How does that work? It’s bound up in two key concepts from Swedenborg’s writings: love and freedom.
Love, he tells us, is a fundamental part of who we are. This is true on a number of levels; but for the purpose of spiritual growth, Swedenborg says that the types of things we love define everything about us. When we value other people and do what we can to help them and to care for those who need it, such actions are motivated by good kinds of love—love for the divine and love for our neighbor. When we put ourselves first and focus on increasing our personal wealth, fame, and influence no matter what the cost, such actions come from bad kinds of love—love of self and love of the world. (For more on this, see True Christianity §§394–396.)
As human beings, we’re a mix of different types of love, some selfish and some selfless. But Swedenborg also says that part of spiritual growth is making a conscious choice: either embrace and justify our questionable actions or reject temptations when they arise and work to become better people. The more we make those decisions, the more we move in one direction or the other, toward heaven or toward hell. Eventually, a ruling or dominant love emerges—the core value that drives all of our actions.
That’s where freedom comes in. As human beings, we have the free will to decide our path in life, and Swedenborg would add that no one could truly become either good or evil without the ability to choose between the two. But freedom isn’t just the path to determining what kind of people we are; it’s also the result of expressing our deepest convictions. If a person loves helping others, then volunteering in community service—like a soup kitchen or a park cleanup—feels like freedom. If a person loves making money, then being forced to do volunteer work feels like a burdensome obligation. Same actions, different loves, and a different sense of what it means to be either free or constrained.
To sum up the above, what we love is the core of our identity, and being able to do what we love gives us a sense of ultimate freedom. With that in mind, here’s what Swedenborg says about the way our identity changes (and doesn’t!) as we grow spiritually:
Now since anything we do freely seems to be our own because it comes from our love (acting from our love is acting freely, as already noted), it follows that union with the Lord makes us feel that we have freedom and therefore identity; and the closer our union with the Lord, the greater our freedom and our identity. The reason our identity seems clearer is that divine love by its very nature wants to give what it has to others, which means to us on earth and to angels. All spiritual love is like this; divine love most of all. (Divine Providence §43)
When our love is directed outward, toward doing good in the world, then that’s a heavenly love—the kind of love that draws us closer to God. Swedenborg would say that spiritual progress is about working toward an increasingly heavenly state of being in which we have a greater and greater love for all living beings. But he emphasizes that even though the love feels like it’s coming from inside us, it isn’t. It’s God’s love flowing through us.
If it’s true that what we love is bound up in our identity, or our sense of self, then allowing God’s love to flow through us unites us with the divine. We become a tiny reflection of God. When we then act according to that love, we experience it as total freedom, because we now have the ability to do what brings us the greatest possible joy. And being free to act exactly as we wish—to express our inner self—also gives us a greater sense of who we are. That’s how spiritual growth makes each of us more perfectly ourselves.
Swedenborg also describes an infinite variety in the types of love that people can possess, so that each good person makes the whole of heaven (and the communities of good people on earth) more beautiful:
Not the smallest difference exists that is not fitted into its exact place in the overall plan. In this way it can unite with all the other pieces in perfect concord to form a common whole, and the common whole can contribute to unity among the individual pieces. Thus everything combines for the happiness of the whole (rising from the individuals’ happiness) and for the individuals’ happiness (rising from the happiness of the whole). (Secrets of Heaven §684)
What kind of love do you bring to the world?
Read more about God and the idea of self (or proprium in the Latin) in our blog post “Does God Have an Ego?” or get the big picture on Swedenborg’s techniques for spiritual growth in our free e-book download Regeneration: Spiritual Growth and How It Works.