Commentary

What's Good?

By New Christian Bible Study Staff and Rev. Julian Duckworth

A piece of candy comes trick-or-treating.

Swedenborg uses the word "good" specifically to mean love in action. This involves usefulness and the intention on our part to do what is good. We do what is good when the Lord, charity and faith are present in us. Good in Swedenborg’s writings is linked closely with truth in a relationship which he calls "the marriage of good and truth."

The process of becoming a "good" person involves inviting the Lord into one's life and trying to live according to His will instead of according to our own selfish will. We can work to love as the Lord loves, and closer we get the more we are "good" - the more we will desire to be good, delight in what is good, actually do what is good, and live in peace, harmony and joy both in this life and in heaven.

Learning to love as the Lord loves, of course, is not a matter of saying a little prayer and being changed, and it's not a matter of simply deciding or force of will. As anyone who has mooned over an unrequited romance knows, our loves are simply not changed that easily, and indeed seem largely out of our control.

Consider, for instance: say you are in desperate need of money, and see a man drop his wallet as he climbs into an expensive car and drives away. You pick up the wallet, and find several thousand dollars there. The fact is, at that moment you (unless you are a better person than 99.9 percent of us) really really want to keep that money. You might not do it. You know what's right, and you may well make yourself do what's right. But you can't just change that "want" and make it go away. You don't have that kind of control.

So how can we actually become good? The answer is what the Writings refer to generically as "truth." From the time we are small children we are constantly learning what's right and wrong and being forced to apply that knowledge. Over time those ideas get deeper - from "don't hit other children!" to "you need to think about what makes other people happy" to "love your neighbor as yourself" - but they all to some extent run contrary to what we want. Consider that wallet: the reason most of us would call the guy and give him his money is that we know it's the right thing to do, even though it's not really what we want to do.

If you think about it, those truths - those ideas of right and wrong - come into use from the outside, and sort of work their way from outer layers of our minds ("don't hit other children!") to deeper, more thoughtful ones ("love your neighbor as yourself"). The Writings tell us that even as we are absorbing truth from the outside, the Lord is secretly planting desires for good in our souls, in the inmost levels that we're not even aware of. Among the most important of these desires is, in fact, the desire for truth, which urges us to gather and accept that truth coming to us from the outside.

As we build that storehouse of knowledge, we come to the key decision point (or a lifelong series of decision points, really). We can decide to embrace that truth, to determine for ourselves that we want to do what's right because it is right. Or we can ignore it and wallow in our base desires.

If we do the former - determine to follow what's true - that truth crosses from the exterior parts of our mind to more interior ones. And in the more interior areas it can mix with the desires for good the Lord has hidden away there.

And then what happens? The Writings have some beautiful passages about how good loves truth, how it will seek it and embrace it, fill it with life and make it its own. This is a little hard to imagine, but consider falling in love with someone. Don't you want to know everything about him or her? Don't you want to know every little thing that makes him or her happy so you can provide it? Your desire to love embraces truth so it can put love into action. Much the same happens with the desires for good inside us and the attendent truths - the good desires seek the real truths, the ones that fit, and make them their own.

This does not, of course, happen all at once in every aspect of our being. It is the work of a lifetime and entails many battles with the evil desires that pollute our souls. But the process can be increasingly joyful, and the end result is spectacular - eventually the desires for good will be so empowered that they can actually take the lead role and extend out to the outermost parts of our minds. In that state we no longer even want what's wrong; our joy of life is in doing what's good. This, of course, is the state that angels enjoy in heaven.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 2875; The Doctrine of Life for the New Jerusalem for the New Jerusalem 1)


From Swedenborg's Works

Arcana Coelestia #4538

Arcana Coelestia (Elliott translation)

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4538. 'God said to Jacob' means the perception which the kind of natural good that 'Jacob' now represents received from the Divine. This is clear from the meaning of 'saying' in historical descriptions in the Word as perceiving, dealt with in 1602, 1791, 1815, 1822, 1898, 1919, 2061, 2080, 2238, 2260, 2619, 2862, 3395, 3509, so that 'God said' means perception received from the Divine; and from the representation of 'Jacob' in the highest sense here as the Lord as regards natural good. Jacob's representation in the Word has been shown in previous sections; but because it is varying, his representation must be discussed briefly here.

[2] In the highest sense 'Jacob' represents in general the Lord's Divine Natural. But the Lord's Natural, when He glorified it, was different at the beginning of the process of glorification from what it was during this and at the end of it; and this is why Jacob's representation was varying. That is to say, at the beginning of the process the Lord's Natural as regards truth is represented by him, during that process the Lord's Natural as regards the good of truth, and at the end of it as regards good. For the Lord's glorification advanced from truth to the good of truth, and finally to good, as shown many times in what has gone before. The end of the process being the subject at present, 'Jacob' represents the Lord as regards natural good. See what has been shown already about these matters, that is to say, about Jacob's representation in the highest sense - how at the beginning of the process he represents the Lord's Divine Natural as regards truth, 3305, 3509, 3525, 3546, 3576' 3599, during it the Lord's Divine Natural as regards the good of truth, 3659, 3669, 3677, 4234, 4273, 4337. But now he represents the Lord's Divine Natural as regards good, for the reason, as stated, that it is the end of the process.

[3] Such was the process which took place when the Lord made His Natural Divine. A similar process also takes place when the Lord regenerates man, for when the Lord made His Human Divine He was pleased to do things in the same sequence as He does when He makes man new. This explains why it has been stated frequently that man's regeneration is an image of the Lord's glorification, 3138, 3212, 3296, 3490, 4402. When the Lord makes man new He first of all supplies him with the truths of faith, for without the truths of faith he does not know who the Lord is, what heaven is, or what hell is; he does not even know of their existence, let alone of the countless things which have to do with the Lord, His kingdom in heaven, and His kingdom on earth, which is the Church. Nor does he know the identity or nature of the opposite of these, namely the things of hell.

(References: Matthew 20:18)


[4] Until he does know these things no one can know what good is. The word 'good' is not used to mean the public good or the good of the individual, for one can learn in the world about these through laws and regulations and through reflection on human customs and habits, which is why gentiles outside the Church know such things too. 'Good' is a word used to mean spiritual good, which in the Word is called charity, and this good in general implies willing and doing to another that which is good not for any selfish reason but out of delight and affection for doing it. This good is spiritual good, which no one can possibly arrive at except through the truths of faith, which are taught by the Lord through the Word and regular preaching of the Word.

[5] Once a person has been supplied with the truths of faith he is then gradually led by the Lord to will the truth, and from willing it to putting it into practice. This truth is called the good of truth, for that good is truth present in will and action and is called the good of truth because truth which has been a matter of doctrine now becomes a matter of life. When at length the person takes delight in willing good and so putting it into practice, it is no longer called the good of truth, but simply good. For now he is regenerate, and it is no longer truth leading him to will and do what is good, but good moving him to will and put truth into practice. And the truth now practiced by him is also so to speak good, since that truth derives its essential being from that in which it originates - in good. From all this one may see what is meant by the statement that in the highest sense 'Jacob' represents the Lord's Natural as regards good, and one may see where that representation has its origin. The reason why 'Jacob' here represents this good is that the subject now in the internal sense is further advances, that is to say, advances made into more interior parts of the natural, which are meant by 'Israel', 4536. No one who is being regenerated by the Lord can be led to those more interior things until the truth present with him has become good.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 4636, Genesis 35:1-4)

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