The Affirmative Principle

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

So Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech, his wife, and his female servants. Then they bore children; {18} for the LORD had closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. (GEN 20:17-18)

Abraham and Sara had an unusual relationship. They were both husband and wife, and brother and sister (they had the same father, but different mothers). Whatever the reasons for their marriage on a natural level, it provides a unique opportunity to think about the relationship of good and truth in the human mind from two different perspectives at the same time.

The relationship is revealed in the internal sense of the story, as read in the lessons, of how Abraham defrauds Abimelech of great riches by telling him a half-truth. Abraham and Sarah presented themselves as brother and sister only to Abimelech, neglecting to mention that they were also married, nor did they make any complaint when Abimelech took her to his harem.

The first indication Abimelech had that all was not well was when the women in his whole kingdom stopped conceiving. It became perfectly clear to him when he was instructed by God in a dream that the reason for the disaster was that he had taken another man’s wife. Even though the thing had been done it in ignorance, still some harm came from it. If we break something because we tried to use it without reading the instructions, it is still broken, even though it may have been done in innocence or ignorance!

The simple lesson here is that we need to always think before we act. Everything we do has consequences, and will have an effect on other people. But Abimelech was able to avoid the greater harm by responding quickly and putting it right, by restoring Sarah to Abraham and sending them both on their way.

In the natural sense, it does seem unfair that Abraham is rewarded for causing so much trouble to Abimelech, so we will have to turn to the internal sense to find a satisfying meaning here.

The marriage between Abraham and Sarah is a picture of the marriage between good and truth in everyone’s mind. Our goal, our purpose in life on this earth, is to acquire truth from the Word and from the world and then marry that truth to good by using it in our own lives.

What this story points out is that the marriage, the relationship between good and truth in each person’s mind, can be approached from two directions. Do we see the relationship as something primarily natural (Abraham and Sarah as brother and sister), or do we see it as something spiritual (Abraham and Sarah as husband and wife)?

The Writings tell us, as we read in the lesson, that there are just these two ways of approaching truth. The Writings call them the “Negative Principle” and the “Affirmative Principle.” The attitudes towards truth that constitute the Negative Principle are the following:

They say that they will believe a spiritual thing only when it has been proved to them by rational arguments and scientific proof. But they never accept the proofs, but keep finding new reasonings, new scientifics that cast doubt on the idea — so much so that they would even try to take belief away from others, as well.

But they who deny this first and principal thing of doctrine, and who desire to be first convinced of anything true by means of the things of reason and memory, never suffer themselves to be convinced, because at heart they deny, and all the time take their stand in favor of some other principle which they believe to be essential; and finally, by confirmations of their principle they so blind themselves that they cannot even know what love to the Lord and love to the neighbor are. And as they confirm themselves in what is contrary, they at length confirm themselves in the notion that no other love is possible that has any delight in it except the love of self and of the world; and this to such a degree (if not in doctrine, yet in life) that they embrace infernal love in place of heavenly love. (AC 2588:3)

Those in the Affirmative Principle believe things are true simply because the Lord has said so. The wonderful thing for people who think this way is that they continually have their belief reinforced and illustrated as they observe the world and the things in it. If you start with the basic belief that God created the universe for a purpose, and if you believe that God is sane, then you should be able to see that design and purpose in everything He does. And you can. It’s all there for anyone to see if they just know where and how to look for it.

Abimelech’s initial decision when he meets Abraham and Sarah illustrates the Negative Principle. Some new people come into town. The woman is attractive. He wants her as part of his harem. Being the king, he lets it be known that this is his wish, and the answers come back as he wants them. His natural desires lead his thought, and he finds the confirmations he needs to do what he wanted to do in the first place.

It’s a funny thing, being a king. People are eager to make you happy, so they tell you what they think you want to hear, in part because they want to please you so that you will give them gifts, and in part because they fear your anger. Perhaps Abraham said what he did out of fear more than anything else. In any case, the king had spoken, so it had to be done.

How do we approach doctrinal issues in the church? “Lots of other people are doing it and it looks like fun so unless we can find something in the Word that specifically prohibits it, lets do it”, or “I wonder what the Word teaches about this.”

In some areas, like our ritual, it may be a combination. We look to the Word for the principles, and look to others for various and artistic means of expressing those principles. If one position or the other is very popular, or widely practiced in the world outside the church, it can be very hard, even embarrassing, to hold firm to what the Word teaches. But, what happens if you don’t hold firm? What happens if you take the natural view? For Abimelech the result was a national disaster; the women of his country couldn’t conceive and bear children. Just as children are the result of the conjugial relationship of husband and wife, our spiritual children are the product of the marriage of good and truth in our minds.

If we are governed by the Negative Principle, the marriage of good and truth will not be consummated, and spiritual children will not be conceived. The good news is that it is reversible! We can correct ourselves, and allow ourselves to be led by the Word, rather than trying to make the Word do our bidding. Abimelech was able to move from the Negative Principle (seeing Abraham and Sarah as brother and sister) to the Affirmative Principle (seeing Abraham and Sarah as husband and wife).

The steps are, first: prayer to God which leads to a revelation.

Then God healed Abimelech: Which represents a wholeness of doctrine as it regards good.

The next step was that God healed his wives, represent wholeness of doctrine as it regards truth.

Then God healed his female servants: Wholeness of the affection for doctrine. That allows them to bear children, Celestial and spiritual things — goods and truths. Finally,

Abraham and Sarah are sent away with great wealth.

Why is Abraham rewarded for his part in this? Because he was the means or instrument whereby this important lesson was taught to Abimelech.

Certainly all of us can look back on events in our lives that cost us dearly at the time, but we now judge to be worthwhile because of the importance of the lesson we learned. This is the case here with Abimelech, for this incident has literally turned him away from hell. Abimelech gives Abraham a gift to represent the great good that comes when we become aware of our own negative states, and consciously choose to turn away from them, turning instead to the Affirmative Principle of looking to the Lord for guidance in all things of life.

That it may be known who those are that can be kept by the Lord in the affection of good and truth, and thus be reformed and become spiritual, and who those are that cannot, we will briefly state that during childhood, while being for the first time imbued with goods and truths, every one is kept by the Lord in the affirmative idea that what he is told and taught by his parents and masters is true. With those who can become spiritual men this affirmative is confirmed by means of knowledges; for whatever they afterwards learn that has an affinity with it, insinuates itself into this affirmative, and corroborates it; and this more and more, even to affection. These are they who become spiritual men in accordance with the essence of the truth in which they have faith, and who conquer in temptations. (AC 2689:3) Amen.

First Lesson: (GEN 20)

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. {9} And Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? How have I offended you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done deeds to me that ought not to be done.” {10} Then Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you have in view, that you have done this thing?” {11} And Abraham said, “Because I thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will kill me on account of my wife. {12} “But indeed she is truly my sister. She is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. {13} “And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her, ‘This is your kindness that you should do for me: in every place, wherever we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’ “ {14} Then Abimelech took sheep, oxen, and male and female servants, and gave them to Abraham; and he restored Sarah his wife to him. {15} And Abimelech said, “See, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” {16} Then to Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; indeed this vindicates you before all who are with you and before everybody.” Thus she was rebuked. {17} So Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech, his wife, and his female servants. Then they bore children; {18} for the LORD had closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Amen

Second Lesson: AC 2588

How the case is with the doctrinal things of faith among men has been stated above (n. 2568), namely, that there are two principles from which they think, a negative and an affirmative and that those think from the negative principle, who believe nothing unless they are convinced by what is of reason and memory-knowledge; nay, by what is of sense; but those think from the affirmative who believe that things are true because the Lord has said so in the Word, thus who have faith in the Lord.

They who are in the negative in regard to a thing being true because it is in the Word, say at heart that they will believe when they are persuaded by things rational and memory-knowledges.

But the fact is that they never believe; and indeed they would not believe if they were to be convinced by the bodily senses of sight, hearing, and touch; for they would always form new reasonings against such things, and would thus end by completely extinguishing all faith, and at the same time turning the light of the rational into darkness, because into falsities.

But those who are in the affirmative, that is, who believe that things are true because the Lord has said so, are continually being confirmed, and their ideas enlightened and strengthened, by what is of reason and memory-knowledge, and even by what is of sense; for man has light from no other source than by means of the things of reason and memory, and such is the way with every one. 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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