A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper
Cataloged May 4, 1997

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery. ‘ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27,28).

The question I would like to address today is, Can you learn from the mistakes and experiences of others, or do you actually have to do evil yourself.?

Our parents taught us that there were some things that we must not do. But there were some things that we wanted to do anyhow. We tried not to do them, and for a long time we could resist, but eventually we grew older and became independent. We moved away from home, our parents’ influence grew less and less, the encouragement of our friends grew stronger, and we ended up doing them anyhow.

At first it was exciting! It was liberating, wonderful. Then all the wheels fell off and the consequences had to be paid. Then we first began to understand the pain and the hurt that our parents had struggled to protect us from.

Having learned the lesson for ourselves, having lived it, we tried to tell others, perhaps our own children, how they could avoid that pain, but they’re just like us – they don’t listen. Off they go to make the same mistakes that we made, to suffer the same pain that we suffered, and they just won’t listen. But they learn from their errors and want to pass their “new” knowledge on to others who also won’t listen, and so on.

How often does this cycle repeat itself? Doesn’t it begin to seem that the only way people can really learn something is to experience it for themselves, to make the mistakes, and to suffer the consequences? We learn to tolerate all kinds of disorders in our children, our friends and ourselves, because we begin to believe that we can really learn about evil only through personal experience. Such a belief is one of those ideas that come from hell to allow us to justify our own evils to ourselves and to others. So we look away when young people stay out late drinking, carrying on. We hope that they will get into just enough trouble that they will learn from it without permanent harm. After all, everyone has to experience these things for himself or herself – at least that’s what we think. They’re just “sowing their wild oats.” Everyone does it. Unfortunately, such a view flies in the face of what the Word teaches.

If you had to learn everything for yourself by experience, what would be the purpose of having the Word in the first place? The Writings tell us that in heaven, those who have died as children need to be instructed about evil so that they can recognize it. But how can you teach about evil in heaven where there is no evil? The Writings tell us that spirits and angels learn about evil and its dangers through plays.

We read from Conjugial Love n. 17:5 – “Moreover, outside the city there are also theatrical performances by players, representing the varieties of honorableness and virtue characteristic of the moral life; and among them, for the sake of relationship, are also actors. Here one of the ten asked, ‘Why for the sake of relationship?’ They answered: ‘No one of the virtues with its display of honorableness and decorum can be presented in a living way except by things related thereto from the greatest of them to the least. But it is established by law that nothing of the opposite, which is called dishonorable or unseemly, shall be exhibited except figuratively and, as it were, remotely.”‘

This passage is teaching that the only way that good can be taught is by comparison to evil, and so the plays that are conducted in heaven and in the world of spirits are done in such a way as to show the relationship among various moral virtues. There are actors who pretend to be evil for the sake of teaching others the need to avoid evil. It’s not outward evil, it’s not horrible, but it’s clearly enough suggested that the difference is clearly seen. Those people who have grown up in heaven can see the play, can see evil being presented there, be horrified by it, and see that it touches a chord with the evil within themselves. In this way they recognize that there is evil within themselves and they’re horrified by that and they flee from it.

They learn about evil, they flee from it, without ever having to actually do it themselves. They learn simply by perceiving evil’s effect in someone else.

Do we really need to sow wild oats to experience real life for ourselves? The Word seems to say that we can read about it, that we can use our imagination, that there is a use in plays that suggest evil and explore its consequences without glorifying it, such as “Macbeth.”

There may even be a use in the kinds of movies that we see today that depict graphic violence, if the result is that by seeing it we are horrified and turn away from it. It is a problem, of course, that there are those who see these kinds of things, believe them to be good and are fascinated by them and attracted to them.

The text for this sermon is the section where the Lord taught that to lust in your heart after one not your spouse is the same as to actually commit the adultery, and in this way He was showing that it is possible to sin in your mind without sinning as to the body. If we can image a deed in our minds, we don’t have to actually do it. We can create a fantasy in which we’ve enjoyed the delights of evil and then (and this is the important step) look at the probable consequences as well as the delights. By thinking about what we picture ourselves doing in our fantasies we can learn to shun evils by observing them in the abstract within ourselves.

Remember what it said in TCR 535: “It is strange that anyone can find fault with another for his evil intentions, and say, ‘Do not do that because it is a sin,’ and yet find it difficult to say this to himself; but this is because the latter touches the will, but the former only the thought nearest to hearing……….

In each of us there is an aspect which we call the “parent” which treats others as if they are children. When we see someone about to do something wrong we want to warn him against it because we know from our own experience that it will cause hurt, and which one of us can stand silently by and watch someone that we care about be hurt? And yet at the same time we find it difficult to restrain ourselves. We look for ways to excuse our own evils, to make them acceptable and permissible. We change their names to make them sound nicer. We’re not “sinning”; we’re “sowing wild oats.” Now what does the Word say? “All who do good from religion avoid actual evils …” (TCR 535).

We’re also taught in another place that an evil once done by mistake can be removed fairly easily. That’s true, but if you do it a few times from intention it becomes firmly anchored in the will and becomes much more difficult to remove (see DP 112:3). The danger is that if we allow ourselves the right to experiment with evil, it will happen that we end up doing some of those evils many times from intention. In this way the hells lead us to do the very thing that will entrench the love of that particular evil in our lives while leading us to believe that we’re doing it for some good reason, that we are safe, that we are having harmless fun. We really have to avoid doing them at all – ever – to avoid the danger of having them become a permanent part of our character.

Consider the example used in the first lesson, the story of Joash and Elisha. The prophet, representing the Word and authority, asked Joash to do something. But Joash didn’t fully understand so he didn’t do it with enthusiasm; and after the fact, when he had struck only three times and realized that he was not going to be able to totally defeat Syria, he realized that his lack of enthusiasm was going to cost him.

We all feel that way about rules, because rules challenge our proprium, our love of self, our desire to do things our own way. We follow rules grudgingly, if we follow them at all, and sometimes that leads to painful results: teenage pregnancies, cars that are crashed while the drivers are intoxicated. We always think we know better, that we can beat the odds because we are so clever. But the Lord repeatedly teaches differently. He teaches us by illustrations in the Word so that we can learn about doing things without having to do them ourselves.

Think of the example of the good Samaritan: The story tells that a priest and a Levite passed by an injured man but it was a man from Samaria that showed mercy upon him, took him to an inn and paid for his medical treatment with his own money. The Lord wants us to see that these are both sides of our own characters. He wants us to imagine ourselves as a priest or a Levite walking by, realizing that that is the wrong thing to do, by imagining it and feeling the same thing we would feel if we went walking down the street and saw an injured man and just walked by. And then He wants us to imagine how we would feel if we were Samaritans walking by, picking the injured man up and helping him. By using the imaginative degree of our minds we can feel the same emotions and be enlightened to know what the Lord wants us to do. We don’t have to actually walk past an injured man to feel the selfishness and know that it is right to help.

Think of the story of the prodigal son: when we read this story we like to remember the parts about how the young man went into the city and lived the high life, because we would like to do that, and then when he had learned his lesson, he went home and was received by his father as if nothing had happened. He put a beautiful garment on him. He put gold rings on his fingers and we think to ourselves, “What a marvelous story! We can go off to the big city, we can waste ourselves and then come home and be forgiven and be treated as if nothing had ever happened!” But we forget that before the young man came to his senses he had to hit bottom. We forget the increasing desperation that he felt as his money began to run out and he realized that he had no prospects of getting more, that the friends he had made while he had money were leaving him behind. We forget the humiliation that he felt as his new friends turned away from him; and we forget the hunger, the desperate hunger that drove him to his hands and knees fighting the pigs for their swill.

The Lord wants us to remember both parts of the story. He wants each of us to be the brother who stayed behind, and when the other son came home, he learned from it. The brother who stayed behind suffered none of these things. All he had to deal with were some feelings of jealousy, and yet he learned the same lesson.

The same thing is true with the parable of the lost sheep which we read as part of the second lesson. It is likely that every child has felt lost for a few minutes, enough so that we all have a sense of the panic that is felt when one is well and truly lost.

Do we think that the Lord really wants us to get lost so that we can be found? What kind of shepherd would He be then? He is the Good Shepherd; that’s what He teaches in the Word. It is His job to make sure we do not get lost, but if we suffer from enough stubbornness or stupidity to get lost anyhow, then He will come looking for us. The lost sheep may be found, but then it becomes an example of foolishness that keeps the ninety and nine close to the shepherd where they belong. The Lord doesn’t want us to be lost sheep. He wants us to be one of the ninety and nine living happily and securely and peacefully within the flock.

TCR 535 says, “Since actual repentance, which is examining oneself, recognizing and acknowledging one’s sins, praying to the Lord and beginning a new life, is in the Reformed Christian world exceedingly difficult, … therefore an easier kind of repentance is here presented, which is that when anyone is giving thought to any evil and intending it, he shall say to himself, ‘Although I am thinking about this and intending it, I will not do it because it is a sin.’ By this means the temptation injected from hell is checked, and its further entrance prevented. ” Amen.

Lessons: 2 Kings 13:14-19, Luke 15: 1-10, TCR 535

True Christian Religion 535


Since actual repentance, which is examining oneself, recognizing and acknowledging one’s sins, praying to the Lord and beginning a new life, is in the Reformed Christian world exceedingly difficult for many reasons that will be given in the last section of this chapter, therefore an easier kind of repentance is here presented, which is that when anyone is giving thought to any evil and intending it, he shall say to himself, “Although I am thinking about this and intending it, I will not do it because it is a sin.” By this means the temptation injected from hell is checked, and its further entrance prevented. It is strange that anyone can find fault with another for his evil intentions, and say, “Do not do that because it is a sin,” and yet find it difficult to say this to himself, but this is because the latter touches the will, but the former only the thought nearest to hearing. Inquiry was made in the spiritual world as to who were capable of this [actual] repentance, and they were found to be as few as doves in a vast desert. Some said that they could repent in the easier way, but were not able to examine themselves and confess their sins before God. All who do good from religion avoid actual evils, but they very rarely reflect upon the interiors pertaining to the will, for they believe that they are not in evil because they are in good, and even that the good covers the evil. But, my friend, the first thing of charity is to shun evils. This is taught in the Word, the Decalogue, baptism, the holy supper and even by the reason; for how can anyone flee away from evils and banish them without some self- inspection? And how can good become good until it has been interiorly purified? I know that all pious men, and also all men of sound reason, will assent to this when they read it, and will see it as genuine truth, but still, that few will act accordingly.

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