Angels and Devils
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 31, 1999
Transcribed from Audio Tape


Genesis 50:15-20 Evil turned to good

When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?" So they sent word to Joseph, saying, "Your father left these instructions before he died: 'This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.' Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father." When their message came to him, Joseph wept.

His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. "We are your slaves," they said.

But Joseph said to them, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended evil, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done: the saving of many lives.

Matthew 13:24-30 The parable of the weeds

Jesus told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like someone who sowed good seed in the field. But while everyone was sleeping, an 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.'"

Divine Providence #251 Why does God permit evil?

Since the time of the very earliest humans, symbolized by Adam and his wife, the love that is the life of humankind has become one that desires to rule over other people, and eventually over everything; and also to possess all the wealth of the world, and eventually all the wealth there is. These two loves cannot be kept in chains, since it is in harmony with divine providence that we are all allowed to act in freedom according to our rationality.

Also, if bad things were not allowed to happen, the Lord could not lead us out of evil, so that we could be reformed and saved. For unless evils were allowed to surface, we would not see them; therefore we would not acknowledge them, and so we could not be led to resist them. Because of this, evil cannot be suppressed by any act of providence. If it were, it would remain shut in, and like a disease such as cancer or gangrene, would spread and destroy our entire life.

For from birth we are like a little hell--and between this hell and heaven there is never-ending conflict. And the Lord cannot lead us out of our hell unless we see that we are in hell, and want to be led out of it.


Joseph said to them, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended evil, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done: the saving of many lives. (Genesis 50:19, 20)

This passage is a reference to the fact that Joseph's brothers had sold him into slavery in Egypt. They had intended that for evil because they were jealous of their brother. And yet, by that happening, Joseph was able to lead the Egyptians to store away grain for the years of famine, and therefore save the lives of thousands of people. So the brothers had intended it for evil, but the Lord had intended it for good.

Today is Halloween, and I put a couple of pictures on the front of your service bulletin: one of a little angel, and one of what you might call a little devil. It always used to bother me that a lot of the Halloween costumes were these evil figures: ghouls and goblin and aliens that are going to come and take over the human race. I thought, "What kind of a holiday is this where we dress up our kids as all these awful characters?" Of course, there were some nice characters too, but still, when you see all those little devils running around, you kind of wonder about it.

Today I want to look at this issue of angels and devils, or in more abstract terms, good and evil. Where does evil come from? Why do we have it in our world? And what is good about evil? There's a little paradox for you. So the question we have in front of us is where did evil come from, and why does God allow it? Why does God allow war? Why does God allow disease? Suffering? Why does God allow crime? Why doesn't God stop the criminal from doing what he has in his heart before it happens?

Swedenborg, in our reading this morning, makes a rather startling and disturbing statement. A lot of people, when they have read this sort of thing in Swedenborg, have been bothered by it. He says that we all start out like a little hell. Well . . . that doesn't look like the babies I knew when my little babies were born. We like to think of our babies as a little heaven. Yet, as any parent knows, babies can be a little hell when they're fussy and whiny and you're dead tired, and all that they're concerned about is their own immediate needs, no matter how tired and distraught you are. So there is one sense in which we are born a little hell, and that is that we are born entirely wrapped up in ourselves.

Swedenborg does, though, make the balancing statement in other places: that when we're born, and when we're little babies, we're surrounded by angels of the highest heaven. And so in babies, that self-centeredness isn't really evil, in a sense, because it's innocent: they don't mean any harm to their parents when they're crying for three hours in the middle of the night, and the parents are up taking care of them and wondering how they are going to get through the next day.

There's no bad intent in those babies, but there is a self-centeredness. And if we carry that self-centeredness with us through our growing up years and into our adulthood, it does become evil. Imagine adults living the same way as babies: not caring what the people around them think, doing whatever they happen to feel like at that time no matter what it does to the others around them. Then you can see that that self-centeredness grown up, would create a hell on earth, because we would all be thinking only about ourselves, and not about the people around us. And the fact is that some people do reach adulthood and all they're thinking about is themselves. So this is what Swedenborg is referring to: that self-centeredness that's natural in babies, but becomes a bad thing when we don't get rid of it as we grow older.

We are all mixtures of good and evil. We do have good about us. We see good in little children. Sometimes my little boys are really nice to each other. And if my daughter gets in the right mood, she'll take care of the two boys, and she's just like a little mother--she's as sweet as can be. Then later on she'll be picking fights with them. So we're all mixtures of good and evil.

We know that within ourselves we do have high aspirations; we have things that we want to accomplish in this life. We have ideals for our own lives, for the lives of our children, for our work. And yet we also know that within us there are parts that don't really want to put out the effort, or that don't care as much about other people as about how we ourselves feel. We have those negative parts of ourselves as well.

We are a mixture of good and evil. And we gain this--both the good and the evil--from our parents and our society. There are mixtures of good and evil in our society. And so, when I think about the children dressing up for Halloween, it reminds me that most of our holidays only look at the good side of things. We have Thanksgiving--that's pretty good; we have Christmas--that's pretty good; we have Easter--that's pretty good.

Halloween is a holiday that recognizes that there truly is evil as well as good. We dress up, and maybe we don't take it very seriously, but when we see those little ghosts and goblins running around, if we think about it we realize that those are expressions of the evil in our society and in ourselves; and the good costumes are an expression of the good in us. And so Halloween, in a sense, is a realistic holiday: it recognizes that we as people and we as a society are a mixture of good and evil.

Now, what could be good about having that evil parading around and showing itself to us? Here, Swedenborg gives us some help when he says that we cannot overcome the evil . . . the Lord cannot help us to overcome the evil in ourselves until we see that it is there. If we're going along blissfully ignorant, totally ignoring the feelings of others, and we don't even realize how rude and how hurtful we're being, there's nothing that the Lord can do to help us out of acting that way toward other people.

But as soon as we realize, "You know, that was a pretty nasty thing that I said. That must have hurt," then the evil is coming out into our consciousness, and we're recognizing that there is a problem that we need to work on. So actually, if we get to the point where we realize, "I'm not such a great person," that may be a positive step. Because the fact is that everybody else around us knew that we were being a jerk all that time--we were the only ones that didn't. And when we become aware of it, then is when we can begin to work on it. So I'm not quite as bothered by the little ghosts and goblins running around anymore because it's one way that our society recognizes that there are evil things within us and in our society that need to be worked on.

Swedenborg says that evil must appear before it can be rooted out. This brings us to our Gospel reading: the parable of the wheat and the tares, to use the old language. The "tares" were a weed that looked very much like wheat when it was first growing up, and it was hard to tell the difference. This is why, when the master, the owner of the land was approached by the servants saying, "should we pull them out," he said, "No, don't do that, because you will pull out the wheat along with the weeds. Wait until they grow up." Then it becomes obvious, because the wheat is bearing nice heads of grain, whereas the weeds are doing nothing useful except taking up the nutrients in the soil. Then you will be able to see clearly what is the good--what's the wheat--and what is the evil.

Sometimes we need to let that evil mature in us a little bit. We need to let it show itself. Perhaps we need to make that nasty remark. We've been feeling inside, "What a jerk that person is," but we've never done anything about it. Then at some point we just get too frustrated and the word comes out: we say that mean thing, and we hurt the other person. Then we realize that this is the result of those feelings we've had inside ourselves toward that person. And this is the first time we've recognized how hurtful those feelings are.

The evil has matured. It has matured into action. And now we can pull out that weed. We can say, "I have to get rid of the attitude that this other person is a lesser person than I am; that he or she is a bad person. I have to root that out of myself so that I won't treat them that way anymore.

And so, in an odd way, what we see as evil, God intends for good. Every evil that comes out in our lives is an opportunity for us to make ourselves into better people. Because whether we recognize it or not, those bad feelings are there, and our personal faults are there. And now we have seen them. The Lord is bringing them out so that we can see them and reform ourselves--make ourselves into a more thoughtful person. So what we see as evil: that nasty remark we made to that person . . . the Lord doesn't necessarily see the nasty remark as good, but the fact that we made it and saw that it was wrong, the Lord intended for good. So the Lord turns that evil into goodness. If we have a bad temper or a drinking problem, sooner or later it is going to come out. And if we recognize that, then the Lord can bring good out of it.

Here is where we come back full circle to the story of Joseph. The brothers had intended this act for evil. They hated their brother. They were jealous of him because he was their father's favorite. Their father gave him special presents--the coat of many colors. (We're going to see a few more coats of colors in a minute!) [After the sermon and offertory, the children came into the sanctuary wearing their costumes and joined the congregation for a Children's Talk and a rousing chorus of "Oh When the Saints Go Marching In."] They hated him because they were jealous. And they did an act that was intended to hurt him.

Later on, they recognized that they had made a mistake, that they were wrong. And in sort of an offhand way, they were coming to him to apologize to him--to say, "We're sorry for what that we did." Now, part of it was out of fear: he was a very powerful man by that time, and they had better apologize to him. Yet on the other hand, they had all matured some. They had all recognized that they had done it out of jealousy, and it wasn't such a good thing to do. And if we continued with the story, we would find that they had a wonderful coming back together--a rapprochement--where they were weeping on one another's necks, in the Biblical phrase. They did come together and appreciate each other.

So in the end, through all of the hard things that happened, the Lord brought the goodness of the reconciliation. The Lord brought goodness out of that evil. Spiritually, this is also a story of our higher part, our good part, our spiritual part coming to rule in the end. Whatever may have ruled our lives meanwhile, when Joseph becomes the ruler and then gets back together with his brothers, it's a picture of our higher selves finally coming to rule in our lives, and putting everything else into order.

Back to the question of evil. In the short term, evil is painful. If somebody we love dies; if we lose our job; if somebody who we cared about betrays us, it hurts. There's no way we can deny that at least in the short term, we are hurt by these things. Yet, the Lord can turn these things around into long term good. There's another saying of Jesus that helps us here: "What good is it for a person to gain all the world but lose his own soul?" (Mark 8:36). And the flip side of that is: how much does it matter if we have temporary pain, if we are growing spiritually as a result, and becoming more thoughtful and loving people?

Halloween reminds us of all these struggles that we have between the good and the evil in us. And I hope that as we contemplate this, and as we struggle with these issues in our lives, that the angel side of us will win out over the devil side, so that in the end, we can become angels of light. Amen.

Music: Theme from Casper