Charity

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You do so much for me, thank you

People who read Swedenborg’s works will – in most translations, anyway – frequently encounter the word “charity.” In many cases, it is paired up with the word “faith.” This can cause a fair amount of confusion, because the way Swedenborg uses them is rather different from their common modern meanings.

At it’s simplest level, “faith” to most people means a belief in the existence of God. But the idea of “faith” rises from there to an intensely emotional state: a feeling of peace and euphoria arising from belief in God, trust in His salvation, and a transporting sense of personal relationship. “Charity,” meanwhile, is used to describe physical acts: contributing money or effort to service organizations or specific causes. It’s something that’s done, not a state of being.

In Swedenborg’s works, however, “charity” is usually the English rendering of the Latin word caritas, which is also the root of the verb “to care.” If we think of “charity” as “a state of caring,” we can start seeing what Swedenborg was trying to convey.

“Caring” does not necessarily have to be emotional. You can take care of someone you don’t like, you can take care of business or errands or duties that really have no emotional content at all. Swedenborg would call these “acts of charity,” things done from a desire to be a good person. But the idea of “caring” can elevate, too: When you “care about” someone it involves real affection, and to “care about” an idea or mission implies a deep commitment – it is a feeling, an emotional state. The ultimate state of “caring,” of course, would be caring about all of humanity, wanting what’s best for everyone on the planet. This is what Swedenborg would call “true charity,” and it is marked by love – the love of others.

Or as Swedenborg puts it in Arcana Coelestia number 8033: “Charity is an inward affection consisting in a desire which springs from a person’s heart to do good to the neighbour, which is the delight of his life.”

At all these levels, though, charity cannot act on its own. It needs tools.

Imagine, for instance, a young mother falling and breaking her leg. Her four-year-old might love her desperately, but cannot take care of her. A paramedic, meanwhile, might see her as just a case number, but will get her stabilized and delivered to a hospital. The difference, obviously, is knowledge. The paramedic has a bunch of tested, true ideas in her head that give her the capacity to care for the mother; the four-year-old does not.

That knowledge is actually part of what Swedenborg would call “faith,” though he’s referring to spiritual things rather than medical ones. In general, “faith” in Swedenborg’s works refers to things we accept as true because they come to us from the Lord and the Lord’s teachings. If we take them and apply them to life, we can do works of charity – we can use knowledge to take care of people and things, to actually do something good.

And just like the idea of caring, these items of faith can elevate. “Thou shalt not murder” is a good low-level matter of faith, and should certainly be applied if we want to be charitable people. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is a bit higher, a bit more internal, and will help us be charitable on a deeper level. The idea that by loving others we are loving the Lord will take us to a deeper place yet.

And perhaps most beautiful of all is what happens when we reach a state of true charity. If we work to be good because we want to serve the Lord, the Lord will eventually change our hearts, transforming us so that we delight in being good and delight in loving and helping others. At that stage the ideas of faith change from being the masters over our evil desires to being the servants of our good desires. From a loving desire to be good and serve others we will seek and use knowledge that lets us fulfill that mission.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 809, 1994, 8033, 8120; Arcana Coelestia 1798 [2-5]; Arcana Coelestia 1799 [3-4]; Arcana Coelestia 916 [2]; Charity 11, 40, 56, 90, 199; Divine Wisdom 11; The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 121; True Christian Religion 367, 377, 392, 425, 450, 453, 576)

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