Building a Heavenly Self

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Fryeburg, Maine, August 20, 2000


Deuteronomy 30:11-20 The offer of life or death

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, "Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?" Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, "Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?" No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it.

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Luke 9:18-27 Peter's confession of Christ

Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, "Who do the crowds say that I am?" They answered, "John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered, "The Messiah of God."

He strictly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, "The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised."

Then he said to them all, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God."

Arcana Coelestia #5660 A heavenly self

Our heavenly self comes from a new motivation that the Lord gives us. It is different from our own selfhood. When we receive a heavenly self, we no longer see only ourselves in everything we do and in everything that we learn and tell others about. Instead, we see our neighbor, the general public, the church, the Lord's kingdom, and the Lord himself.


Jesus said, "Those who want to become my followers must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their own life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9:23, 24)

"Those who want to save their own life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will save it." This is the paradox in which we live. The more we focus on our own wants and needs, the less alive and the more frustrated we feel; but the more we forget ourselves and simply live from the best we know--which, in the end, is living from the Lord--the more alive and fulfilled we feel.

This week at Fryeburg New Church Assembly we have been focusing on the human "proprium," a Latin word that means our ego, our sense of self, our self-image. This is what we identify as "I," whereas everything else we identify as "not I." To use my father's phrase, it is our "necessary illusion of self-guidance."

Our self-ownership or selfhood is an illusion. We know from our church's teachings and from common spiritual sense that everything good and true comes from the Lord and belongs to the Lord. So nothing good and true in us is really ours. We also know that evil and falsity are simply perversions of goodness and truth, with no real life of their own--so claiming them as ours is claiming an illusion on top of an illusion. Swedenborg is fond of saying that by ourselves, we are nothing but evil. But we could also say that by ourselves, we are nothing at all, since everything we have and everything we are flows into us either from the Lord or from hell. Nothing is really our own.

Yet our sense of self-ownership and selfhood is also entirely necessary. Without it we would never be able to exist as human beings. We could never do anything from free choice according to our own values and beliefs. This means we could have no real relationships with one another or with the Lord. So the Lord, who wants to be in relationship with us, gives us as a gift this sense of self-ownership. And the Lord allows us to do whatever we want with that sense of self possession--and thus with our lives.

So here we are, living in this paradox. By ourselves we are nothing, and if we try to claim anything as our own, we automatically plunge ourselves into fallacies and illusions. Yet we are given the gift of feeling that we own ourselves so that we can become truly human, and be in loving relationship with one another and with God.

But most of the time we are not bending our brain around paradoxes, fallacies, and spiritual concepts. Most of the time, we are simply trying to get along in our lives and do what is in front of us--perhaps with some goal in mind as to where we want to be in an hour or a week or a month or a year or a decade from now. And even if we do have long-range goals, most of the time we are too busy with the tasks of our lives to be consciously thinking about those goals more than a fraction of the time.

Yet as long as we are driven by our own sense of self, having long-range goals is essential to moving forward in our lives. Without goals, we are leaves driven by the wind, blowing this way and that according to the various currents that swirl around us. So rather than starting with a rather depressing recitation of how we humans are born into evil, I would like to offer you one of the beautiful statements from Swedenborg about what we can hope for when we have run our course, fought our battles, and emerged as a new creation in the Lord. In Arcana Coelestia #5660, a little later in the same number that I read from earlier, Swedenborg writes:

When we are given a heavenly self, we enjoy a state of serenity and peace; for we trust in the Lord and believe that no evil at all can come to touch us. We also know that no strong evil desires can molest us. Further, when we have received a heavenly self we enjoy true freedom; for being led by the Lord is freedom, since we are then led within an atmosphere of goodness, from goodness, and toward goodness. So it is clear that we then enjoy bliss and happiness. There is nothing that can disturb us--no selfish love at all, and therefore no anger, hatred, or desire for revenge. Nor do we have any materialistic love. Because of this, we have no desire to deceive anyone, no fear, and no uneasiness at all.

Now, if you already have no fear and no uneasiness at all in your life, feel free to take a blissful nap for the rest of this sermon! But for all the rest of us, let's take a look at this business of building a heavenly self.

To be true to Swedenborg's statement here, I should say being given a heavenly self. We are told both in the Bible and in Swedenborg that we can do nothing by ourselves, but everything good comes from the Lord as a free gift, given out of pure divine love and compassion. How, then, can we speak of building a heavenly self?

The paradox that we live in is that even though we know in our better moments that everything we have and everything we are is really a gift from the Lord, we must act as if it were all up to us. If we sit around doing nothing, waiting for the Lord to flow into us with all that wonderful love, peace, joy, and bliss, we will never do anything at all--nor will the Lord be able to flow into us with anything but a continuation of the status quo. Even though we are merely vessels that can receive love and understanding from the Lord, we still must do the work--as if it were up to us--of making the vessel that is us receptive to the Lord's presence.

This means giving up everything in our character and self-image that stands in the way of the Lord's living, growing presence of our lives. And this is what Jesus means when he tells us that if we try to hold onto our own life, we will lose it. Let's face it: when we start out on this journey of life, we are generally operating from a lot of faulty feelings and attitudes, which tend to be focused on our own happiness and comfort. And our experience of holding onto our own lives is that if we don't stick up for our own needs, and go after our own happiness and comfort, nobody else is going to do it for us.

From a material perspective, and in our current society, this is true. Yes, our parents will take care of our basic needs while we are growing up. But once we reach adulthood and are out on our own, it is up to us to provide for ourselves the necessities of life. In fact, one of the goals of our upbringing and education is that when we reach adulthood, we will have the knowledge and ability we need in order to support ourselves in this society. And it is a healthy part of our spiritual journey to get to a point where we are pulling our own weight by contributing usefully to our community and the human economy generally. If most of us did not do this, our society would fall apart.

The irony is that once we have spent all those years learning how to be self-sufficient, we have to spend just as many, if not more years learning to give up our sense of self-sufficiency, and to trust in one another and in the Lord's leadership. Yes, most of us can support ourselves materially and get along reasonably well through our own work and initiative. But after we've proven to ourselves that we can do it, the challenge is gone and it simply becomes work. At that point, we may continue to go for more and better positions for ourselves, and more material possessions and accomplishments. But if we are at all open to the deeper dimensions of life, sooner or later we will become dissatisfied with what this world has to offer. Sooner or later we will want a deeper life.

This deeper life is something we cannot acquire for ourselves. Yes, we can study the Bible and other spiritual books, go to church, look for spirit in nature, meditate, and so on. But true spiritual life comes only from a living relationship with the Lord. And a deeper, heavenly self can come only when we open ourselves up to the Lord's presence in our lives. This means that we must lay down all that carefully built up sense of being self-sufficient and in control of our own destiny. We must let our old self-image die so that a new self-image--one of being sustained each moment by the Lord--can take its place.

It would be too much for us to do this all at once. We simply can't undo in one fell swoop the self-image we have built up for ourselves over so many years. Fortunately, we have the remainder of our lifetimes to work on it. And we can work on it little by little, letting one particular part of our old self-image die and replacing that with the new, heavenly self offered by the Lord before moving on and replacing some other part. In this way, we can keep our overall sense of being alive, while continual deaths of the old and rebirths of the new are taking place in our lives.

We can picture it as the renovation of a house. If we move into a house that needs renovation, it is difficult, if not impossible, to do it all at once. For one thing, we have to live in some of the rooms while we're renovating the others. So instead of doing it all at once, we do first one room, then another, then another. That way we always have a place to live while we're doing the renovations.

When we first move in, of course, we are living in the old, unrenovated house. And we have to stay in the unrenovated parts at first, while we do the initial renovations on the most important rooms, or on the ones that need it most. While we're doing the renovations, the house can be quite a mess! We have to cram all our stuff into the rooms that aren't being worked on. Meanwhile, we have to keep carting away old plaster and rotten boards, while tracking sawdust all over the house and generally living in the midst of a construction zone. It is only as we finish each room that we can begin moving in and enjoying the fruits of our labors. Gradually we can move out of the still unrenovated parts so that we can take care of them in turn.

This is how it is when we begin the task of building a heavenly self. For most of us, by the time we realize that our life is lacking in terms of love and understanding, compassion and mutual respect, we are already inhabiting a rather dilapidated spiritual house. We get so used to the peeling paint and rotten boards of our own thoughtless actions and self-centered attitudes that once we do open our spiritual eyes, we may be shocked by how much we have deteriorated spiritually.

Yet this is exactly where the process of spiritual renovation begins. This is when we can begin to dismantle the old and faulty self we have built up, and replace it with the new, more loving and compassionate self that the Lord offers us. This is when we can begin to build a heavenly self.

Yes, it's a nuisance to have to tear apart everything we've been building up all these years. It also requires a lot of humility to admit that we've made a mess of things, and a lot of faith and courage to turn our lives over to the Lord. But once we've had a vision of the "I" that we can become, the nuisance and the personal pain of renovating ourselves from the Lord becomes worth it. And once we start moving into those newly renovated "rooms" of our character as it is being rebuilt in the Lord's image, we can begin to enjoy the fruits of our spiritual labors.

We should also realize that our previous labor is not lost. The house itself is still there, and much of its structure is preserved. The elements of character that we have built up over the years are not so much swept away as they are renewed and redirected toward higher motivations and higher goals. We will still be able to enjoy many of the familiar activities and relationships that we have developed over the years. But instead of our lives being tainted with too much concern for our own wants and needs--too much self-consciousness--we can go about our daily activities with the bright newness of living from an inner sense of love and understanding for one another, and a new peace in feeling God's presence within and around us.

When we allow the Lord to build a new, heavenly self in us, our old doubts and fears, our old need to hide our "real" self from others, will be gone. In their place will be an inner peacefulness and trust, a sense of abiding mission and usefulness in life. We will know that whatever may come our way, God is with us, and our lives can continue to unfold to a rich and satisfying sense of communion with one another and with God. Our reading from Deuteronomy expresses this with a different image--the image of a journey to a rich, new land of spiritual promise:

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees, and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.



©Jim Warren

Music: On a Distant Shore
© 1999 Bruce DeBoer