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 #1690

Arcana Coelestia (Elliott translation)      

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1690. That 'the rest fled to the mountain' means that it did not happen to all of them is clear without explanation from the fact that they had now become 'the rest', who fled away. The subject in the internal sense is the temptations which the Lord underwent in childhood, about which nothing is recorded in the New Testament Word. No temptations are recorded there apart from the temptation in the wilderness, or shortly after He came out of the wilderness, and the last temptation later on in Gethsemane and after that. The fact that the Lord's life from earliest childhood right through to the last hour of His life in the world consisted in constant temptation and constant victory is clear from many places in the Old Testament Word; and the fact that it did not end with His temptation in the wilderness is clear from the following in Luke,

After the devil had ended every temptation he departed from Him for a time. Luke 4:13, as well as from His undergoing temptations right through to His death on the Cross, and so to the last hour of His life in the world. From these considerations it is evident that the whole of the Lord's life in the world from earliest childhood consisted in constant temptation and constant victory. The last was when on the Cross He prayed for His enemies, and so for all people in the whole world.

[2] In the part of the Word where the Lord's life is described - in the Gospels - no other temptation, apart from the last, is mentioned than His temptation in the wilderness. More than this was not disclosed to the disciples; and the things which were disclosed seem in the sense of the letter so slight as to amount to scarcely anything at all. For the things that are said, and the replies that are given, do not seem to constitute any temptation at all; yet in fact His temptation in the wilderness was more severe than the human mind can possibly comprehend and believe. Nobody can know what temptation is except someone who has experienced it. The temptation that is recorded in Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13, incorporates in a summary form all temptations, namely this, that out of His love towards the whole human race He fought against self-love and love of the world, with which the hells were filled completely.

[3] All temptation is an attack against the love present in a person, the degree of temptation depending on the degree of that love. If love is not attacked there is no temptation. Destroying another person's love is destroying his very life, for his love is his life. The Lord's life was love towards the whole human race; indeed it was so great and of such a nature as to be nothing other than pure love. Against this life of His, temptations were directed constantly, and this was happening, as has been stated, from earliest childhood through to His last hour in the world. The love that was the Lord's very life is meant by His being hungry and by the devil's saying,

If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread. And Jesus answered, It is written that man will not live by bread alone but by every word of God. Luke 4:2-4; Matthew 4:2-4.

[4] That He fought against love of the world, or against all that constitutes love of the world, is meant by the devil's taking Him on to a high mountain and showing Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time and saying,

To you I will give all this power and their glory, for it has been given to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship before me, it will all be yours. But answering him Jesus said, Get behind Me, satan! for it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve. Luke 4:5-8; Matthew 4:8-10.

[5] That He fought against self-love, and all that constitutes self-love, is meant by these words,

The devil took Him into the holy city, and set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, He will give His angels charge regarding you, and on their hands they will bear you, lest you strike your foot against a stone. Jesus said to him, Again it is written, You shall not tempt the Lord your God. Matthew 4:5-7; Luke 4:9-12.

Constant victory is meant by the statement that after temptation angels came and ministered to Him, Matthew 4:11; Mark 1:13.

[6] To sum up, the Lord was attacked by all the hells from earliest childhood right through to the last hour of His life in the world. The hells were constantly overpowered, subdued, and vanquished by Him; and this He did solely out of love towards the whole human race. And because this love was not human but Divine, and because the intensity of the love determines that of the temptation, it becomes clear how severe His conflicts were, and on the part of the hells how fierce. That all this was indeed the case I know for sure.

(References: Genesis 14:10; Luke 4:2-8; Matthew 4:2-7)

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