JUST CARING ISN’T ENOUGH
A Sermon by Rev. Eric H. CarswellPreached in Glenview, Illinois on February 25, 1996
“Then the king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept. And as he went, he said thus: ‘O my son Absalom; my son, my son Absalom,- if only I had died in your place! 0 Absalom my son, my son!”‘ (2 Samuel 18:33)
Consider the words of David’s lament. What is his perspective? What does he care about? All that was in his thoughts was the death of his son Absalom. David felt deep sadness at his death. Perhaps he felt this sadness in part because he realized that he was somewhat responsible for the course of events that had happened. Firstly, the events that had unfolded were the fulfillment of prophesied consequences for David’s adultery with Bathsheba and the subsequent murder of her husband Uriah. The prophet Nathan had spoken for the Lord with these words:
Why have you despised the commandment of the Lord to do evil in His sight? You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the people of Ammon. Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the Lord: “Behold, I will raise up adversity against you from your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, before the sun” (2 Samuel 12:9-12).
Secondly, David could also have felt responsible for Absalom’s rebellion against him because David had apparently not done anything when another of his sons, Amnon, raped his stepsister Tamar, who happened to be Absalom’s full sister. Two years after this event, Absalom had treacherously killed Amnon and then fled to a neighboring country where he remained in semi-exile for three years. Even when he was first allowed to return to Israel, he was not permitted to appear before David’s face.
But probably the most important cause of David’s sadness was that he had a strong tendency to blindly love his own children. The King David of this story is not the wonderful and trusting youth who faced Goliath with a sling and few stones. He isn’t the heroic soldier or the man who could express a strong allegiance to following the Lord’s commandments. He is a very flawed figure.
His heart was tied to a dangerous love. He loved his son Absalom blindly. Absalom had carried out a carefully planned campaign to ingratiate himself in the people’s hearts and then steal the throne from his father. He had no misgivings about having David killed. Absalom powerfully symbolized his complete rejection of his father by publicly taking David’s concubines as his own women.
But we could ask, “Didn’t David care about something good in his love for Absalom?” We can imagine a father in a similar situation asking, “Am I supposed to hate my son and want to see his destruction?” A person today might reference the Lord’s words in asserting, “Am I not I supposed to love even my enemies?”
The problem in this situation is not that David cared about Absalom. The problem was that he didn’t care enough about everyone else. He didn’t care for the health and well-being of his whole country. The book of 2 Samuel states that, rather than being able to rejoice at the victory over this attempted coup, “the people stole back into the city that day as people who are ashamed steal away when they flee in battle” (19:3).
The commander of David’s army, Joab, took him to task for his actions. He said to David: “Today you have disgraced all your servants who today have saved your life, the lives of your sons and daughters, the lives of your wives and the lives of your concubines, in that you love your enemies and hate your friends. For you have declared today that you regard neither princes nor servants; for today I perceive that if Absalom had lived and all of us had died today, then it would have pleased you well. Now therefore arise, go out and speak comfort to your servants. For I swear by the Lord, if you do not go out, not one will stay with you this night. And that will be worse for you than all the evil that has befallen you from your youth until now” (2 Samuel 19:5- 7).
What does this story mean for us today? David’s response to these events shows a dangerous tendency in human behavior that we are prone to ourselves. Some people go through life giving comparatively little thought to what they do or don’t do. If some question arises about their behavior they do a simple check by asking themselves, “Am I caring about something good?” If they can see some good behind their present direction, they give it no more thought. The trouble is that there are countless things that we can care about that have some good quality to them. And if we pursue some of them without recognition of the higher or more lasting goals or good things that we are consequently ignoring, the result is very destructive.
The fundamental issue is who is to define what is good. By our natural spiritual heredity we are inclined to define as good those things that serve our own short-term perspective. The good that this state of mind is focused on is called in the Writings of the New Church “natural good.” The following are some definitions of natural good given in the Writings:
The natural good born with human beings is itself a mere animal for, for it exists also with animals; but the natural good which is acquired, or which is given to man by the Lord, contains in it what is spiritual, so that it is spiritual good in the natural. This good is real natural human good, while that which is born with men, although it appears as good, may still not be good, and may even be evil, for it may receive falsities and believe that to be good which is evil. Such natural good exists among nations of the worst life and faith (AC 3408).
Until it has been reformed, the natural good of truth is not spiritual good, that is, the good of faith and the good of charity … Natural good is from parents, but spiritual good is from the Lord; and therefore in order that a person may receive spiritual good, he must be regenerated (AC 3470:2).
A clear distinction must be made between spiritual good and natural good. As before said, spiritual good has its quality from the truths of faith, their abundance, and their connection; but natural good is born with a person, and also arises by accident, as by misfortunes, diseases, and the like. Natural good saves no one, but spiritual good saves all. The reason is that the good which is formed through the truths of faith is a plane into which heaven can flow, that is, the Lord through heaven, and lead the individual and withhold him from evil, and afterward uplift him into heaven; but not so natural good, and therefore they who are in natural good can be as easily carried away by falsity as by truth, provided the falsity appears in the form of truth; and they can be as easily led by evil as by good, provided the evil is presented as good. They are like feathers in the wind (AC 7761).
Natural good is a dangerous guide to life. If we just ask ourselves, “Am I caring about something good?’ we will be able to justify all sorts of destructive behavior. A gossip could be questioned about his relating personal stories about another individual and might think to himself, “I thought my listener needed to know this information,” or “That individual’s behavior was incorrect. I was merely reinforcing the standards of morality in our community.”
A powerful example of natural good is that of a man who is openly faithless in his own marriage, but is outraged if his sister’s husband does the same. He really isn’t concerned for the sanctity of marriage. His anger arises because he feels the damage to his sister as damage to himself. It is really his own good that he is concerned about.
Even in his relationship with his own wife and his desire to make love to her can arise from natural good. Consider the following passage: “To be conjoined with one’s wife from lust alone, this is natural not spiritual; but to be conjoined with one’s wife from conjugial love [or a true love of marriage], this is spiritual natural; and when the husband is afterward conjoined from lust alone, he believes that he transgresses, as one who does what is lascivious, and therefore he no longer desires that this should be appropriated to him” (AC 4992).
Sometimes people can get the impression that a dedication to what is good in the Lord’s eyes means being concerned about issues that seem big in their eyes. But this too can be natural good. For example, a mother can be so caught up in community causes that her children don’t receive the guidance and love that only she can give. A father can be so concerned for his children’s long-term financial security and well-being that he likewise fails to give his children the guidance and love that only he can give. In both cases the parents are concerned about something good. But the good that they are focusing on is missing a key role that they have in their children’s lives.
If a person goes about living his life with little more reflection than periodically checking to see if there is something good that he is looking toward, he can be dangerous to himself and others. He is like a plane incorrectly set on auto- pilot. Many of you are probably aware of the recent crash of an airplane against a mountain in South America. One account says that the pilots were unaware that they had already passed a directional beacon when they entered its coordinates into their autopilot. The course that resulted led to the crash. Significantly, there was a warning given prior to the impact, but even then the pilots didn’t take severe corrective action, but instead entered a change into the autopilot presumably so that the passengers would scarcely notice the problem. Unfortunately, there were only nine seconds between the warning and the crash, and a gradual change was much too slight to prevent it.
The Lord has given us the Word to guide us in knowing what is genuinely good and true. He has warned us that the ideas of what these things are that we first gain will be flawed. They will be like faulty settings on an airplane’s autopilot. If we are heading for a tragedy, the Lord will try to prompt us that danger is near, but we must be willing to respond to these warnings with powerful action.
King David’s lament over the death of his son Absalom reflected a concern for something that could have been called good. However, its focus was on David’s own perspective and loss. It didn’t consider the health of others and the welfare of his kingdom. Although good in itself, as a focus it was destructive of more important things. May we ever seek to grow in wisdom and love for the Lord’s definition of what is true and good. May we pray that He guide us to follow their direction in all that we think, do and say. Amen.
Lessons: 2 Samuel 18:32-33, 19:1-8; Luke 6:32-39; AC 8002:1,2,5,7
Arcana Coelestia 8002:1,2,5,7
“A lodger and a hired servant shall not eat of it.” That this signifies that they who do what is good from mere natural disposition, and those who do it for the sake of their own advantage, are not to be with them is evident from the signification of “a lodger” as being those who do what is good from mere natural disposition; from the signification of “a hireling” as being those who do what is good for the sake of their own advantage; and from the signification of “not to eat of it” as being not to be with them. That a “lodger” denotes what is good from mere natural disposition is because lodgers were those who came from other peoples and were inhabitants, and dwelt with the Israelites and the Jews in one house; and “to dwell together” signifies to be together in good. But because, as before said, they were from peoples out of the church, the good which is signified is not the good of the church, but is a good not of the church. This good is called “natural good,” because it is hereditary from birth. Moreover, some have such good in consequence of ill health and feebleness. This good is meant by the good which they do who are signified by “lodgers.”
This good is utterly different from the good of the church, for by means of the good of the church conscience is formed in man, which is the plane into which the angels flow, and through which there is fellowship with them; whereas by natural good no plane for the angels can be formed. They who are in this good do good in the dark from blind instinct, not in the light of truth by virtue of influx from heaven; and therefore in the other life they are carried away, like chaff by the wind, by everyone, as much by an evil man as by a good one, and more by an evil one who knows how to join to reasonings something of affection and persuasion; nor can they then be withdrawn by the angels, for the angels operate through the truths and goods of faith, and flow into the plane which has been formed within the man from the truths and goods of faith. From all this it is evident that those who do what is good from mere natural disposition cannot be consociated with the angels ….
They who do what is good merely for the sake of their own advantage in the world cannot possibly he consociated with angels, because the end regarded by them is the world, that is, wealth and eminence, and not heaven, that is, the blessedness and happiness of souls. The end is what determines the actions and gives them their quality. Concerning those who do what is good merely for the sake of their own advantage, the Lord thus speaks: “I am the good Shepherd; the good Shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But he who is a hireling and not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep” (John 10: 1 1- 13). “Egypt is like a very pretty heifer, but destruction comes; it comes from the north. Also her mercenaries are in her midst like fat bulls, for they also are turned back; they have fled away together. They did not stand, for the day of their calamity had come upon them” (Jer. 46:20, 21) ….
But they who do what is good for the sake of reward in the other life, who also are signified by “hirelings,” differ from those just now spoken of, in that they have as the end life and happiness in heaven. But as this end determines and converts their Divine worship from the Lord to themselves, and they consequently desire good to themselves alone, and to others only so far as these desire good to them, and accordingly the love of self is in every detail and not the love of the neighbor; therefore they have no genuine charity. Neither can these be consociated with the angels, for the angels are utterly averse to both the name and the idea of reward or recompense. That benefits must be imparted without the end of reward, the Lord teaches in Luke: “Love your enemies, and impart benefits, and lend, hoping for nothing again; then shall your reward be great, and you shall be sons of the Most High” (Luke 6:32-35; 14:12-14).