Divine Providence and Human Evil

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts August 24, 1997

Readings

Psalm 27:1-6

The Lord is my light and my salvation--whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life--of whom shall I be afraid?
When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh,
when my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall.
Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me, even then will I be confident.

One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock.
Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me;
at his tabernacle will I sacrifice with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make music to the Lord.


Matthew 13:24-30

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed ears, then the weeds also appeared.

The owner's servants came to him and said, "Sir, didn't you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?"

"An enemy did this," he replied.

The servants asked him, "Do you want us to go and pull them up?"

"No," he answered, "because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters, 'First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.'"

Luke 12:4-7

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Divine Providence #320; Heaven and Hell #302

If we believed the way things really are--that everything good and true is from the Lord and everything evil and false is from hell--we would not attribute good things to ourselves and take credit for them, nor would we attribute evil things to ourselves and make ourselves responsible for them. Instead, we would focus on the Lord in everything good that we think and do, and we would throw everything evil back into the hell that it came from.

Sermon

This morning I am bringing you some of the spirit of the Fryeburg New Church Assembly. Even though I give two lectures and teach ten Flames (teen) classes during the two week session, I still think of the Assembly as a vacation. There, I am with family and good friends, some of whom I see only at the Assembly. The Saco River flows by camp--and each year I make sure to get out in a canoe at least once. There are woods to walk in, beautiful mountains nearby, and simple living in a cabin--a break from the computer, TV, and other distractions of modern living. It is a perfect setting for a community of Swedenborgians to gather, live together for a time, and learn about the teachings of our church, both in theory and in practice.

This year at the Assembly our topic for the second week was "Divine Providence." My talk today comes from a lecture I delivered there on August 15th (1997), titled "Divine Providence: The Tough Cases." We do not have time for the full lecture, but I would like to bring you some of the laws of divine providence that are especially important for understanding evil and injustice in the world. These laws come from Swedenborg's book Divine Providence (D.P.).

The very first thing we need to understand is why God created the universe in the first place. Without this, we can't possibly understand the things God is doing to accomplish that goal--and why God allows so many evil things to happen in our world.

Swedenborg says the goal of creation is a heaven from the human race (D.P. chapter 2). When Swedenborg says "a heaven from the human race," he is talking about human community. God's goal in creating the universe is to have a community of human beings in loving relationship with each other and with God. This means the communities we live in are not only a means to our spiritual development; they are the goal of our spiritual development. If we can make our communities more loving and heaven-like, we are helping God to achieve his goal in creation.

However, God is not content with merely temporary goals. If we achieved a loving human community on earth, but later it backslid into selfishness and greed, or simply ceased to exist, what would that brief moment of goodness be, compared to the eternity of God? God looks primarily to what is infinite and eternal--and attends to temporary and limited things only in relation to their contribution toward what is infinite and eternal (D.P. chapter 3).

If we allow this to sink deeply into our minds, it will give us an entirely different perspective on both the bad and the good things that happen to us. When we humans experience disease, poverty, or the loss of a loved one, we think of it is a tragedy. And these circumstances are very painful. But from the Lord's perspective, they are nowhere near as important as what is going on inside of us. If we become bitter and self-absorbed through tragedy, this is a much worse tragedy than the physical circumstances that triggered our bitterness. But if we become more thoughtful and compassionate human beings through our experience of personal and community tragedy, the temporary pain we feel will be far outweighed by the permanent spiritual growth we experience through the tragedy.

This brings us to a third law of divine providence. Whatever our outward circumstances, we have a choice about how to respond to them. In our response, to put it in Swedenborg's words, we must act in freedom according to reason (D.P. chapter 5). This also brings us to the major reason why there is evil as well as good in the world.

Theoretically, God could have created a universe in which there was no possibility of evil. But God has a goal higher than simply preventing evil. God wants human community. That means human relationships. And human relationships mean freely chosen relationships. Perhaps God could have made us to automatically understand and love each other. But that would be no different than a computer programmer writing a subroutine that prints "I Love You" on the computer screen. It wouldn't mean anything, because it would be only a programmed response.

Consider a marriage relationship. Would we be happy with arranged marriages in which we had no choice? Not in our culture--and I suspect it doesn't work all that well spiritually even in cultures where it is a regular practice. No, for a marriage to be real, we must choose each other as our partners, from love.

It is the same in our relationship with God. If we had no choice except to love God, our love would not be real. But since God is all good and all truth, infinitely and eternally, the only way we could have any other choice would be for God to allow some other possibility. That possibility is the denial of goodness and truth--in other words, evil and falsity. So God allows us to twist the goodness and truth that come from him into evil and falsity because otherwise we could not be truly human, nor could we have truly human relationships. We could not have a loving human community--which is the goal of creation.

We find ourselves in a situation where, through our own and others' mistaken choices, we experience terribly painful and evil things that we inflict upon each other. What can we do about this?

The same freedom and rationality that enabled us to get off the track into selfish and destructive behavior can be a tool in our hands to get us back on track. God will never force us through outward circumstances to believe and love good and spiritual things. But we can force ourselves to do so (D.P. chapter 7).

Each of us is able, in our own limited way, to know what is right and wrong. Each of us is also able to make choices about which way we will go when we are faced with decisions. As hard as it sometimes is, we need to make the choice to believe and do what is good and right--even if that means exercising an uncomfortable self-compulsion.

The Lord does not expect us to be able to root out every false idea or selfish motive that flits through our heads. But the Lord does want us to take our lives in hand and avoid acting on those negative impulses. To put it in Swedenborg's words, the Lord wants us to remove evils as sins in our outward self just as if we were doing it on our own; and if we do this, the Lord will remove those evils from our inner self--and from our outer self as well (D.P. chapter 6).

What does this mean? It means that when we have an impulse to do something we know is wrong, we should stop ourselves from acting on that impulse. If we will do this regularly, praying to the Lord for help, then the Lord will gradually take away our desire to do that wrong thing. If we do our part, and demand of ourselves that we make the right choice, the Lord will do his part and, over time, free us from our slavery--our addiction--to those wrong thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Yes, there is evil in our world. Yes, there is evil in our own lives. Some of it we are personally responsible for because of bad choices we have made. Much of it we are not personally responsible for. But we are responsible for our reaction to it--and our response to each tragedy and injustice that we see or experience will determine whether we join with that particular evil and make it a part of ourselves, or whether we resist it and help to overcome it, both in ourselves and in our community.

However, in all that we do, we will only be successful spiritually if we recognize that it is really the Lord's divine providence running the show, not our own intelligence. If we are willing to believe this, and to put ourselves in the flow of divine providence, then both the good and the evil things that happen to us will help move us toward the Lord's goal in creation: a heavenly, human community of people who live together in mutual love and understanding, with God at the center.

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Music: Forever and a Day
1999 Bruce DeBoer