Think No Evil, Speak No Evil: The Way of the Angels

Leviticus 19:17–18 says:

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

In the Gospels of Matthew (22:34–40) and Mark (12:28–34) Jesus quotes that final line as the second of the two Great Commandments. In the Gospel of Luke, it is Jesus’ questioner who quotes it, leading to the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan. We’ll get to that shortly.

Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) picks up on these Bible themes with this statement in Secrets of Heaven #1088:

People lacking in kindness think nothing but evil and speak nothing but evil of their neighbor. If they have anything good to say, it is only for their own benefit, or else it is an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the person, under the guise of friendship. People who love their neighbor think nothing but good and speak nothing but good of others. They do so not for their own sake or to curry favor with others but because it is what results when the Lord stirs their sense of kindness.

He goes on to say that thinking and speaking evil about other people is what evil spirits prompt us to do; but thinking and speaking good of others is what angels prompt us to do.

In the previous post, “Our New Year’s Resolution Idea for You: Look for the Good in 2015,” Annette and I suggested this as a collective New Year’s Resolution:

Look for the good in the people around us, in our communities, and in the world.

Maybe this sounds like just another of those nice but not so practical warm and fuzzy feel-good notions.

In fact, it is the way of the angels. And for us, it is not only the way we become angels, but also the way we help others to become angels.

Let’s take a closer look.

Who is my neighbor?

When I was considerably younger and even more foolish than I am today, I used to get just a little bit annoyed at the Parable of the Good Samaritan. (If you’re not familiar with it, you can follow the link to read it first.)

Yes, it’s a wonderful story and all. It spins a fine tale about an act of great kindness done by a reviled Samaritan, blowing holes in all sorts of well-established prejudices and dogmas. Oh, so many layers of meaning!

“But,” I said to myself, “Jesus didn’t really answer the question, did he?!?”

It’s easy to miss, because by the time you get to the end of the story, you’re so enthralled with the hated Samaritan doing the good deed that the revered priest and Levite didn’t do that you tend to forget about the original question.

Not me. I remembered. The lawyer had asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

But that’s not the question Jesus answered, is it?

Jesus answered the question, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?

Do you see the difference?

Okay, the difference doesn’t look quite so big to me now.

But to my supremely logical teenage mind, it appeared that Jesus had done a masterful job of verbal aikido in order to talk about what he wanted to talk about instead of answering the guy’s question. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. Sometimes distracting people is the best way to deal with some of the annoying stuff they say and do.

Still, it kind of annoyed me. By golly, I wanted to know Who Is My Neighbor? And Jesus didn’t answer the question!

Our neighbor is the good in other people

Fast forward a few years, and peel away just a few layers of teenage conceit (otherwise known as foolishness), and it began to dawn on me that Jesus actually had answered the lawyer’s question.

Yes, Jesus did tell the lawyer that even hated outcasts such as Samaritans were neighbors. In other words, everyone is our neighbor—even people we don’t like.

But Jesus’ answer went much deeper than that. With this parable he identified precisely who and what our neighbor is from a spiritual perspective.

I can’t take any credit for the insight. It was Swedenborg who clued me in. He said in Secrets of Heaven #10336 (among other places):

People who love their neighbor as themselves love what is good and true simply because it is good and true. They do this because in a broad sense, our neighbor is whatever is good and true. (emphasis added)

Did you catch that?

To put it in somewhat less abstract and more personal terms, when we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves, this means we are to love everything that’s good and true in the people around us.

Think about it. When the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus laid out the scene and then asked the lawyer in turn, “Which of these was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The lawyer probably couldn’t bring himself to say, “The Samaritan.” Instead, he said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

In this way, Jesus drew out of the questioner a very precise spiritual answer to the question of who is our neighbor. No matter what the person looks like or what we think of the person, the neighbor is the part of others that thinks, feels, and acts out of mercy and kindness. Or in Swedenborg’s shorthand, the neighbor is everything good and true in other people.

How to love our neighbor

This means at least two things.

First, it means that everyone is our neighbor. That’s because there is no person on earth who is pure evil. Yes, there are some people who are pretty bad. But we humans aren’t pure anything. Only God is. So no matter whom you encounter as you go about your daily rounds, there is at least some good in that person.

Second, it means that the commandment to love our neighbor is not just about acting from some generalized sense of kindness and goodwill toward others. It is a much more precise and practical commandment than that.

When Jesus said that the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves, he was giving us our marching orders. If we read that commandment in light of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, those orders are to look for what is good and true in the people around us, and love that in them.

Incidentally, when we love what is good and true in other people, we are loving God in them, because everything good and true comes from God.

It may come as a relief that we don’t have to love what’s evil and false in the people around us. We don’t have to love their foolishness, their lies, or their jerky behavior. But we still do have to love them, even when they’re being foolish lying jerks. And the way we do that is to not focus on what’s bad about them, but to look for what’s good in them, and do what we can to bring that out in them.

Reproving our neighbor

In case this seems too lovey-dovey and dreamy-eyed, let’s take a look at one way we can love what’s good and true in our neighbor by recognizing what is evil and false in them. As quoted earlier, Leviticus 19:17 says:

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.

At first these may sound like two unrelated commandments just strung together. But in fact, they’re closely connected.

We’re told not to hate in our heart anyone of our kin. (And these days we know that our “kin” is the entire human race.) If someone has done something wrong, and it’s causing us to feel anger and hatred toward them in our heart, instead of holding it in, we’re told to reprove our neighbor. Here’s how Jesus puts it in Matthew 18:15–16:

If your brother or sister commits an offense against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” [a reference to Deuteronomy 19:15].

Jesus goes on from there, but that’s enough for now. The point is, if we see someone doing something wrong, it does no good to be angry at that person in our heart. Instead, it’s our task to bring it up with them and do our best to resolve it. We may not always be successful, but it’s better than simmering against them until it boils over in some other way.

The commandment to love what is good and true in others doesn’t mean we’re supposed to ignore what is evil and false in them. In fact, one of our jobs with our fellow human beings is to do our best to separate them from the bad parts of themselves. One way of doing this is to confront them when they are doing something that’s hurtful to us or to other people. If we can prevail upon them not to do it anymore, we’ve helped them to become a better person—which means we’ve helped them to grow toward becoming an angel.

Think no evil, speak no evil

Here is the rest of the quote from Secrets of Heaven #1088:

Evil spirits always arouse bad impulses and false ideas in us, and they condemn us. Angels, though, arouse only good impulses and true ideas, and whatever is evil or false they excuse. All of this shows that people lacking in kindness are under the control of evil spirits, who keep us in touch with hell, while people endowed with kindness are under the control of angels, who keep us in touch with heaven.

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

Remember, Swedenborg didn’t say, “See no evil, hear no evil.” He said, “Think no evil, speak  no evil.”

Evil spirits look for bad impulses and false ideas in us, and they condemn us. That is thinking and speaking evil. They identify us with what’s bad in us, and use it to drag us down.

On the other hand, when angels see things that are wrong in us, they excuse it. This does not mean angels consider it A-OK for us lie, cheat, steal, and so on. Rather, it means that they don’t see that as the real us. When angels see the bad parts of us, they look deeper. They look to the heart of goodness that is within all of us. And that is what they think of as our true self. The rest is a false crust to be chipped away and discarded.

You see, what the angels are doing in their minds and hearts is separating us from the evil and falsity that has been attached to us. What they look for instead is everything that’s good in us. And they do their best to draw that out of us, and inspire us to think of our best self as our real self.

That is precisely what we are commanded to do with every person around us. Everyone we know has good in them. Our job is to find it and draw it out. When we think and speak no evil of our neighbor, but think and speak of what is good and true in them, we are walking on the way of angels, and leading the people around us on the path toward heaven.

For further reading:


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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12 comments on “Think No Evil, Speak No Evil: The Way of the Angels
  1. Doug Webber says:

    Good advice, also happens to be a philosophy used in management at successful companies (both praising good and correcting mistakes). Happy New Year Lee.

  2. Rob says:

    I have found a better philosophy to be suspicious of others. Too often treating people nicely will earn their contempt. I’ve know this all my life but only now can I admit it to myself. Also, we can now afford to be nice to others because rough men beat back those who would hurt or kill us. Its a dark truth, but its truth nonetheless.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rob,

      Thanks for your thoughts. It reminds me of Jesus’ words to his disciples when he sent them out to preach:

      See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matthew 10:16)

      Jesus wasn’t naive, and he didn’t want his disciples to be naive. So he warned them to be careful of others: to be “wise as serpents.” But he also told them to be “innocent as doves,” meaning that they were not to engage in the wrongful and deceptive practices of the “wolves” whom they would commonly meet in their travels.

      The commandment is not to be nice to our neighbors and be nice to our enemies, but to love them. And loving them may sometimes involve doing hard things, such as throwing a criminal in jail or kicking a deadbeat son or daughter out of the house.

      • Adam says:

        Kicking a deadbeat son out of the house? What do you mean by that? Explain in detail. By deadbeat do you mean a son who is disobedient or a drunkard? Or do you mean a deadbeat son like a son who hasn’t found the way yet? Don’t sugar.coat anything
        Be blessed.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Adam,

          No sugar-coating. Too many parents are holding their adult children back by continuing to provide a home for them, feed them, pay the bills for them, and so on. It doesn’t do them any good. It just means that they will never grow up and become adults in their own right.

          I have no objection to arrangements in which adult children share homes with their parents, and share equally in the bills and the responsibilities of the home. In these economic times, sometimes that’s necessary.

          But if the adult children are just hanging around the house working out and playing video games, partying with their friends and sapping off their parents, and maybe getting a part-time job to make a few bucks to spend on themselves, that’s just plain wrong. Parents who let their adult children do that aren’t doing them any favors.

  3. Chad says:

    Hi Lee. This article is quite prescient for our times, and I wanted your counsel on something. Deep down, I do want to love my neighbors and to see the good in everyone, but as I’m sure you know, it is very, very hard to do that with some people. A question I’ve often asked myself is: does it make me good or evil to feel hate for people who abuse children or their spouses? Hate is, of course, a very strong feeling indeed, but I’ve realized the depth of empathy and compassion I have for women and children makes hating those who would harm them an almost instinctual response, the same way someone would reflexively gag at a sewage plant or the smell of rotting eggs, because I find their actions so abhorrent and antithetical to human goodness and decency. Therein lies my predicament. I have so much empathy and compassion for those who are innocent that I cannot help but feel disgust at those who would harm them, and a mere rebuke does not feel right or just for someone who does truly heinous things like domestic abuse or murder. At the same time, I know such feelings are not the way angels think, and I know that God wants us to love everything that is good and true in everyone, not hate anyone. How can we love those of our neighbors who do truly evil things, or, to stay with your article’s point, those who seem to have little or no good in them for us to love? Hope you and Annette are healthy and safe!

    God Bless,


    • Lee says:

      Hi Chad,

      It is a tough question, not theoretically, but personally. When we see people harming others, especially those who are innocent and defenseless, it is natural to feel anger and even hatred toward them. But the spiritual path is more nuanced, and in the end, more effective both in dealing with evil and in ensuring that we don’t get sucked into the vortex of evil ourselves.

      When people are engaged in evil actions, though we’re still supposed to love them, that love must take a very different form than loving people who are engaged in good actions. It may involve treating them harshly, punishing them, and so on. Ideally this should happen through official channels such as the police and the courts. But sometimes we are faced with a situation in which we must act personally to restrain and oppose people who are doing harm to innocent people. Though we may feel anger at the time we are doing this, our ultimate motivation should not be to harm the perpetrator, but to protect the victim. Any action we take should not be any more than is necessary to accomplish that goal.

      A secondary goal is to induce the perpetrator to rethink his or her life and actions, and perhaps come to repentance. Of course, we cannot force anyone to repent from evil behavior. But by resisting and punishing their evil actions, once again, ideally through the police and court system, we may cause them to consider whether this is really the sort of person they want to be, and the sort of life they want to live.

      Looking deeper, the spiritual side of loving our neighbor is that we are to love the good in our neighbor. We are not required to, nor should we, love the evil in another person, nor are we required to love their evil words and actions. In fact, resisting and punishing those words and actions, as appropriate, is actually loving the person, because we are loving the potential good in that person, which can come to the fore in his or her life only if she or he repents from the evil and begins living a good life instead.

      Within ourselves, if we succumb, not just to anger at the evil, but to hatred of the perpetrator, we are allowing ourselves to be sucked into the vortex of the perpetrator’s evil. Hatred is a very dark emotion. It does not come from God and heaven, but from evil and hell. Though it is natural to feel it when people have done especially heinous crimes, such as victimizing women and children, unfortunately it clouds our judgment and causes us to act in ineffective and irrational ways that don’t help the situation. Soon we are engaged in acts of hatred and destruction ourselves, and then the evil has won.

      Rather, we need to keep our rationality intact, and, as Swedenborg says, act sensibly so that good will come from it. First for the protection of the good and innocent, and second for the potential repentance of the evil and hell-bound. God wants even the worst and most sinful criminal to repent and go to heaven, not to continue in evil and go to hell:

      “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked,” says the Lord God, “and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?” . . . “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone,” says the Lord God. “Turn, then, and live.” (Ezekiel 18:23, 30–32)

      “As I live,” says the Lord God, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?”

      Though it is hard for us to attain to that level of love when we are faced with a person who has done horrendous acts, that is what we should aspire to, even as we take action against perpetrators in order to protect the innocent.

  4. K says:

    Blind obedience is one of the reasons Earth is such an awful place. This is the “agentic state” or the “just following orders” mentality.

    Do angels lose that biological trait, and choose to follow rather than obey when they do “obey”, for the sake of harmony? Or do a number of angels retain a state of unquestioning obedience from Earth?

    • Lee says:

      Hi K,

      It’s a good, and interesting, question.

      Here on earth, the biggest problem with blind obedience is that the leaders people blindly follow are commonly unenlightened and corrupt. They give orders that are not good. People follow these orders blindly, causing many problems. Not that blind obedience is good in any case. But blindly following good orders doesn’t cause anywhere near the damage that blindly following bad orders causes.

      In heaven, there will be no bad orders issued by unenlightened and corrupt people. In hell, yes of course. But not in heaven. Therefore in heaven even blind obedience would not be as big a problem as it is on earth. Still, even though there are angels who act primarily from obedience in heaven, it is not blind obedience. Everyone in heaven, even in the lowest heavens, understands that there is a moral and ethical code that one must follow in all one’s actions.

      For context, heaven is divided into three levels, or heavens:

      • The highest, or third heaven is inhabited by angels motivated primarily by love for God. These are heart-centered angels.
      • The middle, or second heaven is inhabited by angels motivated primarily by love for the neighbor. These are head-centered angels.
      • The lowest, or first heaven is inhabited by angels who are motivated by a desire to do a good job as instructed. These are hands-centered angels.

      This means that while the angels of the second and third heavens are moved by inner motivations, the angels of the lowest heaven are moved by more external motivations of behavioral obedience to commandments. In short, they’re all about obedience.

      However, they are also instructed about morality and ethics based on the Ten Commandments and other laws of God. They therefore have the ability to see that the orders they are given are good ones, not evil ones. If some evil spirit were to come into their community pretending to be an angel, and give them some immoral order, they would not obey it. They would see and know that it is wrong, and would recognize that anyone who issued such an immoral order could not really be an angel. In general, they look to their own established leaders in their communities, whom they know and trust.

      In short, in heaven there is not blind obedience, but willing obedience to good and constructive orders given by known and respected leaders in the community. But that is the situation only in the lowest heaven. In the higher heavens people act from inner motives, not from externally delivered orders.

      • K says:

        Thanks for reply.

        Also does loving God still mean loving neighbor? What exactly is loving God that angels of the innermost heaven are driven by?

        • Lee says:

          Hi K,

          You’re welcome.

          Yes, loving God includes loving the neighbor. If we love God, we love what God loves also. And God loves all people. In fact, God loves everything good. God even loves evil people, but God doesn’t love the evil itself; rather, God loves the remaining good in them, and the potential for good in them. So if we love God above all, we love the good in our neighbor. In fact, the good itself in other people is the neighbor that we are to love, because that is God’s presence in them.

          There’s much more that could be said in response to your questions. However, for now I’ll just link you to a couple related articles:

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

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