Only This Life Counts
November 13, 2011
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:1-21)
Swedenborg makes two statements about the things required of us that I should like to set before us at the outset: one from the large, unfinished work Apocalypse Explained, #934, and the other from the small work Doctrine of Life, #22.
The first says that in this life that we are all now living in this world, two things are necessary: first, an acknowledgment of the Lord’s Divine (i.e., that everything good is from God); and secondly, that we are to live according to the laws of the Decalogue—the Ten Commandments.
The other states the two necessities in this way: first, that we are to shun evils because they are sins (because they are diabolical and therefore contrary to the Lord and his laws); and secondly, that we are to do this as if of ourselves, while at the same time knowing we do it not by our own power but by the Lord’s power acting through us.
As we ponder these two statements, we find that they both say essentially the same thing. They tell us (1) that all goodness is the Lord’s and never ours (except on loan), and (2) that God has told us what things are essentially good and what things are not good, and that he expects us not only to learn, know, and acknowledge this fact but also to try to live in accordance with what is good.
These two necessary things are the only things that count in this life. They are so simple as to be beguiling. Somehow, in our efforts to understand what some have called the “mysteries of life,” we have managed to make it seem incredibly complex. Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “There are some things which cannot be learned quickly, and time—which is all we have—must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things . . .” (Death in the Afternoon, chapter 16).
They are the very simplest things! Pennsylvania Dutch wisdom reminds us that “ve get too soon old and too late schmart.”
What is it that prevents us from doing good habitually and at all times? We know that God is good and that he pours his love and truth continually on the mind and heart of every human being. Why, then, do not that love and truth always enter our minds and hearts, fill them, and then come forth in words of truth and works of love? It is a teaching of our church that we are all created for heaven. In the light of that idea, let us then ask, “If we really were created for heaven, why in the world didn’t God place us there right away?”
The “training ground” concept of earthly life is one possible answer; perhaps we need a reasonable period of life experience in order to become fit to inhabit heaven. There is also what the philosopher would call the “ontological reason” for our starting life on this earthly plane. Actually, the ontological reason and the training-ground reason are inseparable. Ontology has to do with what exists, what the basic nature or structure of reality is. Thus, the ontological reason as to why we start life on earth is that that’s the way things are; that’s the way God designed and planned it. It has been noted in our teachings that whatever proceeds from the divine does not stop midway in the process but continues on till it terminates in a fixed form, which is called its ultimate form—its last or lowest form. The natural world is such a form. From this lowest form, we are intended to use Earth as a training ground for the later, more real life God has in mind for us.
We have a colloquialism, “to start from scratch,” meaning that whatever it is we are starting, we are starting without any particular advantages. That’s the way God in his wisdom has decided we should all start life. And, in this context, it is unquestionably true that the life each one of us decides to live, starting from scratch, is the only life that counts.
Despite our absolute uniqueness as human beings, we nevertheless, for the most part, all start with the same basic possibilities, the same potential—namely, to become an angel. (There’s that beguilingly simple language again!) Angels are not created. People are. People can become angels. But they have to want to. Really to want to is to be willing to undergo a sufficient period of basic training to become transformed.
That transformation—from starting out as a mere human being to becoming an angel—is so radical that when Jesus was trying to explain to Nicodemus (who was no fool) what life was all about, he startled him by insisting that he had to be born again! We mean exactly the same thing when we say we must go through a process of regeneration, or that we must be regenerated.
Let’s get back to that question I posed earlier: What is it that prevents us from doing good habitually and at all times? It is because in the “state of nature” into which we are born, the low natural state filled with hereditary tendencies to self-centeredness, there is disorder, self-love—evil, if you will—in our hearts.
Before I go any further, let me stop and talk a little about the word “evil.” I know that for many people it is a loaded word, a word to be feared, avoided, and certainly not used in a seemingly indiscriminate and condemnatory way. And this is not too surprising. It’s hard to find a dictionary with a short entry for the word “evil.”
I’m also aware that some new readers of Swedenborg, if they should decide to begin their reading with his first theological work, Arcana Coelestia, might not get beyond #39 and the sentence that begins: “Since man of himself is dead, and there is nothing in him but what is false and evil . . .” If only they could hang in there till they get to #4997, they might feel more at ease to read that “evil, viewed in itself, and also sin, is nothing but disjunction from good.” Well, it does say more than that, but that “sets the stage,” so to speak, for a more nearly universal definition of evil.
More often than not “evil” means simply some state or degree of disorder, especially something that is not in harmony with the order of God’s creation. And ontologically, we are all born into greater or lesser states of disorder—that is, into states not in harmony with God’s ways. That should not surprise or startle us at all. Compared to the way people who have worked to become angels live, we all lead decidedly disorderly (i.e., evil) lives. But there is no moral stigma attached to that fact unless we stubbornly refuse to make any attempt to improve our way of life.
Now, to get back to where we were: what is it that prevents us from doing good habitually and at all times? It is because there is disorder, self-love, evil in our hearts. This disorder tends to “harden” our hearts, make them stiff and unyielding. Some of the fixed and stubborn falsities in our minds shut out much of the light from heaven that constantly falls on us, preventing the Lord’s love and truth from even entering our minds.
If you will now allow me similarly to generalize the definition of “good” to mean that which is in harmony with or an integral part of God’s way or plan, then perhaps I may be permitted to say that we do not do good at all times because we are not good, except possibly from time to time.
Even an apparently good act, done by a person in an evil or disorderly state, is not, in truth, a good act. It may have all the outward appearance of a good and benevolent action, and may in fact actually benefit others, but—as far as the person acting is concerned—it is not a good act. It is in reality an evil or selfish act if it is done for some self-serving motive such as the hope of praise or reward or some other sort of personal benefit.
Such motives are in the heart of every unregenerate person; self-love is at the bottom of almost every such person’s acts. And self-love is the very essence of disorder, the great root of all evil. It truly is vain for anyone to try to save his or her soul simply by doing external acts of benevolence. For so long as a person’s inner being continues in an evil and selfish state, that person can earn a whole chestful of merit badges, so to speak, and not be any closer to a state of salvation than he was at the start.
In order to qualify to become a citizen of heaven, we must first come into a heavenly state of mind and heart. Heaven has to be within us, not outside of us. No matter how well-behaved or moral or charitable we may be outwardly, if our actions spring from an unregenerate will, we shall remain inwardly selfish and evil. Thus—and mark this, for it is vital—for the greater part of our lives it is more important for us to look carefully at our inner motives and purposes than it is to be overly concerned with people-pleasing outward conduct.
This, in fact, is the principal reason why many of the rules of life found in the Bible, such as the Ten Commandments, are expressed in negative form. In the Word we are not nearly so often advised to do good as we are admonished to cease doing evil. The great prototype verse here is Isaiah 1:16: “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good.”
We are told to act in this order—ceasing to do evil, then learning to do good—for a sound psychological reason: if we really, honestly stop doing evil things, there will be nothing left to do but good things! And the more evil (i.e., disorderly) things we cease doing and cherishing, the more good things we shall begin to do. Then, probably to our great astonishment, we shall find that they delight us much more than our old ways ever did. Further, the good that we then do will be genuine, for the doing of it will not be our idea but the Lord’s, and therefore it will not be defiled with self-love or the craving for merit.
Is this beginning to sound too easy? You’re right! It isn’t that easy!
Two major obstacles loom in front of every one of us as we seriously tackle the business of making this life count:
- It is very hard for any of us to see clearly, or to feel strongly enough about, and thus really become motivated by the idea that the process of rebirth, of regeneration, of purifying ourselves from disorder (i.e., ridding ourselves of evil), of putting our lives in order, is the most important thing we have to do in this world. That’s obstacle number one.
- The second obstacle should really be called the first, as it is the cause of the one we have just defined. And that is this: none of us is really willing to believe how deeply disorderly the unregenerate human heart is. Most of us are disposed to think of ourselves as being tolerably good, of imagining that on the whole we are—or ought to be—quite acceptable just as we are.
To become too complacently content with our present attitude and lifestyle is a dangerous error. If we don’t ever wake up and discover it here, believe me, we will later in the other world! But then it will be too late.
The primary cause of this dangerous error is that most of us simply don’t know ourselves very well. I can’t resist quoting Robert Burns’s famous stanza:
O wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion.
There is probably no ignorance so prevalent as the ignorance of ourselves. Our good points—oh, we seem to be able to discover them easily enough. In fact, we are more apt than not to magnify them and even become somewhat vain about them, thus falling into the error of conceit. Our more external and trifling faults we also manage to see more often than not, and maybe we even publicly confess them now and then. Sometimes we may speak too freely about them, showing others (if not ourselves) that we are really more proud of our frankness than we are ashamed of the faults we are admitting to.
But the deep, radical disorders of our natures are, to most of us, hidden. Our eyes are blinded to them. We are for the most part not conscious of them. We might not be able to handle the shock if we were. It calls for close self-examination, guided by the light of divine truth, to see the human heart as it is. This sort of soul-searching is not something to be entered into either often or lightly. Swedenborg makes this recommendation: that we examine ourselves once or twice a year to see our own evils; that we then confess them in the presence of God and pray earnestly for his help (Apocalypse Revealed #224.6).
It might be useful to observe that probably it is not so much from failure periodically to examine oneself that most people remain unconscious of their true inner state. It is more likely because of ignorance of the real nature of evil. As I noted earlier, most people, I suspect, when and if they think of evil, picture in their mind some great open vice; or at least some very gross fault, such as a violent temper, or ugly sullenness, or a revengeful attitude, or some other manifest defect of character.
But the real basis of evil is an attitude. In contemporary slang, the truly deadly attitude is: “I’m Number One, and my first priority is to look after number one.” In traditional theological language, the deadly attitude is called “self-love.”
Here’s your chance again to say, “Hey! Wait a minute! Didn’t Jesus say the second great commandment was to love your neighbor as you love yourself? So how can you say that self-love is the worst or most deadly attitude?”
Good question! It’s so easy to oversimplify. Actually, we are told that there are four possible ruling loves: love of the Lord, love of the neighbor, love of the world, and love of self. All of them are okay, if they are kept in the right order. Love of the Lord and the neighbor must always have higher priority than love of the world and self. If they’re kept in that order, there is no law that prohibits us from loving ourselves and the things of the world. In fact, many people are in serious psychological trouble because they really hate themselves instead of loving themselves in the right proportion.
No, what I’m calling attention to is the kind of selflove that leads us to insist, “I’m Number One.” For then love of self is set up in opposition to love of God and the neighbor. And whether we like it or not, we are all born with a very strong tendency to assign to self-love position No. 1.
This attitude will never just “go away” by itself. It’s like a noxious weed that will grow and spread until it takes over the whole of our being. The only way to get it in hand is by the process of rebirth. Truly, the Lord says to us as he did to Nicodemus, “You must be born again.”
O Lord, never suffer us to think that we can stand by ourselves, and not need you.
- John Donne (1573-1631)
Rev. Dr. William R. Woofenden