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

True Christian Religion #397

True Christian Religion (Chadwick translation)

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1. Man possesses two faculties which make up his life, one is called the will, the other the understanding. They are distinct, but so created as to make one, and when they are one they are called the mind. So the human mind consists of them, and there the whole of a person's life is in its beginnings, and this is the source from which it is present in the body.

2. Just as everything in the universe which is in due order has reference to good and truth, so everything in a person has reference to his will and understanding, for good in a person has to do with his will and truth to his understanding. For these two faculties, his twin lives, act as receivers and subjects upon which good and truth act. The will is the receiver for everything to do with good and the subject on which it acts; and the understanding is the receiver for everything to do with truth and the subject on which it acts. There is nowhere else in a person for the various kinds of good and truth; and since there is nowhere else in a person for them, nor is there therefore for love and faith, seeing that love belongs to good and good to love, and faith belongs to truth and truth to faith.

3. The will and the understanding also make up a person's spirit. For that is where his wisdom and intelligence reside, as also do his love and charity, and in general it is the seat of his life. The body is merely an obedient servant.

4. There is nothing it is more important to know than how the will and the understanding make up one mind. They do so, just as good and truth make one, for there is a marriage between the will and the understanding similar to that between good and truth, The facts about to be cited concerning good and truth will make clear what sort of a marriage that is; namely, that just as good is the very being (esse) of a thing, and truth is its coming-into-being (existere) as a result, so in a person his will is the very being of his life, and the understanding is the coming-into-being of his life as a result. For good belonging to the will takes on form in the understanding and becomes visible.


1. 397-402 are repeated from HD 28-32, 11-19, 54-61, 55-78, 36-46.


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