Will and Understanding

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As human beings, we get stuck all the time in conflicts between what we want and what we know. We want to eat that extra piece of pie, but we know over-eating is bad for us. We want to just keep the extra groceries the cashier missed when he was scanning items, but we know it wouldn’t be honest. We’re flattered when the cute new co-worker acts flirtatious, but we know we shouldn’t even play around with anything that could cause us to think outside of marriage.

So the idea that there’s part of us that wants and feels and another part that thinks and knows is not exactly new. But according to Swedenborg, those two parts of us are extremely important, both reflecting the essential duality of the Lord and also making it possible for us to accept the Lord’s love and go to heaven.

That all starts – as everything in Swedenborg does – with the idea that the Lord is love itself, perfect, all-powerful and infinite. That love takes form as wisdom itself, and through His wisdom the Lord can pour His love out on all of us constantly, expressed as ideas that we can grasp and use. So love is the Lord’s “wanting, feeling” part and wisdom is His “thinking, knowing” part.

The Lord’s deepest desire is for us to open our wanting, feeling part – which Swedenborg calls “the will” — to His love, and to opening our thinking, knowing part – which Swedenborg calls “the understanding” – to His wisdom. That way He can fill us with life and be conjoined to us, bringing us all joy and delight in heaven.

But the Lord also created us to be free, and the only way to do that was to open our wills to evil loves as well as good ones. That’s why we are, from our beginnings, so beset by the desire to be selfish, to be greedy, to look out for ourselves and please ourselves above all else.

But the Lord also gave us a mechanism to overcome that selfishness. Our understanding – our ability to think – operates separately from our will. That means we can use our understanding to gather ideas about what is right and good and loving, and can force ourselves to act on them even though they run contrary to our desires. This is, in fact, the great task we face in life.

What the Lord promises, though, is this: If we do that work from a desire to be good people, He will step in and slowly start removing our evil loves so that His perfect love can flow in. It’s a long process – lifelong, actually – but the results are priceless. When our will is cleared of evil and becomes a receptacle for the Lord, then our understanding becomes wisdom and our will becomes love. Then, instead of acting from what we know and over-riding what we want, we can act from love, with the love given form through wisdom. That is the life of angels, and the life of heaven.


(References: Arcana Coelestia 7179; Divine Love 18; Divine Love and Wisdom 399; True Christian Religion 397)

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Chapter VII. Internal Will and Understanding, and External Will and Understanding.

THE internal will and understanding B and C pertain to the spiritual mind, the external will and understanding, D and E, to the natural mind, as shown in this diagram.

The external will and understanding may be either conjoined with the internal and act in harmony with them, or be severed from them and act in opposition.

In a state of order the external will and understanding are in agreement and co-operation with the internal and are conjoined with them, so that they constitute as it were one will and understanding.

With the wicked, the spiritual will and understanding, although never perverted, are yet closed and quiescent; but their natural will and understanding, though open and operative, are defiled with evil and falsity and severed from the spiritual, and hence act in opposition to them.

The will and understanding are here presented as organic faculties of the mind; the external organism being an outbirth from the internal. Their varying states will be presented in other diagrams.

The will is drawn in red because it is the receptacle of love, the understanding in white because it is the receptacle of truth.

The spiritual body F and the natural body H are only more ultimate forms and instruments of the will and understanding. (DLW 362. See Chap. IV. page 21)

Chapter V. Will and Understanding. – Another View.

THIS diagram presents the will as a distinct faculty above the understanding, or, in simultaneous order, within the understanding. The will is called the celestial faculty and sometimes the celestial kingdom, and the understanding the spiritual; love is celestial, truth is spiritual. The will in every man and angel answers to the celestial kingdom of heaven, the understanding to the spiritual kingdom. (Consult Diagrams IX, X, XII.)

Considering the will as the highest and inmost degree and the understanding as the middle, the spiritual body D will be the lowest or outmost degree of the spirit. The spiritual body, however, is not another faculty, but merely an ultimate of the will and the understanding, so organized that by it the will and the understanding may enjoy outward sensation and give expression corresponding with affection and thought. In this view the mind constitutes the whole spirit of man, and the spirit is but an internal and an external will and understanding.

And as the material body is merely an intellectual and voluntary organism superadded for lowest and outmost sensation, perception and expression, it must be included when we say that the whole man is but an organic form of will and understanding. (DLW 358 to 432.)

Chapter IV. The Mind: – Its Two Faculties, Will and Understanding.

CONCERNING the “inmost” see Diagram III. Next below the inmost stands the mind which is composed of will and understanding B and C. They are above the spiritual body D, or within it, – above in successive order and within in simultaneous order.

The will is drawn in red because it is the receptacle and abode of love or good. The understanding is drawn in white because it is the receptacle and abode of wisdom or truth. See reason for this in “Colour in the Diagrams” page 11.

Below the mind stands the spiritual body D. This body being but a derivative ultimate and foundation of the mind, or in simultaneous order its envelop and containant, has a quality like that of the mind. The mind is both voluntary and intellectual, the voluntary is drawn in red, the intellectual in white. Hence the spiritual body (their complex in ultimates) is both red and white – red from the will and its affection, white from the understanding and thought. Hence also the rosy tint and lily white in the countenance of an angel, and the fire and light in the countenance and eyes of man. (DLW 369; CL 42, 384.)

The natural body E, the last in the series, is drawn in Colour moderately red and white for the same reason, and being an effect from the prior forms may be called the mind in its extreme organism. Hence the presence in the body of dual organs and parts, as two hemispheres of the brain, pairs of nerves, two eyes, two hands, two feet:- the right an ultimate of the will, the left of the understanding.

The spiritual body in form and quality is like the mind, being beautiful and lovely, and inwardly pure and orderly if the mind be so. So too the natural body has an inward quality or nature more or less like the mind and bespeaks its state.

With the adult sufficiently advanced in years the natural body becomes in quality more or less like the mind, pure in substance, orderly in texture and moral in tone with the regenerate, and the reverse with the wicked. (DLW 135 to 143, 420, 423; AC 6872, 5559, 5726.)

Were the natural body more plastic, as before the fall, and were it under no other spiritual influences than those of its own mind and the particular spirits conjunctively associated with that mind it would exhibit far more than now the state and features of the mind. Then the inward order and purity of the body of the good would well answer to the state of the will and understanding. This inward order and purity, however, might nor be observable, yet its external form and beauty would be manifest. It would be the same with the body of the evil, but opposite from an opposite state of the spirit.

Since the fall and especially in later ages the implasticity of the body impedes its full response.

But why are not the bodies of the wicked as much defiled and deformed with natural impurity and disease as their minds, with moral and spiritual impurity? Why are their bodies often beautiful and healthful? This is from a merciful provision for the security of Divine ends, one of which is that a general influx from heaven shall largely order and control the corporeals of man that they may not be controlled by an influx from the particular spirits attendant on him. Thus whatever of health or beauty appertains to the wicked, is due to a general heavenly influx directly into the exteriors of the natural body. We say exteriors of the body meaning its gross and solid parts, because in the case of the evil the vital fluids are always more or less defiled. (DLW 423.) Even when health and beauty are an inheritance they are maintained by this heavenly influx and were mostly of such origin in the ancestors. (AC 5862, 5990, 6192, 6211)

Concerning the hereditary state of the infantile body see Diagram XVIII.

The will and understanding are organic forms. (DLW 373.) Concerning these faculties in general, consult The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine, 28 to 33.