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Life from the Lord
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
April 10, 2011
Ezekiel 37:1-14 John 11:17-43 Psalms 130, 131
In our Bible readings this morning, we heard about God giving life. In Ezekiel, we heard about dry bones that were in a valley. They came together, and God breathed into them the breath of life. Then in our passage from John, Jesus gives life to Lazarus, who had been dead for four days. There are two ways to look at these stories, naturally and spiritually. On the natural level, these stories tell us that our very life itself is from God. On the spiritual level, we are taught that God lifts us up into spiritual life, and gives us the joys of heaven.
The natural level of this story is not how things appear to us. It doesn’t feel like we have life from God. It feels like the life we have is ours. It feels like we live by our own power. But his is only an appearance. The life we have is given to us. God alone is life itself; we are only recipients of life. Swedenborg tells us,
Man is nothing else but an organ, or vessel, which receives life from the Lord, for man does not live from himself. The life which flows in with man from the Lord is from His Divine love (AC 3318).
So everything that we call life is God’s Holy Spirit in us. All those millions of chemical reactions that go on without our knowing or even without our power to control is God flowing into our souls, and our souls flowing into our body. Our life is God in us.
All the good we do and all the truth we understand is also God’s Holy Spirit in us. In this case too, God is Good Itself and Truth Itself. We are mere recipients of God’s good and truth. Our life consists only of those things that we love and those things that we understand. (This idea was first put forth by the philosopher David Hume.) The things that we love and understand are called goods and truths. Goods are what we love, and truths are what we understand. These two constitute who we are. Therefore Swedenborg says that, “the very essential of life consists in thinking good and willing good . . . these things are not of man, but of the Lord, therefore, all life flows in” (AC 4151).
Some Christian churches teach that good works do not save us. They say this because they believe that we can do nothing good. They exaggerate a line from Isaiah that Luther took up. It goes, “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). And they are afraid that if we try to do good by our own efforts, we will believe that we deserve heaven. They believe that people will think that they deserve heaven because they have done good. In some regards, they are right in this. To claim that we deserve heaven because we have done good is very injurious to our spiritual wellbeing. Swedenborg calls this claiming merit for our good works. But we are still called upon to do good deeds. Jesus tells us,
I am the vine and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he trims clean so that it will be even more fruitful (John 15:1-2).
John the Baptist confirms this when he says, “every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). So it is clear that we are called to bear fruit, which I take to mean do good things. But it is harmful to take credit for the good we do. This is as strange a teaching as is the teaching that we live from God, not ourselves. It sounds strange because we do good by choice and by an act of will. We try to do good and we do good by our own effort. At least that is how it looks to us. But when we do good, we need to remember that we are only recipients of good and truth. We are able to do good because God’s goodness is in us. This is implied in the Swedenborg passage I cited above which said, “the very essential of life consists in thinking good and willing good . . . these things are not of man, but of the Lord” (AC 4151). But Swedenborg is even more clear in this. “No one ever has good and truth which is his own, but all good and truth flow in from the Lord” (AC 4151). All life is from God. All good is from God. On our own, we can do nothing. Everything we do is from God’s life in us and all the good we do is from God’s goodness in us. So Jesus says, “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). This is why we cannot claim merit for the good we do and this is why we cannot claim that we deserve salvation because of the good things we do. It tarnishes the good we do with self-righteousness. We need to keep humble, and not claim the good we do as our own. If we claim it as ours, we will be like the Pharisee that Jesus denounces in Luke 18:9-12. In that passage,
The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like all other men–robbers, evil-doers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.
This Pharisee is puffed up with pride for all the good he does. Yet Jesus says that he is not justified before God. “For he who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
So far we have been looking at life itself as a gift of God. Now we turn to spiritual life. On a spiritual level, it is God who gives us spiritual life. The dry bones in Ezekiel signify a person who is not yet regenerated. Lazarus’ death symbolizes the same thing. We are born into the world an image of nature. We are reborn into heaven as an image and likeness of God. Now we are entering into Swedenborg’s mysticism. By mysticism, I mean the condition in which a person is joined with God, or in which God is actually in the person and the person is in God. Jesus describes this in John, “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (14:20). In one sense, God is always in everyone. He is in us as life itself. But God isn’t in us completely until we let His love and wisdom into our lives. We are only fully conjoined with God when we return His love–”you are in me, and I am in you.”
Before God is in us spiritually, we are in thick darkness. We are formless and void, as is described before creation in Genesis. We need to be lifted out of our darkness in order to come into heaven. Our minds need to be enlightened so that we understand spiritual truth and our hearts need to become purified so that we can love unselfishly. This is the teaching of Jesus, Swedenborg claims:
He taught the way of truth, that every one who . . . should love Him and the things which are of Him, and should be in His love which is love toward the whole human race . . . should be conjoined and be saved (AC 2034).
But knowing the way of truth is not enough. Believing is not enough. We need to actually let God’s Spirit shine down into our personalities so that we are reborn spiritually. God flows into us from our inmost soul down into our very behavior–and everything in between. Swedenborg breaks the human personality down into three degrees: the internal, the rational and the natural. On earth we are only conscious of our rational and natural degree. We may have moments of inner peace and joy that seem to come over us when our higher degrees are more open to us. But for the most part, we are not fully conscious of these higher degrees. We become fully aware of them when we come into the next life.
Our spiritual regeneration happens when God flows into our higher degrees and our higher degrees flow down into our natural degree. Swedenborg tells us that,
there is a continual Divine influx of celestial and spiritual things through the internal man into the external; that is, an influx of celestial and spiritual things through the rational man into the natural (AC 3085).
But our natural degree begins an image of the world, and we need to be reborn into an image of heaven. We learn a lot of things from a lot of sources–from our upbringing, from religious study, from conversation, from experience. Some of what we learn is true and some is false. I once heard a person say how his truths changed in life. He grew up thinking, “Anything you don’t do perfectly is not worth doing at all.” But in later life he abandoned his perfectionist attitude, and now operates under the statement, “Easy does it.” As we pray and stay open to God, our natural degree is perfected. The truths in our natural degree are elevated, and our falsities are dispersed. So our natural degree is reduced into conformity with our internal degree. Swedenborg describes this process:
Divine good flows into the natural man, than is, into the knowledges outward and inward, and doctrinal teachings therein, for these are of the natural man so far as they are in its memory; and that by this influx it enlightens, vivifies, and disposes into order all things therein; for all light, life, and order in the natural man is from an influx from the Divine (AC 3086).
Our natural degree becomes more open and able to receive influx from our higher degrees as we remove obstacles. The obstacles to influx are chiefly selfishness and worldliness. We need to be ready to abandon truths that only serve self and to take on truths that teach us how to love God and our neighbor. Our inner degrees sift through the knowledges we have in our natural level and lift up into our conscience truths that are heavenly. These then become our guiding principles. This process continues throughout our life on earth and into the next life.
This is the process that brings our dry bones to life. By removing the obstacles to influx, our higher degrees flow down into our natural degree and make it into an image and likeness of God. This is actually God flowing through the degrees of our personality, giving us the breath of spiritual life. This is how we are elevated into heavenly thought and feelings. This process happens to us with our effort and without our effort. At times we need to consciously reject limiting doctrines. And at other times, we will have intuitive perceptions about truth that come from our higher degrees. But whatever the means, it is actually God lifting us ever upward to Himself. It is never a process that we can take credit for.
The man who is made new by regeneration . . . is withheld from evil by an influx of the life of the Lord`s love, and this with all power (AC 3318).
All our life, and all our spiritual life is a gift from God. As Jesus says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” We are indeed called upon to do good and to bear fruit. But we can never claim the good we do for ourselves. It is God in us doing the good, lifting us upward out of self into an ecstatic relationship with Himself.