We all know that we live in a society of victims.
Everyone understands that rights go hand in hand with responsibilities. But as individuals, we are far more interested in our rights than we are in our responsibilities. We are happy to decry those who apparently impinge upon our rights, whilst ignoring our responsibilities. Litigation is a very real shadow over every form of useful endeavour in our world. The costs of insurance against such an event continues to become an ever-greater burden upon schools, churches, community groups, health providers, and businesses. And these are organisations who exist for our benefit.
If we are in circumstances that we can’t change and which we’ve had no influence over, then we really are victims. A few weeks ago I walked in on my daughter Ebony watching a real-life crime documentary about a double murder – husband and wife attacked and killed in their motel room, by another couple whom they did not know and had never met, who selected them at random for the pure pleasure of killing. They were victims in the truest sense.
But I’m not talking about them today. Neither am I talking about other people who play the blame game. I’m talking about me and you. I’m going to show that there are very few real victims among us. You may feel that you are, or have been, a victim at one time or another. You may feel challenged by some of this, and that is my intention. While I am not interested in what we can’t change, we often accept a great deal that we could influence and change, simply by believing ourselves victims. Let’s begin with …
Our Eternal Welfare.
In some Christian churches, there’s some cause for equivocation about our responsibility for our own salvation. After all, if one must verbally acknowledge the person of Jesus as Saviour in order to be saved, what happens with the countless number who never heard of Jesus, through being born on the wrong place at the wrong time?
But for the New Church, there is no such uncertainty. If we accept heaven and hell as the realities Swedenborg insists they are, no one can blame anyone else for their predicament. God does not condemn people to hell, people do that for themselves:
“Anyone who thinks rationally can realise that no one is born for hell – everyone is born for heaven. We ourselves are to blame if we arrive in hell …” (Heaven and Hell, paragraph 329)
In a very real way, I am master of my own destiny. Now, some might say that this is a denial of the power of God in an individual’s life, and a denial of our need of Him. But this is not the case. I am master of my own destiny only because He makes me so, as we read in Revelation:
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” (Revelation 3:20)
The possibility of heaven is a free gift from God, without whom I would have no hope of salvation. But in Swedenborg’s work, I learn that I am not specially chosen or privileged by this hope, it is a hope that is on offer to every person on this planet. Thereby, I can only hold myself responsible if I do not take it.
“The Lord never sends anyone to hell, but wishes to lead all away from hell; less still does He bring anyone into torment. But since an evil spirit rushes into it himself the Lord turns all the punishment and torment to good and to some use.” (Heavenly Secrets, paragraph 696)
What about our thoughts?
In recent years, many people – of all faiths and none – have come to recognise that thoughts flow into us from a source outside of ourselves. The modern fascination with meditation, ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), and other psychologies have brought this idea firmly into the mainstream of contemporary thought. But it’s not new to readers of Swedenborg. Of course, then, the question is whether I might be regarded a victim of my thoughts:
“… when some people were shown convincingly that we do not think on our own but receive thoughts from others, …, in their wonderment they claimed that it meant that they were not to blame for doing evil …” (Divine Providence, paragraph 294)
It’s a fairly straightforward conclusion to come to, isn’t it? But Swedenborg continues:
“… If indeed everything a person thinks flows in from others, the fault does seem to lie with those from whom the thought originates. But still the fault itself lies with him who receives, for he accepts the thought as his own, nor does he know anything to the contrary, or want to know anything to the contrary. …” (Divine Providence, paragraph 294)
No, we are neither helpless nor blameless in the face of our mental life. Whilst we certainly may experience unwelcome and disturbing thoughts, we are not compelled to carry them out in any way. We have a choice.
Are we responsible for our actions?
Well, we generally understand that we are responsible for our actions. But we’re not good at applying it to ourselves! Under the law, we are held accountable for our actions irrespective of the circumstances which we might claim either caused or justified them.
Pam and I have recently completed a marriage course, using material from Alpha Course. Session 4 (entitled, The Power of Forgiveness), asks: “At times of disagreement, what words and phrases are you aware that you use, if any, that hurt your partner?” Yes, it does give space to identify what your partner does and says to hurt you, but the primary focus is upon one’s own behaviours. The focus is on my responsibilities not my rights! You see, if my actions are merely the result of my circumstances, then the same must also be true of my marriage partner. But as my actions then become my partner’s circumstances, thus prompting their actions, we would quickly find ourselves in a disintegrating cycle of chaos! The only way to prevent such a trend lies in taking responsibility for one’s own actions.
It is sobering to realise the many well documented cases of physical and sexual abuse in which abusers routinely blame their victims for their crime. The guilty focus their attention not upon their own culpability, but upon the perceived provocation of this they harmed. Intellectually, they make themselves the victim, mentally reversing reality. But they don’t do this because they’re peculiarly evil, they do it because they’re human! It is a tendency we must all guard against.
Surely, we are not to blame for our external circumstances?
Well, … maybe. It’s not as cut and dried as we like to think.
When Pam and I lived in Sydney, during the early years of our marriage, Pam spent time regularly on the road, frequently driving long distances to coastal and country New South Wales. On one occasion, as Pam was travelling down a fast country road, an elderly woman turned left in front of her, leaving no time for Pam to brake, and the two cars collided. Thankfully no-one was injured. In the aftermath, I remember talking to a friend of ours, a lawyer, who was assisting us with the insurance claim. I remember his comment: that every driver is regarded as sharing some responsibility, just for being on the road!
While on holiday earlier this year, Pam indulged her penchant for opportunity shops, and I accompanied her on one of these trips. As I needed something to read, I went and happily browsed the shelves of the secondhand books. One of the books I found was entitled, What If? Military historians imagine what might have been. Although I’m not really much into history, and especially not the history of war, the premise is an interesting one: how would the world be different if Hitler had won the Second World War, for example. The first chapter is on the defeat of the Assyrian army recorded in the Second book of Kings, chapter 17 to 19.
But I want to talk about Napoleon: what if he had won the battle of Waterloo? After all, the Duke of Wellington described it as, “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.”
“Napoleon dominated European and global affairs for more than a decade while leading France against a series of coalitions in the Napoleonic Wars. He won most of these wars and the vast majority of his battles, building a large empire that ruled over continental Europe before its final collapse in 1815. One of the greatest commanders in history, his wars and campaigns are studied at military schools worldwide.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napoleon)
So, why did Napoleon fail? Was it pure chance? No. Granted, Napoleon may well have won at Waterloo, but it was only a matter of time before he had stretched his armies just that bit too thinly. Ambitious, and greedy for further conquests, the greatest obstacle to Napoleon’s success was his own character. Evil carries the seeds of its own destruction, and its own punishment.
“Every single thing in the next life is balanced in such a way that evil punishes itself. So evil carries its own punishment with it, as likewise does falsity which comes back on him in whom falsity dwells.” (Heavenly Secrets, paragraph 696)
We have far more influence upon our circumstances than most of us realise. A change in our circumstances may be as simple as a fresh outlook and attitude. I was reading over Pam’s shoulder the other day, as she read a book on finances. Redundancy is never a pleasant experience, but the author suggested a new view of the situation, perhaps as an opportunity to kick-start a new business venture, and becoming your own boss.
There might be other, unexpected ways to influence our circumstances. I find that my immune system is boosted by regular exercise, a consequence I would never have foreseen a few years ago.
“For every smallest fraction of a moment of a person’s life entails a chain of consequences extending into eternity. Indeed every one is like a new beginning to those that follow, and so every single moment of the life both of his understanding and of his will is a new beginning.” (Heavenly Secrets, paragraph 3854)
This teaching is both hopeful and convicting. It is hopeful because at any moment I can make a change for the better. It is convicting because I realise that I am living now with the consequences of my past.
At last, let me turn to our readings for today. They concern two kings of Israel, Saul and David. Both sin, and both are confronted by a prophet with the reality of their actions. But the contrast between their responses could’t be more different.
Saul (1 Samuel 13) is confronted by a vast Philistine army. He has waited seven days for Samuel to come and offer sacrifice before engaging in battle. But Samuel has not arrived, and the people are fearful and deserting. So, Saul panics, and performs the sacrifice himself, thus usurping the old priest’s place. No sooner is the deed done, than Samuel appears and almost without stopping for breathe, Saul is explaining himself: “… I felt compelled” (verses 11-12).
From his rooftop, David sees a woman bathing and initiates a long and tangled chain of events: an adulterous affair, a failed coverup, arranging the death of a man to take his wife. The prophet Nathan arrives and confronts the king, and his response is short and simple: “I have sinned”, and then he stands and faces the consequences (see 2 Samuel 11 & 12 [esp. 12:13]; Psalm 51). To our modern mind, Saul’s mistake was so much less serious than David’s. Saul has merely offered a sacrifice, whereas David has had a man killed. Yet the consequences are so much more serious for Saul – the loss of the kingdom! You see, the difference between a bad man and a good one is not that one sins and the other doesn’t. No, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The difference is whether we acknowledge that sin for what it is, and take responsibility for it, or whether we pretend to be victim of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and seek to excuse our actions.
“Those who lead the life of faith repent daily. They pay attention to the evils present with them, acknowledge them, are on their guard against them, and implore the Lord for help. For by himself a person is constantly falling, but the Lord is constantly putting him on his feet again. By himself he falls whenever his mind desires something evil, but the Lord puts him on his feet again whenever he resists evil and therefore does not carry it out. This is the condition of all who are governed by good.” (Heavenly Secrets, paragraph 8391)