Sermon: Following the Commandments
I preached this sermon at the Dawson Creek Church of the New Jerusalem in Dawson Creek, BC, on January 29, 2012.
Readings: Exodus 20:1-17; Mark 12:28-34; New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine 159-163
“He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me.” (John 14:21)
What evils are you currently shunning as sins against the Lord? What evils do you know you have a tendency to fall into? We read from the Writings that those who are being regenerated practice repentance daily. Have you repented today? Did you repent yesterday? What about the day before that?
These can be hard questions to answer, because often we know that our answer is not what we’d want it to be. And often we answer based on a vague feeling –yeah, I feel like I probably stopped myself from doing something wrong today. I feel like I was paying attention to whether I was doing anything I shouldn’t. When we hear that we ought to be repenting, we often turn to these vague feelings to comfort ourselves – maybe I haven’t been focusing on it, but I’ve probably been doing it subconsciously. The problem is that when we take that attitude – rather than consciously focusing on specific evils – the evil spirits find all sorts of ways to blind us to the evil we are doing.
In fact, the book True Christian Religion says that evil spirits love nothing more than for a person to say, “I’m a sinner,” to make a general confession of sin – and yet be unaware of any actual, specific sins in himself. This is not to say that that a person should not make a general confession that he is completely a sinner. In fact, this kind of confession is the same kind of confession that a person makes when he does see his specific sins – but in that case, it is a genuine confession, because he actually knows that from himself he desires evil. A general confession of being a sinner is meaningless if the person doesn’t see the specific evils he’s inclined to, but it is sincere when a person acknowledges that he is a general sinner from seeing the thousands of specific evils he is inclined to.
But the question arises, how should we go about identifying those specific sins that we have a tendency to commit? The answer is to go to the Word. Throughout the Word, we learn what it means to sin – that it is to lie, to abuse the poor, to mistreat others, to commit adultery. The entirety of the Word teaches us what sin is. But all of that is summed up in the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments contain in summary all the teachings of the Word. That’s why they were held in such reverence, why they were proclaimed with thunder and lightning from Mount Sinai, why the ark that contained them was kept in the very heart of the tabernacle and temple, the Holy of Holies.
But in the New Testament reading we read for this morning, the Lord did not list the Ten Commandments when He was asked which commandments were the greatest. Instead, He said that the two greatest commandments were to love the Lord, the one God, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and secondly to love your neighbour as yourself. But the truth is, these two great commandments summarize what it really means to follow the Ten Commandments. It’s possible to follow the Ten Commandments simply as moral and civil laws, but what the Lord calls us to do is follow them on a deeper level – to love to do them, since following the commandments is the way we love Him and our neighbour. The earliest Christians knew this; in his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul wrote, “For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Romans 13:9).
Now, sometimes it’s not easy to see the connection between following the commandments and love. But the Lord says over and over again that loving Him means following His commandments. And loving Him also means loving others. That’s WHY loving Him means following His commandments – because by following His commandments, we’re allowing ourselves to be vessels of His love, a love for the entire human race. All of the commandments teach us how better to love other people, and when we do that, we are acting as the Lord’s hands in this world. We are putting His love into practice.
But practically speaking, how do we turn to the Ten Commandments and take guidance from them? How do we use them in self-examination and repentance? Again, it’s important that this be a conscious, deliberate thing we do, not a general feeling that, “Oh, I think I’m following the commandments,” or even, “I think I’m probably breaking some commandments, but I’ll try to be better.” The Writings lay out specific steps of repentance. The first step is to know what good is, and what evil is, and specifically what evils are sins, and then to examine ourselves – both our actions and our intentions – and to see where we are guilty of these sins.
An important note about intentions here – the fact that we are attracted to an evil does not make us guilty of it. We examine whether we intend an evil by asking ourselves, would I do this given the opportunity, if there were no fear of consequences? If we would not do it because it is a sin against God, even if we’re attracted to it, we have not committed it in intentions.
So, we need to be examining our lives and intentions. The Ten Commandments are vital in this. The book True Christian Religion has a chapter on the commandments, and goes through describing the literal sense, the broader implications of the literal sense, and the deeper meanings within each of these commandments. One very useful practice is to set aside time at regular intervals a few times throughout the year to slowly go through this chapter and do a self-assessment – am I worshipping other Gods, or putting something before the Lord? Am I murdering – using hurtful words against others, holding anger against others? If we see areas where we’ve fallen down – and we almost always will – we know that the Lord has shown those to us. We need not go through this full, thorough process every day; we can do it a few times a year as we prepare to come to the Holy Supper, and then our daily repentance can be like a quicker check-up – did I fall into any of the tendencies I noticed in myself during those deeper self-examinations?
When we’re doing that thorough self-examination, it’s important to bring it right down even to mundane things. Do I actually steal stuff from work? Do I lie about the hours I work? Do I disrespect my parents when I talk to them, or when I talk to my siblings about them? It can seem like bringing it down to this level makes it less spiritual; but what we’re really doing is giving our spirituality a chance to come down even into the lowest plane of our lives. And this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t pay attention to those deeper things as well. If the Lord has showed us a way that we are sinning, He’s giving us an opportunity to repent of it. So if on a deeper level I see that I’m stealing from the Lord by pride in my own accomplishments, then that’s something I can seek to shun. But again, it’s important to look at how to do this practically. When my mind starts to wander to how great I am, what am I going to do about it? The answer could be that I will pray to the Lord for humility. It could be to turn my thoughts away from my pride to thoughts about all the ways the Lord has blessed me. But those conscious strategies work far better than vague feelings of, “Oh, I shouldn’t do that.” Repenting means resolving to stop. Sometimes that involves a realization that we can’t stop on our own – we need the help of others, maybe help from friends, a minister, or a professional counselor. Repentance is not about “toughing it out” and making it on our own – it’s about getting rid of the evils in our lives by whatever means we can.
In fact, one of the most important parts of repentance is acknowledging that we can’t do it on our own. When the Writings describe the steps of repentance, they say that after a person has noticed the evils in himself – the things he has done, or the things he would do if there were no fear of the law or fear for his reputation – after he has acknowledged these, and acknowledged that they are sins against the Lord, it is important that he then pray to the Lord for strength to resist them – and to acknowledge that even in his own struggles against those sins, it is really the Lord fighting for him against the power of hell, that he cannot fight from his own strength.
True Christian Religion describes the prayer and confession that is necessary after a person has seen and acknowledged the places where he breaks the Ten Commandments. It says,
“Prayer should be that the Lord may have pity, grant the power to resist the evils of which one has repented, and supply the inclination and affection for doing good, since man without Him cannot do anything (John 15:5). Confession should be that one sees, recognises and acknowledges one’s evils, and reveals oneself as a wretched sinner.” (True Christian Religion 539)
This description makes it clear that shunning evils is not simply about filling out a checklist. We have to throw ourselves into it completely, and completely rely on the Lord for strength. We have to earnestly pray that He change our hearts so that we can not only stop doing the evil, but that we will stop wanting to do the evil. We cannot choose to stop being attracted to evil – that comes gradually, as the Lord changes our heart – but we can decide not to want to be attracted to the evil.
And the Writings are clear that this prayer must be made to the Lord God Jesus Christ, not any other idea of God. Why is that so important? Because in the Lord Jesus Christ, we see a Divinely Human God – we see someone who is definitely outside of ourselves as the only source of goodness, the only One who can change us. And in Him, we see Who God is, and what He wants for us. And unless we know Who the Lord is, we cannot shun evils as sins against Him.
Because the reason that a sin is a sin is that it blocks the Lord’s love from entering into us. The Lord God Jesus Christ wants to live in our hearts. The Ten Commandments are summed up in the commandment to love the Lord and love the neighbour; and the reason that breaking them is a sin is that it damages the Lord’s love. In fact, it’s worse than that. Every breath we take, every beat of our heart, everything that is alive in us is really the Lord’s life. Nothing lives apart from the Lord. Life is an emanation of the Lord’s love. But when we take that life, that love from the Lord, and act in evil against the neighbour – we take the Lord’s love, and twist it. We use to power of life itself to cause death. That’s why a sin is a sin – it’s not just about breaking some rules, it’s about using the Lord’s life in a way that is contrary to His greatest desire, which is that all people be blessed, that all people experience eternal happiness – that all people have life, and have it more abundantly. We hurt that love by hurting others, both because of the harm it does to them, but also because it stops the Lord from being able to bless us, to bring us into heavenly life.
After we’ve prayed to the Lord, the final step in the process of repentance is to actually change our lives. And again, this is where it becomes important to really look at things in practical terms. This is easier with more external things than the more internal things; but most of us do have external things that we could stop doing, places where we can notice actual changes in our behavior. And it doesn’t take much. We can’t change all at once. But a passage from the Writings says if once in a week, or even twice in a month a person resists doing an evil he’s inclined to, he’ll start to notice a change.
When you do this – pick even a few areas that you can consciously observe, a few evils that you know you’re inclined to – and commit to refraining from them, praying for the Lord to help resist – then the Lord works with you not only in those areas, but on your other evils as well. When you’re consciously doing the work of repentance in whatever areas you’re able to see, the Lord upholds you in many of the other areas that you can’t see. If you decide to refrain from outbursts of anger or hatred, the Lord at the same time can be working on a deeper level, working on the root of that anger and hatred, which can stem from a love of having control, of wanting others to be under your dominion. And if you purposefully refrain from one evil, the Lord keeps you in the intention of refraining from them all. And even when we slip up, the Lord can lift us back up; we read in Conjugial Love,
“For as soon as anyone purposefully or deliberately refrains from some evil because it is a sin, he is kept by the Lord in a purpose to refrain from the rest. Consequently, if he then does evil unwittingly or under the sway of some overwhelming lust of the body, still it is not imputed to him, because he did not purpose it to himself, nor does he defend it in himself.” (Conjugial Love 529)
The Ten Commandments are there as practical tools toward regeneration. The literal laws in the commandments are well-known in every culture. But by giving the Ten Commandments in the smoke and fire of Mount Sinai, and commanding that they be kept as the most holy things in the Jewish religion, the Lord was showing that these laws that are necessary on the civil and moral plane are also spiritual laws. There’s a chapter in Heaven and Hell that says that the way that leads to heaven is to live by those civil and moral laws – practical, everyday laws of treating other people right – from a spiritual cause, to resist breaking the commandments because breaking them is an impediment to the Lord’s love. When we do that – when we consciously go through the steps of repentance, rather than trusting that it’s going on subconsciously – the Lord is working within us to make us into vessels of His love and His life. As we fight evil as if of ourselves, while acknowledging that it is really the Lord acting in us, and praying that He enter into us and change us, He answers our prayer. He gives us new hearts. He fulfills the prophecy in Jeremiah: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says Jehovah: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jeremiah 31:33).