Does Love Justify Evil?

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Toronto, Sept. 28, 2008

And He said to [the Pharisees], “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” (LUK 16:15)


With these clear and powerful words, the Lord put forth the fundamental issue that we face during our lives on earth: the fact that our nature is such that many of the things that we seek after are just those things that are most harmful to our spiritual lives. And to make it worse, we use our rationality, the part of our minds that was specifically created by God to help us rise above our evil desires, to twist and turn the truth until we are able to convince ourselves, if not others, that our evils are actually good.

We like to think that we’re “okay,” that while we might have a few flaws to work on, for the most part, we’re essentially, good, honest people. We like to think that because it makes us comfortable. The hells encourage us to think like that, because while we are feeling comfortable and safe, we are not going to explore our real motives, and while our motives remain hidden and unexamined, we do not feel the need to change. In this way, the hells win the battle for our souls by default.

In the newspaper of another city a few years ago, there were two news items on the same day that dramatized some extremely important spiritual truths. Both headline stories had to do with men confessing their adulteries. The one was an internationally known church leader in the midst of a sex scandal; the other a local man who was interviewed by the newspaper after placing a classified ad in the personals in which he extolled the virtues of loving two women – only one of which was his wife.

It’s not unusual today to read about people who are unfaithful to their partners – in fact it’s becoming far too common. So what made these two stories particularly worthy of note? Both of these men, one of whom was a church leader, stated publicly while confessing to adultery, that they stated that they had done nothing wrong. Consider the following passage from the True Christian Religion:

…He who trespasses against one commandment of the Decalogue trespasses against all. But the meaning of this assertion is different from its sound, for it is to be understood thus, that he who purposely or deliberately acts contrary to one commandment, acts contrary to the rest, since to so act from purpose and deliberation is to deny utterly that it is sin, and when it is said to be sin, to reject the statement as of no account; and he who so denies and rejects the idea of sin gives no thought to anything that is called sin. (TCR 523)

How can a man come to the point in his life that he can publicly assert that adultery is not a sin? What kind of reason can such a person give? They said it was correct and exemplary behaviour because they did it for “love.” By this I believe they meant to say that it was acceptable for them to behave the way they did because the only standard for behaviour in their lives was their own feelings of pleasure or happiness. The one said it was okay to leave his wife and take up with another man’s wife because he no longer “loved” his wife, and therefore his obligations to her were at an end; the other said that since he felt “love” for both his wife and his girlfriend, that it was right and proper for him to have both. How would the angelic heavens respond to such a statement? It happens that Swedenborg records their response to a similar situation:

When the angels had heard this they replied, “You talk in this way because you are merely sensual; for all who are in hell have the ideas of their thoughts immersed in the bodily senses, and are unable to raise their minds above the senses. We therefore excuse you. A life of evil and a consequent belief in what is false have so far closed the interiors of your minds that with you any elevation above sensual things is impossible unless in a state remote from your evils of life and falsities of belief. (TCR 77:3)

It should be emphasized that the angels are not excusing the evil, but the insane speech of those who are immersed in their bodily senses, and because they are unable to lift themselves up from them, they are in hell.

These two adulterers, through their public statements, have brought an important issue to light. It is useful for us to have our attention drawn to this question so that we can identify the same kind of subtle falsity in our own thinking, and drive it out if it is present. The question is, when does “love,” (or our own feelings of happiness) justify doing what is evil? Indeed, does love ever justify doing what is evil? The answer to this question revolves around the difference between evil and sin.

The difference between evil and sin is the same as the difference between an action and the motive behind the action. God has told us of certain things that we must not do because they are evil, and these things are summarized in the Ten Commandments, but there are times and circumstances where, if the motive is good, these commandments can be broken without permanent spiritual harm. Sin, on the other hand, has to do with the motives behind the actions, and a person can sin without appearing to others to break any of the commandments.

For example: a mother is destitute and sees that her child is starving, so she steals a loaf of bread to feed the child. Her action is evil, because it has broken the commandment against stealing, but since her motive was the protection and preservation of innocent life, it is not counted as a sin. Another example: a soldier faces an enemy in the act of invading his homeland, and in the heat of battle, he kills. To take a life is evil, but the motive of protecting his homeland and nation means that it is not accountable to him as a sin.

In these cases, love, because it is genuine and looking outside of self to the protection and care of others, does justify breaking the commandments, but it doesn’t make it right. The action itself is still evil, but excused by the Lord because of the motive.

On the other hand, one can easily imagine a situation where a man spends many years preparing himself to take a position of trust, presenting himself as a sober and respectable fellow, only to later abuse that position and to exercise his powers for personal gain and pleasure. To do good, when done solely for the sake of self, is a sin. In such a case, his love is not genuine love, not charity, but the love of self, and therefore from hell. Such hellish, selfish love cannot justify or excuse evil.

We all want to “feel good” about ourselves and our lives. We want to do good – at least in our own eyes. We turn away and ignore the sins within ourselves – because it’s easier. Like many other unpleasant tasks, we put it off until later, but the Heavenly Doctrines warn us of the spiritual danger of failing to search out the sins within:

Do you know of any one sin in which you are? Have you ever examined yourselves, and consequently shunned any evil as a sin against God? He who does not shun evil is in evil. (TCR 527:4)

And even though we are in states of evil, we yet believe that we deserve and are destined for heaven, and so we either have to justify our sins, or get rid of them. Justifying sins is a lot easier than shunning them. Remember what the Lord taught when the lawyer asked Him:

“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”

So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbour as yourself.’ “

And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”

But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” (LUK 10:25-29)

The Lord answered him by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, but the point here is that the lawyer asked the question not because he was really interested in knowing the answer, but “to justify himself” (LUK 10:29), to make it seem that the Lord’s answer was so general that it could be applied in almost any way, and especially so that it could be applied to make the lawyer appear to be doing good to the neighbour without having to give up his evils and change his life.

Again, the Heavenly Doctrines speak pointedly to this:

Who cannot understand that he who does not examine and see his sins remains in them? For every evil is delightful to a man from his birth; it is delightful to him to take revenge, to commit whoredom, to defraud, to blaspheme, and especially to exercise dominion from self-love; and does not this delight prevent your seeing these sins? And if, perchance, you are told that they are sins, do you not from their delight excuse them, and even prove to yourselves by means of falsities that they are not sins? And, therefore, you remain in them, and afterward commit them more frequently than before, and this even until you do not know what sin is, or indeed whether there is any such thing. (TCR 567:6)

It seems to be a problem without a solution: our hereditary nature leads us into evils of every kind, and because we get pleasure from acting out our evil loves, we end up sinning; and when we begin to break the commandments with knowledge and intent, we begin to deny them all, and we justify our actions with such falsities that eventually we don’t even know what sin is, let alone that it exists in us and needs to be removed. We come to the place where we can admit to adultery, or some other sin, and still claim to have done nothing wrong, because it gave us pleasure. As the Lord said in our text, we begin to “highly esteem that which is an abomination in the sight of God.”

The Lord is not, as it may appear, standing back, waiting for us to fail, but rather He is doing everything He can to help us break out of the vicious circle, to treat us fairly, and to help us break away from our evils so that we can prepare ourselves for spiritual life. We are taught that those who have removed some evils in themselves that are sins through the process of self-examination, repentance, and reformation, come into a settled and peaceful state where they believe in the Lord and love the neighbour. When we come into such a peaceful state, the Lord then flows in with His love and presence to keep us strong in our resolve to refrain from other evils; to keep us moving in the right direction once we have chosen it freely for ourselves. Once we have established, through our efforts to repent, that it is our true intention to continue to make spiritual progress, then, if from ignorance or circumstances beyond our control, a sin is committed, it is not imputed because it was not done from purpose and consent, and because there is genuine sorrow. (See TCR 523)

Because we all have different characters, and backgrounds, and because the effect of sin is to blind us to what sin really is, there needs to be some standard of truth that is objective, external, for us to judge our opinions against. For us, that standard must be the Word of the Lord, and especially the Ten Commandments – all ten of them.

We need to act courageously, to look within ourselves, and compare what we find there with the standards set forth not in the world but in the Word. When we find what is evil we may try to justify it because it pleases us (because we are “in love”), but we must recognize it for the deadly danger it is, and flee from it as if from the devil himself. Then, as long as we do our best to refrain from that evil, the Lord will flow in with the power of heaven and remove that evil, which can then be replaced by the opposite good. The net effect is that the pleasures we once had from that evil begin to fade, and are replaced by the heavenly delights of the opposite good.

The purpose of this sermon so far has been to encourage us to look back upon the things we have done in the past, not from the light of self-love or self-intelligence, but in the light of what we know to be true from the Lord in the Word, to warn of the things that prevent us from seeing our own actions clearly. No doubt, each of us can think of many things that we would like to change, things that we thought would work really well but through inattention, or false assumptions, or carelessness ended up hurting ones that we love. But in clearly seeing the wreckage of the past lies the hope for days that lie ahead. In His Divine Wisdom, the Lord created us so that by being able to see and understand the errors of the past, we can improve! We are not doomed to a lifetime of making the same mistakes, of causing the same hurts over and over.

Our lives are a cycle of states. We’re not happy and good all the time, nor are we sad and evil all the time. We can’t have Christmas every day – nor should we dwell in states of depression and self-loathing. We were created to change from state to state so that in looking back we could learn from our experiences, and in looking forward, we could hope for eternal salvation. Let us look forward with hopefulness and joy to the good things that the Lord has in store for us. We close with this reading from the True Christian Religion:

With any one who actually repents it is different. His evils, such as he has recognized and acknowledged, he calls sins, and therefore begins to shun them and turn away from them; and finally to feel their delight to be undelightful. And so far as this is done he sees and loves good, and at length feels the delight of good, which is the delight of the angels of heaven. In a word, so far as any one puts the devil behind him, he is accepted by the Lord, and is taught, led, withheld from evil, and kept in good by Him; and this is the way, and the only way, from hell to heaven. (TCR 567:6) AMEN.

First Lesson: Jer 7:21-28

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat meat. {22} “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. {23} “But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people. And walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you.’ {24} “Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but followed the counsels and the dictates of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward. {25} “Since the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt until this day, I have even sent to you all My servants the prophets, daily rising up early and sending them. {26} “Yet they did not obey Me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck. They did worse than their fathers. {27} “Therefore you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not obey you. You shall also call to them, but they will not answer you. {28} “So you shall say to them, ‘This is a nation that does not obey the voice of the LORD their God nor receive correction. Truth has perished and has been cut off from their mouth. Amen.

Second Lesson: Luke 16:10-18

“He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. {11} “Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? {12} “And if you have not been faithful in what is another man’s, who will give you what is your own? {13} “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” {14} Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him. {15} And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God. {16} “The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it. {17} “And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail. {18} “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery. Amen.

Third Lesson: True Christian Religion 523.

It is asserted that no man can fulfil the law, and the less so, since he who trespasses against one commandment of the Decalogue trespasses against all. But the meaning of this assertion is different from its sound, for it is to be understood thus, that he who purposely or deliberately acts contrary to one commandment, acts contrary to the rest, since to so act from purpose and deliberation is to deny utterly that it is sin, and when it is said to be sin, to reject the statement as of no account; and he who so denies and rejects the idea of sin gives no thought to anything that is called sin. Those who are unwilling to hear anything about repentance come into this fixed attitude of mind; but on the other hand, those who by repentance have removed some evils that are sins, come into a settled purpose to believe in the Lord and love the neighbour. Such are kept by the Lord in the purpose to refrain from other evils; and if therefore from ignorance or some over-powerful lust, they are led to commit sin, it is not imputed to them, because they did not commit it deliberately, and do not confirm it in themselves.

This may be confirmed by the following facts: In the spiritual world I have met with many who in the natural world had lived like others, dressing finely, feasting delicately, making money by trading like others, attending theatres, joking about lovers as if from licentiousness, and doing other like things; and yet the angels charged these things upon some as evils of sin, and not upon others, declaring the latter innocent, but the former guilty. Being asked the reason of this, since all had done the same things, they replied, that all are viewed by them from their purpose, intention, and end, and are distinguished accordingly; and therefore they excuse or condemn those whom the end excuses or condemns, since good is the end of all in heaven, and evil the end of all in hell. Amen.

Copyright © 1982 – 2008 General Church of the New Jerusalem.
Page constructed by James P. Cooper
Page last modified September 27, 2009

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