Positive Thinking

A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper


Now Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. Then Abimelech took sheep, oxen, and male and female servants, and gave them to Abraham; and he restored Sarah his wife to him. So Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech, his wife, and his maidservants. Then they bore children; For the LORD had closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. (GEN 20:2,14,17,18)

There are three different places in the book of Genesis where the wandering Hebrews enter an established kingdom and mislead the king by saying that the wife is actually a sister.

The first time is when Abram and Sarai enter Egypt (GEN 12:10-20). The second time is time is when Abraham and Sarah enter the land of Abimelech, king of Gerar (GEN 20). The third time is when Abraham’s son Isaac also entered Gerar (GEN 26:1-12). Each time the king was warned before committing a sin, and each time the couple was sent away richer.

For today, we are going to focus our attention on the second occasion, Abraham and Sarah with Abimelech in Gerar. Abraham was the king of a large, rich, and powerful nomadic tribe that roamed through Canaan seeking pasturage for his large flocks and herds. We know that he had enough armed men working for him that his army was large enough to contend with those of the kings of the region that lived in walled cities. His was a force to be reckoned with, and the kings of the cities ignored him at their peril.

We need to think of the way Sarah was passed around in this light. It was the custom in those days for one king to honour another king by giving a woman from his family to join the royal household. The prime example of this is Solomon, who, for these reasons, eventually found himself with 700 wives and 300 concubines – all women given to him by other royal families to ensure peace and good trade relationships (1KI 11:3). It was also true that Sarah was Abraham’s sister, as she and Abraham had the same father, although they did have different mothers, so Abraham was not lying to Abimelech, although he was deceiving him with a half-truth.

The truth about their relationship is revealed to Abimelech in a dream, and it is clear to him that if he restores Sarah immediately, he will not be blamed. Upon awakening, Abimelech restores Sarah to Abraham along with many valuable gifts – another sign of Abraham’s relative power in the land and the need to ensure his good will.

In the Word Abraham represents the Lord in His Divine Human, that is, Jesus Christ on earth. In particular this story reveals in the internal sense details about a time in the Lord’s youth when the rational degree of His mind was opening, and He had to choose between two different ways of thinking. And, since the Lord grew and developed according to the same order that every human being does, we can draw an analogy between His decision, and a similar decision that each of us faces during our lives in the world.

The basic element of the decision has to do with Sarah, who here represents the doctrine of truth. The question He faced was whether to have Sarah, the doctrine of truth, as a sister, or as a wife. Sarah as a sister represents the “Negative Attitude,” while Sarah as a wife represents the “Affirmative Attitude.”

Those who think from a negative attitude are those who refuse to believe anything unless they are first convinced by their own reasonings, factual considerations, and the evidence of the senses. Their first reaction to anything is to say to themselves that, “It’s ridiculous. I’ve never heard of such a thing! What a stupid idea! It’s not the way I’ve always done it.”

On the other hand, those people who think from the affirmative attitude are those who believe that things are true because the Lord has said so in the Word, and who thus have faith in the Lord. They respond to a new idea with enthusiasm and interest, saying, “I’ve never thought of it that way before! What an interesting idea! I wonder if it could be the answer to that problem I have?”

Another way of illustrating the difference between the negative and affirmative attitudes come from the way people approach the record of the Lord’s miracles in the Word. Take for example the miracle where, after teaching and healing the multitude, the Lord had compassion on their hunger and fed 4000 people with just seven loaves and a few fish.

Those who think from the negative attitude, those who do not believe the Word’s testimony that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, but would prefer to believe that He was merely a prophet, or perhaps the “best of men,” must somehow explain this miracle away. They do this by saying that by His preaching, and by His example of sharing His own food, the Lord inspired the people in the crowd to bring out the food that they had hidden away in their garments and bags and to share it with others. Considering the worldly and selfish nature of many people, one could suppose that getting a crowd to share their food is something of a miracle – but this is certainly not the testimony or the thrust of scripture. This is a good example of how people can explain away things that they do not wish to believe. There are also many examples of this happening in scripture, as, for example, when the children of Israel experienced the 10 Plagues of Egypt, were led by Moses across the Red Sea, and then witnessed the drowning of Pharaoh’s army – and within days were dancing around the golden calf. The human mind, when affected by the negative principle, has an amazing capacity to ignore the obvious in order to continue to hold to preconceived notions.

On the other hand, those who have an affirmative attitude, those who believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, who had all power on heaven and on earth, have little trouble believing that He could speed up that natural process in such a way as to multiply the food available so as to satisfy everyone present. The details don’t worry them, for they see beyond them to the larger idea of the Lord teaching through this miracle that not only can He teach our minds, heal our spiritual diseases, but that He is also the Divine Provider of all spiritual nourishment. This miracle, along with all the others in the Word only serves to confirm and illustrate what affirmative people already knew in their hearts to be true.

In this context we should also look at Swedenborg’s claim that he is a modern day prophet, and that his 27 years of experience in the spiritual world and the resulting revelation of the internal sense of the Word is a miracle surpassing all miracles. The person who is ruled by the negative attitude will look at Swedenborg’s claim from the point of view that, “anyone who claims to have visions of the spiritual world must be some kind of crackpot.” Such a negative person refuses to believe in anything that he cannot work out for himself from the evidence of his senses, and the spiritual world cannot be sensed by the natural body. So, if you don’t believe that there is a spiritual world, it is rather difficult for you to believe that there can be communication between it and the natural world. Therefore, in order to incorporate Swedenborg into your comfortable, natural world view, you have to deny his claim and decide that it was all a complex hoax. Having come to such a conclusion, one can feel quite happy and superior because one is clever enough to have seen through the hoax.

But what if there is a God, and He has created a heaven so that people from this world can live to eternity in happiness and usefulness? Doesn’t it make sense that having created a heaven that God would want to tell us about it so that we could prepare ourselves? Is that not the function of the Word? Doesn’t it make sense that as the human race matured that it would require more detailed information? Do we not see the pattern that there is very little information about the spiritual world in the Old Testament, a lot more in the New Testament. Does not a third Testament, rich in knowledge about the spiritual world fit the pattern? And since every sentence and phrase of the Old and New Testaments has been written by some man in this world who had been inspired from heaven to write it, why is it so hard to believe that Swedenborg had been called to serve the same kind of use in the same way just because he did it more recently and in more detail than the others?

The Arcana tells us that: Those who have made themselves blind through refusing to believe anything which they do not perceive with the physical senses, till at length they have no belief at all, were in former times called ‘serpents belonging to the tree of knowledge’ .In the next life they are easily distinguished from other spirits by the fact that in everything which is a matter of faith they reason whether it is so. And if it is demonstrated to them a thousand times, and then another thousand, that it is so – they still advance doubts of a negative kind against every confirmation that is offered, and this they would go on doing for ever. They are so blinded therefore that they are lacking in common sense, that is, they are unable to grasp what good and truth are. Yet every one of them imagines that he is wiser than anyone else in the whole universe, making wisdom consist in being able to dispose of what is Divine and to derive the origin of things from what is natural (AC 2588:9)

Those with a negative attitude don’t know what good and truth are, they use their “enlightened rationality” to ridicule the Divine truth, and they try to show that everything has a purely natural cause.

Perhaps the easiest way to distinguish between the negative and affirmative attitudes is to say that those who are negative begin with the experience of their own senses, and try to build up from that from their own rationality, like those who tried to build the Tower of Babel. Those who are affirmative start from the Divine Truth revealed in the Word, and then use their rational mind and their sensory experiences to illustrate and confirm what they already believe to be so because the Lord has said so in the Word.

Abraham’s journey into Egypt and Gerar represents the time in the Lord’s life when He was seeking to learn many things about the world, and particularly about the doctrine of charity and faith. He, as a young man with a developing rationality, was tempted to put His faith in the infant powers of reasoning in His Human. This is represented by Abraham telling Abimelech that Sarah was his sister.

Unlike us, the Lord had the Divine Itself inflowing into His mind, and even though He was tempted to think in this way, He perceived within Himself that it would not be orderly, and so he rejected it. This internal perception that protected Him from making the wrong choice is represented by the dream where the Lord told Abimelech, Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart. For I also withheld you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her (GEN 20:6). Immediately, Sarah was returned to Abraham as a wife, and Abraham was blessed with great wealth, while order and happiness were also restored in Gerar.

We don’t have an internal perception of truth, so we have to come to the same decision by means of the truths we have learned in the Word, and which, by our living by them, have formed our conscience. We have to make the conscious choice to turn away from the negative attitude we are all inclined to, and strive to think and live in an affirmative way.

Sarah as a sister, that is, a negative attitude about life, about other people, and above all, about the doctrines of the church, leads to all kinds of difficulties, in spite of the apparent benefits such a relationship might initially promise. However, we can see from three different examples of this story in the Word, when Sarah is restored to her proper position as a wife, when we go first to the Word to see what it teaches, and then use the rationality given to us by God to see how the truth might apply in our own lives, when we are affirmative towards the Lord and His Word, then the joys of our lives will be multiplied, and we will receive great spiritual wealth, and be able to dwell to eternity in heaven. Then Abimelech took sheep, oxen, and male and female servants, and gave them to Abraham; and he restored Sarah his wife to him. And Abimelech said, “See, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” (GEN 20:14:15) Amen.

First Lesson: GEN 20:1-8

And Abraham journeyed from there to the South, and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur, and stayed in Gerar. {2} Now Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. {3} But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, “Indeed you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” {4} But Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, “Lord, will You slay a righteous nation also? {5} “Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister’ ?And she, even she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and innocence of my hands I have done this.” {6} And God said to him in a dream, “Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart. For I also withheld you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her. {7} “Now therefore, restore the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.” {8} So Abimelech rose early in the morning, called all his servants, and told all these things in their hearing; and the men were very much afraid.

Second Lesson: AC 2568:4-6

4] There are therefore two basic attitudes of mind, the first leading to utter stupidity and insanity, the second to perfect intelligence and wisdom. The first occurs when someone denies everything, that is, says in his heart that he is unable to believe those things until he is convinced by things which he can grasp in his mind and perceive with his senses. This is an attitude which leads to utter stupidity and insanity and must be termed the negative attitude. The second occurs when someone regards affirmatively the things which comprise doctrine drawn from the Word, that is, when he thinks within himself and believes that those things are true because the Lord has spoken them. This is an attitude that leads to perfect intelligence and wisdom, and must be termed the affirmative attitude.

[5] The more those who think from the negative attitude consult rational ideas and the more they consult factual knowledge and the more they consult philosophical concepts, the more they pitch themselves headlong into darkness, till at length they deny everything.

The reasons for this are that nobody is able from things that are lower to grasp with his mind those that are higher, that is, from those that are lower to grasp those that are spiritual and celestial, still less those that are Divine, since these go above and beyond his entire understanding. And what is more, when this is the case everything is regarded from a basically negative attitude of mind.

On the other hand, however, people who think from the affirmative attitude are able to confirm themselves by whatever rational ideas, and by whatever factual knowledge, indeed by any philosophical concepts, which they are able in any way to make use of, for to them all these matters are confirmatory and enable them to have a fuller idea of the matter.

[6] In addition there are those who are in doubt before they deny, and there are those who are in doubt before they accept affirmatively. Those in doubt before denying are people who are disposed towards a life of evil; and when carried away by that life, then insofar as they think about those matters they deny them.

Those however in doubt before accepting affirmatively are people who are disposed towards a life of good; and when they allow themselves to be turned to that life by the Lord, then insofar as they think about those matters they accept them affirmatively.


Copyright © 1982 – 2012 General Church of the New Jerusalem.
Page constructed by James P. Cooper
Page last modified August 12, 2012


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