This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. (Luke 2:34–35)
“The thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” I have been thinking lately that in this largely Christian culture, Jesus is a touchstone as to where people are spiritually. Not that we can judge where anyone else is spiritually. But we can surmise something of their inner state by their reaction to Jesus. The same goes for our own inner state.
There are many different opinions about who Jesus was. Do people accept Jesus? Do they accept him as their Lord and Savior? If so, that says something about their spiritual state. Do people accept him as a great prophet? That also says something. Do people reject Jesus? And if they do reject Jesus, why do they? Is it because they had a bad experience of Jesus growing up in Sunday School and church, and therefore they reject him? Or do they reject Jesus because they are unwilling to have their lives reformed by his influence?
Some people are too skeptical; they can’t accept anything that isn’t demonstrated by “hard evidence.” They therefore reject any possibility that Jesus could be divine. In their view, he was an ordinary human being. And some people are simply indifferent to Jesus. They really don’t care, and don’t pay any attention to Jesus at all. That also says something about their spiritual state.
Of course, for people from non-Christian cultures it is different. But in a Christian culture, our response to Jesus—who he was, how he affects us—says a lot about our spiritual state. So “the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” The thoughts of many hearts are revealed in our response to the Lord Jesus Christ—to the God of our religion.
A process of revelation
The thoughts of our hearts being revealed is a process of revelation—of showing what is within us, and bringing it out. Jesus also went through that process of revelation. Remember: he was born as a human being. He was born as a baby. He went through all the stages that we go through. And he became the divine pattern for our own spiritual growth.
This process of revelation is the meaning of the journeys recounted in Genesis 12:6–9:
Abram traveled through the land as far as Shechem, to the oak grove of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who appeared to him.
From there he went on toward the mountains east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord. Then Abram set out, and continued traveling toward the south.
In our series on the inner life of Jesus, we are following the Gospel story, but also the story of Genesis: of Abram and his travels, of Isaac and Jacob, of Joseph. In their highest and deepest meaning, these stories tell us about the inner life of Jesus. As we read the story of the call of Abram and his journey to Canaan, we are still looking at the infancy and early childhood of Jesus.
The beginning of our spiritual journey
Jesus began, as we all do, being aware only of his own feelings and needs. When we are first born, and when we are in our infancy, we aren’t thinking of the people around us. In fact, we are not really thinking at all; we are simply feeling. And we are feeling our own wants and needs; our own pains and pleasures. As a baby, Jesus started there as well. This is symbolized by Abram starting in Ur of the Chaldees, which is in Babylonia. In the Bible’s spiritual meaning, Babylon represents love of self, or being all wrapped up in ourselves.
That is where we all start. As infants we are wrapped up in our own feelings. It is only gradually that we begin moving away from this state of being. At this stage of our lives we do not move by any conscious choice. It is in the course of the natural growth of our mind, and through our ongoing experience of the world around us, that we move to a state represented by Haran, at the top of the Fertile Crescent, where Terah took Abram and his family and Abram’s nephew Lot.
Haran represents a general awareness of the wants and needs of others. It represents “outward, natural goodness.” At this stage of our psychological growth, we recognize that other people have needs just as we do, and we try to be good people and help them out. As we grow out of our state of infancy and into childhood, we begin to be aware that we have parents, that we have brothers and sisters and other children around us, and that we have to take their feelings into account as well as our own. This is not particularly virtuous in us; it is simply the way we develop as human beings.
The beginning of Lord’s divine journey
Jesus developed in this way as well. He became aware of the world around him, of the people around him, of his parents, of the other children, of other adults. He became aware that these people have wants and needs. And of course, he became aware of this much more quickly and deeply than we do as finite human beings. Like us, Jesus traveled first from Ur, from the self-absorption of infancy, to Haran: to an awareness of others around him.
Then he received a call, which we talked about in the previous article in this series. That call was the first dawning into conscious awareness of an understanding that he had a deeper mission; that he couldn’t just coast along in life; that he was sent here to accomplish something.
There is also a point in our lives when we realize, “My life isn’t here just to live it. God put me here for a purpose. God had something in mind for me. I am meant to discover that purpose and follow it, and to do God’s work here on earth.” For us as human beings, that purpose may involve some talent that God put in us that makes us able to serve others in our own unique way. In the case of the Lord, it was a far bigger and broader: it was the salvation of the entire human race. We spoke about this in the previous article when we covered the Lord’s calling, and what he was sent to do.
When he received that call, he became consciously aware almost from infancy, perhaps when he was a toddler, that he had a divine mission. This was far beyond anything we go through at that time of our lives. And at that point he began “traveling.”
Abram’s early travels in the Holy Land
When we read in the Bible that Abram (later known as Abraham) traveled to the land of Canaan and went to Shechem, to the Oak Grove at Moreh, to Bethel and Ai, and then to the South, it may seem to be just a lot of geography, and not particularly inspired. But when we start reading Swedenborg’s explanations of these things, we realize that every single one of these places is significant. These are the travels of the Lord’s soul—and of our soul—in the spiritual landscape. We have different “places” within us, and they correspond to geographical places. Each one of the places where Abram stopped on his journey represents a different state of consciousness that the Lord went through at the highest level, and that we go through at a lower level.
Let’s spend a few minutes going through some of the places Abram visited, and getting a taste of their meanings.
When Abram left Haran, he went to the land of Canaan. The land of Canaan, in comparison to the other lands around it, represents our spiritual life. When we travel to the land of Canaan, we are traveling away from merely worldly living. When we travel to Canaan we are deciding not to live for money; we are deciding not to live for power; we are deciding not to live for pleasure. We are deciding not to live for any of the things that the world gives us. We can still enjoy these things. But they will no longer be our purpose and our focus in life. The land of Canaan means living from deeper, more spiritual principles. These will be the motivating force in our life from now on.
So the first thing to understand is that Jesus went to the land of Canaan. He had a divine call to a higher mission.
But within the land of Canaan there are many different places. There are cities and towns, there are mountains and hills and valleys. Within our spiritual life there are different states of being, and there are many ups and downs. Jesus began to progress through these as he became more and more aware of his spiritual and divine calling.
The meaning of Shechem
The first place Abram stopped in the land of Canaan was Shechem. Although it was located fairly centrally in the land, one of the regular travel routes crossed the Jordan opposite Shechem, making it one of the first towns that people who followed that route came to in Canaan itself.
Because of this, Shechem represents an introductory state. In Jesus especially, it means becoming aware of the love that is within. We sometimes think spiritual things are a matter of learning in the head: that if we study and learn the teachings of the church, we are spiritual people. But that is not what it means to be spiritual. The teachings are an entryway, and in that sense they are represented by the river Jordan. We do need to learn them and “cross over” them.
But once we become aware of the teachings, we also become aware of the calling of love from within. We become aware that religion is not just an intellectual thing. No, it is God calling to us in our heart. “The thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” We realize that spiritual living is about learning to love.
Shechem is our first inkling that spirituality is not just an intellectual thing; that our heart must open up. Jesus recognized and felt this at a very deep level. In the previous article we mentioned how everything Jesus learned and did came first of all from love. It would be nice if that were always true of us human beings, but we take a little longer to catch on!
The oak grove at Moreh
Abram came to Shechem, and “to the oak grove at Moreh.” Trees, in general, represent thoughts, ideas, and principles. Once Jesus had gotten this sense of love, he then perceived and understood things from love.
And here I would like to say a few things about learning and intuition. All of us have gone through some sort of schooling or learning process, of picking things up from the outside. Many people think they are very smart if they know a lot of things, if they can quote texts and rattle off the laws of physics or psychology or theology.
But there is another kind of knowing that we call “intuition.” People who trust only in “hard” knowing of “facts” may think of intuition as being just a matter of unreliable hunches. But intuition is what Swedenborg would call “perception.” It involves knowing, not from the outside through our senses, but from the heart. It is also the experience of knowing that something is true (or false) the moment we hear it.
When we are living from the heart, we begin to get these inner perceptions. They often have to do with other people’s inner states. We may have spent years studying psychology, and think we can analyze people; but someone who can feel with the heart where another person is mentally and emotionally has a greater perception and a greater ability to help the other person than someone with all the psychology degrees in the world. This is the power of perception. We know from within; we can see from within. We make both a head connection and a heart connection.
The oak grove at Moreh, near Shechem, represents this knowing from the heart.
We see this in Jesus throughout his ministry. He could approach people, see them, talk to them, and know exactly what was in their heart. He didn’t have to study their history. He just knew from being in their presence, from hearing them speak, from perceiving their spirit. Even at an early age he was gaining this heart perception of others’ inner states—a perception that would serve him well later on. This is something we can aspire to as well.
“The Canaanites were in the land”
Of course, our spiritual journey is not all sweetness and light. There is that cryptic little sentence, “At that time the Canaanites were in the land.” Who were the Canaanites? The Canaanites were the people then inhabiting the land, who became the enemies of the Israelites when they moved into the Holy Land.
“The Canaanites were in the land.” Abram was merely sojourning there at that time. He did not possess the land; the Canaanites did.
The Canaanites represent everything that is already “inhabiting” our spirit, which we are going to have to overcome. When we first turn toward spiritual living, we may think everything is going to be terrific from then on. In reality, our struggles have just begun. We do get a wonderful sense of God’s presence. But then we realize, “I have a lot of enemies within me: I have a lot of selfishness in me; I have a lot of materialism in me. I think of myself first. I ignore other people.” And so on. We each have our own “Canaanites in the land.” And we realize that we have a lot of work to do.
“The Canaanites were in the land.” It’s a tiny little phrase, but it says so much! It says that we have many inner obstacles to overcome.
Swedenborg calls these inner enemies our hereditary evil, meaning the inclination toward selfishness and greed that we are all born with. In Jesus, it was something he got from his mother. His mother was an ordinary human being like anyone else. She had faults like anyone else, and she passed on to Jesus our human faults and shortcomings—or rather, she passed on tendencies toward them. These were in him. He knew that he had to struggle against them. They are in us as well, and we have a spiritual struggle ahead of us.
This is all expressed in that one little line, “At that time the Canaanites were in the land.”
Between Bethel and Ai
Abram then goes to mountains east of Bethel. Jesus continues, spiritually, toward the heavenly things of love. The name “Bethel” means “house of God.” Bethel was where Jacob saw the stairway going up to heaven and said, “This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:17). So Bethel represents the heavenly side of things, while Ai represents the worldly side of things.
(For more on the spiritual meaning of Bethel, please see: “What is the History and Importance of Bethel in the Bible?”)
Jesus was caught—and we are caught—in a dilemma. On one side is the new spiritual life in which we wish to live from deeper principles. On the other side are the worldly principles that we have been living by so far. We are living between Bethel and Ai, between heaven and the world.
And we are struggling. The Canaanites are in the land.
We realize that we need greater light to travel this new path.
Traveling toward the south
This is the development that was taking place within the Lord, expressed metaphorically through these words: “Then Abram set out, and continued traveling toward the south.”
In the Bible, directions have meaning. East and west represent closeness to the Lord and distance from the Lord. East is where the sun rises. It represents closeness to the Lord, and especially to God’s love. The west represents being more distant from the Lord and from love. In the northern hemisphere, where the Holy Land is situated, south is toward the equator, toward the brightness of the noonday sun, while north is away from the equator, toward the darkness. In this passage, then, traveling toward the south represents the Lord realizing that he needed to gain more enlightenment. Traveling toward the south means learning, and thereby gaining greater understanding.
At this point, Jesus began to move into the next phase that we go through in childhood. There is a time in our young lives when we stop acting simply from our feelings and impulses, and begin consciously learning things. This happens at about five years old. Society recognizes that this is a time to begin giving children intellectual content. It is a time when children begin to focus consciously on learning things. In many cultures it is a time when children start going to school.
Jesus, also, knew that he needed to learn. His development parallels ours. But I said that backwards. Our development parallels his. And there was a time when he realized that he needed to “travel to the south.” He needed to study and learn. And he spent a great deal of his childhood doing exactly that. In the next article in this series, in which we will look at the story of Jesus in the Temple as a twelve-year-old boy, we will see that he was learning throughout his childhood just as we do, only far more quickly, far more fully, and far more deeply than we do.
The divine pattern for our lives
God shows us this divine pattern. The inner life of Jesus is all contained within the Bible. And in this story in Genesis it moves from infancy into childhood; from a state of the heart to a state of the mind.
We also follow this pattern spiritually. We follow it as children. We also follow it as adults when we take our first conscious steps toward spiritual living, and realize, “I know nothing about spiritual living. I need to learn about it. I need to read spiritual books and articles. Maybe I need to go to church and attend Bible studies. Or maybe I can just watch spiritual videos on the Internet. But I need to do something to enlighten myself so that I can see and understand what this spiritual path is that God has called me to follow.” This is traveling toward the south.
In Jesus “the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” Our heart will be revealed as we learn the spiritual truth that forms a vessel for God’s presence in us. For those of us who are Christians, our response to the pattern that Jesus has set for our lives will reveal where our heart and mind are, and what direction our life is going.
(Note: This post is an edited version of a talk originally delivered on January 11, 2004. To start at the beginning of the series, please go to the article, “What Child Is This?”)
For further reading: