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Disjunction from Good
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 13, 2011
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 Matthew 4:1-11 Psalm 32
We are now in the season of Lent. Lent began with Ash Wednesday, which was last Wednesday. We will be in the Lenten season until Easter. In the old Christian traditions, one would observe Lent by fasting and giving up some vice. By fasting, I do not mean abstaining from eating altogether, but rather abstaining from meat, or red meat, or some other dietary restriction. In today’s society, to some Lend has come to mean giving up smoking or drinking, or some other destructive habit. In Lent, the church traditionally emphasizes sin and human frailty as we lead up to the crucifixion and then Christ’s triumphant resurrection. Nobody wants to hear about sin. But I think that a clear, rational understanding of the dynamics that make for sin is very useful for a person’s spiritual wellbeing.
The issue of sin is very clear from our readings this morning. I am following the Common Lectionary that many Christian churches use, and it prescribes these Bible passages for the first Sunday in Lent. We read about the original sin, which cast Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. And we read about the temptation of Jesus after His baptism.
The Genesis reading can sound misleading. It can make the tree of the knowledge of good and evil appear positive. The serpent tells Eve that the forbidden fruit will make her like God, knowing good from evil. And the woman thinks that eating the fruit would be, “Desirable for gaining wisdom.” These lines make the tree of the knowledge of good and evil appear positive. If it would make a person know the difference between good and evil, wouldn’t that be good?
The real meaning of this passage, though, is summed up in a few key words. Those words are spoken by the serpent. He says that Eve will be, “Like God.” The sin of eating the forbidden fruit is making oneself into a god. It means trusting human knowledge instead of revealed truth. It means trusting in self and what the self knows on its own, and not trusting in the inward perception of truth that comes from God and God’s Word. Being like God means trusting in what can be proven scientifically. It means believing only in what you can see, touch, hear, smell, or taste. In other words, to be like God means to trust only in information we gather from our senses. When we believe only what we understand by reasonings based on our senses, then we make human intelligence into a god.
I have spoken with such people. They can appear smug and proud that they stand on proven truth, not childlike belief. They can look down on those who have simple faith. In fact, they can look down on those who have a highly developed belief system. In fact, they can look down on everyone but themselves.
This is love of self in a negative sense. We need self-esteem in order to love others. If we are crippled by destructive images of self, we are not in a position to support others. We will think we are not worthy. We would think we are incapable of anything good. This is a destructive self-image. So we do need what could be called a positive self-love. This means that we love ourselves enough to pass love along to others. When theologians write against self love, they are talking about something we would call pride, or arrogance. Swedenborg calls it contempt for others compared with self. When person is filled with evil self love he or she looks down on everyone else besides the self. This is when self love becomes evil.
There are lists of sins, and descriptions of the various kinds of evil that a person can commit. In the middle-ages, there were seven deadly sins known to all. These were anger, sloth, envy, pride, gluttony, lust, and greed. But there is a simpler way to look at sin. There is a way of seeing sin that makes it less disturbing to consider. It can be summed up in one simple sentence. “Evil viewed in itself, and also sin, is nothing else than disjunction from good” (AC 4997). Evil or sin is that which separates a person from what is good, and what separates a person from the love that flows into us continually from God.
But Swedenborg does go further in describing evil. For Swedenborg there are two fountains of evil: love of the self and love of the world. The worst of these is self love. Self love is directly opposed to love of God. For when a person makes him or herself out to be god, then one is in opposition to the true God. Then, everyone who doesn’t favor him or her is hated.
He loves no one but himself, and others only so far as they make one with him. Hence he turns the attention of all to himself, and entirely averts it from others, most especially the Lord; and when many in one society do this, it follows that all are disjoined, and each looks upon another as an enemy; and if any one does aught against him, he holds him in hatred, and takes delight in his destruction (AC 4997).
This is the nature of a person who has figuratively eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This is the kind of person who makes a god of themselves.
The other kind of evil is less severe. It is called love of the world. Swedenborg describes this as a desire to possess all the wealth of the world, and all the possessions of everyone else. Although Swedenborg says this is less evil than the love of the self, I think that it may be more problematic in today’s society. I think that society teaches this sin as a virtue. Our society teaches us to strive for gain and wealth. Anthony Robbins and Deepak Chopra have written best-selling books on how to achieve success. They even cite spiritual laws you can use to acquire wealth. Some New Age establishments even say that there is a law of attraction that will give you wealth if you correctly meditate. Swedenborg defines love of the world as coveting, “the wealth and goods of others, and desires to possess all that belongs to them; whence also arise enmities and hatreds, but in less degree” (AC 4997). Let me be clear. I don’t think that wealth is evil in and of itself. And wealth can be used to better society as Bill Gates is doing. In this sense, wealth is a blessing to society and to the person who has it. It all comes down to how a person reacts to wealth. I can think of three ways in which wealth becomes a sin.
One way is for wealth to make someone think they are better than others. Wealth makes some people look down on those who are middle class or poorer. I remember when I was at Harvard that some people would size me up by the clothes I was wearing and decide whether I was worthy of talking to. I remember talking with someone in a bar in Boston. I asked him, “How much does a person’s self worth depend on his money here?” The guy looked askance at me and said, “What are you–one of those ultra-librals?” Then there were some wealthy people, usually old money, who didn’t care how much money I had, who would treat me as an equal personally. So one sin that derives from wealth is similar to that of love of self–the idea that wealth gives one the right to look down on others.
Then there is that old sin from the middle ages–greed. Some wealthy people never have enough. I heard one man of wealth interviewed on TV. The interviewer said, “I consider you a wealthy man.” The man replied, “Moderately wealthy, you always want more.” This is a craving for more and more wealth as Swedenborg describes it. It is a desire to possess “riches and wealth for their own sake” (DP 215). And when you set your heart on wealth, you will never be at peace, satisfied, or content.
The third, and probably worst form of love of the world depends on one key phrase. Swedenborg describes love of the world as primarily coveting, “the goods of others.” In other words, the sin of worldliness is wanting to take away what belongs to someone else. Ultimately to take away everything from everyone and to possess the riches of everyone by any means possible. I remember back in Florida relaxing, smoking a cigar in a cigar club. An acquaintance I knew came in and wanted to know what were good cigars for him to purchase. I showed him some very fine cigars in the club, but then he did something very strange. He pointed to one of my own cigars and asked me, “How much for your cigar?” I told him that the cigars I showed him were just as good, in fact, better. But he held out for my cigar. Perhaps that is a mild example of worldliness. This guy didn’t want a good cigar; he wanted my cigar.
Both love of self and love of the world disjoin a person from their neighbor. They throw up walls between their brothers and sisters. So much for sin and how it disjoins people from God and each other. It remains now to reflect on what it means to be good and how being good conjoins people together.
While evil and sin are disjunction from good, and oppose love for God and for the neighbor, goodness is conjunction with God and with the neighbor. Swedenborg describes the nature of good, and how it conjoins one to God and heaven,
Good is conjunction, because all good is of love to the Lord, and of love to the neighbor. The good of love to the Lord conjoins one to the Lord, and consequently all good which proceeds from Him; and the good of love toward the neighbor conjoins one to heaven, and to the societies there (AC 4997).
All good flows out from God as its source. Think of good as everything that brings people together. Kindness, friendliness, good will, service, generosity, empathy, compassion, and the like. Whatever can be seen as an expression of love is good. Good flows forth from God, so when we do good, then God is in us and we are conjoined with God. Jesus says, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine you have done to me” (Matthew 25:40). This implies that God is in each one of us, and when we do good to our neighbors we are doing good to God who is inside them. And doing good to others joins us together. Imagine a realm where everyone is trying to make everyone else happy. Imagine a realm where everyone does good to everyone else. That is what heaven is like. And when it happens in this world, then heaven is on earth.
In this season of Lent, let us reflect on the two great directions we can go in life. We can disjoin ourselves from God and our neighbors. Or we can conjoin ourselves with God and our neighbors. This is a simple way to view sin and goodness. And is so often the case, in simplicity is the greatest truth.