contact in those days, and presumably with us also. We gather that He regarded it as a cardinal sin which effectively blocks a a person’s spiritual growth and development. Covetousness is forbidden in the Ten Commandments, as you know, and Swedenborg tells us that Covetousness lies behind and within almost every other evil. We should try very hard, therefore, to see what covetousness is, and whether or not we are actually guilty of it.
Let us examine some of the instances of covetousness referred to in the gospels. First, Luke 12:15, from which my title is taken: “Beware of Covetousness.” One of the company said to Jesus, “Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me.” (Even in those days, apparently, families quarreled over wills!) And Jesus replied, “Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you? Take heed of covetousness, for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” There is nothing said here against the just and fair distribution of an inheritance among the heirs. But this man was evidently making too much of it altogether, actually taking it to Jesus for a settlement! The reply is: “Don’t take this matter of worldly possessions so seriously! You are letting it eat you up! Surely there are more important things for you to worry about than a mere legacy! Try to see things in their proper perspective!”
Then there is the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20). Here we find a clear case of jealousy. The laborers who began work at sunrise had been quite content with the terms offered: one denarius as wages for a day’s work. But when they saw that others who had worked for only one hour as against their twelve were given one denarius, they expected to receive more; and when they did not get it, they were indignant. But the Master rebuked them and said: “Didn’t you agree with me for a denarius? What is it to you if someone else gets better terms than you? Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with my own?”
Next comes the incident of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). This has given offence to a great number of people, because indeed it undermines our whole value system. Our culture is “Martha-oriented,” and we place our hope of salvation in doing good works. Literally dozens of women have told me during my ministry that they sympathize with Martha, and that Jesus was mistaken in saying what He said. Well, I am not prepared to discuss whether or not Jesus was mistaken. All I can do is to try to put the little incident in its true setting. Martha, you will remember, was “cumbered about much serving,” doing her best to make a delicious meal for Jesus as a way of expressing her love for Him. Normally, I suppose, Jesus and His disciples subsisted on a handful of salted olives, some dry bread from a bin, a few dried fish perhaps, and a basket of figs, none of which needed much preparation. Mary, on the other hand, was sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening raptly to His wonderful conversation. A delightful scene from every point of view, except for one thing: Martha’s jealousy! Martha was jealous of Mary and said to Jesus: “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.” And, because of that note of complaint, Jesus took Mary’s part and rebuked Martha. If she could not serve Him joyfully, He would rather she did not serve Him at all. Her sour word destroyed all the good she was doing. Now, suppose it had been the other way around, and Mary had complained of Martha? I can well imagine her saying: “Lord, stop my sister from fussing around like this! I can’t concentrate on what you are saying, with her coming and going and moving things around! Is eating so important?” If Mary had spoken like that, I am sure Jesus would have rebuked her! “Mary, Mary! You are sitting at my feet, listening to what I have to say concerning the Kingdom. But Martha is expressing her love in a different way. What right have you to say that your way is superior to hers?”
We get the same teaching in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Here the jealousy was on the part of the elder brother, who saw no reason why his Father should roll out the red carpet for the wastrel who had squandered his inheritance with riotous living in a far country. “Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandments; and yet thou never gayest me even a kid that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this thy son was come, who hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.” And wasn’t there some justice in his complaint? Surely. But you cannot apply man’s principles of justice to God’s ways with man. God is not motivated by justice but by love. And of course, the rather loved both his sons equally, as God loves us all. His rebuke of his elder son was due entirely to that one’s jealousy towards his younger brother. The elder son was jealous because the prodigal got more than he deserved; and jealousy closes us up, alienates us, separates us from our heavenly Father, makes it impossible for Him to bless us as he is longing to do. It is a cardinal sin, much worse than the sin of wantonness and profligacy of which the younger son was guilty.
There are several other incidents and parables in the gospels teaching the same hard lesson, but I think I have quoted enough to make the point. Maybe I will just mention one more conversation, which Jesus had with Peter and John after the Resurrection. He foretells that Peter will glorify God by suffering some terrible death in his old age (crucifixion upside down, as it turned out). Then Peter, turning about, saw John standing there, and asked Jesus, “What shall this man do?” Jesus replied, “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou me” – which is the last thing Jesus said, as recorded in the gospels.
What is that to thee! What does it matter to you if other people prosper or get better treatment than you do, or better than they deserve, or than you think they deserve? Yet how common, almost universal, is this demand for one’s rights, this pushing forward of oneself in the name of justice, this elbowing of one’s way to the front to get one’s share of the good things, and this agonizing cry of dismay if someone else gets favorable treatment! Most of the wars of history, and in our contemporary world, can be traced to jealousy, envy or covetousness, each nation wanting to be one better than the others. The same evil is ruining America at the present time: strikes for better pay, picketing, riots, trouble on the campuses, even doctors and nurses demanding easier conditions of work and bigger remunerations, to say nothing of congressmen and senators, and the President himself having his salary raised! Now let us pause a moment and see what we mean, or we shall be getting jealous of the President, which is the very thing we must beware of doing! If somebody can get his salary increased, good luck to him! It doesn’t hurt you or me. And how about better terms for taxi drivers and law students? Fine! Social justice, and improvement of conditions of labor for all. It is an expression of one’s love of one’s fellow man, to do all in one’s power to better the lot of others. And one’s own lot too, by any reasonable means. But to make so much of it that one would go to Jesus with one’s complaints, and say, “Lord, speak to my brother that he divide the inheritance with me” – as if it were a matter of life and death to get the biggest possible share of the loot … that is ridiculous! It is when one gets emotional about it, and consumed with indignation on one’s own behalf, that Jesus replies, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”
A lady once told me how she and her sister had been estranged for twenty or thirty years because, when their parents died, the sister had taken a silver tea service which my friend said should have come to her. And then, all those years later, they had met somewhere, and the sister had said: “I am sorry about that silver tea service. It had meant so much to me when mother died, but we have never used it; and now I am wondering why I let it cause this rift between your family and ours. Would you like to have it?” And her sister replied, “I don’t think I would have any use for it either. We have been silly, haven’t we?” Years of love and companionship sacrificed for a piece of property which nobody needed.
We had a rather similar case in our family, between two sisters-in-law, who lived for three years as near neighbors in a small town in England, back in the forties, but never made any contacts; and years later, after one had been overseas and come back again, they met, and, on talking over the past, discovered that each had thought the other snobbish and “superior,” and so, because of stupid feelings of mutual jealousy, they had lost three years of what might have been very happy and fruitful fellowship. Each had thought the other poised and mature in comparison with herself, whereas in fact both had been desperately insecure, timid and afraid; each had been merely “putting on an act” to conceal her own feelings of inadequacy. What a tragic situation!
Most of these troubles arise from the ingrained habit of assessing, valuing, comparing oneself with other people. This is a very dangerous pastime and almost always causes trouble. For suppose you find yourself inferior to the other person in some respect? This arouses feelings of envy and puts you in a demeaning position, unworthy of your high estate as a child of God. On the other hand, suppose you find yourself superior? That makes you conceited and condescending. The only way to avoid feelings of inferiority or superiority, both of which are damning, is to accept yourself for what you are, with all your limitations and your gifts, and try to improve yourself in your own eyes and in the sight of God, without comparing yourself with other people at all. We used to have a saying when I was young: “comparisons are odious,” and how true that is! The critical assessment and evaluation of human qualities and rights, and the making of comparisons between one person and another, this should be avoided at all cost. God has expressly forbidden us to judge others. “Judge not,” He says, “that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged”; and insofar as you condemn others, you will be condemned. It is an inexorable law.
Do you want the Lord to assess and evaluate and judge you? God forbid! As Hamlet said in Shakespeare’s play, “Use every man after his desert, and who should escape whipping?” Fortunately for us, God does not use us after our desert; it does not work out that way. God maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. Heaven is free for all who want it; it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. Therefore, if God loves His children in this way, without discrimination, seeking the welfare of all with equal solicitude, so ought we to love one another, icing in our neighbor’s good fortune when he is fortunate and doing all in our power to alleviate his condition if things go wrong. And we should do this, not with the idea of earning a high place in God’s favor, which cannot be earned anyway, but from pure outgoing love.
How hard some of us try to be good! We feel we must earn heaven with the sweat of our brow. If we are estranged from God, we think we can win back His favor by working extra hard for Him. But it is not like that at all! Take the illustration of a husband and wife who are estranged, and perhaps have not spoken to each other for days. The wife thinks she will try to win back her husband’s love by cooking him a delicious meal; but, if she serves it in a sullen way and sits eating it in silence, he also will be sullen and silent and will scarcely notice what he is eating. Nothing done by either party will have any effect upon the situation, except one thing only: a show of love. Love alone, not strain and struggle and hard work, restore broken human relationships; and love alone can restore our broken relationships with God. There are only two Great Commandments: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with heart, soul, mind and strength; and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Martha doubtless thought she was “earning” merit in her Master’s eyes by slaving in the kitchen, but she was not. The elder brother in the story of the Prodigal Son claimed a high place in his Father’s affections because “These many years have I served thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment.” To which the Father replied, “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.” There was no need for him to struggle to get and enjoy it; it was there all the time! So with the parable of the vineyard. Those who had labored all day, believed they had earned more than those who had worked for only one hour; and by worldly standards they were right. But in spiritual matters, the only law to operate is the law of retaliation. If we love God and the neighbor, we are filled with love, from God and from the neighbor: that is our reward. But if we criticize and condemn others, we are criticized and condemned. It is as simple as that: “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you again.”
I seem to have got a long way from the Danger of Covetousness, but in fact I have not, for we shall be in no danger of covetousness if we can stop applying to spiritual things the competitive attitudes of the capitalist society in which we have been brought up. Competition may pay off in the production of consumer goods, things like automobiles, tooth paste and hair spray. But in the eyes of the Lord there is no competition whatsoever. Each man is given what he needs for his spiritual development, according to his capacities at any particular moment. As he opens himself and expands his capacities, so he receives more; if he closes his capacities, he receives less. Sowe get the law of spiritual economics enunciated by Jesus Himself, which has been such a stumbling-block because it seems so unjust, unfair: “Whosoever hath, to him shall be given and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away, even that he hath” (Matthew 13:12). Jesus called this one of the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, which could only be understood by those who have ears to hear. May He enlighten our minds so that we can understand and receive it, looking not for justice but for love, pouring out our own love without reservation, neither envying anyone nor coveting anything, but being satisfied with our situation as sons and daughters of God, heirs to His glorious Kingdom.
Sin, Forgiveness and Salvation
Sin, forgiveness and salvation lie at the very heart of religion: of any religion I would say, although some religions make more of them than others. In the Old Testament we find God as a Law-giver issuing specific commandments which had to be obeyed by man: Ten Commandments in particular, inscribed on slabs of stone to indicate their inviolability. To break the least of these commandments was sin. God was likewise a Judge, condemning and punishing anyone who broke His laws. There are terrible threats of punishment, in Leviticus and elsewhere, upon those who provoked the Lord to wrath. Well, this concept served its turn. It was valuable as an ethical deterrent, well suited to simple and immature people. We use threats with our children: “Mummy will be cross with you if you do that,” or “Daddy will spank you when he comes home!” And on extreme occasions, if the child persistently and willfully breaks the rules of the household, daddy does spank him, good and hard! Only as the children grow up do they realize that their parents’ anger was only an appearance; that in fact their father did not hate, condemn and try to destroy them when they were naughty, but that he punished them for their own good. King Solomon is quoted as having said: “Spare the rod and spoil the child; he that loveth his son, chasteneth him betimes.” And even in the Book of Revelations we get, in the Lord’s message to the (immature) church in Laodicea: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten; be zealous therefore and repent.”
Always, you see, there is this legalistic concept, that sin consists of breaking certain laws or commandments. God is angry with us and punishes us, even though it may be for our good. He sends us sickness, poverty, loss. And (at any rate after the captivity in Babylon) there was a long-term threat held over the people: if they did not take heed and repent, if they continued to displease the Almighty God, then He would throw them into hell, where the would suffer the torments of the damned to eternity.
The Book of Revelation crystallizes the legalistic concept by providing the imagery of a Great White Throne where the Divine Judge sits, before whom every soul is taken after death. A list of the accused’s deeds, good and evil, is read out by the Recording Angel. If the final balance is on the positive side (more good deeds than bad ones) the soul is acquitted and carried up into bliss; but if the evil deeds outweigh the good, he is pitch-forked down into the everlasting bonfire. (See Michelangelo’s picture of the Judgment in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.) The imagination of the Middle Ages was so excited by the prospect of the Judgment after death that people began to punish themselves, in the hope of working off some of the balance of sin before dying. And the torture and burning of heretics by the Church under the inquisition was theoretically supposed to be for the same merciful purpose. Better for the poor heretic to suffer burning for a few terrible hours on earth, than in the fires of hell to eternity.
In reaction, another idea was put forward, which was taken up principally by the Protestants after the Reformation. This swung to the opposite extreme. “Did not Jesus die for our sins?” it was asked. “Isn’t that the meaning of Calvary?” And a whole new theory was propounded, called “The plan of salvation” which tried to show how God had removed everyone’s sins, including yours and mine, and placed the whole load on the back of His Son, Jesus Christ, and Jesus had borne the punishment upon His own body. So there is no longer any condemnation! Jesus has taken upon Himself the iniquity of us all, provided only that we believe in Him. This is technically known as the Vicarious Atonement, and Salvation by Faith Alone, and is attacked by Swedenborg over and over again in his writings. And, indeed, such a belief is ethically bad as it leads to the idea that it doesn’t matter how many sins you commit, they will all be forgiven if you believe that Jesus died for you; you will be “justified,” or made just, and admitted to heaven when you die. I read a book only recently which said: “Because of the Crucifixion, God has forgiven all our sins, past, present and future.” Why bother then?
Of course God has forgiven our sins and always will do to eternity! It is His nature to forgive. But what difference does this make if the sin persists? Moreover, sin is not some kind of morbid growth that can be removed by a surgical operation and grafted onto Jesus. Nor does the question ever arise in God’s mind as to whether we should be pardoned or punished for our sins. There is no great White Throne, no Divine Judge weighing the souls of men, no recording angel. The Book of Revelation was never intended to be taken literally like that; it is visionary and allegorical, to be understood only according to the science of symbolism. How, then, are we to think of God? Think of Him, rather, as the Father of the Prodigal Son. In that matchless parable (Luke 15:11-32) Jesus gave us a clear indication of the true nature of sin, repentance, regeneration and salvation. The Father in the parable was not angry with His son; he yearned over him. He did not punish the young man. Nor did he have to “forgive” him, because, as far as we know, he had never condemned him! But how did this help the son while he was away in the far country wasting his substance with riotous living? The forgiveness and mercy and compassion were there at home; but the whole nature of the son’s sin was that he preferred to be in a far country. Surely in this day of sophisticated psychological analysis we have outgrown the legalistic point of view of sin, as being the breach of some commandment which evokes God’s vengeance in the form of punishment?
Sin is subjective, not objective. It lies in the secret chambers of the heart, in the realm of motivation, and it carries its own punishment with it. The only punishment we get is the effect of the sin upon ourselves. Sin can be defined as a deliberate turning away from God. It is the uncontrolled love of self, a blown-up ego. It is hatred and lust and jealousy and resentment fermenting in the heart and ever seeking an opportunity to burst forth into action. That is sin, and whether it is forgiven or not, is neither here nor there. Wicked actions are not sin in themselves, nor is the breaking of a commandment necessarily sin. It depends on why we break it! Sin is the motive which causes sinful actions. You can punish a sinful action in a court of law, and this may have a wholesome effect on society by encouraging people to keep their anti-social urges under control; but this does not really touch the sin itself. It may even increase the pressure of the sin by screwing down the lid. Sin consists in being, not doing. It lies primarily in a man’s attitudes rather than in his actions. Jesus made this clear when He said: “He that looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her in his heart.” The action may, or may not, follow; that is purely incidental from the spiritual point of view.
After the death of the body, hidden things are laid bare. “There is nothing covered” (said Jesus), “that shall not be revealed, neither hid that shall not be known. Whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets, shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.” (Luke 12:2, 3). This means, as I understand it, that the motives behind our sinful actions will be revealed, what we inwardly desired, what we really wanted to do, though perhaps we were unable to do. Our motivation will be revealed for all to see, and we shall no longer care who sees it! On the other hand, we may have done evil things on earth that we didn’t really want to do (as, for example, an airman who drops napalm over a village in obedience to military orders, but hates himself for doing it.) This also will be cleared up after death when the motivation is laid bare.
When you have passed over into the spiritual world and remember back to the life you lived on earth, the important thing will be whether you recall your misdeeds with pleasure or regret. If you remember them with remorse and sorrow and wish you had acted otherwise (that is to say, if you have repented of them) then you will obviously not repeat them in the new free atmosphere of the spiritual world. But if you remember them with pleasure and wish only that you had gone a little further, then in the new free atmosphere you will plunge into them openly, without restraint. In the future life, the only restraint is self-restraint. That must be developed on earth, here and now. You cannot acquire it after death, because in the spiritual world you can do everything you want to. That is largely why we have been placed in this physical universe to begin with: to develop self-restraint.
And so begins the Judgment. When I said there was no Great White Throne I did not mean there would be no Judgment. There is a Judgment, but it is self-judgment and is effected unconsciously. The newly-awakened spirit does just what he likes. He expresses his personality completely and openly, as he has formed it by his life on earth. Heaven with all its bliss is freely available, and every effort is made to persuade him to enter heaven and partake of its happiness. The Judgment consists in whether he accepts or rejects the Lord’s offer of grace. Unfortunately those who turned their backs on God during life on earth, usually continue to deny Him after death. They have acquired a habit of opposition to God’s will, which they cannot now reverse. If a man’s whole life on earth has been devoted to self, he is appalled when shown conditions in heaven, where the source of joy is love to the Lord an to the neighbor. Such happiness is utterly incomprehensible to him; the very smell of it fills him with torment, and he turns and runs for his life! What such a man wants, and what he gets, is a kind of liberty hall, where he can give vent to all his hidden evils in the company of others who are likeminded with himself. They fight and quarrel like a lot of dogs, and are jealous and indignant to their hearts’ content. That is what we call hell, but the newly arrived “devil” will not think of it as hell, for he is at home there and it suits him. “Isn’t he punished at all?” Certainly he is punished. He is miserable from the very frustrations of his existence, the fact that those around him oppose him and he cannot always get his way and be “top dog.” Also, the very boredom of self-love is a terrible punishment which he carries around with him; always the itch and lust are at him from within. Jesus referred to it as the gnawing worm and the fire that is never quenched, and the gnashing of teeth. But the fire comes from the man’s own evil passions, and the gnashing of teeth is the ceaseless nagging and arguing to which he is reduced in his relations with his fellows. However, at least he is happier there than he would be anywhere else. Hell is his heaven.
How different is the progress of the man who gladly accepts the invitation to “enter into the joy of his Lord!” He goes to heaven, not as a reward for having lived a good life, but simply because he wants to. The good deeds he performed in the world have had the effect of making him want to go to heaven. The unselfish, outgoing sphere of heaven suits him, he is in harmony with it. This is the kind of life he would have enjoyed on earth, though perhaps he was never able to get it. For all I know, he may have spent his years in jail. He might have been an alcoholic, a drug addict, almost anything. You cannot tell in the natural world what a man’s motives are, and we are advised not to try.
Swedenborg was surprised at some of the changes which took place with some of his friends and acquaintances as they “died” and passed over. Famous clergymen, even bishops, were revealed as having been operating from a consuming love of self; many of the upper classes of Sweden were exposed as mean and corrupt. On the other hand, the Empress Elizabeth of Russia, said by historians to have been one of the wickedest women of her time, was found to be among the blest, her sins forgiven, entering into the unselfish life of heaven! Of course, most cases are
not so contrary-wise; people who regularly commit sins on earth are usually sinners at heart and so become sinners in the life to come, whereas most people who are kindly and good on earth, who worship the Lord and love their neighbor as themselves, continue to do so after death. But only the Lord can tell how things will be.
It is hard enough to judge oneself, though you can get a clue as to your future lot by asking yourself: “What would I do if I were completely free to do anything I liked? If I could plan my own environment and circumstances entirely to suit myself, how would I live? How would I like other people to behave toward me, and how would I behave toward them? “Remember, in the other life people have everything they want, provided it can be fitted in with what other people want also.
How about the Ten Commandments, then, and all the other rules and statutes, the breaking of which is traditionally regarded as sin, punishable with hell? I believe they have been given to us by the all-wise Creator as guidelines to a good and productive spiritual life. They reveal to us the unvarying laws of spirit. Break them and you will suffer. You tell your child not to play with the electric toaster while it is operating; he disobeys you, and gets a shock or a burn. You do not have to punish him; his own action punishes him; but your words have helped him to learn that electricity burns. I look upon much of the Bible as being like the handbook or instruction card given by the manufacturers with some new appliance – toaster, TV or whatever, telling you how to get the best out of it, how to avoid smashing it up and smashing yourself up. The many sins we all commit during life, sins of omission and sins of commission, can actually be of benefit to us if we learn from them – just as mistakes made at school in a chemistry lab can be valuable to the student in the learning process. Don’t feel guilty over your past sins; learn from them, pay for them, and turn away from them. The Commandments were not given to us to trip us up or condemn us, but to help and benefit us. God is on our side, as every loving Father is on the side of his children. He longs to have us all with Him in heaven. Open yourself to Him. Think of Him often. Get in tune with Him. Develop a heavenly state. of mind, and this will carry you into the happy, unselfish life of heaven. There will be rejoicing among the angels, and the Lord’s intentions on your behalf will be fulfilled. Sin, Forgiveness, Salvation; the sequence will be complete.
Looking Down One’s Own Throat
Both John the Baptist and Jesus Himself went around preaching “Repentance for the remission of sins.” They urged people to repent of their sins, but did not ask first whether they had committed any sins! It was taken for granted. The fact is, of course, that everybody starts out life facing in the wrong direction, driven by the love of self and love of the world. This is part of our inherited humanity. Therefore, unless we go into reverse or turn around (unless we are “converted”) we shall all end up in hell. This is a general rule, and I see no reason why you or I or any other particular person should be exempt from it. “Unless ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” This is difficult for most of us to swallow. The set-up in which we live as respectable middle-class people in a civilized society excludes the more obvious vices. Probably none of us has committed any glaring sins lately. We live good moral lives, helping one another and so on. We feel we are fairly all right, as good as or better than the next man. And so we develop a complacency which verges on self-approval. We are “the righteous who have no need of repentance,” to quote an ironical comment of our Lord’s. He only came, He said, to call sinners to repentance; the righteous apparently were hopeless! Even God cannot help anyone who thinks he is O.K.
If we come into this category of the self-satisfied righteous, it is about time we had a jolt. What we need is a course of honest self-examination to shake us up! Otherwise, I’m afraid we shall just drift downwards with the current, until it is too late. But if we begin to find out things that are unsatisfactory about ourselves, then we can repent and be forgiven, after which we can make real progress toward heaven.
The purpose of self-examination, then, is to change one’s character for the better. Can you change human nature? Of course you can! Just consider how you yourself have changed since childhood. Some things that absorbed your interest then would bore you now, whereas other more adult interests and concerns have taken their place. And you can go on changing till the day of your death. I have seen very dominating and aggressive people mellowing in their old age; which is, for them, an important change for the better. Others, who loved to amass property and judged everything in terms of money, begin to lose their attachment to their possessions, which indicates that their “love of the world” is lessening. Old prejudices are abandoned; we become more liberal. Oh yes, human nature can change! The point is: do you want to change, or be changed? If you don’t, nothing can save you. That is why so many people fossilize or go stagnant in their old age. Surely, as Christian people, we want to become angels and live in heaven? But to achieve this, we must be prepared to change our whole personalities; we must “die unto self, and be born again from the Lord.” Merely being Christian people and belonging to a church won’t save you; you must be re-born! And re-birth presupposes repentance, and repentance presupposes self-examination – knowledge of what we have got to repent of.
But how, you may ask, can we examine ourselves? Isn’t it like trying to look down your own throat? Well, for an animal it would be impossible; but one of the main differences between man and beast is that man can detach himself from himself and judge himself objectively. Not easily, however. Swedenborg warns us that self-examination will prove difficult at first. But he gives us encouragement by assuring us that it will grow much easier with practice.
There are two kinds of self-examination; or, rather, two levels on which self-examination can be applied. There is the outer level of deeds, and the inner level of motives. These correspond roughly to the daily scrutiny of our actions, which must necessarily be somewhat superficial; and the occasional inner probing, which is a major operation and should not normally be undertaken more frequently than, say, once or twice a year. To illustrate what I mean, I will refer to a nephew of mine who works in a plastic factory. His job is to see that the correct standard of production is maintained in the firm’s daily output. That is like our regular daily self-examination, done usually in bed before going off to sleep. You review the day, and think: “Oh, I should not have done this, or said that!” or, “I really ought to have done so and so! Lord, I’m sorry. Help me to make a better job of it next time.” The other kind of self-examination, the deep-level probing into motives and value judgments and personality quirks, is comparable, in the factory, to the overhaul or replacement of obsolete processes, the introduction of better machinery and systems of production, and so on. You cannot be doing this all the time, or you will never have any production at all; but you should undertake it occasionally, for the sake of long-term improvement.
Self-examination, if it is to be effective, should be detailed and specific. General Confession, what the psychologists call “blanket admission of guilt,” gets you nowhere. Martin Luther made a big mistake when he abolished the confession of individual sins. He wrote: “No man can ever know his sins; therefore, they cannot be enumerated; moreover, they are interior and hidden, so that a confession of them would be false, uncertain, maimed or mutilated. But he who confesses himself to be nothing but sin, includes all sins, excludes none, and forgets none.” This, surely, is nonsense! In fact, the reverse is the case. He who includes all sins, is conscious of none, and so forgets them all! The practical and realistic thing to do is to take one sin at a time, note the occasions on which we commit it, try to see why we commit it, pray to the Lord for help in avoiding it, and then work hard until the very desire for that sin is no longer in our system. Then start on another specific sin.
In examining oneself, it is useful to have some sort of yardstick, and the most commonly used is the Ten Commandments. But do not limit yourself to the obvious surface meaning of the Commandments. You may not have killed anyone literally, but have you sought to destroy him by contempt? You may not have committed adultery literally, but, as Jesus remarked, to look upon a member of the opposite sex with lust is to commit adultery in one’s heart. Deeper still, to profane good with evil is spiritual adultery. You steal from God if you take for yourself the praise and honor due to Him, and so on. But, even if, like the rich young ruler in the gospel story, you have “kept the Commandments from your youth up,” the question still has to be faced: “What has been your motive for keeping them?” Has it been because you have really desired to discipline yourself to a heavenly life, or merely because you have wanted to earn a good reputation and be thought well of by your set? Here is where self-examination can be of help.
Ask yourself: “Would I commit these evils if I could do so without being found out? – or if I lived in a society which practiced them and approved of them?” This is vital, because after death all external restraints will be removed; you will be able to do exactly what you like, and will no longer be concerned with what other people think of you. Then, those who refrained from breaking the Ten Commandments merely through fear of loss of reputation, plunge into evil with delight. At last they can do openly what they have always longed to do! But if you train yourself here in this world to refrain from committing evil because evil is hellish and against God’s will, then after death you will be free from any desire or prompting toward evil. The main purpose of life here is to develop self-discipline; for self-discipline, after death, is the only discipline to which we shall be subjected.
When we come to examine our motives or motivation (“why we are what we are? – what is our ultimate purpose?”), our yardstick should be the Two Great Commandments: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God above all else, and thy neighbor as thyself.” The best definition of sin is “anything which prevents us from loving, or having a good relationship with, God or our neighbor.” No action can be judged good or evil apart from the effect it has on a relationship. If it helps us to relate better with the Lord, it is good; if not, it is evil. Or, if it helps us to relate better with other people, to think better of them and to desire and seek their welfare, then it is good; if not, it is evil. As we examine ourselves on this level, we shall probably find we are riddled with self-love, concern for our own importance; or with love of the world, desire for possessions, ease and comfort and “security.” We shall find we have been continually asking ourselves: “Does this benefit me?” “What do I get out of it?” – which represents the motivation of hell. And so our main purpose in future will have to be to swing over from love of self to Love to the Lord, and from love of this world to Love to the Neighbor.
Some people find it helpful to write down in a notebook or on a sheet of paper the results of their self-examination. Make a list of your sins or your tendencies to selfish motivation and work out an order in which you think you should try to deal with them. Afterwards you can throw the paper away. Burn it in the fire, if you like; watch your sins go up in smoke! Or keep it for future reference, to see how you are progressing. At one church camp we attended, we were told to write a letter to God; and then on the back of the sheet, we had to write what we thought God’s reply would be. We sealed it up in a stamped envelope addressed to ourself, and left it with the secretary of the camp. In six months’ time she posted all the letters in the mail, and as I reread my letter, and God’s supposed reply, I was reminded very vividly of my feelings in the peak experience of the camp and was able to recapture the determination I had then formed to live my life on a more spiritual level.
In “God’s reply” there will undoubtedly be an expression of love and complete forgiveness. If we sincerely confess our sins before Him, and desire to amend our lives, He will forgive us and remove them at once. Jesus Himself showed this in His parable of the Prodigal Son, which makes it abundantly clear that anyone who turns back home from a far country is welcomed by his Father with open arms. Many people, however, although they know they are in a far country and have a vague feeling that they would like to return home, never make the actual effort of leaving their old wretched condition and going to their Father for forgiveness. Guilt feelings that do not lead to repentance and restitution are worse than useless. The maudlin confessions of an alcoholic are all part of the game; he takes a perverse pleasure in castigating himself and is disappointed if you don’t listen to him and condemn him. I have known people who have been going to psychiatrists for years, and seem to take pleasure in telling you all that is wrong with their mental outlook, and how they got that way. Some traumatic experience in their childhood, perhaps: like the old lady who spent her life being waited on in bed, because, when a child, she “saw something nasty in the woodshed!” It is the same with people who tell you all their physical ailments, the surgery they have had, the pills they take, and their indigestion mixture. It would be dreadful for such people if they were cured; they would no longer feel important.
One can imagine the Prodigal Son sitting among his pigs in the far country, a picture of penitent misery, going through his past life in his mind, seeing all the mistakes he has made and the sins he has committed, castigating and condemning himself for them, saying: “It’s all my own fault that I got this way. I am a worthless sinner. I deserve everything that has come to me.” And if someone were to come along and say, “Why don’t you go back home and ask the Old Man’s forgiveness?” he would reply, “My father would never forgive me! My sins against him have gone too deep! Leave me alone in my misery! I a unclean from head to foot.” That is not how the story goes in the Bible, of course; but it is how it goes with all too many sinners in this world, who take a sort of twisted pride in their evils and guilt, a pride which prevents them from accepting the forgiveness which their heavenly Father is longing to give them, or even from accepting forgiveness from their friends on earth. Such people are mighty good at repentance, but not “for the remission of sins!” Their confession gets them absolutely nowhere; if anything, the weight of it pulls them down into the mire (Bunyon’s “Slough of Despond”).
What the Lord wants is the lightening of the load that is pressing down on us; He wants us to be released, to soar! Will you allow Him to raise you up? Having discovered a sin of some sort in the murky depths of your heart, repent of it and let the Lord remit it; let Him remove it completely and absolutely, and replace it with something good from Himself. Do not ever hanker after that sin again. Don’t even think of it! Don’t even stop to bury it! Let the dead bury their dead, while you go and follow the Master. As for your love of self and love of the world, may they be whittled down and deprived of their power. Take up your cross and follow the Master to Calvary Hill and share His crucifixion, so that you may also share His resurrection and inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. “For this my son was dead and is alive again; was lost, and is found.”
The Verdict is in – GUILTY!
Not being either a lawyer or a criminal, I do not know much about guilt from a legal standpoint; but theologically speaking I am rather familiar with it. Like most other people, I have often experienced a sense of guilt; and I am glad of it, because otherwise my case would be hopeless. In a theological sense, guilt can be defined as “a personal consciousness of wrong-doing for which the man himself feels responsible.” It is the pain in the heart which comes when we are aware that we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and done those things which we ought not to have done. It is the horrible realization that “I” am responsible for the evil in a certain situation – that I caused it. “Not my brother, not my sister, but me, 0 Lord!” Not the other fellow, not my enemy, not any scape-goat, but I alone. Without a sense of guilt, we should none of us ever turn from our wickedness and live. Guilt is the emotional driving force associated with a protesting conscience, which can set us on the road to better things. Only sensitive and potentially good people can feel guilt, because only they have an active conscience. Thus a healthy sense of guilt is a sign of grace.
Unfortunately, however, guilt has sometimes gone sick. It has overwhelmed people, it has paralyzed them, so that, instead of spurring them on to repentance and reformation, it has floored them. They have rolled about in dust and ashes, beating their breasts and bemoaning that they are sinners. They have even come to take a certain satisfaction in the exercise. It pays off. For one thing, since they are criticizing themselves so severely, they are immune to criticism from other people. Responsibility for making amends is removed; all they have to do is to moan, “I am a miserable sinner; there is nothing sound in me from head to foot; I am beyond hope!” Such people do not want forgiveness and restitution. If assured that God has forgiven them, they say, with some pride, “Ah, but I cannot forgive myself.” Well, it is an easy way out, but it is sick. The sole purpose and value of guilt is that it leads to reformation. A person who wallows in guilt, and enjoys it for its own sake, is sick.
This was the sickness of the Christian Church in the Middle Ages, when good-living people beat themselves, often literally, and called themselves muck, filth, ordure. Today we don’t do this. In fact, we have gone to the other extreme, and think we are pretty good. The average man in the street, or woman in the pew, apparently has no sense of guilt at all! If you challenge them, and tell them they ought to experience guilt, they become indignant and ask what they have done wrong! I remember a lady, one of my most active church workers, who solemnly assured me that, as far as she was aware, she had never done anything wrong in her life. As for other people, oh yes! Many, many people had harmed or hurt her, but she could honestly say she had never intentionally done anything to harm or hurt anyone else! And isn’t this attitude of spiritual complacency rather typical of many of us, though we do not admit it quite so frankly as that lady?
However, there is still plenty of guilt around, but on a different level. And since people no longer move in a religious framework but in a psychological framework, I call it “psychological guilt.” It is derived, not from a sense of breaking God’s laws of right and wrong, of alienation from God, but from a failure to live up to the requirements of our secular society: or, if you like, failure to live up to the success-image we have made for ourselves. Maybe we have fallen down in our job, and so feel guilty. We are ashamed because we don’t have as good a color TV as the next man. Or we are too fat, and we meant to diet, but have not kept it up – this makes us feel guilty. Or our children have not turned out as we dreamed they would; they have developed a will of their own, and gone against us, which makes us feel terribly guilty! According to our code, everything should be successful, comfortable and pleasant; if things go wrong, or if we fail in any way, we have sleepless nights, indigestion, stomach ulcers, gallstones – all to no purpose whatsoever.
If only we could realize that the goals we set ourselves are probably unrealistic, and that even if we achieved them they would soon cease to satisfy us; that many of the things we feel responsible for are not really our responsibility at all, and we should keep our fingers out of them (which applies even to our own children when once they are adult). If only we could realize that we are not answerable to the Joneses next door, nor to a society that worships success and achievement, but to God Alone!
Not everything that fails or goes wrong is necessarily evil; it may be part of the normal process of growth and development. It is normal, for example, for teen-agers to turn against their parents at a certain stage of their developing self-awareness. The sharp and sometimes bitter hostility between the generations in a household is often necessary to push the youngsters out onto their own two feet (push the baby bird out of the nest, as we say). If this is recognized and accepted by parents and children, much worry and unhappiness can be avoided, and there need be no guilt feelings on either side. Feelings of inadequacy and futility; power struggles between husband and wife; temptations of all kinds; you don’t necessarily have to feel guilty about them. It is how you cope with them that makes them good or bad.
If things seem to be going badly, try to see why they are that way. Maybe you will find some reason for it which is good. Your aim should not be to have a trouble-free life, nor a temptation-free life, nor even a successful life as this world measures success. Your aim should be to have an ever-improving relationship with the Lord your heavenly Father. True guilt, in contrast to the spurious psychological guilt which we have been considering, has to do with this relationship with God, and with nothing else. It is God-oriented and is an essential part of the process of regeneration.
It works like this. We are all born into hereditary evils of every kind. We start out on the adventure of life facing toward hell. All our innate desires and tendencies have to do with love of self and the world, which are the basic loves of hell. If we continue successfully and pleasantly in that direction, as the world would have us do, we shall end up in hell. Since that is not God’s intention for us, the obvious thing to do is to put the brake on our natural, inherited desires, and say “no!” We must repent, be converted, turn around and face heaven instead of hell, transforming our love of self and the world into love to the Lord and the neighbor, the basic loves of heaven. But what driving-force shall we have for doing this if we do not feel personal guilt for our evil condition? Only the sting of guilt can spur us onto the journey of regeneration. You may ask, “How can we feel guilty for our heredity and environment, when we were not responsible for them?” Of course we cannot. But we have free will; and the moment we choose to act freely in accordance with any tendency to evil, that act makes it our own; we become responsible for it, and can feel guilt concerning it. Even if we do not act according to it, but say “yes” to the evil inclination, giving assent to it in our heart, we automatically assume responsibility for it.
A few years ago, partly through the influence of Freud, a “pass the buck” psychology was in vogue. There was no such thing as sin; if you did wrong, it was because of your upbringing. Your parents treated you too harshly, or not harshly enough. Either you came from a broken home, and so did not have a chance; or your home was so good that when you left it you collapsed! Anyway, if your parents were not to blame, it was your school, your companions, your bad health, the weather, anything. Always someone else, something else; never yourself. Fortunately a more healthy and realistic attitude has now been adopted, and blame can be placed where it belongs: in the heart of the man himself – in your heart, in my heart. And with that comes guilt, which disappears only when we have tackled the problem and put things right. If we stifle the guilt feeling, then. of course it achieves nothing, and in the end our conscience which produced it dies, and its body lies festering in our subconscious, producing all kinds of disorders. But if we react wisely to the warning signal of the pain, and set off towards heaven, then conscience revives, and the guilt feeling disappears healthily, having achieved its purpose. Your sorrow is turned to joy.
Later on, the process will be repeated in some other area. Another inherited evil, previously unsuspected, will come to the surface; and, insofar as we give consent to it, this becomes our responsibility, our fault, something for which we are personally to blame. A spasm of guilt will disturb us, prompting us again to confession, repentance and reformation in this new area. And so, gradually, throughout life, area by area will be changed over from alignment with hell to alignment with heaven. “Here a little, there a little, precept upon precept, line upon line.”
A point to bear in mind is that on no account should we allow ourselves to continue to feel guilt after the situation which produced the guilt has been put right. A minister in a recent TV broadcast had a small poster which read: “Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Then, under it, in small type, “If you have already repented, disregard this notice.” This, of course, was a gag, but it had a real point to it. Once you have repented of some specific sin, and received forgiveness from God, you should put it right out of your life and forget it. Discard it and throw it into the garbage can, and let the garbage collector take it right away. Where he takes it to, I don’t know …; I certainly shall not follow him to find out!
As you mature spiritually, the character of your guilt will change. You will become more and more sensitive to the evils still latent within you, and the pain of the guilt will be more intense. But, paradoxically, you will find it becoming easier and easier to bear. You will even learn to welcome and embrace the pain, because you know from experience how amazingly sweet the outcome will be. The pain of the guilt is but a small price to pay for the wonderful drawing near to the Lord which results from the removal of the offending evil.
As you eventually become an angel in heaven, you will cease to be exposed to temptation from hell, and so the ordinary feelings of guilt will cease to afflict you. However, life in heaven is not always on the same level of advancement and happiness. It passes through fluctuations, corresponding to our day and night, springtime and harvest, summer and winter. Otherwise the bliss would pall and grow stale. Every angel periodically experiences an immersion into his own ego. Clouds cover his spiritual sun; he feels alienated and unhappy. When this inner dissatisfaction with his selfhood reaches its painful maximum, he cries out to the Lord and begs to be restored to his former state. The Lord then gently raises him out of his ego and refills him with the Divine Love, Wisdom and Power. The clouds disappear, the Sun shines brightly again; and the angel’s joy is all the keener for the sadness of the temporary alienation. These periodic experiences of sadness, which can be called guilt, keep the angel constantly aware of his utter dependence on the Lord, and lead gradually to an abandonment of the lower self, and complete submission to Him. Guilt renders the ego soft and malleable, so that the Lord can take it in His hands and mould it to His will.
Evidently God Himself likes it best this way. To illustrate what His Fatherly concern for us may be, I will end with a story I heard of a mother who lost her air pilot son during the Battle of Britain in World War II.
The story goes that she was told she could have him back for just five minutes, so that she could re-live with him any five minutes she liked, taken from the whole of his life. Would she like him as he last came home on leave, as captain of his fighter squadron? No, she said. That was fine, but she did not need to repeat it. Would she like him in his last year at school, head boy and games captain? No, not that either. Then she decided upon the five minutes she would most like to share with him again. It was when he was five years old. He had asked if he could cross a busy street alone, to play with a little friend, and his mother had forbidden it. He had shouted “I hate you, I hate you!” and had stamped angrily out of the room, slamming the door. She had gone on quietly with her sewing. After a little while, the door had opened and he had come back. He climbed on her knee, put his arms around her neck, and said, “I’m sorry mummie.” And that was the moment, out of his whole life, that she chose to re-live.
Alienation. Guilt. Penitence. Reconciliation. Oneness with God. You can have them today.
Dead and Alive
How often have we heard those tremendous words read at the funerals of our loved ones! I myself, as a minister, have recited them scores of times, walking with the casket bearers up the aisle of a church, or standing in a funeral parlor. But I have never felt quite right about doing so. Whom am I supposed to be addressing? Are these words meant for the dead body, the corpse? Am I saying to it: “If you believe in Jesus, you will come to life again?” Of course not! That would be ridiculous! We know the corpse has begun to decay already. Am I, then, addressing the spirit or soul of the departed, telling him he will survive death if he believes in Jesus? How could he hear me, let alone believe in Jesus, if he were not surviving anyway?
There has been much confusion of thought on this matter of survival. Many people think that it was our Lord’s resurrection from the dead which assured us eternal life. “Because He lives, we shall live also.” The implication seems to be that nobody survived death before that first Easter Sunday when Jesus rose from the sepulcher. And, since belief in Jesus is supposed to be a prerequisite of survival, one must suppose that there is no eternal life for Jews, Hindus or Buddhists! I cannot go along with that; it is unthinkable. Swedenborg’s basic teaching on the future life is that everyone who has ever lived on earth since the Creation is alive today in the spiritual world. Neither the resurrection of Jesus, nor belief in Him, has had any bearing on this. Man is a spiritual being, and at death he merely puts off his physical body as a snake sloughs its skin, and continues to live in the spiritual body. Death is only a switch of consciousness from one plane to another, after which the physical body is discarded.. Even the most hard-boiled atheist, when he dies, “though he were dead, yet shall he live”; and so it has always been.
Evidently Jesus was speaking of another kind of life and death when He said He was the resurrection and the life, and that the man who believed in Jesus would never die. His words did not refer to physical life and death. They apply to us here and now, and are not really appropriate at all at a funeral service. Spiritually speaking, you may be dead already, or you may be alive. And, whether you are dead or alive as to your spirit, will depend very much upon your belief in Jesus Christ, and on His resurrection from the dead.
It certainly worked out like that with the disciples on that first Easter Sunday. Can you realize the amazing change which took place in them as a result of the resurrection? Think of the appalling horror of the crucifixion, and the disciples’ guilt and misery when they found it had all taken place with only John out of the whole twelve of them present to witness it, the rest having run away and left their Master to his fate. Judas at least had had the courage to commit suicide. True, Judas had betrayed Jesus, but in a sense so had they all! What was there left to live for, anyway? Though alive as to their bodies, they were inwardly as dead as Judas, every one of them. They felt they would be dead men forever more. Spiritually dead.
But now comes the astonishing change. When Jesus appeared to them in the upper room on Easter Sunday evening, alive and well, more alive than they had ever seen Him before, radiating power, breathing on them with the Holy Spirit . . . their whole natures were transformed. Whereas before they had been baffled and defeated, now they were victorious. Then they had been weak, now they were strong. Then they had been followers, now they were leaders – of others. Whereas, before, the important thing to them had been, whether they would be first in the coming kingdom, now it was the Kingdom itself that mattered. Surely, Jesus was not the only one resurrected that Easter morning! His life poured into all those others who believed in Him, producing a corresponding change in them, so that they were able to go forth in His name, even working miracles as He had done, bringing the whole world to His feet.
How much greater and more spectacular was this change than the mere survival of someone’s spirit after the death of the body! I don’t see that survival after the death of the body is all that remarkable. Plato pointed out, four hundred years before Jesus was born, that the soul must survive the death of the body, because disease, or accidents, or the assassin’s knife, which destroy the physical body, are physical only, and so cannot touch the soul. Therefore the soul, being undamaged, must continue as before. We piously speak of the deceased entering a “higher life,” being “nearer to Jesus,” and so on. But is that so? Death is only like peeling off the skin of a banana. If the banana is rotten before you skin it, it is rotten afterwards. Even worse, in fact; for the skin did kind of hold it together! The only real difference that physical death makes is to bring out hidden qualities. Whereas in this earthly life our real nature is often hidden under the skin, after death we appear in the other world as we really are. “There is nothing covered that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known.”
In other words, if a person is spiritually dead before he departs this life, he will be spiritually dead in the life to come, and his state of deadness will go on developing and becoming more noisesome in hell. Whereas if he is spiritually alive here and now, he will become even more alive after the removal of his physical body, and increasingly so in heaven to eternity. The death of the body is like taking off one’s jacket when one gets home, so that one can feel more free to be oneself. It effects no vital change, only a release. The Lord is Love itself and is continually striving to preserve the good that is in each one of us, in all men. The Good Shepherd is always seeking the lost sheep. Nevertheless, the principle holds – that we shall only enjoy the “abundance of life” that He came to give us, in the measure that we live it here on earth.
In the case of Jesus, the crucifixion stripped off His infirm humanity which He had inherited from His mother Mary, and released His Divinity, revealing Him as He really was: God in Human Form. We shall not be like that, since we are only finite. But, if we have regenerated on earth, death will release the angel within us, and we shall arise in resplendent spiritual bodies. We shall not have wings; we shall be human beings, not monster birds or batmen! – but we shall be able to soar without wings, and join others whose characters are like our own, in one of the regions of heaven.
The situation seems to be, then, that we must seek and achieve Life here and now. We must be resurrected here and now, rising from the tomb of dead and miserable states here in this earthly life, before we leave for the Great Beyond. This present world is the workshop where character is formed. If we don’t develop heavenly qualities here and now, we shall not be able to pick them up in the world to come. If a watch won’t keep good time when it leaves the factory, it never will.
Very well. How, then, are we to attain this spiritual life? Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” The answer seems to be that we must believe in Jesus. But does this answer mean much? I have always believed in Jesus. Haven’t you? The U.S.A. is a Christian country, which means that the majority of its inhabitants “believe in Jesus Christ.” If you walked down Main Street and asked the first few people you met whether they believed in Jesus Christ, they would probably say yes. Oh yes! The disciples believed in Jesus, right from the beginning of their association with Him; but this did not prevent them from deserting Him when their own lives seemed to be in danger. You can believe intellectually in almost anything: in the North Pole, in George Washington or the Atomic Theory; but how does that help you when you are in real trouble?
There is scarcely a person I know who isn’t in trouble of some sort. Life is short-changing them. They do not feel they are getting out of it what other people are, and what they deserve to get out of it. They feel inadequate because they cannot keep up with the pace of modern living. According to the TV, every man should be successful and every woman beautiful. We should own plush cars, have wall-to-wall carpeting and an electric toothbrush, and we should vacation in the Bahamas. Yet, whatever we own, we seem to be one step behind what other people have. Even our TV is only in black and white, whereas the programs, we are told, are brought to us in living color! How is it we cannot afford a color TV like the Jones next door? And what do we hear when we turn it on? All this drug taking. (Fill up my glass, will you dear?) and the kids smoking marijuana. (Pass the cigarettes, will you?) Agitators stirring up trouble; factory workers on strike, and the good-for-nothing poor on welfare; and those disgusting long-haired hippies – should be whipped! Oh yes, and pollution, that’s the big thing now. With my asthma, I soon won’t be able to breathe. Too many automobiles, that’s the trouble; I can hardly find a parking place in town in the mornings. The factories belching out smoke – though, of course, we need the products they manufacture. All this building around our house, the district’s going downhill. I could put things right, but nobody listens to me. What has Jesus Christ to do with it? Nothing at all!
My dear friend, if that is the kind of way our thinking goes, we are spiritually dead, and our God is dead too. We have nailed Him on the cross. Or we have let others nail Him on the cross, while we settle down in our comfortable arm chair. Sure, we believe in Jesus – He’s up there on the cross! We believe in Him intellectually, but our affections are entirely focused on ourselves, and we judge everything by the way in which it affects ourselves. Only when we begin to listen to other people, and try to see things from their angle, and appreciate their needs and enter their agonies, shall we become really alive. And to do this we must be filled with the spirit and life of Jesus Christ. We must allow the treasures of heaven to take precedence for us over the baubles of the world.
Reality lies in God, not in the material world at all; nor can we receive God’s living spirit unless we give ourselves out to others. Courage, fortitude, self-sacrifice, love: these are real, and they come to us from God. Who is God? Can we know Him? Not in His infinite Essence, except by analogies and symbols, such as were used in the old religions. But Jesus we can know. He is God in human form, accommodated to our perceptions and experience. We can learn from the example of His life on earth what our life should be. A life of outgoing love. Love even of enemies. Prayer for those who despitefully use you and persecute you, the people who get under your skin. A minimum of possessions. Spiritual poise and lightness of touch. Compassion for the poor and outcasts of society. Humor and joy. With these dynamic qualities, Jesus endured the agony of the cross, forgiving those who were torturing Him. (Forgiving us even!) So He rose triumphant from the tomb, with all power in heaven and on earth. He can give you as much of that power as you need and want, and are able to receive.
Do you believe in Jesus in this sense? Do you believe in Him sufficiently to devote your time, from now onwards, solely to the extension of His Kingdom, in whatever place and circumstance you happen to be? Do you believe in Him the way the disciples believed in Him after He had risen from the dead? It is fairly easy to believe in Jesus Christ crucified!; there’s a kind of defeat there. But do you believe in Jesus Christ resurrected and glorified? With all power? THAT will transform you! That will bring you to life! Think of Him now, while you are reading this, so that today will be a turning point in your life, a conversion from which you will never turn back. From now on you can press right forward, with victories all the way. This can happen in any framework. You can come to life and begin living victoriously even if you are a cripple in a wheel chair, or penniless in a slum. In the early Christian Church, slaves did. They had “victorious living,” by cooperating with the living Lord.
What are the evidences and fruits of victorious living? A serenity and gentleness, a basic stability, and a patience that is in no hurry for results. You are never thrown off balance, but can take things as they come. You can cope with difficulties and deal wisely with problems, because you will have a sound frame of reference, firm on underlying principles but flexible in their application. You will know what is more important, and what is less; what to press for, and where to yield. You will be broadly optimistic, recognizing God’s power and knowing that the future is in His hands. You will be tolerant and liberal, not critical of others, not jealous or resentful, not easily hurt, uncomplaining, not taking yourself too seriously. Beyond everything I would say, you will have a New Orientation, no longer hinging around self and your possessions, but focused on the Lord. A New Self, resurrected from the old.
May this resurrection take place today. Your family and friends will notice a difference in you, and will wonder at it. They will look into the sepulcher of your old dead self, and an angel will tell them: “So and so is not here, he is risen!” (or, “she is risen!”). And you will be able to say, “I am risen indeed!”
Matthew, the ex-tax-collector, was throwing a party to his former business associates. He was on top of the world! He had made his big decision: he was “leaving all,” to follow the Master, Jesus of Nazareth, the most wonderful man he had ever met. The happy and carefree atmosphere of the feast scandalized the Pharisees and the followers of John the Baptist – those long-faced Puritans who thought religion should be a gloomy affair, fasting, and artificially depriving oneself of the joy of living. They made some sarcastic remarks to the disciples, to which Jesus replied, “Can the children of the bride-chamber mourn while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken from them; then shall they fast.” (Matthew 9:15) In other words, “Don’t begrudge my disciples the joy of new beginnings. Their present jollity does not indicate a failure to realize the serious side of life; it is just a natural bubbling-up of joy accompanying a conversion experience, the turning to a higher way.” Jesus was with them as the Bridegroom; not yet, perhaps, as Husband. This was a betrothal or engagement celebration. Everyone was happy at the prospect of a complete mystical union with their Lord and Master. Later, before the union could be effected, Jesus would be taken away. His disciples would then experience a greater fasting and sorrow than the Pharisees were capable of, going so much deeper because of their present capacity for joy. “The days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.”
It came true indeed. The Lord was taken from them! Our imagination is not capable of conceiving the shock and tragedy of it, as they saw their beloved Master led away in chains . . . and later, in the distance, outlined against the sky, his broken body hanging on a cross. Yet this shattering of their fondest hopes actually had a healthy effect on them; it was the one thing they needed at that time. Not one of them had really understood our Lord’s mission. Even James and John had expected an earthly kingdom in which they were to hold high office. When this fell through, they all ran away. But after the crucifixion and resurrection, and the events following, leading up to the Ascension, and the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they at last began to understand. They were transformed! Where they had been weak, now they were strong. Fear was turned to invincible courage. Fasting was finished with forever; their sorrow became a deep-down joy. The Lord was no longer a mere bridegroom; He had become the Husband of his Church.
Three stages seem to be indicated. (1) Conversion: the Lord present as the bridegroom. Superficial joy as you make your vows. (2) Temptation: doubt, sorrow, anguish; the Lord taken away. Many people drop out during this deepening process, but to those who can stay the course comes the final stage; (3) Regeneration: real joy, deep down and suffusing the whole being, joy which the world cannot give, but which the world cannot take away; joy from the mystical marriage relationship with the divine Lord, which is heaven.
Think of it, if you like, in terms of the classical philosophical concept of end, cause, and effect: the dream or plan, the working at it, and the fulfillment. Take building a house, for example. The architect’s blueprint and the finished building are identical, really, except that the first is only in the imagination and intention, whereas the finished building is made of stone, bricks and timber. The “end” must be followed by the “cause” before it can become the “effect.” The noise and confusion of the building operations are necessary to bring the dream to life. So with the Christian experience. The original rejoicing (Matthew’s feasting) represents the “end in view” – the architect’s plan. This has to be followed by a period of extreme temptation, analogous to the turmoil of the building process, before we can actually become what, in the days of our dreaming, we had hoped to be. The Bridegroom has to be taken away in order that we may make the necessary adjustments in preparation for the promised union.
The remarkable thing is that Jesus Himself, as to His infirm humanity, underwent just the same process, for He was tempted in all points like as we are. He experienced a sense of alienation from the Divine, a feeling of desertion; and then, when apparently He was utterly unprotected, He was bombarded by the most excruciating attacks from the combined forces of all the devils in hell. At the apex of this assault, which carried Him up onto the cross, He cried, with infinite pathos, quoting Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (We have the very syllables that fell from His lips, in His native Aramaic Language: “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?”) A terrible cry indeed! And a terrible thought, that God could have forsaken him in that hour of his greatest need. Had God really forsaken him? Surely not! As a matter of fact, Jesus was on the very point of victory over the hells, the redemption of mankind from the power of evil. His glorification was about to be accomplished, the complete union or merging of the human with the Divine. Jesus and the Father had never been so close together as at that moment. Yet he cried out from the cross: “My God, why hast Thou forsaken me!” Why? Because he had to experience a sense of desertion before the full glorification could be achieved. This feeling that he was being left to his own finite resources was the temptation! If he had felt the overwhelming power of God which was actually flowing within him at that time, there would have been no temptation! He would have suffered no pain; his infirm humanity would not have perished; the Redemption would have been short-circuited, and mankind would have been back where it was. The agony of the crucifixion was real enough, we can be sure of that! He was not play-acting when He made that despairing cry, which has echoed down through the ages: “Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?” Abandoned! Deserted! Cast off! It was his crowning temptation.
I remember when I was a little boy, going with my father to a big London store during the Christmas rush. I turned aside to look at something, and when I looked back, father had disappeared! I rushed hither and thither, pushing my way through the throngs of shoppers; I panicked, I screamed! Then suddenly, there he was! All was well. The agony of desertion is real enough, and if we have never felt it, it is probably because we are too self-sufficient, too complacent. If you have any sensitivity at all, you will recognize what I am referring to. You enter with excited anticipation on some new phase of spiritual development, and then everything seems to slump. The young minister leaves seminary and enters his first pastorate with such wonderful dreams and ideals, but finds himself plunged in dull routine; there is a general lack of response, nobody seems interested in religion, so that soon his own interest lags. He thought the Lord was with him, but now he feels he has been deserted, abandoned, left alone. A young couple believe they are deeply in love; they go through the marriage ceremony, vowing eternal loyalty to each other. They kneel together in the presence of God. Who could doubt that He is with them, as they set off on the road of life together? But soon, all too soon, the honeymoon is over and things begin to go wrong. Oh God, why hast Thou forsaken us?
“God-forsaken” is a kind of slang expression in England; I don’t know whether it is in America. People talk about a “God-forsaken old man in a God-forsaken house in a God-forsaken town.” The thing about swearing and bad language is that it involves the most terrible concepts, but tosses them about as if they were a kind of joke. God-forsaken. No joke that! The suffering of the sensitive Christian, who has tasted the joy of the Lord’s presence but now has the Lord taken from him, is a thousand times worse than the rather phony gloom of the long-faced puritan who probably has never been with the Lord at all! Suffering is due to the deprivation of love; the deeper the love, the greater the suffering when things go wrong. That is why Jesus suffered so acutely. “Was there any sorrow like unto his sorrow?” Thousands of poor wretches were crucified, and many have undergone worse physical torments than that, but none suffered as Jesus did. Those who are nearest to God suffer most when He seems to forsake them. It takes some considerable spiritual development and maturity to produce Despair, such as we find it in Psalm 22, or in Psalm 130: “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord”; or in the Book of Job, or in Jeremiah’s Lamentations. It is a very advanced condition. Have you ever attained to it? Perhaps not. It is a thing to work up to. Yet we must not seek it for its own sake. Our plea must be, “Lead us not into temptation.” We should cry with the Psalmist: “Hide not thy face from me; leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation.” (Psalm 27:9) We should just love, and love, and love; the despair will come. And in that hell we shall find a mysterious and secret path to heaven.
It is for the sole purpose of deepening and refining our love of God that temptations are permitted to assault us, even to despair. The Bridegroom is taken away, only so that we may love Him more deeply. The body is removed, so that we can learn not to depend on the body, but to glory in the spiritual presence. The famine is allowed to afflict us, so that we can learn to say, like the prophet Habakkuk: “Although the fig-tree shall not blossom, nor the vine bear fruit; although the fields cease to yield their harvest, and there is no herd in the stalls: Yet will I rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:17, 18). During temptation, and as a result of it, there can be developing within us a yet deeper love of God: tried, tested and immovable, depending on no rewards. The time will come (perhaps soon, perhaps not until mature old age, perhaps not in this world at all but in the after-life) when we can honestly say, “It is finished.” And the next stage? “The Lord has risen: He is glorified! Good Friday has yielded to Easter!” Then we shall be content that the Lord forsook us, because of the joy of His return; and we shall feast with greater appetite and gladness than would have been possible except for that great fast.
There are people, deeply spiritual people, who think that God has deserted His world at the present time; and in many ways it does seem like it. The fashionable word for it is “alienation.” The existentialist movement is a product of this sense of alienation. The God-is-Dead movement was a dramatic way of expressing what seemed to many to be God’s retreat from mankind, His extreme “disinterestedness” in what happens to His world. Swedenborg announced two hundred years ago that the Lord had come again, and a new and purer form of Christianity was being launched. But between God’s revelation to us, in the writings of Swedenborg, and the world’s full acceptance of His Presence, there must be a period of reconstruction, of doubt or soul-searching, the challenging of old values, and experiment with all sorts of new ones, such as we see going on around us today. Jesus at His Second Coming has been crucified anew, and is now lying in the tomb. But, do not run away! He will rise again, resplendent! He will enter the New Jerusalem, His Bride; and the marriage will be consummated with all the greater joy because of its long postponement.
End, Cause, Effect. Though the “end” seems to be lost sight of and forgotten in the confusion of the building operations, it is there all the time. The blueprint is constantly being referred to by the Divine Architect who is controlling the whole project from behind the scenes. The Lord is never really absent. He is actually nearest when He seems farthest away. So, however bleak and deserted you feel, be sure He is very near you all the time. However hopeless, useless and unproductive we may seem to be, He is with us, implanting those spiritual qualities and graces which will one day blossom and bear fruit. The Lord seems far away during winter, but, with the revolving cycle of the seasons, the sudden outburst of the springtime proves He was there working out of sight through the darkest days. The Lord is never absent! If He were absent for one instant, the whole universe would collapse and perish. Hope and labor on! – and, instead of dining with Him among tax-collectors and sinners and Pharisees, you will be invited to feast at a wedding banquet in the courts of heaven. “Blessed are they that are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”
Savoring the Things of God
The unexpected violence of Jesus’ rebuke must have stunned poor Peter, who, after all, had only been trying to shield his beloved Master from danger. A few moments previously, when Peter had declared that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16) he had been highly commended. “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona,” Jesus had said; “thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (The word “petros” means a rock.) “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
What had Peter done to deserve this sudden change, from a blessing to a curse? It wasn’t what he had done, but what he had said. In fact, neither the blessing nor the curse belonged to Peter the man, but to the two statements he had made. (1) “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (a statement expressing a belief which, if properly followed through, will admit anyone into the kingdom of heaven). (2) “God forbid that you should go to Jerusalem, at such a time as this, and suffer many things, and be killed. This shall not be!” It was this kindly concern of Peter’s, and his appeal to Jesus to steer clear of trouble, that came to Jesus with all the force of a temptation from Satan.
When you make a seemingly innocent remark to a friend, such as, “Don’t do that, it might hurt you,” and he over-reacts with unexpected violence and show of emotion, you can be pretty sure that an inner battle has been raging in that man’s soul over this very thing, and you have unwittingly blundered onto the battlefield. Jesus was human as well as divine, and all his consciousness was on his human side. Do you think he wanted to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be put to death in agony? Would you have felt happy at such a prospect? Would you have gone through with it, when it could easily have been avoided? And now, in the midst of our Lord’s indecision and hesitation and tormenting fear, when he so desperately needed reassurance, he asked himself, “Who am I?” – and he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” They answered, “Some say, John the Baptist, some say Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets.” This doesn’t help Jesus much, so he comes nearer home. “Who do you say I am?” and Simon Peter declares, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” That was what Jesus needed to hear! Blessed be that glorious assurance! Very well, he would go through with the ordeal, which he realized was necessary for the redemption of the human race. So he began to tell his disciples how he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer, and be put to death, and be raised again the third day. He would see it through! And it was at just that point that Satan prompted Peter to make his blundering appeal, “Be it far from thee, Lord! God forbid that you should suffer and die in such a dreadful manner!” No wonder Jesus turned and said, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” He went on to explain that, not only must he himself suffer these things in order to enter into glory, but so must they. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and follow me. For whosoever would save his life, shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake, shall find it.”
Turning back now to our Lord’s words to Peter: “thou art an offence unto me, for thou savorest not the things that be of God,” the word “offence” means a stumbling-block, something that trips you up and prevents you from progressing. To “savor” means, of course, to enjoy the taste of something. Peter was preferring the things of man to the things of God; or as the R.S.V. has it, he was “not on the side of God, but of men.” A struggle is going on all the time in the heart of each one of us, between God and Satan, or, if you prefer it, between heaven and hell. We are in equilibrium between the two tremendous opposing forces, and can choose which side we shall support. The choice often comes to us somewhat in this way: either ease and pleasure and security and avoidance of all trouble and risk; a good time in this world with plenty of fun, all on a downward slope leading to the rubbish heap; or, a tough upward climb with much self-denial, facing up to the eventual abandonment of all one’s selfish ambitions and the painful whittling away of the ego, until one is nothing in one’s own sight – a mere empty vessel to be filled with life from the Lord . . . and then utter peace and joy in His nearness which is heaven. That is the way our heavenly Father wants us to go; and all the circumstances of our life are carefully planned by Him to encourage and help us to choose wisely and take the path to heaven, without any feeling that we are being pressured or interfered with. All our choices must be made “as of ourselves.”
Do you believe that the circumstances in which you find yourself at this moment are the best possible circumstances, taking your present needs into consideration? I am not suggesting that the world is perfect, by any manner of means. Maybe the Lord is deliberately presenting you with a broken situation; but He is also giving you a bag of tools, meaning that you should set about trying to mend the situation. In which case He probably sees that you need at this moment the experience which you will gain from trying to mend that particular situation! Don’t blame the Lord that the situation needs mending. He didn’t break it! It was produced by the mistakes and weaknesses and evils of men. Grapple with it courageously, in His strength, and it will yield you a blessing.
We are so ready to criticize the Lord for the way He is running the universe. Of course, if I were God, I would make a much better job of it! I would abolish all evil, to begin with: all war, hunger and sickness, all sin and suffering. What if someone wants to sin? Well, I should have to abolish him also! Too bad! This would just leave the good people, those who think as I do and want what I want. That is how I should rule the world if I were God. And I can just imagine how glad you are that I am not God! The real God has very different ways of working, and different ends in view. He loves people, no matter how they act or behave. He will permit evils and irregularities of all sorts if necessary, but He will always twist them around in some way so that good will come out of them. The most important thing, from God’s point of view, is that we His children should choose freely to love Him and be united with Him in joy and happiness. So He must preserve our free will at all costs, even when we are misusing it. God demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ that He Himself was prepared to submit to the worst that evil men could do to Him, rather than compromise in the least degree on the absolute demands of Love.
“If only things were different!” we moan. “0 God, don’t let things happen this way! Make them happen in some other way; I’ll show you how! It will be much better if things go the way I want them to!” How often have we spoken rashly like this, not openly of course but in our hearts, telling God what we want, from our point of view, rather than listening to what HE wants, from HIS point of view! Challenging authority is in the air, each man doing what is right in his own eyes. You even hear of university students telling the professors what they are to teach, whereas the obvious thing would be for the students to assume that the professors, with their wider knowledge and experience, would have a better idea of what would be good for the students than the students themselves would have. And, since this world is a school or college, in which we are being prepared for the life of heaven, does not the same thing apply in our relations with God? I think we would all do well to try to develop a greater spirit of acceptance, realizing that the Divine Providence is operating, and is overruling everything for our eventual good. Our best line is to go along with Providence, trusting the Lord and following the course which He in His wisdom lays down for us.
I realize that acceptance of one’s lot sounds to many people like fatalism, as when the Moslems say, “It is the will of Allah. When accident or sickness strikes, who should interfere? It is the will of Allah!” But this is not what I am saying. Maybe the accident or sickness has been permitted by God. (Of course God has permitted it, or it couldn’t have struck!) But it is not God’s will that we should leave it at that. It is His will that we should react to circumstances wisely and creatively, doing what we can, within our competence, to improve matters. By doing so, we grow, and that is what God intends for us; whereas, if we were living in a perfect world, without stress or sin or woe, what opportunity would there be for growth?
We have two possible extremes, and must find our way somewhere between the two. One extreme is to play God – to assume responsibility for everything, and, if things are not as we feel they should be, to complain and criticize, or to feel guilty. The other extreme is to leave everything to God, and just sit back and be submissive and make no effort to improve or change anything. Americans have gone to the extreme, so that in speaking to Americans one has to emphasize the need for acceptance and contentment, trust in Providence, relaxing and letting things go their own way. We westerners seem to have a congenital itch, an urge to control and improve things, to make everything bigger and better; convenience and speed, good plumbing, hygiene, the right number of calories in our diet, blood tests, tri-focal glasses, electric tooth-brushes, the lot . . . and if all this really leads to happiness and contentment, we Americans should be the happiest and most contented people on earth. But we are not! Why? Because happiness is not obtained by gadgets and machines. It cannot be bought with money, or secured by jet fighters and napalm, or threats of nuclear missiles. Happiness doesn’t come from this world, let alone from hell on earth. It comes from heaven only, and can be obtained solely by the exercise of loving concern for others and acceptance of the will of God.
So true is this that if a man’s conscience is working properly he can know whether a thing is of God or not by his feelings in connection with it. If when you have acted in some way you feel happy, deep down in your heart, then that thing was probably the will of God; but if you feel ashamed and uncomfortable in connection with it, then it was probably not the will of God, but the will of man. Maybe this is the only way by which we can know the will of God in any specific sense. If the Lord took us into His confidence and showed us clearly what He had in mind for us, our selfishness would intrude, and, like Peter, we should say, “God forbid!” The old established order of things is crashing around us; the church as we know it is (we are told) “on its way out,” and we cry, “God forbid!” Wherever we look, people are crucifying our beloved Master, and we cry, “God forbid!” Great forces are at work which are beyond our comprehension and are certainly beyond our control. We feel that this could not possibly be what God wants for the world, but how do we know? “His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor His ways our ways.” All we have to do is to react as well as we can to circumstances as they present themselves to us personally, realizing that however dark the stage, however materialistic the age, however great the devastation around us, the Lord is at the controls. He is handling everything with unerring skill, and we can trust ourselves utterly to Him.
And so I end by saying: Let God be God. We cannot possibly tell, with our finite minds, limited as we are by time and space, what our eternal needs are. If we did know what the Lord was planning for us, we should probably resist and reject it, preferring our immediate comfort and pleasure to the long-term advantage. Only the Lord knows what we really need, and He is bringing it forward for us, and it can be ours if we receive it with loving acceptance. But we must abandon all anger and resentment at the way in which life comes to us. Have faith in the Lord, for on this rock of faith He will build His church in us, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Swedenborg has some very helpful things to say about the levels or altitudes of the human mind. He enumerates six altogether, corresponding to the three heavens and the three hells. While we are on earth our consciousness can switch from one level to another, like going up and down in an elevator from one floor to another in an apartment building; but as we grow older we get more or less settled in one particular level where we feel most at home; this when we die becomes the level of our home to eternity. The point I want to make now is that our impression of the events of everyday life can be very different, and our reaction to them will be different, according to the level or altitude from which we regard them.
This can be illustrated by the enormous difference in the view you get of the world if you are on the ground, in an airplane, or in a space ship. The first time I went up in an airplane was in 1923 when I flew from London to Amsterdam. That was a tremendous experience for an impressionable teenager. For one thing, all the hills and valleys which served as dividing lines or barriers between groups of people were now flattened out, and the broad outlines of the whole country began to appear: cities, towns and villages lying in proper relationship with one another. The channel of sea which separates France from England (or should I say, England from France?) now seemed very narrow indeed – scarcely an interruption. France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, all one! What a difference a higher viewpoint can make! Another thing that tremendously impressed me was to see the clouds from above. Probably you have had this experience and are aware of it as a parable of life. From below they appear to be dark and threatening; but seen from above they shine and glisten, reflecting the glory of God.
If the difference in perspective is so great from an airplane, how about a space ship? I have not yet been up in a space ship; but we have all seen the space view of our earth through the TV camera. The astronauts see it as a little ball floating in a vast area of empty space. Continents and seas are vaguely discernible through the veils of cloud, but all details have disappeared. It is just our little earth; and the astronauts have told us how cozy and inviting it looks from space – their “home planet.” That planet belongs to the whole human race, to all of us who are living together on it. Seeing it from this highest of all altitudes, one wonders why we should be hectically manufacturing weapons of destruction and doing all we can, apparently, to make it uninhabitable; why the members of this human family should be killing one another off, taking sides on the question as to whether property should be owned individually or collectively (capitalism versus communism). It would be difficult to explain such strange behavior to someone from another planet who had only seen our earth from the point of view of outer space.
In the Bible there are many examples of “seeing things from different altitudes”; for example, Moses on the mountain top receiving the ten Commandments from God while Aaron in the valley was organizing the worship of the golden calf; Zacchaeus climbing a sycamore tree to get a better view of Jesus; and Jesus and the three chosen disciples on the mount of Transfiguration while the rest of the disciples were trying in vain to cope with the lunatic child down in the valley. Remember also the Sermon on the Mount: “Seeing the multitude, Jesus went up into a mountain; and when He was set, His disciples came unto Him; and He opened His mouth and taught them.”
As I have said, so much depends on the level or altitude from which one is operating. And this certainly applies spiritually. By the ground level I mean the ordinary worldly standpoint: the level of materialism, of secular education, of making and spending money, of gadgetry. This is sometimes called “The American Way of Life,” but of course it is found in every country, even in Moscow and Peking! Maybe Americans have worked at it harder and more effectively than any other nation, so that the common man here today can enjoy a higher standard of living than even nobles and royalty could enjoy in past ages. For the first time in history the problem of food production has been solved for everyone. On the material level we are the heroes of a success story.
Unfortunately, however, we do not seem to be much happier as a result of this new prosperity and power. There probably never was a time when there was such tension, insecurity, anxiety and general unrest; so many nervous breakdowns, and even so much fear (though this seems strange in the most powerful nation on earth) ! Our art and music are depressing in the extreme; our theatre is morbid with a strong leaning toward mad-house scenes and sex perversion, and there is a universal feeling of hopelessness, and gloom, leading to so much frustration that our young people are going around smashing everything up, “just for kicks.” Loneliness and alienation in overcrowded cities produce alcoholism, drug addiction, smoking, over-eating, over-working, frantically rushing around. The reason for all these troubles is that we have made material prosperity an end in itself, instead of a means to the development of spiritual values. On the natural plane, love of self and love of the world operate, and this is quite all right in the early stages of our development. The child must love himself and must develop a sense of property. This inevitably leads to a certain amount of quarrelling in the nursery, which we can excuse on the grounds of immaturity. The trouble arises when people carry over their loves of self and the world into adult life; then the quarrels of the nursery become lawsuits and family feuds, endless bickering between married partners and between parents and children, and, on the international scale, wars cold and hot.
The whole purpose of life on earth is to learn to switch over from love of self and love of the world, which are natural, to love to the neighbor and love to the Lord, which are spiritual. If we are not achieving this switch-over we are simply wasting our lives. We may be doing fine in other respects, but we are wasting our lives. This gives us a clue to the paradox that people in the more affluent nations, like the U.S.A., Britain and Sweden, are apparently the most prone to a sense of insecurity and fear; it is because their selfhood and love of possessions are given so much opportunity to flourish unchecked. In the poorer regions of the world, people haven’t much time to worry about themselves and their own importance; they are too busy trying to get enough to eat. And since they possess so little, and have almost no control over their destinies, they find it comparatively easy to develop a trust in the Lord and his providential care. That is probably why there are so many more suicides, neurotics and scared people among the “have” nations than among the “have-nots,” whereas you would naturally expect it to be the other way round. Are the members of the “have” nations then in an impossible position? Of course not! If our characters develop in the way they ought to develop; that is to say, if we grow and mature in the way the Lord intends us to do, then we shall be much better off because of our superior worldly education and our freedom from material want. I believe that material prosperity, freedom from want, high educational qualifications, and plenty of leisure time, will be basic to the way of life characteristic of the New Age.
But we must rise up to a higher level of viewpoint and motivation. We must outgrow the tawdry pleasures of “things,” the excitements and stimulations of our old ground-level existence. Forget your own importance, your ego; cease to be anxious about your status, your rights, the image people have of you. Cease to be emotionally involved in your possessions, whether many or few. Once you lose the itch of praise and property you experience a release from all anxiety and fear. You are free of the nagging ache of shyness, self-consciousness and envy. You are free of the sick hurts of resentment that people “don’t appreciate you properly” or pass you by. You are free to do or say what your conscience dictates, regardless of unpopularity.
And if, eventually, you can rise yet higher, to the Lord’s own viewpoint, loving Him with heart, soul, mind and strength and seeking His kingdom, then you will achieve such security in Him that nothing the world can do will have any adverse effect upon you, not even torture or death itself. You will take up your cross and follow Him gladly to Calvary Hill – which is to be free indeed. The Lord will surround you with the redemptive power with which He overcame the hells, and you will be safe even from temptation. That is the seventh or Sabbath day of rest. Shall we have to give up our old life and commitments in the world? Not necessarily, though there will undoubtedly be marked changes. Many things which before were important to you and which you sought with all your heart, will henceforth cease to interest you. Other things will now interest you much more than they did, and these will yield you a far deeper and more enduring satisfaction than any of your old concerns could ever have done. Life will continue. Your daily routine will not necessarily change. But you will be changed.
Not only will you have different value judgments in your own life, but you will see things differently in the world around you. From your higher vantage point you will see good where others see nothing but evil; you will have hope where before you had despair. The crime in the streets of our cities, the clash between black and white, the labor unrest and the endless strikes … you begin to see these in their long-range implications, as the birth pangs of the New Age, as the crystallizing out of an entirely new kind of relationship between employer and employee, rich and poor, parents and children, and between the races, between the nations. Barriers are being broken down; mountains and hills are being laid low and valleys are being raised, as I observed in my first view from an airplane; and the most threatening clouds are seen to have a silver lining. The decline in religion is seen as a shifting around in preparation for an entirely new kind of religion, which will be much better than the old. Oh, the airplane view reveals so many unexpected and previously unobserved beauties; good in other people who had previously seemed hopeless; good in situations which had previously seemed wholly bad; hope and joy in place of misery and despair. And if we can but rise to the outer-space view, which takes everything into account: past, present and future, and the needs of all people, preparing them for eternal life . . . why, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” It has to be, it cannot be otherwise with a God of infinite love, wisdom and power.
I will end with a slightly different version of my analogy of altitudes. Imagine you are someone living in the basement of a house, going in and out by the back door from a slummy alleyway full of garbage and filth and broken bottles. You are eating scrappy meals, because it hardly seems worthwhile making anything better, and life is rather shabby and sordid. Yet upstairs in the same house, on a higher floor, with the entrance in the front, your Father is regularly providing sumptuous banquets. There in His home the furnishing is exquisite, and everything is designed to promote serenity and refreshment of body and soul. You have the key to this upper apartment, and you are always welcome there. Why not go up? Why stay down below, eating husks?
The level of release is within you, the altitude of Christian love and of communion with the Lord. Rise up to this. Deepen down to this. Spread out to this. Life will take on glorious new dimensions. The kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever. And in this kingdom, in a higher ether, you will be secure and at peace.
One of the characteristics of our modern Western culture is its insistence that you have got to succeed, excel, get to the top of the ladder. Almost from the day of a baby’s birth he is pushed forward and encouraged to take the next step in his development. And what rejoicing there is, if he can stagger about on his feet at nine months instead of the traditional twelve! At school he has got to make high grades. His parents make financial sacrifices so that he can take private lessons outside the curriculum; and, if this proves too much for him, he is made to feel guilty, and his parents feel guilty. They have failed the goddess of our cult, the goddess whose name is Success.
And in business, of course, it is the same thing. You have got to succeed. If you are of the aggressive type, and enjoy elbowing your way through the crowd to the front, then there are tremendous rewards waiting for you. But, if you can’t make it, and fall down, or fall out, then . . . heaven help you! In a way, it is a reversion to the jungle, “nature red in tooth and claw.” How much better, one would think, to live in a tribal society, where individual prowess is not taken account of, but all the members of the tribe think and live and work together as a team! But it is no use repining, for Individualism is with us to stay. It has produced our affluent society, and has taken men to the moon. But at what a cost, in crime, mental sickness, and sheer alienation!
Is there no way out? Are we caught up in it helplessly, hopelessly? No. There is absolutely no need for us to compete in the rat race, if we have the courage and personal integrity to keep out of it. What are the rewards it offers? What is this “success,” which we are supposed to covet so desperately? Well, the winner in the race is placed in a position in which he can boss people around and make them do things his way; and he is enabled to have more gadgets in his house than the people next door. That’s about it. But does success make him any happier? In my experience, no. Of course you need to have enough of the essentials of life, to enable you to function satisfactorily (and “enough” is defined differently by different people); but once you have enough, by your standards, then further successes will not improve your state of mind. You will discover that happiness depends on other factors, which the world does not take into account; it stems from those areas of the heart and mind which we call “spiritual.” Happiness cannot come from the world at all; it comes only from heaven, from God.
Let us, then, stop measuring ourselves by the yardstick of our culture. Let us stop bothering about what the world thinks of us, or expects of us. The rewards it offers are just not worth the taking. Instead, let us live as the Lord wants us to live. Live up to His standards, not the world’s. Measure yourself by HIS yardstick, and you will begin to progress in the direction of His joy and peace, and the happiness of heaven. “Wherefore do you spend money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which satisfieth not? Hearken diligently unto me,” says the Lord, “and eat ye that which is good. Incline your ear and come unto me; hear, and your soul shall live, and I will make an everlasting covenant with you.” (Isaiah 55:2, 3)
Someone says: “Yes, we agree with all this theoretically, but we have children and others dependent upon us. We must succeed for their sakes.” But won’t this only perpetuate the same system with them? Won’t it pass on to them the same heritage that has come down to us: a sense of need to succeed? Maybe what we feel obligated to give them is not the best thing for them; maybe we can best serve them by failing!
Someone else says, “Is individualism wrong, then?” No, it isn’t wrong in itself. God made you an individual, and so He must approve of individualism. Every single one of the billions of men and women He has created has his or her own particular characteristics and potentialities; there is no mass production. But the values God sets for each individual are based on the needs and potentials of that individual, not on the world’s standards of power and wealth. God’s interest in us lies in what we ARE, not what we do or achieve or possess. What God wants for us is that we shall always be improving on what we are. And, anyone can do that.
Take, for example, someone born with a physical defect, say blind or lame, or mentally retarded. By the world’s standards, such a person is ruled right out. He cannot compete, he cannot survive in the concrete jungle. His state is hopeless! But, by the Lord’s standards, such a person has just the same opportunities for spiritual growth as anyone else. The prize of happiness and contentment is well within his reach. He is not handicapped at all in the arena where the Lord’s game is being played. The Lord’s prizes are competitive, yes; but in His game you compete against yourself, not against other people; so that, whereas in the world’s game only one person can win first prize and all the rest must lose, in the Lord’s game it is theoretically possible for everybody to win first prize.
All this is rather precisely laid out in the parable of the talents. Here, three different men were given three different sums of money, “to each according to his several ability.” The man with five talents and the one with two talents each doubled what they had been given, and so they each received the same reward. “Well done, good and faithful servants, you have been faithful over a few things, I will make each of you ruler over many things; enter into the joy of your Lord!” The servant who had been given only one talent had scarcely sufficient capital to start a business, and this was not expected of him. However, he could have invested the money and received interest; and if he had done that, I am sure he would have been given the same reward as the other two: “Well done, good and faithful servant … !” Instead, however, he made no effort at all, supposing that his case was hopeless; so he ended up in outer darkness, weeping and gnashing his teeth. (Matthew 25:14-30) If we compete against ourselves, doing the best we can in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, then we can gain first prize. The condemnation comes only if we fail to improve on what we are.
Another point: we are already in the arena where the Lord’s game is played – the game of Spiritual Growth. Those who measure themselves by the world’s yardstick nearly always think they could do better somewhere else, or in some different set of circumstances. “If only I lived in New York, or California, or Hawaii!” “If only my parents had not expected so much of me and pushed me so hard!” Or, “If only my parents had pushed me a bit harder!” “If only I were stronger, more aggressive.” “If only I had had a better education.” “If only my parents had left me a million!” But, in the Lord’s eyes, none of these changes would make the slightest difference. You can grow spiritually just as easily where you are now as you could anywhere else, in your present circumstances as well as in any other. Remember, you are not competing against other people, so they cannot have any advantage over you. You are competing only against yourself; therefore, any change you make, to be effective, must be made in yourself, in your own values and priorities. You must open yourself to the Lord’s inflowing life, bringing the Kingdom into your own heart and life. You are the person I am talking about now, not somebody else. Seen in this way, Christianity is the most individualistic religion in the world.
It is also possible to judge or assess a person’s life either according to the world’s standards or according to God’s. Consider our Lord’s own life as Jesus of Nazareth. According to the world’s standards, it was a ghastly failure. I am sure that Judas did not expect Him to go under like that, without doing anything in His own self-defense. Right up to the very last moment, when He hung on the cross and cried out “It is finished,” His disciples, and doubtless many others, were waiting for a miracle: for fire to come from heaven to destroy the Romans, for twelve legions of angels to come to His rescue. “Let us see whether Elijah will come and save Him,” they said. But no, nothing happened. Jesus proved to be just a poor tortured human being, like any other victim of the cruel execution system of the Romans. A failure! But you see? By God’s standards, things were very different indeed! Physical failure was an important element in the spiritual triumph! To have been saved by a miracle, even at the very end, would have vindicated Him before the world, which was exactly what His humiliated disciples wanted, so that they could say, “There you are! We have been proved right!” But that would have been to bow before the goddess Success, and success which springs from apparent failure is most dear to the hearts of her votaries. No, Jesus did not want the world to be able to measure any success at all, only failure . . . so that the whole success, His mighty triumph, His total victory over the hells, could be measured by God’s yardstick only. And, because His success was solely and entirely on the spiritual level, He could establish a spiritual church on earth, which could grow indefinitely; whereas, if He had enjoyed any material success, to that extent the church would have been tied down to the material plane.
So we come again to the point that Christianity was founded on a paradox, and wherever it has been active it has turned the world upside down. “He that findeth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life for my sake shall surely find it.”