HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY AND TRUST IN THE LORD
A Sermon by Rev Eric H. CarswellPreached in Glenview, IllinoisJanuary 14, 1996
“While the child was alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, Who can tell whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:22,23).
The Lord has told us that if we want to be led by Him, we need to balance a trust in His wisely loving care with the need for us to act in freedom according to our own best understanding of what is true and good. The Lord has given us great potential in our lives. We have the capability of doing a great many things. We can be incredibly useful to ourselves and others. We can be incredibly destructive to ourselves and others. Or we can muddle along, living a rather mediocre life, having little effect on anyone other than ourselves. What will determine the effect of our lives for good or for ill? It depends on how well we follow the Lord, seeking His guidance and help in our efforts.
The words sound simple enough: “follow the Lord, seeking His guidance and help in our efforts.” But we know that the meaning of these words for each decision we make is not so simple. There is a tension between trust in the Lord and reliance on our own view of what would be best. There is a tension between what our hopes and desires are and an acknowledgment of “Thy will be done.” Sometimes there seems to be a direct conflict between what we see as being important for our present and future happiness and what the Lord wills or allows to happen under the government of His Divine Providence. Sometimes it seems that our choices and actions are crucial for the resolution we hope for, and sometimes it seems that we are called to put more reliance and trust in the Lord’s role in bringing about what is really best. Take the example of prayer: prayer is very important and yet a part of our mind tell us that it is useless and that we need to get on with life. We can put too much trust in the power of prayer to solve our problems apart from any other effort on our part, and conversely we can so devalue prayer in comparison to our own efforts that we never pray or that its presence in our lives is purely mechanical and perfunctory.
Consider the example contained in our first lesson today. When David’s infant son was very sick, David prayed and fasted in hopes of being able to save him, but when the son died, David accepted that there was nothing else that he could do and that he must get on with life. While David’s actions in this situation are not a perfect model for us, they do illustrate an approach that combines human prudence and a sense of trust or faith. Literally it appears that David was trying to convince the Lord to act differently by his acts of external self-denial and continuous request. If we are facing a major crisis, the Lord is not recommending that we seclude ourselves from all our other responsibilities, fast and pray for days at a time. David, as king, can represent the part of our mind that thinks, weighs issues, makes decisions and so guides our pursuit of what we desire and love. Fasting and mourning both represent a heart-felt sadness that there is an absence of good loves and true ideas in our own life or that of someone we care about. Feeling this sadness some of the time is essential for our eternal happiness. This is spoken of in the beatitudes: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matt. 5:4,6). To the extent that a person just shrugs off problems with the reaction, “Well, that is just the way things are,” there is likely to be little sense of personal responsibility, personal capability of bringing about a change, and consequently the present state of affairs may continue unchanged indefinitely or even get worse.
What generalizations could we make about the relationship of human prudence to trust in the Lord? Consider what life would be like without a sense of trust or faith. What it would be like without a sense of the Lord’s grace? Without a sense of trust, one could hardly avoid having a fearful and lonely view of the world. The world and all of nature would appear like a huge merciless machine that crunched on without pity for human needs and wants. On the other hand, consider what life would be like without a sense that we need to use our prudence. Wouldn’t it become random living with decisions made on no more basis than the toss of a coin? Life without a balance of trust and human prudence could hardly be called life at all.
The challenge of balancing human prudence and trust is knowing when each of the two needs to play its part. When should we trust and when should we be prudent? The answer is that we are to use our best judgment in situations where we can have an effect. And in situations where we can have no effect, our lives will be aided by a sense of acceptance. While David’s son was alive, he did what he could; after his death, David did not keep dwelling on his loss.
The difference between these two responses is clearly evi- dent in the difference that we can have in our thoughts before some event has occurred and after it has already taken place. Before a woman accepts the proposal of marriage from a suitor, she is wise to carefully consult her heart and even talk with others who might know her and the prospective husband. But after she has become a wife, the question of whether this was indeed the right person to marry should not continue to be an active issue. A similar statement could be made for a man who is think- ing of proposing to woman. The distinct places of trust and prudence also show themselves in our behavior before a possible accident has taken place and after it has occurred. What have we done to prevent the accident and how much does guilt or remorse ruin our lives after it has taken place?
Almost anyone’s faith is shaken when a great tragedy occurs. The early death of a spouse may be among the most devastating tragedies. A dream has been shattered and blown away. Often there is a cluster of many thoughts and feelings that arise in the living spouse: a sense of grief, a sense of deep sadness; and within the grief and sadness often there is something of anger and denial anger that the event has occurred, and difficulty acknowledging the implications that the passing of the spouse has brought about. The grief and sadness, the anger and denial are a normal part of coming to an understanding of a great change in one’s life. We are told in the Arcana Caelestia that “All anxiety of grief arises from being deprived of the things with which we are affected or which we love” (AC 2689:2).
In time of tragedy it is rather meaningless and even callous to suggest that anger and grief need not exist. The event was not chosen. It may highly offend our prudence. “How could the Lord take my husband when there are so many children to be raised and so many bills to pay?” These thoughts are almost universal. The question is, what is the individual going to do about them? Will the person recognize that this is the way she feels at present? Will she reflect on the source of her sadness and grief? Will she in time consider the implications that the tragedy has for her life? Yes, will the individual see how she, or if it is the husband that is left behind, how he must live his life? Will a bereaved husband recognize that he should not give in to the desire to withdraw? Or will the new widow see that she should not hold onto angry thoughts, which like a festering wound would gradually infect her whole life? This is not easy to do. The evil spirits who inspire these thoughts are a determined group. They will grab what opportunities they can to prevent a person from living a useful life. After a tragedy has occurred, human prudence needs to look toward a continuance of life, and faith can gradually help quiet the angry thoughts and thoughts of self-pity.
Where is the dividing line between trust in the Lord and trust in our own prudence? What sort of statement would you make about how much life insurance a person should own? How much should you provide for the possibility of an early death, and how much should you trust that the Lord will help? There are probably as many answers to this question as there are people in this congregation. What about other questions that involve our judg- ment, such as, how does a person know if he or she has found the right person to marry? How can this question be answered? For those who are married and experiencing great trouble in their marriage, how can one decide if sticking it out would be best or whether the time has come for a separation? Parents face the regular task of trying to determine whether their child’s present behavior is a part of his inborn nature and therefore changed with great difficulty or whether the present behavior is rather external and could be improved on by some simple intervention and bending of the child’s state.
One of the challenges we face in balancing our prudent judgment of what needs to happen and trust in the Lord arises from the difference between prudence from the Lord and prudence that comes from our own limited and imperfect perspective. It is important, though, that as we use prudence, we try to hold onto the thought that all true wisdom and all good affections come from the Lord. Prudence from our own view of things apart from the Lord is not really prudent. Our own perspective considered entirely apart from the Lord’s is caught up in short-term thinking, considering the needs and wants of hours, days and sometimes years, but neglecting the perspective of eternity. Prudence from our own perspective apart from the Lord is caught up in the way things seem to appear in this world. It is caught up in what is apparently good, what is apparently fair, and what is apparently just. Remember, the serpent in the garden of Eden said that the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was desirable. It would make one truly wise. The serpent in this story presents an image of a part of the mind of each of us. It is a part of the mind that misperceives the danger in trusting in our own intelligence. It has misperceived in the past, it does misperceive today, and will misperceive in the future.
All true wisdom comes from an understanding of the Lord’s words. The Lord insures that everyone has what he needs in order to understand what is necessary for a good life (see DP 326).
The primary danger in our own prudence is that we do not trust that the Lord knows what is best. We doubt that the Ten Commandments are spiritual laws. We doubt that the spiritual murder of gossip is really all that bad. We doubt that petty thievery, so-called borrowing from one’s place of work or delib- erate misrepresentation on one’s tax return, is against Divine law. We at times have doubts about the need to foster a sense of charity. We have doubts about the dangers of nurtured anger or about our subtle or direct attempts to make others seem inferior to ourselves. We come up with excuses that allow ourselves unreasonable impatience. We could hear a lifetime of sermons and never accept that we need to change our lives in some substantial ways.
The Lord has told us that if we want to be led by Him, we should use our prudence as a servant who faithfully dispenses the goods of his lord (see DP 210:2). The riches that the Lord has given us are the ability to do good things, the ability to re- ceive true wisdom, and the ability to care about what is truly good. We have this ability. Each of us today, this week, can help many people. If we listen to the Lord’s words, if we pay attention to what we can do, then we can be truly helpful; we can truly meet the needs of those around us now and in the future. We will gradually come to an ever wiser balance between our trust in the Lord’s wisely loving care and the need for us to act in freedom according to our own best understanding of what is true and good. Amen.
Lessons: 2 Samuel 12:15-23; Divine Providence: Chapter headings 1-3, Five Laws of Providence
The Divine Providence
The Divine Providence is the Government of the Lord’s Divine Love and Divine Wisdom.
The Lord’s Divine Providence Has As Its End a Heaven from the Human Race.
The Lord’s Divine Providence Looks in Every Thing That It Does to What Is Infinite and Eternal.
The Five Laws of the Divine Providence:
It is a law of the Divine Providence that man should act from freedom in accordance with reason.
It is a law of the Divine Providence that man should as if from himself put away evils as sins in the external man; and the Lord is able in this way and in no other to put away evils in the internal man, and simultaneously in the external.
It is a law of the Divine Providence that man should not be compelled by external means to think and will, and thus to believe and love, the things of religion, but should guide himself, and sometimes compel himself.
It is a law of the Divine Providence that man should be led and taught by the Lord from heaven by means of the Word and by means of doctrine and preachings from the Word, and this to all appearance as if by himself.
It is a law of the Divine Providence that nothing of the operation of the Divine Providence should be evident to man’s perceptions or senses, but that he should, nevertheless, know about it and acknowledge it.