THE “RISK-FREE” SOCIETY
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.