Are we a victim of circumstance?

Do you believe you are a victim of circumstance? This attitude can develop when you feel out of control of your life? That events and the situations around you  dictate how you feel. That your appetites or fears are in charge of you rather than you being in charge of them. That you are not free to break away from their hold and that life is a powerful current that you are helpless to swim against. victim of circumstanceMany have wondered about just how free anyone is to determine one’s personal destiny. Are you a victim of circumstance or have you the freedom to transcend it?

Limiting factors

We are all only too aware of the way personal freedom is restricted by lack of money, demands of parenting, or the economic recession, to mention just a few limitations commonly encountered in everyday life. From an academic viewpoint, scientists point out the myriad of factors which influence our behaviour and thus curb our liberty to do and be what we want. These factors include — to name just a few — your bodily constitution and family upbringing, any physical impairment, the chemical effects of medication and the social values of our culture. According to some scientists we are all each to some extent a victim of circumstance.

Reciprocal determinism

Yet, although the environment can be seen to determine behaviour, psychologists also talk about how we shape our own individual environment. This they call ‘reciprocal determinism’. One example is the experience of mass media. People can affect this by what video and television they individually choose to watch and what magazines they  choose to read. Another example is to do with personal interactions. We have all come across those people who seem to cope well with problems. They can be easy individuals to be with because of their rewarding conduct and charming and sincere way of dealing with others. They predictably bring about a positive social atmosphere wherever they go.

In other words although the environment around them may play an important role in determining what they do, nevertheless to some extent they make this environment themselves in how they interact with it. Perhaps we have some say in controlling our lives after all.

Inner versus outer freedom

Another reason for supposing we have more chance to take control over life is the sense of inner freedom we can experience. For example how you choose to think is something you are free to inwardly do regardless of your outward activity. You can  manufacture a self-fulfilling prophecy by the way you look for the worst or the best in others, or in the way you focus on the threats or the opportunities in any new challenge.

My favourite Greek once said:

I must die. I must be imprisoned. I must suffer exile. But must I die groaning? Must I whine as well? Can anyone hinder me from going into exile with a smile?” (Epictetus)

Not even the god Zeus could conquer his inner freedom of will.

A patient of the psychotherapist Irvin Yalom had a serious physical deformity. She believed that life without a love-sexual relationship with a man was without value — that one is either coupled or one is nothing. So she shut down many options for herself including a close non-sexual friendship. Through therapy she eventually realised that although she was not free to escape her deformity, nevertheless she was inwardly free to adopt a different attitude towards it.

Illusions of freedom

We can get ourselves caught up by negative attitudes and corrupting habits. Fears and obsessive cravings can become reinforced if repeatedly adopted. The sufferer does not realise how much of life is dictated by these feelings.

Some people drift into self-centredness. They can be caught up in the desire to exercise manipulate and control, to get even with anyone who does not please them, and get hold of anything that they fancy having by foul or fair means.

When one wants to carry on in this way it seems like one is acting freely. But I would suggest that anyone who has allowed bad desires and self-delusional thinking to predominate is actually in a state of spiritual slavery. When you are carried away with delight in something it seems like you are a free person to have chosen it. But this is self-deception.

None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Real freedom

According to philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, real freedom is something very different. It is having the heavenly state of mind and character to be able to receive the spiritual life unspoilt by all the negative stuff that blocks out the heat of love and light of wisdom.

Those who are free of resentful thoughts surely find peace.

As long as we remain attached to envy, greed, resentment and other selfish attitudes we are not free to experience deep happiness. The negative stuff first needs to be set aside if we are to gain unfettered access to the divine source of all that is good.

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems


A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper
Preached in Mitchellville, Maryland – Cataloged May 4, 1997

“Then He said to them all, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it”‘ (Luke 9:23,24).

As civilization has advanced, as our knowledge of the world and how it works has been increased, the dangers of day-to- day life have decreased. In fact, the momentum toward reducing the dangers of daily life has pushed us so far that we are beginning to work toward a “risk-free” society. We insure our personal property so that if something is ruined or lost it can be replaced. We insure our lives so that even after a person dies he can continue to support his family. In recent years people have been able to insure such unusual things as a pianist’s fingers or a dancer’s legs. If we are careful to choose the right company and pay our premiums on time, we can insulate ourselves from almost any kind of natural disaster or loss.

Governments now concern themselves with such things as the content of food products, the use of cosmetics, and the conditions of the work place. They tightly regulate every aspect of daily life for the sake of protecting us from hidden dangers. On the one hand, so many substances have been named as carcinogens that such announcements are difficult to take seriously any more. On the other hand, some truly dangerous substances like asbestos have been identified and steps taken to remove them from our environment, and diseases such as smallpox have been entirely destroyed. Government programs have been developed to help farmers by developing and distributing pesticides and fertilizers, and by building great systems of dams and waterways in an attempt to control floods and irrigate deserts. In every case, whether successful or not, whether the side effects were worth the cost, the apparent intent has been to reduce risk to the general populace, to insulate us from the effects of things and ideas that are in the natural world, be they insects, drought, flood, storm, or our choice of food or even our selection of reading material.

It is clear that the people of our day are trying very hard to eliminate risks and dangers from modern life. This is well and good. We are trying to make life less dangerous, more pleasant. We are living longer and better than any people before in the history of mankind. What, if anything, is wrong with that? Only that this kind of attitude toward life puts our eternal soul at risk.

It is only natural for such a trend to continue into more and more diverse areas of life until we find ourselves exchanging a reduced risk of injury for reduced personal freedoms. We need to remember that it is a spiritual principle that the freedom to make only the “approved” choice is not freedom at all. We must be free to take risks and make terrible mistakes in order to be truly free.

The problem is that as natural risks are removed, as we are able to live relatively without care, our spiritual attitudes tend to follow our natural attitudes. When we can take a wonder drug to cure our pneumonia, we expect to find equally fast and powerful tools with which to fight our evils, and if our efforts do not meet with immediate results, we give up using that tool and look for a new product, a new spiritual tool that will give the quick results that we desire.

The root cause of this attitude is the doctrine of faith alone and its related doctrine of works alone. Both the doctrine of faith alone and the doctrine of works alone have within them similar assumptions: that admission to paradise (or heaven) is a matter of grace because no human could possibly deserve it, having been born in sin; and that grace is obtained from God through a single, specific act, either faith that Jesus Christ died for the remission of sins, or receiving forgiveness for sins from the church and taking part in the communion. Neither the faith-alone nor the works-alone position requires any amendment of life! However, as we all know, reasonable members of all churches believe that it is not enough only to have faith, and that they must show the signs of their faith by living a good life, or that they must be true to their confession and actually go and commit that sin no more.

Even though it is not necessarily the doctrinal teaching of their own church, the Lord has provided that every person who seeks to follow Him will, from conscience, seek to live in obedience to His laws, and interpret the doctrines of his own church in such a way as to permit this. And yet we must be aware that the doctrine of faith alone is extremely appealing when we consider the choices. According to the doctrine of faith alone, if we seek to live in paradise with God we can achieve it through no more than a simple statement of faith. According to the doctrine of works alone we can earn paradise simply by being forgiven of sins by a priest and taking communion. Our third choice is to read the Word, examine our lives in comparison to what the Lord there teaches, repent of our sins, fight the combats of temptation as if from ourselves, and begin a new life – and this over and over again throughout life in the world. When you are surrounded by a culture where everything is done quickly, where waiting itself is a sin, where credit is available so you need never save for something you want, where everything is focused on instant gratification, which choice are you going to make?

By analogy it seems that many people are looking for a kind of spiritual “magic armor, and by this I mean some kind of formula or church doctrine that will allow them to continue to live their lives pretty much as they want, and still allow them to commit some sins, to be able to have a “spiritual accident” without getting hurt. A recent study showed that as cars are made safer and safer through ABS brakes and air bags, people are driving faster and less carefully, so the accident and injury rates remain the same.

Does the doctrine of salvation by faith alone actually encourage people to sin by removing the consequences of their sin? The Arcana puts it this way: “They who are not being regenerated say absolutely that faith is in the first place, because in this way they can live as they desire and still say that they have hope of salvation” (AC 6269:2).

What does the Word teach about the risk, the cost of the life, that leads to spiritual happiness? The Word treats of this in several different ways: for example, through the Lord’s own example by His life in the world. He challenged the scribes and Pharisees in the synagogues and temples, the basis of their strength. He traveled with and stayed with publicans and sinners because those were the people who needed Him the most. He took on a human body in order to fight the hells on their own terms by allowing them to attack Him. He suffered grievous temptations at the hands of the hells, all for the sake of our eternal welfare.

The Lord taught us concerning the cost of following Him in Luke: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Luke 9:23,24).

The life that we must lose is our selfish life, the life of the old will, the life that lives in the delights of hereditary evils, selfishness, and falsity. This is what must die so that the life of the new will given by the Lord can take its place and live – the new will which is the foundation of angelic life.

If we seek our own ends, we will lose spiritual life in heaven. If instead we look outward toward the Lord and the neighbor, we are giving up our selfish life for the sake of the Lord, and so we will be saved. This is difficult, for we love all the things that are ours, and do not wish to give any of them up. This is our burden; this is the cross which He asks us to bear daily.

Temptations are the most common form of risk for us, while at the same time they are the best way for us to express our spiritual freedom. A temptation is not actually a temptation unless there is doubt concerning the end – unless your spiritual life is at risk. In order for you to really fight as from yourself it is absolutely necessary that you genuinely believe and feel that you can fail unless you fight with all your strength and ask the Lord for help. This is the ultimate expression of free will in spiritual things, where you decide for yourself what you are going to be, how you are going to live, what you are going to believe. You risk being wrong in your beliefs, failing in your temptation. But unless there was that risk of failure, the temptation would not be real; it would be nothing but a meaningless act required by a capricious God.

We cannot be free to choose to do good and go to heaven without also being free to choose evil and hell, to be free to fail. A risk-free life is insipid and dead, a refusal to live as God intended, as a spiritually free individual experiencing repeated victories, choosing his own spiritual character.

The New Church has a lot going for it. Our doctrinal position is rational and consistent with Scripture and the Ten Commandments. We have knowledges about the spiritual world that make it a real and desirable place. Our teachings about marriage are beautiful and uplifting. On the other hand, it is a hard church to belong to because it requires a lot of reading of what can be difficult material. It does not tell anyone how to live his life but requires that everyone apply the doctrines from the Word for himself according to his own understanding and conscience. The New Church requires that each one go through the steps of self-examination, repentance, and reformation in order to be regenerated by the Lord. The New Church requires that we work for our place in heaven, and offers no guarantees.

The subtle danger of the doctrine of faith alone is that it encourages us to continue in our old, evil ways even while we are convinced that we have been made new by grace. The irony is that the idea of the “risk-free” society is in fact the greatest risk that we face to our spiritual life, for it makes us think that we do not need the Lord’s help. Why should we seek repentance when we don’t need it? How can we be helped by the Lord if we don’t think we need it and won’t ask for it? If there were no possibility of failure, no risk, there could be no freedom to choose heaven, for whenever there is true freedom of choice, there must also be the freedom to make the wrong choice.

Think of David, a young man, facing Goliath, the Philistine giant, armed with nothing other than a shepherd’s sling and five smooth stones. Think of the risk he took. And yet we know that it was no risk at all, because the Lord was fighting for (and with) him. Nothing of value is gained without risk, without some cost, especially things that are really valuable, spiritual life itself. “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). Amen.

Lessons: I Samuel 17 (portions), Luke 14:25-33, AC 8164-8165

Arcana Caelestia 8164, 8165

There are spiritual temptations and there are natural temptations. Spiritual temptations belong to the internal man, but natural ones to the external man. Spiritual temptations sometimes arise without natural temptations, sometimes with them. Natural temptations exist when a man suffers as to the body, as to honors, as to wealth, in a word, as to the natural life, as is the case in diseases, misfortunes, persecutions, punishments, and the like. The anxieties which then arise are what are meant by “natural temptations.” But these temptations effect nothing whatever toward man’s spiritual life; neither can they be called temptations, but griefs, for they arise from the wounding of the natural life, which is that of the love of self and of the world.

But spiritual temptations belong to the internal man, and assault his spiritual life. In this case the anxieties are not on account of any loss of natural life, but on account of the loss of faith and charity, and consequently of salvation. These temptations are frequently induced by means of natural temptations, for if when a man is in these – that is, in disease, grief, the loss of wealth or honor, and the like – he begins to think about the Lord’s aid, His providence, the state of the evil in that they glory and exult when the good suffer and undergo various griefs and various losses, then spiritual temptation is conjoined with natural temptation.

Moreover those who are in despair, which is the last of temptation, think such things, and then they are as it were on the slope, or are as it were sinking down toward hell. But at this time such thought does no harm whatever, nor do the angels pay any attention to it, for every person’s power is limited, and when the temptation arrives at the furthest limit of his power, the person cannot sustain anything more but sinks down. But then, when he is on the downhill course, he is raised by the Lord and thus liberated from despair, and is then for the most part brought into a clear state of hope and of the consequent consolation, and also into good fortune.



A Sermon by Rev Frederick M ChapinJuly 3, 1994


You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (JN 8:36)

This weekend, we are celebrating our nation’s independence. This is a time that we can remember and be grateful for our liberties of being a citizen of this country. We can decide for ourselves what occupation we will pursue. We as a society can choose our governmental leaders. We can also practice the religion of our choice. And we are guaranteed the right to freely express ourselves, and not fear imprisonment if we speak in opposition to our government leaders. When we compare our rights to the tyranny in many other countries, we should celebrate and treat these constitutional liberties with the utmost devotion.

However, our privileges do not allow us to do anything that we may desire. Our expressions can not go to the extent where others are harmed or put into jeopardy. Our liberties do not give us a license to kill, rob, or pillage when we may have the urge to do so. Anyone can see that without laws and restraints, the result would be anarchy and eventual self- destruction.

Just as we can enjoy freedom in our civil lives, we are promised freedom in our spiritual lives. We can be in a state of life where we can freely express our inner most loves without concern about the consequences. We can have a perception of not being under the control of someone else. We are all given the opportunity to have an awareness of being spiritually independent.

However, spiritual freedom does not mean that we will not be governed. There will be some spirit that will inspire us to do certain things. Still, we have the option to choose the type of spirits who guide our way of life.

When we examine spiritual freedom closely, we can see a great deal of discrepancy between what may appear to us and what the reality is. The appearance is that we are choosing good and figuring out how good affections can be applied to life. The reality is that the Lord alone leads us into a spiritual or heavenly freedom. If the Lord was not active, we would have no chance of living exclusively from our natural tendencies.

The wicked look upon a spiritual or Christian life as restrictive and stale. They can not conceive that there can be a more enjoyable happiness in being of service towards others than just living for pleasure and having others serve one’s self. They conceive of being free as doing whatever one pleases. All they see from a life of use is a great number of things that can not be done. A liar can not believe there can be a joy in being honest. A thief can not understand how it is better not to take possessions from others. An adulterer cannot conceive a delight in just one partner rather than a pernicious life. All they see are regulations that appear to restrict their ability to enjoy life.

However, the good and the angels in heaven do view things quite differently. They do not view the commandments as restrictions but as guidelines that enable us to receive internal joys from the Lord. An angel is not allowed to lie, cheat, steal, commit adultery, etc. But they do not desire to do these things anyway. The Writings explain that their will is in agreement with genuine good. This produces a heavenly attitude towards living that is united with the Lord’s will. This is the core of the freedom that the angels enjoy. The restrictions are ones they not only accept, but gladly abide by. When we no longer desire to experience merely sensual delights, we then experience true or heavenly delights. This is a delight that focuses on good things. One of the qualities of a person who enjoys heavenly delights is that nothing pleases them more than communicating happiness and blessedness to another from an inmost affection. It can easily be seen how much anxiety is reduced when there is an emphasis on sharing what one has with others. We are not concerned that someone will take away our possessions or that we can not get the maximum enjoyment from them. Instead, when there is the simple desire that whatever makes us happy, others are invited to share that happiness, life becomes more serene. And this serenity will be a major component in being in a state of heavenly freedom.

How can we obtain heavenly freedom in our personal lives. The Writings give two keys that enables us to enjoy the true freedom that comes from the Lord. First is to know the truth and secondly, we are to exercise self-compulsion.

Obviously, to know of the Lord’s freedom, we need to have a knowledge of what the Word teaches. The Word reveals to us what we are to believe in and what we are to accept in life. Without the Word, we would have absolutely no means of knowing about the Lord’s freedom. We would be hopelessly lost in our natural inclinations. But when we know the truth that is from the Lord, we are then aware of the process in which we can be led to a freedom of full expression without fear of embarrassment or humiliation. Heavenly freedom is impossible without some knowledge of what the Word teaches.

When we think about it, the wicked are constantly concerned that their interior motives will be exposed. They take great care to insure that their inner loves are concealed. They are constantly afraid that their true loves will be discovered.

The case is completely opposite with the good. Since they desire to share and make others happy, exposing their inner loves is not a threat to them. In fact, they want their intentions to be made known, so they can have a stronger and more uniting relationship with their neighbor. It is clearly seen that when there is no longer the fear of being exposed, life becomes more pleasant. This is the freedom that comes from the Lord and is taught only in the Word.

However, we must do more than just know what the Word teaches before we are actually in heavenly freedom. We must compel ourselves to comply with the truths that are in the Word. The irony is that while we are in the process of self-compulsion, we do not feel free. Instead, we feel restricted and in bonds. This is caused by temptations. While we are in the depths of temptations, we feel as if we are slaves, prevented to do what we really want to do. For example, a drug addict who is trying to break the habit of taking drugs does not enjoy the process of the withdrawal. It is more torture than any low that the person while on drugs encounters. But when the addiction is broken, and the person starts enjoying a more orderly way of life, it is then that the person recognizes that the former way of life was bondage and that now he or she enjoys a greater sense of freedom.

We all have had the experience of trying to break some habit and know the difficulty that is involved in it. However, if we are successful in removing some practice that is harmful to the quality of our lives, a new dimension of living is discovered and enjoyed. It is exactly the same on a spiritual level. When we are taught from the Word that we have a certain delight that we know is not according to Divine order, it is difficult not to indulge in that pleasure. While we are in the process of refusing to indulge in the delight, we are in the process of self-compulsion or temptation. While we are in this period, we will not feel free but in bondage. We are restrained to do what we want to do. Only when our former delights are regarded as abhorring, will we come to realize the enjoyments in the more orderly way of life. Before we can sense the Lord’s freedom, we must go through temptations that will appear like bondage. However, when we do emerge victorious, we will look at our former delights and recognize the confinement we were under while we were under their control.

There are three things that we can enjoy when we are in freedom that comes directly from the Lord. First, we will recognize a true sense of being independent. Secondly, we are free from the allurements and deceitful devices of the evil spirits. And thirdly, we are able to find delight in a state of contentment. These are the basics of the enjoyment that makes heaven to be heaven to the angels.

First, recognizing our independence. The Writings state that when we are in heavenly freedom, we will be able to think for ourselves what is true and what is good. We will have a strong dictate as to what is proper and what is improper. We are not dependent upon others to tell us what to do and not to do. The more we have an understanding of what the Word teaches about how we are to live, the more we will be able to judge for ourselves what is good and what is evil. The stronger our ability is to distinguish what is good from what is evil, the stronger we will have a sense of internal freedom.

Second, we are told that when we are guided by the Lord, we are free from evil spirits. As was mentioned before, we will be directed by some spirit. Creation was established in a way that we are directed by spirits in the spiritual world. Every affection and thought originates from the spiritual world. However, we can choose what affections and thoughts will control our lives. Therefore, we are responsible for what we choose to apply to life. If we choose a wicked way of life, we are under the control of evil spirits who actually burn with a hatred towards us. Much different is the case with the good. When we choose good, we are under the guidance of the angels in heaven. These do not look upon us as their subjects but they look upon us as their friends and companions. It is easily seen that the nature of the attitude of those directing us greatly determines the quality of freedom that we will experience.

And third, our delights will be one of a state of contentment. Freedom and contentment are closely related with other. In fact, we can not enjoy freedom unless we are content. When we are directed by the Lord, we will discover a satisfaction and happiness in what we are called upon to do. Contentment allows us to delight in what the Lord has given to us. An evil way of life forces us to always want more. We are never satisfied with what we have. This is why to be free, we must find contentment.

We can take action to develop a true and heavenly freedom within us. All that is required is a steady increase in understanding from the Word. This will bring us into greater light as to the life we are to lead that is more receptive of the Lord’s guidance. Also, there must be a commitment to have the required discipline to actually implement the Lord’s teachings in one’s life. If this is the case in our lives, we will enjoy a greater sense of freedom because we are able to stand on our own feet when it comes to recognizing what is proper and improper in life. Also, we will sense being lead and directed from those who desire our best welfare and happiness, not our destruction. And we will find contentment in life that will make life satisfying. When there is satisfaction, we feel more at ease and free. Only when we have a personal relationship with the Lord, can we understand His words, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”