(This article is a lightly edited version of a talk originally delivered on June 8, 2003.)
Throughout recorded human history runs the thread of human beings trying to rule and control as much of this earth as we are able. Nation rises against nation, there are wars and rumors of wars, empires rise to control vast territories, enduring for perhaps a hundred, perhaps a thousand years, and then they are gone, surviving only in the history books and in the collective consciousness of the human race.
Right now the United States is the dominant power on this earth. Some people think this is wonderful. Others think it is terrible. Still others are of two minds about it. But my purpose is not to say whether this is good or bad, but to remind you that it is temporary.
Every human work is temporary. We may build great buildings that last centuries, and great empires that last centuries, but in the end, everything we humans do here on earth will crumble into dust and be gone. We may gain control over a large part of the world’s territory and wealth, but that too is only temporary. It may last for our lifetime, or over many lifetimes, but sooner or later the wealth and lands will pass out of our hands, or out of the hands of our descendants.
We humans here on earth are mortal—creatures of time. Everything about us that dwells in and relates to this material world will live out its life, and then die. We can have no permanent memorial here on earth. Even if we manage to build physical or cultural monuments that last thousands and thousands of years, we know that in the end, the earth itself will be swallowed up by our dying and expanding sun, and even the entire universe will eventually either collapse back on itself, or dissolve into a thin film of inert matter, dead stars, and random energy, incapable of supporting any further life. All things of this material existence live out their lives, and then die.
It is only in a temporary sense that any one of us, any group of us, any human government can be said to rule any part of this earth. We may have the reins of power in our hands for a time, but then our power is gone.
How real is our power?
Even when we do apparently have the reins of power in our hands, much of that power is illusory. The United States is currently the most powerful nation on earth. Over a decade ago we militarily crushed the governments of two nations with ease. Then we discovered the same thing that the North Vietnamese discovered after they defeated us in the 1970s: that winning the peace is much harder than winning the war. With our overwhelming military superiority, breaking the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq was not difficult. Establishing reasonable governments to replace them is turning out to be far thornier a task than we had imagined.
Even here in our own land, with our government wielding the most sophisticated means ever devised of tracking its people’s movements and their economic and recreational activities through computerized databases reaching into many of the things we do each day, our government remains in power only as long as the people want it to. The power that our leaders feel they wield is not their own, but is only donated to them for a time. Those who were in power ten or twenty years ago are now simply private citizens, if they are not already in their graves.
In the end, all human power—whatever effects it may have for a time—is merely an illusion. It is real for a time, and then it is not real. And it depends on so many factors beyond human control that the power can hardly be considered our own. Even the President himself depends for his power on thousands and millions of others who could at any time decide that they do not want to do what he wants them to do.
Human law vs. divine law
Further, we may have the strings of military and economic power in our hands for a time, but we do not create or control the physical, economic, biological, and social laws that govern all human action and interaction. In fact, any law we humans make can be successful only to the extent that it abides by and harmonizes with higher laws that are not merely legislated, but are built into the very fabric of existence. If we abide by these laws, our actions gain a certain long-term staying power. If we violate them, we are fighting against the very nature and structure of the universe—which is a battle we cannot win for long. We are all subject to laws that we did not create and that we cannot change.
The Divine Author of those laws is the only true ruler of the universe and everything in it. The Creator of the physical and spiritual worlds, who established their foundations and delineated all their laws, is also the supreme and only ruler of all that exists. Our power is secondary, derived power. God’s power is the original and real power, because God is the source of all that is.
Now, many of us will accept that theoretically. “Yes, of course, everything comes from God.” But we think that God has done his creating, and has now given us the power. And there is a sense in which that is true. God did put us in charge of the garden, to tend it and care for it (Genesis 2:15). And he gave us dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves on the earth (Genesis 1:28).
Yet God still retained ultimate control. When we violated the one prohibition that he had given us—against eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil—he expelled us from the Garden of Eden, where all had been provided for us in luxuriant fashion, and we began the existence that we still know today: scratching out a living for ourselves through laborious work, in the sweat of our brows. Dominion was only lent to us as long as we tended and cared for the garden according to the higher law established by God.
To this day, all of our power is merely lent to us by God. Jesus, when he was before Pilate, said to him, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11).
Whose power is it?
Even the idea that the power is ever actually ours is an illusion. We may think that God hands power over to us in the same way that an employer writes a check so that the money (meaning the power) is now ours. And God purposely gives us the illusion that this is how it works. If we knew that, as Emanuel Swedenborg says, “no angel, spirit, or person is able to move a hand or foot except from him” (Apocalypse Explained #726.2), we would rebel against God, continually resentful of and resistant to God’s minute awareness and rule over even the most trivial aspects of our lives.
God knows that if we have a sense of personal power and control, we will work and struggle to move forward and achieve the purposes that we believe are ours. So God allows us to think that we are autonomous; that we control our own lives; that everything we do is from our own will and through our own power.
But it’s not true.
God sustains everything moment-to-moment
Not only were we originally created by God, and from God’s substance, but every ounce of capability and power that we now have comes from God, moment by moment. We literally cannot move a hand or a foot unless God gives us the power to do it in that very instant. We may think that it is our brain and nervous system and muscles that enable us to lift a hand or a foot, but that is true only in a limited sense.
First, we now know that this physical body of ours, which looks so solid, is mostly empty space. It is made of infinitesimally small bundles of energy and matter—electrons, protons, and so on—whizzing around and giving the illusion of solidity. When we touch one another, it is not physical “stuff” touching physical “stuff.” Rather, it is energy and force fields approaching one another.
The engine behind all that energy and motion is God. If God were not continually flowing into the material world, sustaining every particle and keeping them all in motion, they would instantly cease to exist. Our very bodies, and everything we touch and see, are continually held in existence by the power of God’s love. If God’s presence in and around us ceased even for an instant, we would instantly cease to exist.
And second, even the impulse to move our muscles comes from within. Without a mind inhabiting this body of ours, it would be a lifeless mass of flesh. Without a spirit, the body is motionless and dead. The impulse to move our hand or foot comes from within—from our will, which is part of our spirit. And though we may think our thoughts and feelings are our own, in fact, every one of them comes from the angels and spirits around us, and through them from God. Even if the physical means exists to move a hand or a foot, it will not be moved except at the command of our spirit. And our spirit also was created by God, and is continually sustained in existence by God every moment.
The only ruler of the universe
Now let’s look around at this world of ours again. Doesn’t it look a little different? Suddenly the weight of human wealth and dominance seems light and fleeting. Even the most powerful people on earth are merely children playing with their toys for a time, until their toys are taken away.
There is only one ruler of all nations, and of all the universe.
Whatever the appearance may be, God is in control of our world. We may not always see God’s purposes, but we can take comfort in knowing that God’s purposes are eternal, not temporary, and that they will be accomplished. And we can take even greater comfort in knowing that the God who rules the earth with infinite power is also a God of infinite love and mercy.
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you rule the peoples justly, and guide the nations of the earth. (Psalm 67:4)
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