REFUGE AND STRENGTH
A Sermon by Rev. Kurt Horigan AsplundhCataloged May 4, 1997
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46: 1).
These words begin the 46th Psalm, one of the psalms that people turn to and love to hear when there is trouble in their lives. Like the 23rd Psalm, which tells of the Lord as our shepherd, and the 91st, which tells of the Lord’s giving His angels charge over us, this psalm too speaks directly to the troubled heart and reminds us of the Lord’s presence and protection.
The picture drawn in this psalm is one of tumultuous change, upheavals, wars, all swirling around, describing the way we sometimes feel when our life’s foundations are shaken and seem threatened by change. But at the center of all of this commotion and unrest, in the eye of the storm, there is a quiet refuge, a stable and immovable holy place: the Tabernacle of the Most High. “God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved” (Psalm 46:5).
There is a fascinating teaching in the Heavenly Doctrine that illustrates this inner power from the Lord. Swedenborg reports on it in the following experience he had in the spiritual world: “There was a numerous crowd of spirits about me …. They were complaining that everything was going to destruction …. But in the midst of them I perceived a soft sound, angelically sweet, having nothing in it that was out of order. Angelic choirs were there within, and the crowd of spirits devoid of order was without. This angelic strain continued a long time, and I was told that by it was represented how the Lord rules confused and disorderly things which are without from what is peaceful in the midst, by which the disorderly things in the circumference are brought back into order …” (AC 5396).
In times of trouble we are thrown into distress and anxiety. But the Lord teaches: “Be still, and know that I am God …” (Psalm 46: 10). If we can but still the troubled heart and quiet our mental commotion, we will know that the Lord is with us and is our refuge.
Powerful forces are described in this psalm of David. We read of mountains shaking and moving, tumultuous seas, the removal of the earth. What could be more awesome to the people of Israel than these things? They had seen the power of the Red Sea when it closed upon their Egyptian enemies. They had trembled when the Lord spoke from Mount Sinai.
The Word speaks often of mountains and seas, not only in the poetic psalms but throughout. So the prophet Isaiah speaks of preparing the way of the Lord by exalting the valleys and making the mountains and hills low. In the Gospels we read of how the Lord calmed the stormy sea and how He told His disciples they could cast mountains into the sea if they had faith. Such power seemed unbelievable. Later, John, while on the isle of Patmos, saw visions of fearful events. He saw a burning mountain falling into the sea and causing great destruction. Why all these descriptions?
Everything in the Word carries a spiritual significance. These images of the destruction of mountains and the swelling of the seas are intended to convey spiritual ideas. This is why they are referred to so often in Scripture, as in the psalm under consideration, and with such a notable consistency.
It is revealed in the Heavenly Doctrine that mountains signify the great loves of human life – essentially the two fundamental loves: one good, one evil. So a “mountain” in the good sense signifies love of the Lord and the neighbor; in an evil sense, the love of self. Just as mountains were the major feature of the land, so these fundamental loves are the major feature of human life.
Is it not when our fundamental loves are shaken that we become anxious and troubled? This is what the 46th psalm describes in its spiritual sense. “This [psalm],” we are told, “involves in the spiritual sense that although the church and all things thereof perish, still the Word and the Divine truth it contains shall not perish …. ‘There is a river the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God; she shall not be changed …'” (AE 518:26). This psalm is a promise of the Lord’s power to sustain His church even in times of distress.
The psalms outwardly speak to natural troubles and afflictions. Indeed, many of them relate directly to the troubled fortunes of David both before and after he became King of Israel. We can take natural comfort in their words, for the Lord is near and is a refuge for us. Inwardly, however, the Word speaks to the spiritual states of our life: to our deeper needs. Though much of our natural life is bound up with anxious concerns for the morrow, the Lord assures us that He knows our need of things for earthly life. He urges us to seek first the kingdom of God.
As we read the Lord’s psalms of refuge and strength, let us reflect on the inner strength and protection that comes from having a true faith from Him. This is the deeper subject of the text.
It was faith that the Lord urged His disciples to have when they marvelled at His power. “Have faith in God,” He said. “For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that those things he says will come to pass, he will have whatever he says” (Mark 11:22,23). Again, He exhorted them to faith when they failed to perform a miracle of healing. “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20).
The Writings explain that the Lord was not speaking of a natural power to move mountains. “The Lord spoke here as well as elsewhere by correspondences,” we are told, and therefore these words must be understood spiritually. “For a ‘mountain’ signifies the love of self and of the world, thus the love of evil …” (AE 518: 10). This is the mountain we can move out of our life if we have faith and ask the Lord for help.
There are many sincere people in the world who believe that by faith even natural miracles can be accomplished. Did not the Lord promise in so many words, “All things whatsoever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (Matt. 21:22), and “If you have faith, … nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20)? Yet how many have been disillusioned when their prayers are not answered? How many have blamed themselves that their faith was not strong enough or that they had not prayed long and hard enough for their wishes to have been granted?
The New Church teaches a different idea of faith. Consider this passage of the Heavenly Doctrine: “It is not according to Divine order for one to receive what he asks if he only have faith,” we read, “or for the disciples to pluck up a mountain or a tree from its place and cast it into the sea. But ‘faith’ here means faith from the Lord, consequently it is called ‘the faith of God,’ and he who is in faith from the Lord asks for nothing but what contributes to the Lord’s kingdom and to himself for salvation; other things he does not wish….” We are told “It is impossible for angels of heaven to wish and so to ask for anything else, and if they were to do so they could have no faith that they would receive it” (AE 518: 10).
It is important to notice that the Writings here speak of a “faith from the Lord.” This is not the same as “faith in the Lord.” Faith from the Lord is strong because it is from the Lord. Faith in the Lord is from ourselves and is only as strong as our personal conviction. Like the faith represented by the disciple Peter, it can falter, can deny the Divine omnipotence.
It is important to understand the difference. Let us illustrate the common idea of faith in the Lord. Suppose we are in an anxious state. Does it help when someone says to us, “Have faith in God”? We are anxious and troubled because we have been unable to feel that faith. It may be well and good for someone to say we should have more faith, but it is little comfort when we don’t feel it. That person can’t give us more.
Faith from the Lord is different. It is the Lord’s gift to us as we live a life of charity. It doesn’t wait on our moods or states, but is His power in our lives. One definition of faith given in the Heavenly Doctrine is as follows: It “is the working of the Lord alone through the charity in a man” (AC 1162). “… it is by this faith, which is the faith of charity from Him,” we are told, “that the Lord removes all evils flowing from the loves of self and of the world and casts them into hell from which they came …” (AE 405:53).
Faith from the Lord is strong because the Lord is strong. Indeed, as we recognize our weakness and put aside our frail confidence, the Lord’s strength takes over. The Lord told His disciples that even if their faith was as a mustard seed – as little as what that tiny seed represents – they could move mountains.
The Writings explain that “a ‘grain of mustard-seed’ is man’s good before he becomes spiritual, which is ‘the least of all seeds,’ because he thinks that he does good of himself …. But as he is in a state of regeneration, there is something of good in him, but it is the least of all” (AC 55:3). This life of good is the beginning of his faith.
We can increase our faith. We do this by bringing the Lord, who is faith itself, into our lives. As to the formation of faith, we are told: “… it is effected by a person’s going to the Lord, learning truths from the Word, and living according to them” (TCR 347). It is as simple as that. The more we learn of the Lord’s truth, believing it is His truth, not our own, and the more we form our lives into obedience to this truth, the more we will have of faith from Him. So we are taught: “It is … a law of order that man by his own exertion and power ought to acquire faith by means of truths from the Word and yet believe that not a grain of truth is from himself, but from God only …” (TCR 71). “Faith,” we are told, “is an internal affection which consists in a heartfelt desire to know what is true and what is good … for the sake of life” (AC 8034).
The Lord often asked those who came to Him for a miracle whether they believed He could do it. “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes,” He said. Once there was a man whose son was afflicted with demons, who came to the Lord to ask that his son might be helped. He cried out with tears in his eyes, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23,24). Sometimes this is our own heartfelt plea. In a time of desperate need, we turn to the Lord for a stronger faith. If our prayer is sincere, the Lord will strengthen us. He has showed us how we may receive faith. So we are told in one of those remarkable passages from the Writings that seems to address us in such a personal way: “… my friend, shun evil and do good and believe in the Lord from all your heart and in all your soul, and the Lord will love you, and will give you a love of doing and faith to believe …. [T]his is salvation itself and eternal life” (TCR 484). In this way God is, indeed, our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Amen.
Lessons: Psalm 46; Mark 11: 12-14, 20-24; AE 405:35; 510:2
405:35. It is to be known that all who are in the love of self, especially those who are in the love of ruling, when they come into the spiritual world, are in the greatest eagerness to raise themselves into high places; this desire is inherent in that love; and this is why “to be of a high or elated mind” and “to aspire to high things” have become expressions in common use. The reason itself that there is this eagerness in the love of ruling is that they wish to make themselves gods, and God is in things highest. That “mountains and hills” signify these loves, and thence the evils of these loves, is clear from its being said, “a day of Jehovah of Hosts shall come upon everyone that is proud and exalted, and upon all the exalted mountains, and upon all the hills that are lifted up …” What else could be meant by “coming upon the mountains and hills”? 5102:2. “Mountain” means love in both senses, because the angels of the third heaven, who are in celestial love, dwell upon mountains in the spiritual world; so when a “mountain” is mentioned, that heaven is meant, and according to the ideas of angelic thought, which are abstracted from persons and places, that which constitutes heaven is meant, that is, celestial love. But in the contrary sense “mountain” signifies the love of self, because they who are in the love of self have a constant desire to go up mountains, to make themselves equal to those who are in the third heaven. Because they dwell upon this in their fancy, it is also the object of their endeavor when they are out of the hells; this is why a “mountain” in the contrary sense signifies the love of self. In a word, those who are in the love of self are always aspiring after high things; so after death, when all the states of the love are changed into things correspondent, in their fancy they mount aloft, believing themselves, while in the fancy, to be upon high mountains, and yet bodily they are in the hells.