Will and Understanding

"Mother Nursing her Child by the Fireplace" by Albert Neuhuys

As human beings, we get stuck all the time in conflicts between what we want and what we know. We want to eat that extra piece of pie, but we know over-eating is bad for us. We want to just keep the extra groceries the cashier missed when he was scanning items, but we know it wouldn’t be honest. We’re flattered when the cute new co-worker acts flirtatious, but we know we shouldn’t even play around with anything that could cause us to think outside of marriage.

So the idea that there’s part of us that wants and feels and another part that thinks and knows is not exactly new. But according to Swedenborg, those two parts of us are extremely important, both reflecting the essential duality of the Lord and also making it possible for us to accept the Lord’s love and go to heaven.

That all starts - as everything in Swedenborgian theology - with the idea that the Lord is love itself, perfect, all-powerful and infinite. That love takes form as wisdom itself, and through His wisdom the Lord can pour His love out on all of us constantly, expressed as ideas that we can grasp and use. So love is the Lord’s “wanting, feeling” part and wisdom is His “thinking, knowing” part.

The Lord’s deepest desire is for us to open our wanting part, “the will,” to His love, and to open our thinking part, “the understanding,” to His wisdom. That way He can fill us with life and be conjoined to us, bringing us all joy and delight in heaven.

But the Lord also created us to be free, and the only way to do that was to open our wills to evil loves as well as good ones. That’s why we are, from birth, so beset by the desire to be selfish, to be greedy, to look out for ourselves and please ourselves above all else.

But the Lord also gave us a mechanism to overcome that selfishness. Our understanding - our ability to think - operates separately from our will. That means we can use our understanding to gather ideas about what is right and good and loving, and can force ourselves to act on them even though they run contrary to our desires. This is, in fact, the great task we face in life.

What the Lord promises, though, is this: If we do that work from a desire to be good people, He will step in and slowly start removing our evil loves so that His perfect love can flow in. It’s a long process - lifelong, actually - but the results are priceless. When our will is cleared of evil and becomes a receptacle for the Lord, then our understanding becomes wisdom and our will becomes love. Then, instead of acting from what we know and over-riding what we want, we can act from love, with the love given form through wisdom. That is the life of angels, and the life of heaven.

From Swedenborg's Works

Divine Love and Wisdom #399

Divine Love and Wisdom (Dole translation)

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399, 1. Love, or volition, is our essential life. This follows from the responsive relationship between the heart and our volition discussed in 378-381 above; for our volition acts in our mind the same way our heart acts in our body. Further, just as everything in the body depends on the heart for its origin and for its motion, everything in the mind depends on volition for its origin and its life. By "volition" I mean "love," since volition is the vessel of love and love is the essence of life (see 1-3 above). The love that is the essence of life, further, comes from the Lord alone.

By looking at the heart and its extension in the body through arteries and veins, we can learn that love or volition is our life. This is because things that correspond to each other act in the same way, the only difference being that one is physical and the other spiritual.

The science of anatomy shows us how the heart acts in the body. It shows us, for example, that everything is alive or responsive to life where the heart is at work through the channels it extends from itself, and that everything is not alive where the heart is not at work through its channels. It shows further that the heart is both the first and last thing that acts in the body. We can tell that it is first by looking at embryos, and that it is last by looking at the dying. We can tell that it acts separately from the lungs by looking at people who have suffocated or fainted. This enables us to see that the life of the mind depends entirely on volition just the way the life that supports the body depends entirely on the heart and that our volition remains alive even when thought ceases, just the way the heart does when breathing ceases. This too we can see in embryos, in the dying, and in people who have suffocated or fainted.

It follows from all this that love or volition is our very life.

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