Psalm 52 Strength of evildoers, strength of God
I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever. (Psalm 52:8)
What comforting words! How wonderful to be able to trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever! In our Christian faith, we look to the Lord Jesus Christ for this kind of trust. As the Lord says in our reading from Luke, "From now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God." We know from our faith that God, who is the source of everything, is also the source of all power, both spiritual and material.
But so often it doesn't feel that way.
So often, when we see the daily news reports of wars and crime, fraudulent dealings and deception for personal gain, things feel more like the way David describes them in the first four verses of Psalm 52:
Why do you boast, O mighty one,
We read in the Bible and in Swedenborg that God has all the power, and evil has none. But our senses tell us something else. When we look around, we see a lot of what looks like very powerful evil. For every crime there is a victim. For every war there are bloodstained lands and wounded nations. For every fraudulent and deceptive practice, there are people who lose their means of living. How, then, can Swedenborg say evil has no power? How can the Son of Man--meaning the Lord--be at the right hand of power when it seems so obvious that evil does have a very real and very devastating power?
Our Psalm does give us some help. It goes on to say,
But God will break you down forever;
In the long run, the Psalmist says, God and goodness will triumph. While this doesn't always seem the case here on earth--especially in the lifetimes of individual people--there certainly is truth to it. Our court system is quite active prosecuting criminals. Not all the guilty ones are found guilty, but many do receive punishment for their crimes. Those who escape penalty for one crime and persist in their illegal activities become more and more likely to be apprehended and found guilty as their criminal pattern becomes clearly established over time.
Over the long run--over the lifetime of nations and cultures--there is an even greater tendency for evil to bring punishment on itself. In the past week or two I watched several installments of a PBS series on World War I. Toward the beginning of this century, the Germans, for whatever reason, thought they could conquer all their neighbors. For a while it almost looked as if they might succeed. But seeing the great evil of what they were doing, nation after nation rose up against Germany and its allies until the aggressors were finally defeated in a war that cost millions of lives.
Unfortunately, in victory the allied powers apparently yielded too much to their own desire for revenge. The heavy war reparations and other strictures laid on the defeated powers caused such great hardship in Germany that an atmosphere grew in which a madman like Hitler could rise to power and virtually repeat the events of the first world war in World War II, but with even more ghastly variations. Germany paid for that war with the division of its homeland into a western part that became democratic and an eastern part that remained isolated under Soviet domination until the breakup of the U.S.S.R. just six or sever years ago.
History is littered with examples of nations and empires that rose to great power by conquering and oppressing many cultures, only to come crashing down in decay and defeat after a few decades or a few centuries of rule. Nations based on the evils of domination and oppression cannot last. The evil itself eventually destroys them.
Yet while they last, they do demonstrate great power to impose their wills on those nations and peoples who are subject to them. Isn't this a real power of evil?
On the material level and in the short run, it is. But on the spiritual level and in the long run, it is not. Listen to this passage from Swedenborg:
When people who are connected to the Divine think about things in the present, they also think about eternal things, because they think from the Lord. They say to themselves, "What is anything that is not eternal? Aren't temporary things like nothing compared to eternal things, and don't they also become nothing when they come to an end? It is not this way with eternal things; they alone are, because their being has no end." (Divine Providence #59)
Notice that it says people think from what is eternal when they think from the Lord. From the Lord's perspective, only what is eternal is truly real. Everything else is a flash in a pan. Here today, gone tomorrow. A will o' the wisp.
When we look at things from a material, time-bound perspective, evil does look very real and very powerful. We experience its effects, and they can be very painful. But knowing that evil is self-limiting and tends to destroy itself--knowing that evil tends to be temporary--we can see from a long-term, spiritual perspective that compared to goodness, which has real, lasting life from the Lord, evil is relatively nothing and relatively powerless.
The more material and short-term our perspective, the more real and powerful evil looks. The more spiritual and long-term our perspective, the less real and powerful evil looks. To continue our Psalm,
The righteous will see, and fear,
Often in this world, but always in the next, good will have the last laugh.
Yet even Swedenborg speaks of a case in which evil apparently can be eternal. And the Bible does allow for a kind of power of evil. The evil others do to us can damage us physically and emotionally, but it cannot destroy our eternal life. However, the evil we think, desire, and do ourselves can and will destroy our eternal life if we do not turn away from it, but continue to choose a selfish and destructive path.
Jesus said, "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matt. 10:28) Traditionally, this has been interpreted to mean that we should not fear other people, but should fear the Devil, (what Swedenborgians would call "hell") who can destroy us body and soul. The more I have thought about this passage over the years, though, the more I have thought this was only a secondary meaning. The one who really does have the power to destroy us, both body and soul, is... ourselves!
Another way of putting this is that if we look at real things--I mean at things that last forever--evil has no power over us unless we give it power over ourselves. God and goodness do have all the power. But when we invite evil into our lives by making self-centered choices instead of choices to love others, then we give evil what it doesn't have on its own: power over our lives. Then we have used the freedom and humanity God has given us to rob power from the goodness that is God and give it to something whose only "power" is to destroy things and turn them into nothing.
Let's bring this down to practical experience. These days, everyone knows that smoking damages our bodies. Yet millions of people continue to smoke. Why? Why do we do this, and other things that hurt us so much? The fact is, if we didn't know about smoking, we wouldn't miss it. It is not like eating or breathing. They are necessary for our bodies to survive. If we stop eating or breathing for too long, we will die. But smoking is not necessary for our bodies to live. No other animal on the face of the earth intentionally inhales smoke--and neither did human beings for thousands of years before we discovered how to use fire.
A destructive habit like smoking only has power over us because we have given it that power. There are profits to be made in selling cigarettes, so the companies that manufacture them continue to make them look attractive to us through advertising. Especially when we are young, we introduce each other to bad habits such as smoking, thinking that by sharing cigarettes or alcohol or some other forbidden fruit with each other, we will have a greater sense of belonging to the group. Eventually, we pay the price of indulging in a practice that our bodies have no natural need for, and that hurts us each time we do it.
Smoking is just an example. It is the same for any hurtful or destructive thing we do. It is the same if we spend our time trying to show we are smarter than others, or complaining instead of looking for the good in our situation. It is the same if we decide we don't need to be completely honest in our dealings with other people. None of these bad habits are necessary to get along with each other. In fact, we are much happier when they are not part of our lives. Yet too often we make the choice to invite these negative and hurtful things into our lives--or not to banish them from our lives if the habit has already been established. In doing so, we give them power they do not have by themselves.
The promise the Lord gives us is that if we will turn to the Lord instead of trusting in ourselves and following our more self-centered and thoughtless desires, then we will have true power. We will have the power that can only come from the Son of Man--our Lord Jesus Christ--who is not only symbolically seated at the right hand of the power of God, but is the right hand of God's power.
If we turn fully to the Lord, we will be able to put our bad and destructive habits to flight with a puff of breath, just as the angels can put thousands of evil spirits to flight. This is hard for us, not because evil has any great power on its own, but because we have given it power over ourselves. When we do this, the evil parts of us have gradually shut off the flow of God's power to those parts of our lives where it holds sway.
When we come to a decision that we no longer want to give evil this power, then we can turn to the source of all true power, and be strengthened by the hand of God. Then we will be able to say with the Psalmist,
I am like a green olive tree in the house of God.