Sowing Wild Oats

 

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

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. MAT 5:27,28

Can we learn important spiritual lessons from the mistakes and experiences of others? When we were little children, we learned from our parents that there were some things that we must not do. We tried to not do those things, and in many cases we were able to resist. But, as we grew older and more independent, our parents’ influence grew weaker as the encouragement of our friends grew stronger, and eventually, we did those things anyhow.

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

Having learned the lesson for ourselves, having lived it, we try to tell others (perhaps our own children) how they could avoid the pain – but 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 won’t listen. Then they learn from their own errors, and want to pass their “new” knowledge on to others who also won’t listen and so on.

We learn to tolerate all kinds of disorders in our children, our friends, ourselves because we tell ourselves that one can only really learn about evil through personal experience. Such a belief is one of those ideas that come from hell. The evil spirits can think of nothing better than to help us think of ways to justify doing what we know to be evil – especially if they can help us convince ourselves that somehow it’s for a good end! So we look away when a young person stays out late drinking with friends. We hope that he will get into just enough trouble to learn from it without any permanent consequences. After all, everyone has to experience these things for themselves, they are “just sowing wild oats.” It must be all right. Everybody does it. Doesn’t it begin to seem that the only way that we can really learn something is to experience it for ourselves, to make the mistakes and suffer the consequences?

Unfortunately, such a view flies in the face of the teaching of the Word. If you were supposed to learn everything for yourself through personal experience, what would be the purpose of the Word?

In heaven the angels teach people about life, particularly young people who have not lived as adults in the world, with plays. We read from Conjugial Love 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.

Do we really need to “sow wild oats” and experience life for ourselves by actually committing sins and experiencing the pain of the consequences of sin? Of course not! The Lord has provided other ways for us to learn what we need to know about evil so that we can avoid it. We can observe it in others, and see the unhappiness it causes. We can read literature and see plays that represent these passions and poor choices, and recreate the situation using the imaginative degree of our own minds. There is real power in seeing a play like MacBeth because it doesn’t glorify evil, but instead powerfully depicts the destruction of mind and spirit that is the result of giving in to evil.

In this connection, there may even be a use to modern movies that depict violence – if aversion to violence is the result, not fascination and delight.

In the New Testament, the Lord speaks about the power of the imaginative degree when He taught that those who look after another “with adultery in their heart” (MAT 5:28) are committing an evil, even though no outward evil act has occurred.

We can image every kind of evil deed in our minds. We can create a fantasy in which we enjoy the delights of evil, and then imagine what the consequences might be as well as the delights. If we pay attention to the consequences of evils, we may in fact be able to learn to shun evils before they become entrenched through repetition. Recall what was said in the third lesson from TCR 535:

It is strange that any one 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 . . .

The “parent” or “responsible adult” in each one of us sees someone else about to do something wrong, and we want to warn them against it, because we know it will cause them (and those around them) a great deal of pain. Who of us can stand silently by and watch someone 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 evils, to make them acceptable and permissible. We change their names to make them sound nicer: we’re not acting in a wild, irresponsible, and dangerous way – we are “sowing wild oats.” But what does the Word say? All who do good from religion, avoid actual evils . . . (TCR 535)

It’s true that the Heavenly Doctrine teaches that an evil done once by mistake can be removed fairly easily. But do it a few times from intention, and it become firmly anchored in the will and is much more difficult to remove. The danger is that if we give ourselves permission to experiment with evils, thinking that we’ll be strong enough and smart enough to quit before the evil becomes entrenched, we end up doing the evils we enjoy a few times from intention. But in spiritual life, unlike the games we play, there are no “take-backs” or “Mulligans.” By helping to think that there are “take-backs”, the hells encourage us to do the very thing that will entrench the love of evil in our lives while leading us to believe that we are safe, that we are having “harmless fun.” (See DP 112:3) When it comes to evils, we really have to avoid doing them at all, ever, so they do not become a permanent part of our character.

This is taught in the Old Testament in the story of Joash and Elisha that was read as the first lesson. The prophet asked Joash to strike the ground with a handful of arrows. Joash didn’t fully understand what was being asked of him, so he didn’t do it with enthusiasm. After the fact, he realized that it was going to cost him a great deal.

We all feel that way about rules. They challenge our proprial nature, our selfish desires. We follow them grudgingly – if at all, sometimes with painful results such as pregnancies outside of marriage, car accidents caused by the use of drugs or alcohol, and a long list of similar, easily prevented tragedies. In spite of so many examples, we think we know better, that we can beat the odds.

In the Word, the Lord teaches about good by examples and parables, so you can learn without having to do it yourself. It’s not hard to imagine yourself in all the various roles of the parable of the Good Samaritan. A priest, and then a Levite passed the injured man by. They represent our haughty intellectual side. He is encouraging us to think about the needs of others from the view of simple charity, the Samaritan.

There is also an important lesson in the story of the Prodigal Son. Somehow we like to remember the parts where the young man went into the city and lived the high life, and then, when he had learned his lesson, he went home and was received by his father as if nothing happened. We conveniently forget that before he came to his senses, he had to “hit bottom,” we forget the increasing desperation he felt as his money began to run out and he realized he had no prospects of getting more, the humiliation he felt as his new “friends” turned away from him to seek out new “friends” who still had money, and we forget the hunger that drove him to his hands and knees fighting the pigs for their swill.

The Lord wants each of us who hears this parable to be the brother who stayed behind, not the brother who nearly died of shame and hunger. The brother who stayed behind suffered none of these things. All he had to deal with were some feelings of jealousy.

The same kind of thing is true with the parable of the lost sheep. It’s likely that every one of us has been lost for at least a few minutes, long enough that we all have some 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, and it is His job to make sure that we do not get lost – ever! But if we suffer from enough stubbornness or stupidity to get lost anyhow, then He will come looking for us. The lost sheep may eventually be found, but in the process becomes the one who is held up as an example of foolishness that keeps the ninety-nine close to their Shepherd. The Lord doesn’t want us to learn our lessons by getting lost, He wants us to be one of the 99 who learn their lesson in the abstract from the other guy getting lost!

We close with a final quote from True Christian Religion which gives us an “easy” way to repentance and true spiritual life by simply refusing to do what you know to be evil when the opportunity presents itself – by simply not wandering away from the Shepherd to see what interesting things might be lurking behind those rocks:

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 any one 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. (TCR 535) Amen.

The subject of our sermon today is how the hells lead us to believe that we have to actually commit sins first to be able to refrain from them, when in fact the Lord teaches in the Word that we can best learn about sin by observation and thought from imagination.

First Lesson: 2KI 13:14-19

Elisha had become sick with the illness of which he would die. Then Joash the king of Israel came down to him, and wept over his face, and said, “O my father, my father, the chariots of Israel and their horsemen!”

And Elisha said to him, “Take a bow and some arrows.” So he took himself a bow and some arrows.

Then he said to the king of Israel, “Put your hand on the bow.” So he put his hand on it, and Elisha put his hands on the king’s hands.

And he said, “Open the east window”; and he opened it. Then Elisha said, “Shoot”; and he shot. And he said, “The arrow of the Lord’s deliverance and the arrow of deliverance from Syria; for you must strike the Syrians at Aphek till you have destroyed them.”

Then he said, “Take the arrows”; so he took them. And he said to the king of Israel, “Strike the ground”; so he struck three times, and stopped.

And the man of God was angry with him, and said, “You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck Syria till you had destroyed it. But now you will strike Syria only three times.” Amen.

Second Lesson: LUK 15:1-10

Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him.

And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

So He spoke this parable to them, saying:

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?

“And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.

“And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’

“I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and seek diligently until she finds it?

“And when she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I lost!’

“Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Amen.

Third Lesson: TCR 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 . . . therefore an easier kind of repentance is here presented, which is, that when any one 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 any one 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 . . .

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 reason; for how can any one flee 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. Amen.


Copyright © 1982 – 2005 General Church of the New Jerusalem.
Page constructed by James P. Cooper
Page last modified September 27, 2009

 

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