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

Arcana Coelestia #7179

Arcana Coelestia (Elliott translation)

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7179. There are two mental powers in a person; one is called the understanding, the other the will. The will has been given to a person for the sake of the good of love, and the understanding for the sake of the truth of faith; for the good of love attaches itself to the will, and the truth of faith to the understanding. And each mental power communicates with the other in a remarkable manner. They become joined together in the case of those governed by good and from this by truth; and they also become joined together in the case of those governed by evil and from this by falsity. With both groups those two mental powers make a single mind. But the situation is different with those who subscribe to truth so far as belief is concerned but are governed by evil so far as life is concerned, as it is likewise different with those who subscribe to falsity so far as belief is concerned but are governed by seeming good so far as life is concerned.

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