(Note: This article is the second of a four-part series. The first three parts are edited versions of a series of questions by a reader named Rami, and my answers. The original versions appear in the comments section of the recent article, “What is the Unpardonable Sin? Am I Doomed?” The fourth part will be a response to a related Spiritual Conundrum submitted earlier by Rami.)
For Part 1, click here.
In a comment following up on my response to an earlier question, which formed Part 1 of this article, a reader named Rami said:
Yes Lee, quite a bit of mind-bending material to be had, intersecting with so many different areas of Swedenborg’s theology (and I suppose it’s ultimately impossible to broach one subject without broaching all of the interconnected ones). Sorry if I hadn’t properly clarified what I was asking with the way I had worded my question, and you did (more than adequately) address many of the issues linked to that question, though I think my central one still remains: what is the role and meaning of forgiveness if God does not judge us into heaven or hell, and heaven and hell rather being something we choose ourselves (with heavenly states ultimately being the work of Divine grace)? If heaven or hell is something we naturally gravitate toward based upon the inner state we forge through our choices, what is there to necessarily forgive?
Is ‘forgiveness’ to imply that sin is an offense against God (which I equate with offenses against each other), and is as such something that drags us down to hellish states unless forgiven or pardoned? Or is forgiveness something that is maybe understood as making a conscious decision to accept the Divine grace that enables us to make an inward transformation out of hellishness and into more heavenly modes of thinking, acting, and being? If so, is the term ‘forgiveness’ ultimately symbolic of this more ineffable transformative experience?
Here is my response, originally contained in two comments. (Note: This response did not deal much with the issue of the nature of sin raised in the question. We’ll take that up more specifically in Part 4 of this series.)
Thanks for clarifying your question. I’ll take another swing at it, and we’ll see how far it flies this time.
I do think you’re moving in the right direction with the questions of your second paragraph. Forgiveness is much more than God simply saying, “I forgive you,” and making things all better. Yes, God forgiving us does have good effects in itself. But it is also inextricably connected to the inner transformation of which you speak.
To take the first one first, we humans by ourselves are never anything but evil. That’s because by ourselves means without God, and all good comes from God, and is God. So when we are separated from God, the only thing we have is the evil that we humans create by twisting the good that comes to us from God into something it was never meant to be.
Further, even when we have accepted God into our lives, and are on the path of “regeneration,” or spiritual rebirth, we are still not clean and pure.
Repentance does not wash evil away; it only pushes it to the side
Swedenborg states that when we repent and begin a new life, our old evils and sins are not washed away from us the way dirt is washed away with water; rather, they are simply moved from the center to the sides of our life. (Traditional translations of Swedenborg often use the word “removed” for this process, which makes it sound like they’re entirely gone, but the Latin removere should really be translated, “moved away.”)
Any evil we have thought or done is never completely wiped away. Rather, it is pushed farther and farther away from the focus of our life, so that it is no longer the driving force in our life. And that is possible only because God continually holds us back from our own evil desires when we are willing to have God do so. (On these points, see The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine #166, Secrets of Heaven #9014:3, and True Christianity #614.)
To use a visual and ocular example, consider someone whose cornea is clouded by disease so that his or her vision is dim. What happens when we are spiritually reborn is not that the cloudiness vanishes altogether; rather, it is moved from the center to the sides, so that the focal point and primary field of vision is now clear, but the peripheral vision retains some of the old cloudiness.
A more experiential example is that of an alcoholic who has stopped drinking and gotten sober, but who is still susceptible to the addictive lure of alcohol, and must be continually vigilant. For many alcoholics, a single drink would be enough to plunge them right back into active alcoholism. In other words, they are still alcoholics; but their alcoholism has been pushed to the side enough that it no longer runs their life—as long as it keeps getting pushed to the side.
We need God’s continual forgiveness
Because our evil thoughts, feelings, and actions are never entirely wiped away, but are merely pushed more and more to the sides, we do need God’s active forgiveness day in and day out to keep us on the path toward heaven.
None of us is perfect. All of us slip from time to time, thinking, feeling, saying, and doing things that we know we shouldn’t. But if our primary motive (“ruling love,” as Swedenborg calls it) is good—meaning focused on love for God, or at least on love for the neighbor—God regularly forgives us when we slip. Our knowledge and experience of that forgiveness makes it possible for us to pick ourselves up again, dust ourselves off, and get back on the path toward heaven.
According to Swedenborg, even angels sometimes slip into false and unworthy thoughts and feelings—such as the idea that they themselves are good, and have completely conquered all of their evil thoughts and desires by their own power. When they have these sorts of thoughts, they are allowed to slip back into the experience of their old evil thoughts and feelings (which are, in fact, still very much a part of them) until they recognize that they themselves are not, in fact, good, but only God is good, that everything good in them is not their own, but God’s in them, and that by themselves they are completely powerless to resist their evil thoughts and feelings. Only when they realize these things can they rise up again from the place where they have fallen, and resume their happy life in heaven.
So even for people on the path to heaven, and indeed, even for people in heaven, God’s forgiveness is still required because not a single one of us is entirely pure, innocent, and good. Every single one of us still has faults, and we still sometimes think, feel, say, and do things that are not good, and that need God’s forgiveness so that we can get back on track.
If God were not to forgive these things, we would be constantly pushed lower and lower every time we slip and fall, and there would be no hope for us.
Let’s not take God’s forgiveness for granted!
The fact that God always forgives us doesn’t take anything away from the power of God’s forgiveness. Although it is a constant, we shouldn’t take it for granted in the sense of not appreciating it, any more than we should take the light and heat of the sun for granted in its role of sustaining all life on earth. If the sun were to stop shining on the earth, it would not be long before the entire earth was a lifeless rock.
So even in the traditional sense of our needing God’s forgiveness for our sins because we are all sinners, God’s forgiveness is a powerful force in our life that continually sustains us and keeps us from falling down deeper and deeper toward hell and into the depths of hell. Knowing that we are forgiven whenever we say or do thoughtless and mean things gives us the strength we need to continually correct ourselves as we walk the path toward heaven.
The transformative power of forgiveness
That is true because forgiveness is not just a sentiment God feels toward us, but is, as you suggest, a transformative power in our life.
Now let’s dig into the connection between forgiveness and transformation.
Forgiveness is a form of love
At its root, forgiveness is simply a function of love.
In human relations, we tend to forgive those we love, and to not forgive those we don’t love—and especially not those we hate and consider enemies. Parents, for example, commonly forgive all manner of misbehavior engaged in by their own children, while condemning the same behavior in others’ children. I’m not saying that’s a good thing. Just that it’s how we humans tend to tick.
When it comes to God, there is forgiveness for all people because God loves all people. And the forgiveness itself is simply one form of God’s love as it flows out to human beings. When God’s love encounters human evil, one of the things God’s love does in that situation is to forgive the evil.
So we can think of God’s forgiveness as an action taken pursuant to God’s love for people who are engaged in evil.
Forgiveness and repentance
However, as explored in the article, “Repentance: The Unpopular Partner of Forgiveness,” forgiveness has no practical effect unless there is repentance, meaning a change of direction and life, on the part of the one forgiven.
Parents commonly forgive their children, even when their grown children commit crimes that land them in jail. That is understandable. Parents love their children, and want them to be happy. However, if their children do not see the error of their ways, but continue to commit crimes, all the parents’ forgiveness does is to add fuel to the fire, emboldening their children to continue commit evil while basking in misapplied love from their parents.
The only way the parents’ love and forgiveness can have a good effect is if their children recognize that their actions are wrong, and commit themselves to no longer engaging in those actions. (See: How Can a Criminal Get to Heaven?) That’s what is meant by “repentance.”
Swedenborg takes up this issue in the form of rejecting the idea, common in traditional Christianity, that cleansing from sins works in this way:
- God forgives our sins.
- As a result, our sins are wiped away and are no longer a part of us.
Swedenborg says that it works in exactly the opposite way:
- Through repentance and living a new and better life, our sins are moved away from the center of our life.
- Then and only then are our sins forgiven.
This is how it works in us. Although God continually forgives our sins, we are not actually forgiven, meaning that God’s forgiveness has no effect in our lives, until we have repented from our sins.
Forgiveness is personal transformation
In other words, we do not experience God’s forgiveness until we have committed ourselves to no longer engaging in our habitual evil words and actions because we recognize that they are wrong and against God’s will, and have committed ourselves to living a good life instead. (For a clear statement of this principle in Swedenborg’s writings, see Divine Providence #279 & 280.)
So the very act of repentance, or personal transformation, is an act of accepting God’s forgiveness, which is the same as accepting God’s love. The action of God’s love and forgiveness, if we allow it to act in our lives, is to lift us up out of the evil and sin in which we’ve been mired, and into a life of love and goodness.
Another way of saying this is that in our own human life and experience, there’s really no difference between being forgiven by God and leaving behind our old evils and sins in favor of a new life of love for God and love for our fellow human beings. In a sense, that spiritual transformation in us is God’s forgiveness, or love, working in us and changing our lives from evil to good.
Forgiveness: both traditional and transformative
So I agree with your final statement that “the term ‘forgiveness’ is ultimately symbolic of this more ineffable transformative experience,” while also agreeing with the more traditional idea that we require God’s forgiveness because on our own we are sinners and are continually falling into evil—as explained in Part 1 of this article.
For Part 3, click here.
For further reading:
How does this play with a person who only goes so far with evil? A person who is honest in his dealings with others, but doesn’t go out of his way to “love his neighbor”? My goal is a mild hell (assuming this is all true). To be honest, the thought of “loving communities” is repulsive to me. But I don’t want the gruesome hells Swedenborg wrote of.
Nobody in hell is honest in his dealings with others, so if that’s how far you get, you’ll be in the lower levels of heaven, not in a milder hell.
“Loving the neighbor” as Swedenborg interprets it doesn’t necessarily mean going around smiling at everyone, kissing babies, and hugging people. It has more to do with doing some kind of work or providing some kind of service to others because we wish them well and want to be useful. Even if we’re doing that work by ourselves off in a cabin in the woods somewhere, as long as it’s of some benefit to someone else, and we care about providing for people’s needs in some way, that’s what happens in heaven, not in hell.
Keep in mind that just because we die and go to the spiritual world that doesn’t mean we become a whole different person. There are introverts and extroverts in heaven just as there are here on earth. Some people live more solitary lifestyles, others live in bustling communities. You won’t be forced to have mushy relationships with lots of people that you aren’t comfortable with.