Caution. Smooth things ahead. (What?)


By New Christian Bible Study Staff

Photo of a woman walking in the sand, by Joy Feerrar

Suppose that God has given us an instruction manual for how to be good human beings, and reach towards our full potential. Just suppose.

But suppose, too, that there really is evil in the world, and that some people - whether here in front of us, or whispering in our minds - don't actually wish us well. (In fact, they're WAY more interested in what they want, and in how you can help them get it.)

Which one - God or evil-wishers - do you think is going to want to lull you into complacency? Which one might say some true things that you don't really want to hear, but that get you moving? Let's open the Bible, and dig into this. (Surprise strategy!)

Here's the passage from the Book of Isaiah that spurred this article:

"Now come, write it among them on a tablet, and state it in a book; that it may be for a later day, for ever and ever to eternity, that this is a rebellious people, lying sons, sons who are not willing to hear the law of Jehovah; who say to the seers, "See not;" and to the visionaries, "Do not have visions for us of righteous things; speak to us smooth things; behold delusions; turn aside from the way; decline from the path; cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before our faces." Isaiah 30:8-11.

When you search for verses that relate to this passage, you find the following long-ish passage from the Book of Jeremiah:

"Thus saith the LORD of hosts, Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you: they make you vain: they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the LORD. They say still unto them that despise me, "The LORD hath said, Ye shall have peace; and they say unto every one that walketh after the imagination of his own heart, No evil shall come upon you.".... I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied.

....Is not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces? Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, saith the LORD, that steal my words every one from his neighbour. Behold, I am against the prophets, saith the LORD, that use their tongues, and say, He saith. Behold, I am against them that prophesy false dreams, saith the LORD, and do tell them, and cause my people to err by their lies, and by their lightness; yet I sent them not, nor commanded them: therefore they shall not profit this people at all, saith the LORD.
Jeremiah 23:9-32

This passage is hammering home the point that we need to listen to what the Lord is saying.

This "smooth things" theme crops up in the Book of Amos, too, where the people don't want to hear hard truths:

"And I raised up of your sons for prophets, and of your young men for Nazarites. Is it not even thus, O ye children of Israel? saith the LORD. But ye gave the Nazarites wine to drink; and commanded the prophets, saying, Prophesy not." Amos 2:12

Here's one more from the Old Testament:

Prophesy ye not, say they to them that prophesy: they shall not prophesy to them, that they shall not take shame. Micah 2:6

There's a new concept in this verse from Micah: shame. People don't want to feel it. They don't want to hear things that make them feel it. But Micah's basically saying "That's tough. You need to hear it, and do better."

There's a little excerpt from one of Paul's mentoring letters to Timothy, too, that seems to bear on this:

"Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables." 2 Timothy 4:2-4

There's a tension here. In the verses we've just cited, we see that we don't want to be, or to listen to, the too-easy prophets, speaking lightly, or speaking smooth words. That's the core lesson for us in these passages. And, at the same time, we know that truth that isn't coming from good can be hard, or sharp. It can do damage. You can use it from bad motives -- pounding someone with the truth in order to crush them. Or you can do damage even from good motives -- pounding someone so that they will get on a good track (but still inadvertently breaking them.)

How do we resolve this tension in a truly Christian way? It's not always easy to tell. We need to go to the Lord's Word to learn more. With care. It's all too easy to cherry-pick Bible passages, finding things to reinforce our polluted understandings and motivations.

Here's an interesting observation from Swedenborg:

"As is well known, the literal sense of the Word is by nature such that a person can use that sense to support any opinion at all that he may adopt." (Arcana Coelestia 6222)

What to do? Here we are, putting this article together, studying the Bible, searching and selecting passages right now. How do we try to make sure we're on a true path? We need to seek balance, context, care, thoughtfulness, and - perhaps the tallest order - clean hearts. Here's another excerpt from further along in the same passage:

"That understanding [the church's understanding of truth] exists when people read the Word, assiduously take one statement together with another, and by doing so see what they ought to believe and what they ought to do. Such understanding comes only to those who receive light from the Lord.... That enlightenment does not come to any but the kind of people who have the desire to know truths, not for the sake of reputation and glory but for the sake of life and service." (Arcana Coelestia 6222)

So, "assiduous" or careful study is important. Good motives are vital. Looking to the Lord in His Word is essential to real understanding, or enlightenment.

Truth needs to be married to good. Its source is the Lord, in his Word. If we genuinely love our neighbors, we have their longterm spiritual welfare as our goal, and that's unselfish, and it's nested inside a love to the Lord. When truth comes from good, and from carefully-sought enlightenment, it's constructive, not destructive. But... smooth? Often not!

Here's one last quote that seems to want to be here:

"Enter ye in at the strait gate; for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in by it. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth to life, and few there are that find it." Matthew 7:13-14

The Lord doesn't want us to have rough lives. He makes "the rough places plain". But He also knows that, ultimately, truth is going to help us, and falsity isn't, even if it seems easier or more pleasant or even more convincing to hear in the short run.

From Swedenborg's Works


Arcana Coelestia #6222

Study this Passage

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6222. 'And he took his two sons with him, Manasseh and Ephraim' means the Church's will and the Church's understanding, born from the internal. This is clear from the representation of 'Manasseh' as the new will in the natural and its essential nature, dealt with in 5354 (end); and from the representation of 'Ephraim' as the new understanding in the natural and its essential nature, dealt with in 5354. The birth of the two from the internal is meant by the fact that they were the sons of Joseph, who represents the internal celestial, 5869, 5877.

[2] What the Church's understanding is and what its will is must be stated. The Church's understanding consists in perceiving from the Word what the truth of faith is and what the good of charity is. As is well known, the literal sense of the Word is by nature such that a person can use that sense to support any opinion at all that he may adopt. The reason for this is that ideas appearing in the literal sense of the Word serve as general vessels to receive truths, though not until they have actually received truths does the real nature of those vessels reveal itself as if through transparency. Thus those ideas form merely a general impression which a person must gain first in order that he may aptly receive particular aspects and specific details. This fact - that the literal sense of the Word is by nature such that a person can use that sense to support any opinion at all that he may adopt - is clearly evident from the great number of heresies that have existed in the Church, and still exist in it. Adherents of each heresy find support for it in the literal sense of the Word, support which enables them to believe fully that it is the truth, which means that if they were to hear the actual truth from heaven they would receive nothing at all of it.

[3] The reason why they would not receive it is that they do not share in the understanding that the Church possesses; for that understanding exists when people read the Word, assiduously take one statement together with another, and by doing so see what they ought to believe and what they ought to do. Such understanding comes only to those who receive light from the Lord, whom the Christian world also calls 'the enlightened'. That enlightenment does not come to any but the kind of people who have the desire to know truths, not for the sake of reputation and glory but for the sake of life and service. That same enlightenment is received by a person in his understanding, for the understanding is the receiver of light. This is clearly evident from the fact that people who have little understanding cannot by any means see such things from the Word but have faith in those who they think are the enlightened. Furthermore it should be recognized that those who have been regenerated receive from the Lord an understanding which is capable of being enlightened; and it is the light of heaven coming from the Lord that flows into the understanding and gives it light, for the understanding receives its light, its sight, and consequently its perception from no other source.

[4] But this understanding which is being called the Church's understanding is more internal than an understanding based merely on factual knowledge, for it consists in a discernment that a thing is true not because factual evidence and philosophical deductions dictate it but because the Word in its spiritual sense does so. For example, people who possess the Church's understanding can perceive clearly that in every single part the Word teaches that love to the Lord and charity towards the neighbour are the essential qualities of the Church, that a person's life continues after death, and that his life arises out of his loves. They can also perceive that faith separated from charity is not faith, that faith contributes nothing to eternal life except in the measure that the good of love to the Lord and the good of charity towards the neighbour are linked to it, and that faith and charity must therefore be joined together so that spiritual life may exist. People with an enlightened understanding can perceive quite clearly that these things are true; but those without it can by no means see that they are.

[5] It is thought that the people with an understanding in things of the Church are those who know how to substantiate extensively the opinions or teachings of their Church, to the point of convincing others that they are true, and who know how to refute numerous heresies in a masterly way. But this is not what is meant by the Church's understanding, for substantiating opinions is not a characteristic of the understanding but of mental ability at a sensory level, which sometimes comes to exist in very wicked people; indeed those without any beliefs at all, also those who are steeped in actual falsities, can have that ability. Nothing comes more easily to both these kinds of people than to substantiate whatever idea they like, so thoroughly that they convince the simple. But before substantiating any opinion the Church's understanding engages in seeing and perceiving whether it is true or not, and in substantiating it only after that.

[6] This understanding is what is represented by 'Ephraim'. But the Church's good, which is represented by 'Manasseh', is the good of charity, which the Lord instills into a member of the Church through the truths of faith. For these truths together with the good of charity are what flow into the understanding and give it light, and also enable the understanding and the will to constitute one mind. The truth that both these - the understanding and the will - are born from the internal may be seen from what was stated and shown previously; for the whole affection for goodness and truth, the affection through which enlightenment comes, flows in from no other origin, thus is born from no other origin than the internal; that is, it comes from the Lord through the internal.

(References: Genesis 48:1)

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   Study this Passage
From Swedenborg's Works

Inbound References:

Arcana Coelestia 6234, 6236, 6237, 6241, 6249, 6264, 6265, 6267, 6269, 6377, 6583, 6584, 7503, 7679, 8932, 9325, 9340, 9396, 9553, 9780, 10227, 10283

The Last Judgement 39

The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 35, 121, 256

References from Swedenborg's drafts, indexes & diaries:

Apocalypse Explained 39, 193, 222, 236, 316, 336, 355, 376, 386, 440

   Swedenborg Research Tools

Resources for parents and teachers

The items listed here are provided courtesy of our friends at the General Church of the New Jerusalem. You can search/browse their whole library at the New Church Vineyard website.

 Joseph's Sons
A New Church Bible story explanation for teaching Sunday school. Includes lesson materials for Primary (3-8 years), Junior (9-11 years), Intermediate (12-14 years), Senior (15-17 years) and Adults.
Teaching Support | Ages over 3

Thanks to the Swedenborg Society for the permission to use this translation.