Temptation: What is it?      

By Rev. Julian Duckworth and New Christian Bible Study Staff

Swedenborg describes temptation as an assault or an attack on what we spiritually have come to love. This is a divine "permission," or something bad that the Lord allows because good can result, the purpose of which is for us to be strengthened in our spiritual life.

Not realizing this, many of us might wish for a life without temptation, thinking that would make it so easy to be good! According to Swedenborg, however, a life without temptation would actually guarantee the opposite: it would leave us mired in evil and bound for hell. In fact, his theology says that temptation is the only way we can root out our evils and let the Lord into our hearts, so we should recognize it as an opportunity even if we can’t exactly embrace it as a good time.

The reasoning behind this starts with the idea that we are what we love; that what we care about actually determines our character and defines our identity. That might sound odd at first, but consider: if you say that you “know” someone, you’re really talking about an awareness of what they love, not an awareness of all their thoughts. What we love is who we are.

And from the beginning of our lives, what we love is highly self-centered. Much as we love babies for their innocence, they can’t even form the concept of putting someone else’s needs first. And while children and teenagers learn to be kind and considerate, that kindness is more in their external levels - inside they are busy with the work of becoming themselves, and that remains a self-involved process.

Somewhere between there and the end of life, we’re called on to change completely, setting our self-interest aside and replacing it with a genuine love for others and love for the Lord. That, however, involves uprooting the things we love most. And since those loves form our identity, that’s really hard, and has to be done in many, many steps.

The key element working for us is the mind: from our knowledge and thoughts we can know what’s right even when we don’t want it. In fact, from our knowledge and thoughts we can actually want to be better people, while in our hearts we still want to wallow in those attractive evils.

Elevating the mind this way creates a conflict between “the person I want to become” and “the person I am,” between “what I want” and “what I want to want” (sort of like, “I want to be craving celery, but I’m really craving cookies”). And since the hells want to keep you enslaved by cookies, they go on the attack, using both blunt desire and twisted logic and argument to try to break you down.

Key to the hells’ attack is the fact that what we want forms our identity; giving up each evil thing we crave feels like sacrificing a little part of who we are. But the Lord’s promise is this: If we actually do it, stick through it and let that piece of ourselves be sacrificed, He will eventually replace it with the desire for something good, pure and loving.

An interesting twist is that if we tried to do this all at once, we actually would lose our identity, destroying every love we have at once. This may sound odd - wouldn’t we want such a transformation - but imagine someone you think of as thoroughly evil: Hitler, perhaps, or Caligula, or Dracula. Then imagine removing, in one swipe, all their evil desires. Would we even recognize them anymore? Would they be themselves? Would they be anything?

On the other hand, imagine a child’s stuffed bear, loved so much that it loses an arm. You replace the arm, and then it is loved so much that it loses the other arm. And then the legs, and the head, all replaced one at a time. Finally the body wears through and you replace that too. So what you have is the same bear, but with every part replaced. That’s kind of how the Lord works on us: through a lifelong series of temptations we can root out and replace one little bit at a time until we emerge all-new and ready for heaven while still being who we are.

It’s clear, then, how crucial a role temptation plays. If we never had that conflict between what we want to be in our minds and what we are in our hearts, the evil would just stay in our hearts untouched. We have to take on those battles, one by one over a lifetime, to become the people the Lord wishes us to be.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 730, 739, 755, 757, 1690, 2334, 2338, 4274, 5246, 8403)

From Swedenborg's Works


Arcana Coelestia #4274

Arcana Coelestia (Elliott translation)      

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4274. 'And a man wrestled with him' means temptation that concerns truth. This is clear from the meaning of 'wrestling' as temptation. Temptation itself is nothing other than a wrestling or conflict, for truth is attacked by the evil spirits and defended by the angels who are present with a person. And his awareness of that conflict taking place within himself is temptation, 741, 757, 761, 1661, 3927, 4249, 4256. But no temptation can arise unless the good of truth, that is, the love or affection for truth, exists in him. For anyone who does not love the truth he knows, or is not affected by it, does not trouble about it at all, whereas anyone who does love it is worried lest it should suffer harm. Nothing else constitutes the life in a person's understanding than that which he believes to be the truth, and nothing else the life of his will than that which, he has become convinced, is good. This being so, when that which he believes to be the truth is attacked the life of his understanding is attacked; and when that which, he has become convinced, is good is attacked the life of his will is attacked. And therefore when a person is being tempted his life is under attack.

[2] The reason why the conflict at first concerns truth or is about truth is that truth is what a person loves first. That which anyone loves is the object of evil spirits' attack, but once he starts to love good more than truth, which takes place when order is being turned around, the temptation of him concerns good. But few know what temptation is, because few at the present day undergo any temptation; for none are able to be tempted except those who are governed by the good of faith, that is, by charity towards the neighbour. If those who are not governed by such charity experienced temptation they would instantly give way; and in those who give way evil becomes more firmly established and falsity more firmly believed, because in their case the evil spirits with whom they are thereby associated are victorious. This is the reason why at the present day few are allowed to enter into any spiritual temptation, but only into some natural forms of distress in order that they may be held back by means of them from self-love and love of the world into which they would otherwise plunge without any restraint.

(References: Genesis 32:24)

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