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 #730

Arcana Coelestia (Elliott translation)      

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730. 'Forty days and nights' means the duration of temptation. This is quite clear from the Word of the Lord. The reason 'forty' means the duration of temptation is the fact that the Lord allowed Himself to be tempted for forty days, as is clear in Matthew 4:1-2; Luke 4:2; Mark 1:13. And because every single requirement in the Jewish Church and in all other representative Churches before the Lord's Coming was merely a type and shadow of Him, so too were forty days and nights. In general they represented and meant all temptation, and in particular however long its duration. And since anyone undergoing temptation experiences vastation of all things that belong to the proprium and of things that are bodily - for things of the proprium and those that are bodily have to die, doing so indeed through conflict and temptation, before he is reborn a new man, that is, before he becomes spiritual and celestial - 'forty days and nights' therefore also means the duration of vastation. The same applies here where the subject is both the temptation of the member of the new Church called Noah and also the destruction of those who lived before the Flood.

[2] That 'forty' means not only the duration of temptation but also of vastation, whether long or short, is clear in Ezekiel,

You shall lie on your right side and you shall bear the iniquity of the house of Judah forty days, a day for each year I assign you. Ezekiel 4:6.

This stands for the duration of the vastation of the Jewish Church and also for a representation of the Lord's temptation, for it is said that he was 'to bear the iniquity of the house of Judah'. In the same prophet,

I will make the land of Egypt waste places, an utter desolation. The foot of man will not pass through it, and the foot of beast will not pass through it, and it will be uninhabited for forty years. And I will make the land of Egypt a desolation in the midst of desolated lands, and her cities in the midst of devastated cities will be a lonely place for forty years. Ezekiel 29:10-11.

This too stands for the duration of vastation and desolation. Here the meaning in the internal sense is not forty years but solely the desolation of faith in general, whether within a short or a long period of time. In John,

The court outside the Temple, leave that out and do not measure it, for it has been given over to the nations 1 who will trample over the holy city for forty-two months. Revelation 11:2.

(References: Ezekiel 29:10-12)

[3] And in the same author,

The beast was given a mouth uttering great things and blasphemies, and it was given power to act for forty-two months. Revelation 13:5.

This stands for the duration of vastation, for a period of forty-two months is not meant at all, as anyone may see. In these quotations the number is in fact forty-two, but this has the same meaning as forty. It is obtained from 'seven days' meaning the finish of vastation and a new beginning, and from 'six' meaning labour because of the six days of labour or conflict. Consequently seven multiplied by six, which produces the number 'forty-two', means the duration of vastation and the duration of temptation, that is, the labour and conflict of someone who is to be regenerated, which period of time involves holiness. The round number forty however has been adopted instead of the less round number forty-two, as is clear in these quotations from the Book of Revelation.

[4] The people of Israel's being led about in the wilderness for forty years before being brought into the land of Canaan in a similar way represented and meant the duration of temptation, and also the duration of vastation - the duration of temptation by the fact that they were subsequently brought into the Holy Land, and the duration of vastation by the fact that, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, all who were more than twenty years old when they left Egypt died in the wilderness. And temptations are also meant by the things they grumbled about so often, and vastations by the plagues and destruction they suffered so often. The fact that temptations and vastations are meant will in the Lord's Divine mercy be shown in their proper places. They are referred to in Moses as follows,

You shall remember all the way that Jehovah your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness to afflict you, to tempt you, to know what is in your heart, whether you will keep His commandments or not. Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 16.

Moses' forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai similarly mean the duration of temptation - that is, the temptation of the Lord - as is clear in Moses,

He was on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights, eating no bread, drinking no water, pleading for the people not to be destroyed. Deuteronomy 9:9, 11, 18, Deuteronomy 9:25-end; Deuteronomy 9:10:10.

[See also]Numbers 14:33-35; 32:8-14

[5] The reason 'forty days' means the duration of temptation is, as has been stated, that the Lord allowed Himself to be tempted by the devil for forty days. Consequently in the days when all things were representatives of the Lord, whenever the idea of temptation existed with angels, that idea was represented in the world of spirits by such things as exist in the world - as happens with all angelic ideas when they come down into the world of spirits and manifest themselves there in a representative fashion. The same accordingly applies to the number forty, for the Lord was to be tempted for forty days. With the Lord, and consequently in the angelic heaven, the future and the present are one and the same, for what is future is already present, or what is to take place has taken place. This is the origin of the representation of temptations and also of vastations by forty in the representative Church. But these matters cannot as yet be understood satisfactorily because people do not know about the influx of the angelic heaven into the world of spirits or the nature of it.


1. or the gentiles


(References: Deuteronomy 9:25-29, 9:25, Deuteronomy 10:10)

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