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; Teachings about Life 1)


From Swedenborg's Works

Arcana Coelestia #3469

Arcana Coelestia (Elliott translation)

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3469. 'Esau was a son of forty years' means a state of temptation as regards the natural good of truth. This is clear from the representation of 'Esau' as natural good of truth, dealt with in Arcana Coelestia 3300, 3302, 3322, and from the meaning of 'forty years' as a state of temptation - 'forty' meaning temptations, see Arcana Coelestia 730, 862, 2272, and 'years' states, 487, 488, 493, 893. The reason why these details concerning Esau are added immediately after what has been told regarding Abimelech and Isaac is that the subject has been those who do the good of truth, that is, those who live in accordance with matters of doctrine drawn from the literal sense of the Word; for such people were meant by Abimelech, Ahuzzath, and Phicol, as stated above in various places.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 487-488)


[2] People therefore who do the good of truth, or who live in accordance with matters of doctrine, are regenerate as regards interior things, which are their rational concepts, but not yet as regards exterior, which are their natural things. For a person is regenerated as to the rational part of his mind before being regenerated as to the natural part, Arcana Coelestia 3286, 3288. The natural exists wholly in this world, and it is on the natural as their foundation that the person's thought and will are based. This is the reason why, while being regenerated, a person is aware of conflict between his rational or internal man and his natural or external man, and why his external is regenerated much later and with far more difficulty than the internal. Indeed what is closer to the world and closer to the body cannot be easily rendered subservient to the internal man except over a considerable period of time and by means of very many new states into which it has to be brought. These states are states of self-recognition and of recognition of the Lord, that is to say, of his own miserable condition and of the Lord's mercy, and so of humiliation, through conflicts brought about by temptations. This being so, there is immediately added at this point the reference to Esau and his two wives, by which such things are meant in the internal sense.

[3] It is well known to anyone what natural good is, namely the good into which a person is born. But what the natural good of truth is, is known to few, if anyone. There are four types of natural good, or good that one is born with. These are, natural good that stems from the love of good; natural good that stems from the love of truth; also natural good that stems from the love of evil; and natural good that stems from the love of falsity. A person derives the good that he is born with from his parents, whether from father or from mother. For every characteristic which parents have acquired from frequent practice and conduct, that is, which they have taken into themselves by their own actions in life until with them they have become so habitual as to appear natural, is passed on to their children and becomes hereditary. If parents have led a good life from a love of good and have experienced delight and blessedness in that life, and if this is their state when they conceive an offspring, their offspring acquires from them an inclination towards this same form of good. If parents have led a good life from a love of truth - for which good, see Arcana Coelestia 3459, 3463 - and have experienced delight in that life, and if this is their state when they conceive an offspring, their offspring acquires from them an inclination towards that same form of good. And the same applies to those who by heredity receive the good that stems from a love of evil and the good that stems from a love of falsity.

[4] The latter are called good because the kinds of good done by them seem in outward appearance to be good, despite the fact that there is nothing good at all about them. Very many with whom natural good is apparent possess this type of good. Those with whom natural good that stems from love of evil is present tend and incline towards evils of every kind, for they readily allow themselves to be led astray. That good is the source of their susceptibility especially towards foul delights, different kinds of adultery, and also of cruelty. Those with whom natural good stemming from a love of falsity is present incline towards falsities of every kind. Because of that good they seize on false persuasion, especially that used by hypocrites and deceivers, who know how to win people's attention, worm their way into affections, and feign innocence. Into these so-called forms of good - of good that stems from evil or from falsity - the majority are born at the present day in the Christian world, in whom natural good exists, the reason being that their parents have acquired a delight in evil and a delight in falsity through their own actions in life, and in this way have implanted it in their children, and so in their descendants.

(References: Genesis 26:34-35)

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