WALKING HUMBLY WITH OUR GOD
A Sermon by Rev Kurt Horigan AsplundhPreached in Bryn AthynOctober 1, 1995
“Whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:4).
Solomon, the wisest king of Israel, prayed for wisdom: “I am a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in” (I Kings 3:7). When the prophet Jeremiah was called, he said, “I cannot speak, for I am a child” (Jer. 1: 6). Gideon, the judge, also doubted his ability to save Israel: ” . . . how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house” (Judges 6:15).
The true heroes in Israel were humble men. The Lord chose them for greatness because they acknowledged their weakness. If they became arrogant they could not serve. So, in the days of Saul the King, the Lord sent Samuel to rebuke him: “When you were little in your own eyes, were you not head of the tribes of Israel? . . . . you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel” (I Sam. 24:17, 26). Even the great Moses lost his chance to enter Canaan at the head of the tribes because he neglected to attribute to the Lord credit for the miracle of bringing water from the rock.
The Lord has stressed the importance of humility time and again in the Word. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” He taught (Matt. 5:3). “Whoever exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12). “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
We need to consider the Lord’s teachings about humility. It seems demeaning that He wants us to humble ourselves, to put ourselves down, to acknowledge that from ourselves there is nothing but evil and falsity. The Writings even speak of the need for the “annihilation” and “loathing” of self that the Divine may flow in (AC 3994). This brings to mind the picture of Israelites groveling in the dust before their God, putting ashes on their heads and sackcloth on their bodies. Is this the kind of humility and contrition the Lord demands of us? In the Psalms we read that “the Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit” (Psalm 34:18). “A broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
But we live in a culture uncomfortable with humility. Outward signs of humility are embarrassing to us. In our democratic society we are raised to be free and equal, self-reliant and proud. Today, a sense of humility might even be seen as damaging to our self-esteem. Certainly, no one wishes to be publicly humiliated. Winners can afford to be humble after the victory, but competition requires aggressive self-confidence. How do we reconcile this? How do we reconcile the life style we live with the Lord’s teachings about humility?
First, let us see what the doctrine teaches. The essential truth is that all good is from the Lord. There is nothing in a person that is good except what he receives from the Lord. This may be considered to be one of the “hard sayings” of the New Church. People have difficulty with this. The appearance is that there are many good and useful people in the world. While violent crimes and hidden plots increasingly blight society today, still, aren’t most people we know generous, kind, and willing to serve? And what about you? You are aware of your motives and tendencies better than anyone, but do you rate yourself as an evil person? Probably not. And therefore what happens to your self-image as you are told over and over that your loves are selfish, your motives self-serving; your ideas false, and that you can’t trust your feelings? This is a powerful attack on your spirit. Some would question whether it is healthy to think this way. Extremists might even call it spiritual abuse. Yet it seems that the Lord teaches we must think this way; indeed, it is the only way to regain the loss of spiritual health.
Hear what the Writings teach: “The secret of this cannot be opened unless it be known that none is good save God alone,” we are told, “and that there is no good which in itself is good save from God. Therefore . . . he who turns away from God and wills to be led by himself is not in good; for the good which he does is done either for the sake of himself or for the sake of the world, and so is meritorious or simulated or hypocritical” (CL 444:4). Again, we are told: “He who is of elated mind is in the love of self, and not only sets himself above others but also cares nothing for the Divine, and consequently rejects the influx of good, and thence its conjunction with truths. This is the genuine reason for man’s humiliation before the Divine” (AC 4347:2). “Man cannot be in humiliation, nor consequently can he receive the Lord’s mercy (for this flows in only in humiliation or into a humble heart), unless he acknowledges that there is nothing but evil from himself, and that all good is from the Lord” (AC 5758). Finally, this: “To be spiritually poor and yet to be rich is to acknowledge in heart that one has no knowledge nor understanding nor wisdom from himself, but that he knows, understands, and is wise wholly from the Lord” (AE 118).
These passages from the Heavenly Doctrine confirm the fact that life flows in. We only receive it. We are vessels.
We have been fearfully and wonderfully made by our Creator. He has made us in His likeness; that is, like Him in feeling alive with self-determination. We have been created with the appearance of self-life. This strong appearance was intended by the Lord so that we could have a sense of selfhood. Yet the truth is that the life that seems to be ours is not. We feel it as our own, but must know and acknowledge that it is from the Lord. We are capable of knowing the truth in spite of the appearance. This capability belongs only to mankind as we see in the following teaching: “To think from truth is the human and consequently the angelic principle itself; and it is a truth that man does not think from himself, but that it is granted him by the Lord to think, to all appearance, as from himself” (DP 321:5).
The arrogance and pride of ignoring this truth has brought down the human race. The origin of all evil, the fall of man, is simply this: to confirm in ourselves the appearance of self-life.
What does this mean? It means we have taken that God-given feeling of life within us and have come to believe that it is actually ours. This “fall” is described by the seduction of the serpent and by Adam and Eve’s eating of the fruit of the tree in Eden. “This origin of evil was not (primitively) in Adam and his wife,”we are told, “but they made the origin of evil in themselves, and this because, when the serpent said, In the day that ye eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall be as God’ (Gen. 3:5), they turned away from God and turned to themselves as God. To eat of that tree signified to believe that one knows good and evil and is wise from himself and not from God” (CL 444:4). This is the reason for the strong appearance that people are good in themselves and wise in the ways of the world.
Swedenborg once confronted spirits who were confident in their own prudence. When they argued that it was absurd to believe people had no life of their own, he answered to the contrary that “it is absurd and insane to believe that man has life from himself, and that wisdom and prudence do not flow in from God but are in man, consequently also the good that belongs to charity and the truth that belongs to faith. To attribute these to oneself is called insanity by every wise man, and thus it is absurd. Moreover, persons doing so are like those who occupy the house and property of another, and being in possession persuade themselves that these are their own; or they are like stewards and estate managers who believe all their master’s property to be their own; or like serving men to whom their master gave large and small sums to trade with, but who rendered no account of them and kept them as their own, and so acted as thieves” (DP 309).
We have dwelt on this matter of the “ownership” of life because it is the key to understanding the importance of humility and why it is so necessary for us to “walk humbly” with our God.
But what should this relationship with the Lord be like? It appears, especially in Old Testament teachings, that Jehovah God demands the submission of His people even glories in their adoration and worship. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the following teaching explains: “The Lord does indeed demand humiliation, adoration, thanksgivings,” we are told, ” . . . but not . . . for His own sake, for the Divine has no glory in humiliation, adoration, and thanksgiving , . . . but they are for the sake of the man himself . . . because when he is in this state the Lord can flow in with heavenly good” (AC 5957:2, 4347:2).
What the Lord requires today can be distinguished from what He required of Israel. The elaborate rituals of the Israelitish nation have been abrogated. The Lord no longer requires of us the many forms of ritualistic worship which He imposed on the Jews. All of this was an external enactment of what should be an internal attitude. We know now that worship is to be twofold: internal as well as external. The external of worship relates to matters of piety and practice. People of an external disposition, and this would include children, are led to attitudes of humility before the Lord by the practice of sacred rites. Such persons believe that they are acting against their conscience if they do not sacredly observe external rites (see AC 1098). The internal of worship relates to charity. The Lord taught this distinction even when He was in the world. To the Pharisees He said, “You pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin,” that is, in strict obedience to the Levitical statutes, “and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt. 23:23), important aspects of a charitable life. These latter, He said, ought to be done; and the external observances should also be done.
So too in the New Church. We are instructed to live the life of charity, obeying from conscience the internal laws of life which the Lord has revealed, but not neglecting appropriate forms of external worship either. “The man of the internal church makes the worship of the Lord from charity, thus internal worship, essential,” we are told, “and external worship not so essential” (AC 1098).
It is not simply in matters of piety or religious practice that we can approach the Lord in humility of spirit. However, it is important to do this too because we are in the natural world and much caught up in the requirements and spheres of this world. In the flow of our daily obligations it is easy to forget the Lord and spiritual things. It is easy for us to live content in the appearance of self-life, acting with prudence according to our own thinking and according to our natural loves. One of the values external forms of worship have is that these regular rituals remind us of the truth that our life is from the Lord that we owe all glory to Him, that of ourselves we can do nothing that is good. There is no minimum standard set by the Lord for external worship in the New Church. We are, however, reminded that daily prayer and reading, regular attendance at worship services, and partaking of the Holy Supper at appropriate intervals offer opportunities to walk humbly with our God.
Without times of reflection and the interruption of our natural thoughts by higher spiritual thoughts, the human proprium turns in on itself, its ambitions clouding over all thought of the Lord. Sometimes, the only way such a mind can be penetrated is through a life crisis “as when,” the Writings say, “in misfortune, distress, and sickness, the things that belong to the external or natural man are merely lulled. The person forthwith begins to think piously and to will what is good, and also to practice works of piety insofar as he is able; but when the state is changed, there is a change also in all this” (AC 3147:2, 2041:3). It is said that when these external or natural loves are lulled, a person can sense something of heavenly light and its comfort, but only during this state. Later, such relapse into their former life.
What is of greater significance to our spiritual life than the pious observances or states of natural temptation that we have mentioned is our efforts to live internally, that is with a conscience of charity. Here is how the New Church person can truly humble himself before the Lord. By turning to the Lord for direction in all things of life and by submitting yourself to His leading, you open the way for His life to inflow. The Lord has promised: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). Little by little, year by year, our humility before the Lord deepens and our life is refreshed.
The following teaching summarizes the relationship and importance of internal and external humility. “With the man of the church,” we are told, “there must be the life of piety, and there must be the life of charity; they must be joined together. The life of piety without the life of charity is profitable for nothing; but the former together with the latter is profitable for all things” (AC 8252). What this means is further revealed. “By worship according to the order of heaven is meant all practicing of good according to the Lord’s precepts. By the worship of God at this day is chiefly meant the oral worship in a temple, both morning and evening. But the worship of God does not consist essentially in this but in a life of uses . . . for this worship is of the heart; and oral worship, that it may be worship, must proceed from this” (AC 7884). “In a word, to do according to the precepts of the Lord is truly to worship Him . . . ” (AC 10143:5).
Earlier we asked how today’s lifestyle could be reconciled with the Lord’s teachings about humility. In many respects they are incompatible. Still, the Lord has given each of us the ability to think from truth. By this we may be reconciled. For it is a truth that we do not think from ourselves, but to all appearance as if from self. If we acknowledge this from the heart by living a life according to the Lord’s precepts, the way is opened by which we can walk humbly with our God. The disciples asked the Lord, ” Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?'” “Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven'” (Matt. 18:2-4). Amen.
Lessons: Psalm 86:1-13; Matt. 18:1-10; CL 444:4, 5
Conjugial Love 444:4
After I had spoken, the two angels asked: “How could evil come into existence when by creation nothing but good existed? If a thing is to exist, it must have an origin. Good could not be the origin of evil, for evil is the privation and destruction of good and therefore its nullity. Yet, since it is and is sensated, it is not nothing but something. Tell us, then, whence this something had its existence after being nothing.” To this I replied: “The secret of this cannot be opened unless it be known that none is good save God alone, and that there is no good which in itself is good save from God. Therefore, he who looks to God and wills to be led by God is in good; but he who turns away from God and wills to be led by himself is not in good; for the good which he does is done either for the sake of himself or for the sake of the world, and so is meritorious or simulated or hypocritical. It is clear, therefore, that man himself is the origin of evil; not that this origin was planted in man from creation but, by turning away from God, he planted it in himself. This origin of evil was not (primitively) in Adam and his wife; but they made the origin of evil in themselves, and this because when the serpent said, In the day that ye eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall be as God (Gen. 3:5), they turned away from God and turned to themselves as God. To eat of that tree signified to believe that one knows good and evil and is wise from himself and not from God.” [The angels asked,] “Why did God permit this?” I replied: “Man was so created that everything which he wills, thinks, and does appears to him as if in himself and thus from himself. Without this appearance, man would not be a man for he could not receive, retain, and, as it were, appropriate to himself anything of good and truth or of love and wisdom. From this it follows that without this appearance a living appearance, as it were man would have no conjunction with God, nor any eternal life therefrom. But if from this appearance he induces on himself the belief that he wills, thinks, and hence does good from himself and not from the Lord, though in all appearance as from himself, he then turns good with him into evil, and thus makes in himself the origin of evil.
This was Adam’s sin.