God's Word: A Mirror of Identity

by the Rev. Robert McCluskey
pastor of the New Church of New York City
In the June, 2000 Issue of Our Daily Bread

There is a twofold meaning to every image used in the Bible. This is a wonderful key to understanding the Word, which so often seems to contradict itself. Swedenborg writes that this doubleness in the Word derives from the two poles of good and evil, heaven and hell, which constitute human experience. For example:

These and many other things are used throughout the Bible in this double sense. Swedenborg writes that the significance of a Biblical image, good or bad, varies according to its context - the specific way it is being used. We all know that everything has a proper use, and can also be abused or misused, and even lead to great harm. This includes not only hot stoves and sharp knives, but our feelings and thoughts as well - all those human qualities that are symbolized in Scripture. The fire of love can be nourishing or destructive, depending on whether it is spiritual or natural, self-giving or self-centered.

Wait a minute, is this a cop-out? Isn't this just an arbitrary principle employed to ensure that traditional teachings are preserved? Isn't this a matter of twisting Scripture to say whatever we want it to say? For example, is God an angry, jealous, and vengeful God or not? If not, why is it so clearly stated in the Bible that He is? And if He is, how can He also show steadfast love forever? Is it simply a matter of the Bible meaning what it says when it agrees with what we want it to say, and meaning the opposite when it disagrees with what we want it to say?

To say that most things in the Bible have a double meaning is not a cop-out, but a reference to the unique nature of the Word: it's subjective or "projective" quality. The Bible is a description of us as spiritual beings, not of the outer world and past events. It is intended to be interpreted and responded to differently by each person. To say that the Bible is about us is to say that is about universal truths of what it is to be human: truths about our inner life that apply to each of us (because we are human) in a unique and individual manner (because we are free individuals). The Word of God is given to us in stories, parables, and images, the meaning of which is determined by our own spiritual state, our own willingness to understand. Thus the Bible is not so much a guide for morality as a mirror of identity. "You are the man!"

In the classic story of David's sin, we read of his murderous treatment of Uriah, his adultery with Bathsheba, and his own lesson applied to himself through Nathan's story. The Word of God coming to David through Nathan, a prophet, is an image of how God's truth about our lives comes to us through the Bible. It is a self-regulating story, told to us by God, in which we are invited to find the truth about ourselves.

It was David's experience with Nathan that led to his famous prayer of forgiveness in Psalm 51. And it was perhaps this experience with Nathan, more than any other, that led to his later prayer of gratitude in 2 Samuel 22, in which the idea of God's Word as a mirror of identity is so clearly stated. [verses 26, 27] David had come to understand that we experience the Lord according to the quality of our inner, spiritual state. Like attracts like. Remembering that the Bible is the Lord's truth adapted to our understanding, we can paraphrase Shakespeare: "The Bible is not good or bad, but our spiritual state makes it so." The Bible reflects back to us where we are at internally.

I mentioned before that the Bible was a subjective or "projective" document. If you think about it, this is true of our outer lives as well. When we ask someone how their day was, we are not asking for a weather report, or even about what happened to them. We are asking how they experienced their day, how they are. Each day is the "same" for everyone, and yet no two people will experience the same day in the same way. Almost without knowing it, we bring ourselves to every situation in life, and this is no less true when we approach the Word.

Swedenborg notes that because of this double meaning in Scripture, the literal sense often seems to oppose the spiritual sense; for example, the angry, fiery God of Mount Sinai seems opposed to the Lord as our loving shepherd. But this apparent opposition, he writes, is the result of an opposition within the person. the double meaning that runs throughout the Bible - good and evil - has its roots in our dual nature as natural-spiritual beings, alternately God-centered and self-centered.

Let us not forget that our entire inner experience is the result of being in an equilibrium or balance between heavenly and hellish influences. Each of us, if we are breathing, is subject to this double influence, this struggle or tension between self and God. And this inner state of being will color the way we experience God. When we seek God's Word in the Bible, we will experience it as either loving and supportive or hard and judgmental depending on where we are at spiritually. In the same way, when we seek God's Word in our hearts and lives, we will experience his presence as either positive or negative. In both cases, like David, we will be experiencing ourselves - our inner state of being.

Our contact with God's Word is such that we are revealed to ourselves in God's light. God's Word and God's truth are constant; it is we who are changing, growing; and our understanding and appreciation of God's Word will change and grow as we do. If we oppose God's will, the will of God will seem opposed to us, and our understanding of the Bible will reflect that appearance. If our lives conform to the love and truth that comes from God, the apparent contradictions and paradoxes of the Word - and of our lives - will gradually become more meaningful and clear. We will gain a greater flexibility in how we understand events.

We will begin to see and feel what it means to say that God is never angry, but that we experience God that way whenever we turn from the path of truth. We will see that God's will is not arbitrary, but is constant in the face of our own vacillation and doubt. We will realize that God does not condemn anyone, but that we experience our own condemnation and judgment by the choices we make and the kind of person we are striving to become.

"Judge not lest you be judged. For with your judgment you will be judged!" (Matthew 7:1,2). Every moment we experience can be seen as a reflection and summary of who we are, what we love most, and how well we understand other people. The God who dwells in us holds up a mirror of truth for us to see ourselves with, to be judged, and in that judgment, to know ourselves. The Bible, the Word of God, can be such a mirror of identity if we are willing to look and see, to listen and hear.

Scripture Reading

The Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, "There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little eye lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there cam a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him."

Then David's anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, "As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity."

Nathan said to David, "You are the man! Thus says the Lord the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master's house, and your master's wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have stuck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within 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 very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun."

David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the Lord."

Nathan said to David, "Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die."

2 Samuel 12:1-13

The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness;
     According to my cleanness in his sight.
With the loyal you show yourself loyal;
     With the blameless you show yourself blameless;
With the pure you show yourself pure;
     And with the crooked you show yourself perverse.
You deliver a humble people,
     But your eyes are upon the haughty to bring them down.

2 Samuel 22:25-28

Reading from Swedenborg:

Many things in the Bible's literal meaning seems to be the opposite of the inner meaning. Yet they are not opposite at all, but correspond perfectly to one another. For example, the Bible often says that the Lord is angry and wrathful, destroys, and casts into hell, when in fact He is never angry, still less casts anyone into hell. One idea relates to the literal meaning, the other to the inner meaning. They do seem opposite, but that is because people are in a state of opposition. It is like the Lord's appearing as a sun to angels in heaven with springlike warmth, and with light like the dawn; but to those in hell he seems completely dark - like a wintry chill and the darkness of night. Accordingly, angels are governed by love and kindness, and hellish spirits by anger and hostility. So to those in hell, the Lord is the way the literal meaning portrays Him; an angry and wrathful God who destroys and casts into hell. But to the angels, the Lord is the way the inner meaning portrays Him; a God who is never angry and wrathful, still less destroys and casts people into hell.

Arcana Coelestia (Heavenly Secrets #3425.4)


O Lord, we stand in awe of your great wisdom in authoring the Bible to reflect not only Your infinite qualities of love and truth, but also our individual character in relation to You, whether we are in harmony with You or in opposition. Give us the courage to look deeply into this divinely inspired mirror of identity. Open our minds and hearts to the perfect reflection of our own nature - and Yours - that You have placed in Your Word for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Amen.

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