WANTING TO BE LIKE OTHERS
A Sermon by Rev. Eric H. CarswellPreached in Glenview, Illinois, on June 29, 1986
“Now make for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (I Samuel 8:5).
The Lord had provided the Children of Israel with leaders since He first sent Moses to them. Moses had led them out of Egypt to Mt. Sinai, and afterwards for more than forty years of wandering in the wilderness. After Moses died, Joshua had been their warrior leader who led them in their conquest of the land of Canaan. After Joshua died, the Lord provided judges in times of need who would help deliver the Israelites from their enemies. The Lord had provided them with the leaders they needed, but now they wanted to be ruled by a king like the other nations around them. At first Samuel felt that he himself was being rejected, but the Lord assured him that this was not the case. The Lord said, “… they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them” (I Sam. 8:7). By asking for a king, the Israelites, whether they recognized it or not, were turning from the Lord.
What was the reason they gave for the change that they requested? Twice they said that they wanted a king “like all the nations.” They wanted to be ruled like the peoples that lived in the land around theirs. The Israelites had seen or heard of the apparent advantages and glories of having a king and had decided that they wanted one. What trouble their roving eye and consequent longing produced! In its most universal form their problem continues as a significant stumbling block for a great many people.
Each of us is born with a tendency to look around and note what others have in their lives that we don’t, and then to feel discontent with our lot. It can be a matter of wishing that you could have some nice material possession that someone else has, whether it be their car, their house or something much smaller. It can be a matter of wishing that you had the spendable income or free time that others seem to have in greater abundance than you sense yourself having. It can even be a matter of wishing that you had the prestige that someone else has and that you wish for yourself. All of these aspects of living in the natural world can turn our minds downward and away from following the Lord. The desire to emulate others no matter what the spiritual cost is what makes the love of the world such a dangerous enemy of spiritual life. The love of the world can lead us to reject the Lord as surely as it caused trouble for the Children of Israel.
We who are trying to follow the Lord have the daily challenge set before us of living in the world but not being worldly in its bad sense. Being willing to be led by the Lord does change the way a person lives his life. At times the differences may appear small to the casual observer, but at other times the true Christian’s life will march to a very different drummer from the one that guides the thinking semi-agnostic. Being a follower of the Lord can lead a person to make choices that others wouldn’t understand.
Perhaps we can imagine a Canaanite expressing utter disbelief that the Israelites were led by a priest like Samuel. Perhaps you can imagine the condescending tone that he would use in speaking of the advantages he saw in having a king to judge his people and lead them in battle. It would not make any sense to him to suggest that the real leader of the Israelites was the Lord, and that He could provide for their every need with infinitely greater ability than any earthly king ever could.
So many of the choices we make come down to a question of the values that guide our lives. Wanting to be like others clearly isn’t a very high motive for directing one’s life. Neither is wanting something merely because it is impressive, fun, stylish, appealing or sensuously attractive in many ways. Now, of course there is nothing inherently wrong with things that are impressive, fun, stylish, appealing or sensuously attractive. The descriptions that we have been given of life in heaven indicate that things fitting these descriptive words are a part of daily life there. Problems arise, though, when our values are driven by a desire for these things without consideration of the ways in which they either help to accomplish something useful or lead us away from accomplishing something useful. It is the regular unspoken posing of the question “What would be most useful in both the short and long run?” that best allows us to live in the world and enjoy many of its pleasures without being dominated by a love of the world.
If a person were primarily dominated by the desire to look impressive or be stylish, then it would not be unlikely that he would buy a car that met those needs even though it was actually rather impractical or unrealistically expensive for his budget, or just plain didn’t run very well. Obviously such a car would not be the most useful purchase for him to make. Similarly, if a person chose a church to join and attend based on the status it gave him, or the advantageous social contacts it provided or the impressive nature of the church building, the beauty of the choir or any of a number of other external considerations, such a person might pick a church that was spiritually a wasteland. The chosen church might have many worldly advantages and attractions, but it would not be useful for the person’s present spiritual life, nor would it aid in his journey toward heaven. It would perform little lasting use. Yet for some people the choice of a church means little more.
The Writings for the New Church indirectly suggest that the love of the world is the dominant evil of today, eclipsing the love of self that has dominated in other ages (see AC 230). Happily, the love of the world is not as evil as the love of self and isn’t so directly destructive. Nevertheless, it leads many away from heaven to a permanent existence in hell. A specific definition of the love of the world is that it is a love of possessing goods in the world from the mere delight in possession and for the sake of riches and not from the delight in the useful things that these can bring into being (see AE 950:3).
In its worst form love of the world expresses itself in a love of possessing the goods of others no matter what deception is necessary to attain this end (see DP 215:6). This would presumably include expecting to be paid for a day’s work when a significant percentage of the day had been wasted or had been spent on personal business. It would also presumably include someone who intentionally sells something to someone else when the buyer really has little need or use for it. Certainly a fool and his money will soon be parted, but convincing the fool to part with it without due reason is spiritually damaging.
People have had a tendency to lay up treasures for themselves on earth in spite of their temporary nature since early times. Why is worldliness so prevalent in our culture? Specifically, people in a number of other countries consider Americans quite decadent for the materialism and emphasis on owning things that seems to be such a powerful part of our culture. We might argue that this is mostly “sour grapes” on their part because their countries lack the standard of living that our country enjoys. One suggestion from the Writings is that our very success can lead to trouble. Arcana Coelestia observes that opulence generally begets the love of the world (see AC 6481). Certainly it is true that being surrounded by material allurements can lead us to focus our lives too heavily on them. A qualifying teaching is that those who have been raised with wealth, as we all are in comparison to those in many places in the world, can sometimes be less fixed on worldly possessions than someone who has been in abject poverty and desires to be richer. The fact is, of course, that whether or not we have many worldly possessions, the significant matter is whether we sense that we need more, and tend to be discontent about what we lack.
In the history of the Children of Israel recorded in the eighth chapter of I Samuel the people were not content to be led by the Lord as they had been in the past. They wanted a king like all the nations around themselves. Their envious comparison of their lot with others caused them trouble, just as our envious comparison of what we have in life with what others have can cause us trouble. Learning to be content with one’s lot in life can be a difficult state of mind for some to attain.
There is a deeper message in this story than the rejection of the Lord by following the standards of the world. On a deeper level, the way that the Lord had previously led the Israelites is an image of how genuine charity can rule in a person’s life. This is an image of an individual who guides his decisions by a desire to serve his neighbor, and this desire in turn guides his thinking to a sight of genuine truth. Such an individual leads his life quite differently from one who guides his decisions by relatively inflexible principles that he has been taught or has formed for himself. While these principles may have been derived from something that was true in the right context, when applied indiscriminately they may or may not accomplish something useful. Quite often rigid truths lead a person to condemn others and treat them harshly. By itself truth condemns all to hell. Truth separate from good has this quality and consequently it has little of the Lord’s life in it. This truth separate from good is represented by the Israelites wanting a king to rule over them (see AC 2015:10, 11). The harshness of this truth is imaged by all of the things that Samuel promised that the king would do to the people in terms of demanding taxes and service from the people. The Lord would warn us from guiding our lives by these rigid principles. They make others’ lives miserable and they make our own lives likewise unpleasant. A passage from the Arcana on the subject of humility before the Lord speaks of the rigid quality of truth separate from good: “… they who are in truth are as it were rigid, and stand erect as if they were hard, and when they ought to humble themselves before the [Lord] they only bend the body a little; but they who are in good are as it were soft, and when they humble themselves before the Divine, they bow themselves even to the earth. For truth without good is altogether rigid, and when it looks to good as an end, that rigidity begins to soften; but good is in itself soft, and truth which is implanted in it, as it becomes good there, also grows soft” (AC 7068).
The rigid quality of dogmatic principles is further demonstrated by another passage: “[I]t is according to the laws of order that no one ought to be persuaded in a moment concerning truth, that is, that truth should be confirmed in a moment so as to leave no doubt at all concerning it, because the truth which is so impressed becomes persuasive truth, and is without any capacity for extending or yielding. Such truth is represented in the other life as hard, and as closed to good in such a way that it can be applied. Hence it is that when by manifest experience any truth is presented before good spirits in the other life, there is soon afterward presented some opposite which causes doubt; thus it allows the spirits to think and consider whether it be so, and to collect reasons, and so to bring that truth rationally into their minds whereby the spiritual sight has extension as to that truth, even to opposites; consequently, it sees and perceives in the understanding every quality of truth, and consequently it can admit [appropriate] influx from heaven … for truths receive various forms according to circumstances” (AC 7298:2).
The Israelites wanted a king because he would serve as a tangible leader and judge for them. We also can be inclined to turn the guidance of our lives over to relatively inflexible principles of behavior. The principles seem so much more secure and solid, and certainly less bothersome than having to think what would be the most useful thing to do or say in a particular circumstance. But if we are really willing to be led by the Lord, we need to fight this tendency to respond to situations with set reactions. We need to seek for the wisdom to see what would truly be the best course of action.
At times being led by the Lord may seem like a difficult task. Whether we are fighting with our tendency to be worldly and fixed on material wants and needs, or whether we are fighting battles on more interior levels of our spiritual life, the prayer that guides our thoughts should be one that has us turn in humility to the Lord to see what His will truly is in the situation before us. If we seek Him in sincerity, He will surely come to us to guide us as our Lord and king. Amen.
Lessons: I Samuel 8:1-22, TCR 3949 404 (portions)
True Christian Religion
There Are Three Universal Loves — The Love of Heaven, The Love of the World, and the Love of Self.
394. These three loves must first be considered for the reason that these three are the universal and fundamental of all loves, and that charity has something in common with each of them. For the love of heaven means both love to the Lord and love toward the neighbor; and as each of these looks to use as its end, the love of heaven may be called the love of uses. The love of the world is not merely a love of wealth and possessions, but is also a love of all that the world affords, and of all that delights the bodily senses, as beauty delights the eye, harmony the ear, fragrance the nostrils, delicacies the tongue, softness the skin; also becoming dress, convenient houses, and society, thus all the enjoyments arising from these and many other objects. The love of self is not merely the love of honor, glory, fame and eminence, but also the love of meriting and seeking office, and so of ruling over others. Charity has something in common with each of these three loves because viewed in itself charity is the love of uses; for charity wishes to do good to the neighbor, and good and use are the same, and from these loves everyone looks to uses as his end, the love of heaven looking to spiritual uses, the love of the world to natural uses, which may be called civil, and the love of self to corporeal uses, which may also be called domestic uses that have regard to oneself and one’s own.
404. When love of the world or of wealth forms the head, that is, when it is the ruling love, man puts on a wholly different state, for then the love of heaven is exiled from the head and betakes itself to the body. The man who is in this state prefers the world to heaven; he worships God in deed, but from merely natural love which places merit in all worship; he also does good to the neighbor, but for the sake of recompense. To such, heavenly things are like clothing, clad in which they appear before the eyes of men to be walking in brightness, but before the eyes of angels they appear indistinct, for when love of the world possesses the internal man, and the love of heaven the external, the former makes all things belonging to the church obscure and hides them as under a veil. But this love is of great variety, worse in the degree that it verges toward avarice, in which the love of heaven grows black; so too if it verges toward pride and eminence over others from love of self. It is different if it verges toward prodigality, and is less hurtful if it has in view as an end the splendors of the world, as palaces, ornaments, magnificent clothing, servants, horses and carriages pompously arrayed, and other like things. The character of every love is determined by the end which it regards and intends. This love may be compared to blackish glass, which smothers the light and variegates it only in dark and evanescent hues. It is also like mists and clouds which take away the rays of the sun.