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. (2 Sam. 22:26, 27. Also Psalm 18:25, 26)
This past Tuesday as I was driving into Bridgewater on Bedford St., heading up from Rt. 495, a billboard caught my eye. It said in big, bold letters, "Happiness is helping others." I thought, "What a nice sign!" Then I noticed the billboard right next to it. It was a cigarette ad, showing a young woman who was obviously enraptured with the wonders of this particular cigarette. The brand name was in large, colorful letters prominently displayed. In smaller, more boring letters across the bottom something else was written. I couldn't quite read the whole thing as I drove by, but it started, "Surgeon General's warning..."
I am certain that whoever had put up those two billboards side by side did it especially to illustrate what I wanted to preach about this week. I have been thinking a lot about divine providence lately--both about the book by Swedenborg and about the idea of how God cares for us. I have especially been thinking about the issue of evil--why there is evil in our lives... why God permits evil things to happen, both inside of us and out in the world. So today we are going to talk about the good stuff: evil!
I say that with tongue in cheek, but this kind of careless contradiction is just what strikes me about those two billboards right next to each other. One offers a very Christian thought: that happiness is helping others. The other is part of an organized effort to make a profit from a product known by its makers to hurt others.
Those two billboards are more than a couple of signs by the side of the road. They are, to adapt an old expression, billboards of the soul of our world. They sum up the contradictions of our human experience here on earth--contradictions that go all the way back to that mythic time in pre-history when the race of people known to us in the Bible as "Adam and Eve" ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. From that time in our human history onward, our lives have been an inappropriate and sometimes glaring mixture of good and evil.
As a nation, we send humanitarian aid to other countries at the same time we are supplying various military factions with weapons to use in shooting and killing people. As a people, we make great advances in surgery and healing at the same time we are mass-marketing liquor, cigarettes, and other drugs known to be damaging--even deadly--to the human body. On a more personal level, we love and provide for our children at the same time we are passing on to them all the faults of character that we have never quite faced up to and overcome. That quick temper; that tendency to overindulge; that lack of courage to say "no" when we know someone is doing something very wrong; that pride that looks down on people outside of our family or group. The list could go on and on.
As human beings, we are bundles of contradictions. The deeper we dig inside ourselves and into the workings of our society, the more contradictions we find. Some of them are blatant, like the two billboards. Others are more subtle, like helping others, not so much because we care about them, but because we want to make ourselves feel good. We want to pat ourselves on the back and say "what a good boy (or girl) am I!" Now that is a contradiction: doing good things for other people in order to make ourselves happy. I do not think this is what the billboard meant, but it is one of those subtle ways that we can take the truth--that we gain happiness from helping others--and turn it into something false--that our goal in helping others should be to make ourselves happy.
Contradictions! Contradictions! What I find a little scary is that if we get ourselves too far into these contradictions and self-deceptions, even our faith in God can seem to support the faulty conclusions we draw. This is illustrated by a passage from the Bible that has been running through my head lately. It is the one I used as my text: "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."
Just a minute! Those first three were fine, but what about that fourth one? We are talking about God here... It says, "with the crooked you show yourself perverse." God? Perverse? That goes against everything our church teaches. Some religions do teach that God is both good and evil. This is usually associated with various Eastern religions; but Christianity is not exempt. There are many passages in the Bible about the destructive wrath of God--and many Christians take these passages quite literally. For many Christians, God is not only a God of creative love and compassion, but also a God of destructive anger and vengeance.
"With the crooked you show yourself perverse." It is the same jam we can get into with words we say in our service every week--words that come from no less than the Lord's Prayer. Each week we say, as we pray to the Lord, "Lead us not into temptation." Does this mean that the Lord would lead us into temptation if we didn't pray to the Lord not to? Is God being perverse to us when we are spiritually "crooked" enough to need some temptations to straighten us out?
Even Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane urged his disciples to stay awake and pray that they may not come into the time of trial (or temptation). His own prayer was an example of this: "My father," he said, "if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want." The "cup" that Jesus was praying might pass from him was the crucifixion--the greatest temptation that the Lord faced in his entire life on earth.
What can we make of all this? Is it God's will that our lives should contain so much trial, temptation, and struggle? Is it the Lord who leads us into temptation? There are many places where the Bible says that God tempts us. Yet it is incompatible with the teachings of our church that the Lord would bring us pain and struggle, for the Lord is pure love and wishes to bring us only happiness and joy.
Swedenborg gives us help here. He admits in True Christian Religion #650 that,
It is a new idea in the church that the Lord attributes good and never evil to us, and that the devil (meaning hell) attributes evil and never good to us. This is a new idea because we read in many passages in the Bible that God is angry, takes revenge, hates, condemns, punishes, throws people into hell, and tempts us--all of which are the actions of an evil person, meaning they are evil.
But Swedenborg goes on to explain that these statements about God in the literal meaning of the Bible only appear to be true, while in the deeper meaning, God never tempts or punishes us. In The Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture #94, Swedenborg gives one reason why such things are said in the Bible's literal meaning. Some people need to think that God will punish them if they do wrong--so that they will avoid doing what is wrong! But in Apocalypse Explained #246, Swedenborg tells us how temptations really work:
...It is not the Lord who "reproves and chastens" us; rather, it is hellish spirits who are in false ideas similar to our own. These evil spirits are the ones who "chasten" us--meaning they tempt us. We know that God does not tempt anyone...
This is how temptations happen: We come into them when we are brought into our own ego. Then hellish spirits who have the same false ideas as we do--and the same evil loves--attach themselves to us and hold our minds in these false ideas and evil loves. But the Lord holds our minds in true ideas from faith, and in the good things of kindness. Since we are then continually thinking of heaven and salvation, we experience deep anguish of mind--and from this comes the battle that is called "temptation."
What Swedenborg is saying here is that it is not the Lord who leads us into temptation, but our own false thinking, and the evil (or destructive) things that we love when we are thinking and feeling from our ego. Evil spirits attach themselves to these false and evil things in us, and try to keep us headed in that direction. But these false and evil things conflict with everything we know and feel about loving others and believing in our church's teachings. And the Lord tries to move us in that direction. So we experience inner anguish and struggle as these two forces--evil and falsity from hell, and love and wisdom from the Lord--struggle with each other inside of us.
An example might help. Let's say we have a tendency to lose our temper with our family members. When we think about it, we know that when we have an outburst of temper, it hurts the people it is directed at. It hurts our husband or wife; our children; our parents; our brother or sister; our friends--it hurts the people we love. We know that it is not the way the Lord would have us live. Yet when we are having the outburst--and often before and after it, too--we argue within ourselves that we are justified in getting angry and lashing out because those people deserved it for what they said or did.
So we have a struggle inside of us between our destructive inclination to lash out--together with the faulty reasoning we use to justify it--on the one hand, and on the other hand our desire to love the people around us and our knowledge that the church teaches us to love others and to treat them as we ourselves would wish to be treated.
It may seem to us that it is the Lord who is "being perverse" and leading us into temptation. But if it were not for our self-centered feelings--our feelings that others should be serving us--we would have no struggle; we would receive the love and wisdom that comes to us from the Lord and show it to all the people we come in contact with. But when our ego, or selfishness, gets in the way, then we have a struggle. It is our selfishness, not the Lord's love, that causes us to come into the anguish of temptation.
Yet the Lord does allow our evil and self-centered thoughts to express themselves from time to time in hurtful actions, such as outbursts of temper. Why? As Swedenborg explains in the passage we read from Divine Providence, if the evil that is inside of us never came out, we would not be aware of it so that we could overcome it. It would stay inside us and fester until it finally ate us up from the inside out.
The Lord allows us to see and even express our selfish thoughts and feelings because only when we see that they are there--and see their destructive effects--can we face them squarely, and with the Lord's power, put them aside. We will never rid ourselves of them entirely--they will always be at the edge, wanting to come back. But with the Lord's help we can move them away from the center of our thoughts and feelings.
When we pray to the Lord to "lead us not into temptation," we are praying for something the Lord already wants--and that is a good way to pray! We don't want to change God's mind. God is already perfect; any change would be for the worse. But we do want to bring ourselves into harmony with God's will. When we are ready to let go of our self-centered desires and the faulty thinking we use to justify them, then the Lord can lead us, not into temptation, but out of temptation and into the joy of spiritual life.
Music: The Lord's Prayer