Two thousand years ago Jesus Christ said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30)
A reader named Rob is not so sure. In a recently submitted spiritual conundrum he asks:
What if I cannot attain to the kind of life Swedenborg says I need to to go to heaven? The demands are too burdensome. I try and fail. Spectacularly.
Am I doing something wrong here? Are some people just born with a better disposition and can do the good easily?
Thanks, Rob, for the great questions!
My sense from what you write, and from your earlier comments here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life, is that life has been difficult and painful for you. You question in your heart whether someone like you can really find your way to happiness and to heaven. It seems to you unlikely, if not impossible. It seems that you may be fated for pain and sorrow, and for eternal darkness.
Is it really so easy to get to heaven? Or is it hard . . . maybe impossible? Is it even worth trying?
The short answer is: It’s both easy and hard to get to heaven.
As Swedenborg says, living a life that leads to heaven is really not all that hard. We don’t have to be perfect, pious people who spend all of our time praying and never have an evil thought. Mostly, we just have to avoid doing dishonest and destructive things, and make ourselves useful to our fellow human beings.
Unfortunately, there is often huge resistance, both within us and around us, to living the way our better self wants to live. We have an ideal for ourselves, and we just can’t seem to live up to it. We keep on thinking, wanting, and doing the things we swore we’d stop doing.
There are also a lot of misconceptions floating around about what type of person we have to be to get to heaven. Heaven has room for all different kinds of people, not just for the bubbly, cheerful types that are held up to us as shining examples of what a “real Christian” is supposed to look like. In fact, heaven needs all different types of people.
Even though you may think that with your particular character, disposition, struggles, and failures, there will be no room for you in heaven, it’s very possible that heaven needs someone exactly like you.
How did things get so messed up?
I don’t know your story. I can’t say why life is hard and painful for you, and why heaven seems unlikely. It’s different for different people who feel this way—and you are by no means the only one.
Perhaps you grew up with fire-and-brimstone preachers who threatened you with the eternal fires of hell. Perhaps your parents tore you down and told you that you were no good. Perhaps you were mistreated and abused. Perhaps you were born with a naturally introverted, “antisocial” personality. Perhaps you have done some things that you just can’t forgive yourself for. Perhaps it’s none of these things, and there are other issues I can’t guess at.
For whatever reason, the type of active, loving, happy social and spiritual life that seems possible and even easy for other people just doesn’t seem like a real possibility for you. This can make life feel dark and hopeless.
What if life is hard?
Then Jesus comes along and says, “My yoke is easy.”
And Swedenborg comes along and says, “It’s not so hard to get to heaven.”
But when life is hard, those words ring hollow.
Let me first assure you that the reason Jesus, and later Swedenborg, even talked about the path being easy, and not being so hard, is that they both knew from personal experience just how hard life can be. They were not denying the hard realities of life, but offering the hope of solace and comfort in the midst of the pain and sorrow of life.
Theirs is not a glib “positive thinking” that seeks to ignore the reality of human suffering by flooding the brain with endorphins. Rather, what they offer is a path through the reality of pain and suffering toward something better. That something better does not deny the evil that exists within and around us. Rather, it offers a way to rise above the evil even while we may still be experiencing it.
If we look at Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospels, we find that it was anything but easy. The moment he was born, a plot was hatched to kill him, forcing his parents to flee to a foreign land. As soon as he began his public ministry, he came under attack by the powerful religious leaders of the day. For him, that life of conflict and struggle continued right to the end of his life: he was brutally executed by his enemies.
We can know, then, that when Jesus says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” he does not mean that he had an easy life.
In many ways, Emanuel Swedenborg’s life was quite comfortable. He was born of wealthy, educated stock, and lived a relatively privileged life. In fact, by the time he was fifty, he was all set to be a brilliant, celebrated scholar who would be a household name for his political, scientific, and philosophical achievements.
But God had other plans for him. By the time he was fifty-five, Swedenborg was making the difficult choice to give up all of his dreams of worldly wealth and fame, and take up a new task in life—a task for which he, too, would be attacked and vilified by the religious authorities of the day.
Swedenborg’s struggle and suffering was not in the same league as that of Jesus. He was able to live comfortably to his dying day. But we know from his private diaries that he went through great psychological and spiritual pain in giving up all of his dreams of fame and renown, and instead taking a path that would subject his name to attack and ridicule by those in positions of power. In order to take on the task that God had given him, he had to battle down his own overactive ego.
So we can know that when Swedenborg says, “It is not so hard to lead a heaven-bound life as people think it is,” he does not mean that the life that leads to heaven is going to be simple, painless, and conflict-free.
In fact, both Jesus and Swedenborg spend a great deal of time talking about the conflict, pain, and struggle of life.
Still, they offer the hope of an easier way, and of a path through the pain and suffering.
And while it may seem counterintuitive, walking the path of spiritual rebirth that Jesus taught and Swedenborg expanded upon requires us not to deny, but to face and accept the reality of pain, suffering, sin, and struggle.
(Photo credit: Ian – Into The Mountains)
The trials of temptation
It helps to understand that when we experience difficult and painful struggles in life, and when we experience the feeling that there is no hope—that we simply cannot live a good life according to our beliefs—this is actually a normal, natural part of our spiritual growth process.
For some people these periods of struggle, doubt, and failure (by our own lights) are shorter and less severe. For others they are long, deep, and very severe and painful.
Those of us who experience the deeper and more severe forms may think this puts us outside the pale of a truly spiritual life, and closes the doors of heaven for us. We may believe that because we have such difficulty living the way we believe we should, that means we will inevitably end up in hell rather than heaven.
But here’s the thing: when we feel this way, we are already in hell.
Among other things, hell is a state of separation and alienation from God and from loving and caring human society. If we’re experiencing this in our life here on earth, then hell already has its hooks in us.
I say this, not to make things seem even more hopeless, but to put some light on the reality of our situation. The question is not so much whether we’ll go to hell after we die, but whether we’ll get out of hell while we are still here on earth.
These days it is unfashionable to talk about evil spirits influencing us. But Jesus tells us in the Gospels that evil spirits are very real, and that they are quite capable of taking over our life. Swedenborg was allowed by God to see that there are indeed evil spirits with us all the time, continually working on us and attempting to drag us down toward hell.
The solution is not to deny their existence. The solution is not to deny the existence of evil, and attempt to drown it out with positive thinking, love, and light. Rather, the solution is to recognize and accept that the evil within and around us is real—and to do the work required to extricate ourselves from it. (But it’s really God doing the work.)
That’s what temptation is all about.
Temptation is a battle within us between the evil spirits and evil influences that are making our life into hell, and the good spirits and angels who come to us with the power of God to overcome that evil and lift us out of hell.
Struggles are a sign of life
Consider this: The very fact that you battle and struggle against the evil within and around you, and fear that you will lose the battle, shows that you are not spiritually dead. It shows that you are on a path that can lead to heaven.
If you simply gave in and willingly led an evil and destructive life, then the hope for you to find your way to heaven would indeed be slim. You would be on a path toward destruction without offering any resistance. Your life might be “peaceful,” but it would be the “peace” of a canoe sliding effortlessly down the river toward Niagara Falls.
I sense from your comments and your conundrum that you do struggle intensely with the feeling that you have failed to live a good life, and that you will keep failing to live a good life, and that therefore you will most likely end out in hell.
The fact that you are struggling is good!
It shows that you have not given up and given in. It shows that unlike those who just let themselves go, your struggles across those dangerous currents may bring you to the safety of shore before you go over the falls.
What you are experiencing is what the Bible calls “temptation.” Temptation is not so much about wanting to do something we know is wrong. It’s about facing the ultimate struggle between hope for heaven and the despair of hell.
As long as you are engaged in that struggle, you have not given in. What you are experiencing is not the road to hell, but the path out of hell.
It can be a long, difficult, and painful road. It can and will test us to the depths of our souls. It will “sift us like wheat” (see Luke 22:31–32). There will be many parts of ourselves—parts that we may hold onto dearly—that will have to be blown away like the chaff so that only the wheat of a good heart and mind remain in us.
In other words, what you are going through is a normal part of the process of spiritual rebirth. Even if you may be experiencing it in a more severe fashion than others seem to experience it, there is nothing wrong with you. You struggle and feel pain and failure because you are alive spiritually. You struggle because you are treading the path out of hell—and hell does not want to let go of you.
Your struggles and even your sense of failure have a purpose.
The success of failure
In our success-driven culture, it’s a temptation to think that when we fail, we have failed. But failing does not make us a failure.
Let me explain.
Failure is often necessary for success.
Inventors such as Thomas Edison commonly fail hundreds, if not thousands of times before finally coming up with something that works. Every single one of those failures was necessary. Each one showed them what doesn’t work, and got them one step closer to what does work. The specific nature of each failure suggested what might need to change in order to achieve success.
The same is true in business. Failed product lines and failed ventures often teach much more about what works and what doesn’t than successful ones.
When we fail, we analyze our failures. We seek to learn what went wrong. We look for solutions. We try to figure out how to succeed instead of failing. So we usually learn much more from our failures than from our successes.
Perhaps this is why Jesus said, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
It’s not just joy over someone becoming righteous. If that were the issue, then there would be more joy over the ninety-nine righteous persons.
No, failing and then overcoming failure gives us many qualities that we don’t have if all we experience is success.
Those qualities include depth and strength of character. Those who have struggled deeply in their souls come out with a gritty ability to survive that is lacking in those who have had an easy life. In the face of adversity, those who have struggled against adversity will survive. Those who have led soft, easy lives will quickly crumble.
The longer and more intense our struggles have been, the greater the strength, endurance, and depth of character we will develop.
Heaven needs people with depth and strength of character. God needs angels to send to those who are in the midst of struggle, suffering, and pain. Those who have had easy lives will not be up to the task. Only those who have experienced pain and suffering themselves can be truly helpful to people still caught in the dark coils of trial and temptation in this world.
That may not be much comfort when we’re in the middle of the struggles, when we feel we’ve failed, and when the outcome is uncertain. However, to quote the Psalms, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5). There will come a time when the worst of our struggles are over, and we are left with the depth and strength of character that we developed in the process.
When our struggles are over, we will have become people, and then angels, who are able to do the heavy lifting that God needs in order to pull this world of ours out of its darkness and into the light.
Our failure is God’s success
Another quality developed by struggle and failure is trust in God rather than trust in ourselves.
These days, the virtues of self-reliance and self-determination are preached far and wide in both secular and sacred circles. And there is a certain virtue in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We must engage in the struggle as if it were all up to us, and all about us. It’s not “spiritual” to sit idly by with our hands hanging down waiting for God to do all the work.
However, as we struggle along our spiritual path, eventually we will come to a point at which we realize that our own strength is not enough. We will come to a point at which we realize that by ourselves we will fail, but with God’s strength, we can be victorious.
According to Swedenborg, one of the purposes of temptation is to get us to the point where we realize that on our own, we are failures.
Because as long as we think we can handle our own problems, we will not open up our soul to God, nor to our friends and family who love us and want to help us. As long as we try to be a rock and an island, we will be alone, and will remain in our own private hell.
But when we reach the point at which we realize that we have given it our best shot, and we have failed, that is precisely when we are finally ready to turn our life over to God.
Oh, we may have thought that we were living a religious and godly life before. But as long as we think we are good and virtuous, and can do this “spiritual” thing all by ourselves, we are living in an illusion. We are still in the grip of evil and of hell. We are living, not from the love and wisdom of God, but from the pride and folly of our own ego.
Temptation is specifically designed to break up our ego. It is designed to bring us so low that we admit defeat.
Because the fact is, hell is much stronger than we are. We may think that we’re some sort of spiritual macho stud. Hell is there to prove that even if we put out our best effort, and expend all the strength, energy, and acumen at our disposal, we will be squashed like a bug under the sheer weight and depth of human evil.
The only one who is strong enough to overcome the overwhelming power of our deeper evils is God. And for Christians, it is only by turning to the Lord Jesus Christ that we can gain the strength to move from our failure to God’s success.
It is precisely when we admit failure, and turn our lives over to God unconditionally, that we can finally begin to win the battles. Life will still be a struggle. But we will have turned around. We will be battling upward through the power of God instead of fighting a rearguard, downward, losing battle through our own strength.
In short, we must put out our best effort. But once our own efforts have failed, God can finally begin to succeed spiritually in our lives.
Okay, then where does the “easy” part come in?
Wow, all of this sounds very . . . hard.
Where does the “easy” part come in? Does it ever become “not so hard,” as Swedenborg says?
Jesus was not deceiving us when he said that his yoke is easy. And Swedenborg spoke from hard experience when he said that the life that leads to heaven is not so hard.
Perhaps this is a paradox. But living a spiritual life is actually quite easy. It is light, joyful, even effortless, because it simply involves allowing the love and wisdom of God to flow through us.
The hard part is getting to the easy part.
The hard part is that we resist living in that easy way. Our ego, our prior training and experience, and yes, the evil spirits who are with us are continually fighting against our acceptance of the easy yoke and the path that is not so hard.
Here’s an example that may help:
In ordinary driving conditions, when does a car’s engine have to expend the most power? When is the car’s drive train under the most strain? It’s not when the car is moving along the road, or even when it’s cruising along at highway speed—even though that’s when the car is “getting the most work done.”
No, the engine has to put out the most effort when it is starting the car from a stop. The greatest mechanical strain takes place just getting the car going. Once it is underway, the engine still has to work. But now it has momentum on its side. Now it has to produce only enough power to keep the car going in the direction it already “wants” to go.
It’s the same for us spiritually. Except it’s as if the car is going 100mph in reverse, and we’ve got to hit the brakes and gear it down to get it to a stop, and only then begin to put out the torque needed to get it going forward.
Jesus’ yoke, and Swedenborg’s road that is not so hard, is about the time when we’ve gotten the car going in the right direction, and we’re cruising along the highway. Yes, we’ll have some hills to climb and some valleys to get through. But it will be nothing we can’t handle with the “engine” of God powering our lives.
Unfortunately, we usually get going in reverse in our younger years. That may be because of bad influences when we are growing up. Or it may be because of bad choices we made as young adults. Sometimes we have to spend much of our lives just coming to a stop. And that “stop” may feel like the failure of everything we have ever tried to accomplish with our lives. We may feel like our life has come to an end. But we must come to that stop before finally getting ourselves going forward toward heaven. And that will be a serious struggle of its own.
Keep in mind, though, that our time here on earth is only the beginning of our real life in heaven. We spend a few decades, or maybe even a century here. That is only a tiny slice of life compared to the eternity that we will spend in the spiritual world. Even if it takes us sixty, seventy, or eighty years to get our lives going on a positive path, all of the pain, suffering, struggle, and failure that we experience here will seem like nothing compared to the joy that will come with the “morning” of our spiritual rebirth and our life in the eternity of heaven.
That is what Jesus was talking about when he said:
Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. (John 16:20–22)
This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.
For further reading:
- If You Think You’re Going to Hell, Please Read This First
- What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?
- Viktor Frankl on Meaning in the Midst of Suffering
- Can Gang Members Go to Heaven? (Is Life Fair?)
- If God is Love, Why all the Pain and Suffering?
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth