Just About You?

Our modern world with its consumer culture is forever trying to put the spotlight on you – who you are, your likes and dislikes, what you want (or should have), and so on.

In fact, the world today does its utmost to get us thinking in terms of “me”, a “me” that’s in constant competition with all the other “me’s” out there, to maximize all the possible benefits for “me”.  But this effort only tends to make us lonely and miserable, not to mention suspicious and envious of one another.

From a spiritual point of view, it’s all wrong!

Actually, when understood deeply (that is, spiritually), life isn’t about you at all!

Rather, we’re all part of life, of something that is much bigger than any one of us.  
This life has a truth, a purpose and, most incredibly, a great love that sustains and renews everything in it, moment by moment.

This wisdom and love that creates and re-creates all of life (including you) we call by names such as the Divine, the Spirit, or God.

So life isn’t about you; it’s about God and you.

Just to be alive means you’re automatically in a relationship, a relationship with this Creator and Source of life.  There’s always the two of you, not just you!

Being “spiritual” or “walking a spiritual path” is about making a choice to get to know that mysterious Other.  Acting on this choice (each day) is what will gradually change and transform your life, opening up new possibilities and a new future.

But Who Is God?

It’s important to have a correct understanding of who God is, because everything else about your spiritual journey will hinge on that.

For example, if you think God is an angry judge up in the heavens who punishes people for being bad by sending them to hell, then you may be anxious about pleasing this God and spend a lot of time worrying about being “saved” from his “wrath”.

(Thankfully, such a notion is completely wrong, based on a too-literal reading of the Bible, as you will see later in this booklet!)

To describe who God is, or the “nature” of God, brings us quickly to the farthest reaches of our finite minds and limited words.  Fortunately, there have been great mystics, visionaries and seers, across all times and all religions, who have drawn near to God.  Their reports agree to a remarkable extent on the nature of this mysterious Other who, at the same time, is so intimately connected with us.

They tell us God is Spirit.  God is the non-physical reality in and behind all things, the Life in all of life.  God is the spiritual “stuff” in which we and everything else live, move and have our being.  Like fish in the ocean or birds in the air, we live in God and God lives in us.

But not only is God life; God is love.  That is the consensus of all the saints and mystics (Emanuel Swedenborg included!) and it is what we read in God’s Word (the Bible).  See 1 John 4: 8! 

We live in a reality where love – self-giving, tender, faithful, devoted, joyful, creative – is the truth of all things.

Moreover, love has a clear purpose – the well-being and joy of the other, the beloved.  To make and guide everything toward that end is the wisdom of love.

Thus it was revealed to Swedenborg (as it has been to others) that God is the universal Spirit of Love and the Wisdom of Love.  

This means that, as the apostle John says, “in him there is no darkness” (1 John 1: 5), i.e. no anger or violence, no punishing “divine wrath”.  Rather, God does everything to lead us to him.  Having made us from himself, from love and for love, God then does everything (short of forcing us, which would be unloving!) to bring us into a relationship with him where we can share his joy.

God Revealed in Jesus

But words like universal Spirit, and infinite Love and Wisdom, are too vast and abstract for us to really comprehend.  It’s impossible for us to have a real relationship with an abstraction!

For that reason, God revealed himself for us as a human person – Jesus. 

Jesus reveals to us the humanness of God, the intimacy of this indwelling Spirit.  God is not some alien presence “up there” on a throne somewhere, with some inscrutable purpose in mind.  Rather, God is totally involved in every part of our existence, knows it, understands what we face, and cares deeply.   That’s why one of this God’s Names is “Emmanuel”, meaning “God with us”.  

From a Swedenborgian perspective, it is very important to understand exactly who Jesus was, and is, for us.

A.  Jesus as the “Son of God”

First, Jesus was not “born God” but as an ordinary, human baby.  However, Jesus had a soul that, unlike ours, was the very Spirit of God.  

Jesus expressed this duality by sometimes referring to himself as the “Son of Man” and sometimes as the “Son of God”.  When speaking of himself as the Son of Man, Jesus was acting in awareness of his lower nature or ego-self.  When speaking as the Son of God, Jesus was in communion with his higher nature, the Spirit within.

It’s important to note that this language about “the Son” – and “the Father” and “the Holy Spirit” – is not meant to be understood literally, as referring to a threesome (or “Trinity”) of separate beings.  There is only one God, just as there is only one you.  However, just as you have different dimensions to your personhood – your inner, true self, your outward appearance, and your deeds and doings – so does God.  God’s inner, infinite self, unknowable to us, is signified by the Father, God’s appearance in human form by the Son, and God’s work in the world by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is “God’s son” only in the sense that Jesus as a human being had a special relationship with God, having all of who God is for his own soul.  That reality is what set the stage for the course of Jesus’ inner, spiritual life, as he sought to live in a way that could integrate both his divine and his human natures.  That “way” involved regularly resisting all the temptations of his purely human nature, such that everything human in him became divine.

Eventually, this path of progressive and continual “self-overcoming” led Jesus to become more nearly one with the Spirit within, as his higher or true self.  His human nature was not eliminated but instead gradually made more free and fully realized through the Spirit.  Finally, Jesus died to the demands of his lower self altogether on the cross.  He rose on the third day as an entirely new and never-before seen creation, a being fully divine yet still fully human.  This was and is the one God whom we worship, the Lord Jesus Christ.  It was God proclaiming the humanness of his divine nature for all time.

Note: None of this should be taken to mean that Swedenborgians reject the famous doctrine of the Trinity: God as revealed in Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  As stated above, Swedenborgians see these as three dimensions – essence, form and action – of the one Divine-Human Being that is God (and called by us the Lord Jesus Christ).

However, Swedenborgians do not accept an understanding of the Trinity which sees the Father as a judge justly angered by the endless disobedience and wickedness of humankind (ever since Adam) and who sends his Son, Jesus, and allows him to die in our place, making Jesus the “atoning sacrifice” for our sins. 

This drama of a punishing Father and an atoning Son, with humanity as a kind of deaf and dumb audience helpless beneath the weight of its own sin, is really only one interpretation.  Swedenborgians see it another way.  

B)  Jesus is my Redeemer 

With God putting everything of himself into everything of our existence, there is no part of our life that has not been touched by grace.  That means there is nothing, either in us or out there, that is unknown to God or greater than God.  In turn, that means there is nothing that can have ultimate power over us.  In the Lord, we have been made FREE to choose love over fear and life over death.  Our spiritual destiny is in our hands.

Swedenborgians say that Jesus is our Redeemer for, in his triumph over fear and evil, he has redeemed us from anything ever having the power to keep us from sharing in his joy.  No one and nothing can ever take away our HOPE of new life in the Spirit – unless we choose to do that ourselves!

Of course, God had made us free – free to choose for his love or not – in the first place.  That’s because God is love as we said and it would not be loving, and therefore contrary to who God is, to make us unfree, that is, compelled to “do as he says” and made to love him in return.  Love does not force the beloved’s response because that would be a relationship of power and control, not love.  So God made us free, perfectly balanced between good and evil, heaven and hell, so that neither has a prior hold over us.  It is for us to choose our path and our fundamental choice is always the same: either for God and his love or for ourselves alone, either a greater Love or it’s-all-about-me.

However, over the centuries, humanity had gradually lost sight of its freedom and its connection to God.  It was time for a new revelation and a new start, thereforeGod came to us in Jesus to affirm, once and for all, that we are truly loved and we are free to choose for that love.    

C)  Jesus is my Saviour

Exactly how we do that will be discussed later in this booklet, but for now one point needs to emphasized: this choosing for God is a lifelong process of learning and growing!  In Jesus we are made free, yes, but that does NOT mean we are immediately or automatically “saved”!  

Being saved (i.e. coming into a wonderful new life, with Jesus) is not a one-time, “born-again” experience.  The fact is, you are born redeemed (i.e. free) as is everyone on the planet because of what Jesus did.  But you are being saved only insofar as you use your freedom to choose for his way of compassionate love each day of your life.  In other words, salvation is a process you live, not a reward you get.  Salvation lies in the journey, not the destination.  Where you end up depends totally on how you live here, not on what you believe or say but on the life you choose to live.

That choice is always yours and the kind of life that results from it, heavenly or hellish, becomes your own judgment upon yourself.  God does not judge, rather, we judge ourselves.  Rather, God, being Love and the Wisdom of Love, will do absolutely everything, short of forcing you as we said, to encourage, support and guide your choosing for him.  God wants the very best for you at all times – it would be good if we listened to God and did the same!  As it says in the Bible, “Choose life!”

God’s Purpose for Your Life

Learning to choose for the Spirit, for his Love as your highest good in living your life, will empower yourself to become a form of that Love.  For we all become what we most love.  Loving ourselves above all else we become selfish; loving God above all else we become godly.  

So living in the ways of heaven, we experience more and more of heaven in our lives.  It was revealed to Swedenborg that this is God’s deepest desire for us all – regardless of religion, race, creed, etc. – that he might “make a heaven from the human race”.  

Your purpose in life is to know the God revealed in Jesus, to rejoice and grow in his love, and to help in building his kingdom (the New Jerusalem), in your neighbour and thereby in yourself, according to your gifts.  In short, you are to be an angel, here and then hereafter.  A human being is intended by God as an angel-in-training!


You Are a Spiritual Being

Fundamental to the Swedenborgian understanding of life and reality is the idea that “everything here comes from (and corresponds to, or is an expression of) everything there”.

The “here” is this material world, embedded in a matrix of space and time. The “there” is where this world originates from, namely, a non-material world of Spirit, a place of Being, where space and time do not exist.

This realm of Spirit or Being is the ultimate reality within and behind all things, including you and I. To this we give the name “God” (a.k.a. the Lord Jesus Christ, Allah, Yahweh, the Great Spirit, Krishna, Vishnu, the All, the One, etc.).

This means two things:

  • Firstly, you and I live in God at every moment, like fish live in the ocean. God is not “up there’ or “out there”, while we are “down here”. We are in God; God is the constitutive reality of who we are, the Spirit around us and in us, at every moment.
  • Secondly, since only God truly “is” (is real, is life itself and reality itself) we as human beings have life only as recipients of the inflowing life of God. We are not the independent, self-contained originators of our lives but the receivers and channels of the life of God.

As Swedenborgians often like to say: “We are, because God is.”

And since we have life only from, and as part of, the life of God, the eternal Spirit, this means we, too, are essentially spirit in nature and eternal also. As God tells us, we are made “in his image” (Genesis 1: 27). Thus we share in God’s life and (in infinitely lesser degree!) other, key aspects of the Divine nature: self-consciousness, rationality, the freedom to make meaningful choices and the capacity to envision and create new possibilities.

Our spirit or soul exists in these things. Thus Swedenborg wrote that our mind, our true, inner (but non-material) self, is our soul. The body is but the outward form or manifestation of the soul – the body changes and passes away, as do all material things, but the soul lives forever.

Moreover, as essentially spiritual beings, we are in the company of other spirits and spiritual realities all the time, every day of our earthly lives. We are surrounded by the good and bad spirits of those myriads of people who have since discarded their own physical forms (“died”).

We are largely unaware of them because, in this earthly life, we are thinking on the natural level and relying on our physical senses.

Nonetheless, even while we are living in our bodies, each one of us is in a community of spirits with our own spirit. Good people are generally more joined to and part of heavenly communities while bad people are more connected to and more influenced by hellish communities. These are the same (spiritual) communities, particular kinds of heavens or hells, into which we come after the dying of our physical bodies.

But what makes good people “good” and bad people “bad”?

That depends on who they are inside, since outwardly we can all appear much the same. Indeed, bad people can appear good and vice versa. As the saying goes, “looks can be deceiving”!

But what makes our inner, private self either good or bad? That depends upon what we love!

it was revealed to Swedenborg that there are two “evil loves”: the love of self (meaning egotism and self-centredness where “it’s all about me”) and love of the world (meaning a primary concern with things that can satisfy and gratify me). There are also two “good loves”: the love of God (meaning some perception, however named, of a love and truth greater than my own self-interest) and love of my neighbour (meaning a commitment to live that greater love and truth for the sake of others’ well-being).

These loves, whether good or evil, are what form the basic pattern of our thoughts, attitudes and actions in life, i.e. our essential self.

If we care mainly about ourselves and what gratifies our appetites, then, however we may disguise that fact or wear a “public mask” of propriety, a selfish, lonely, demanding self is who we really are. On the other hand, if, despite other personal failings and bad habits, we have a guiding sense of a higher good and try to live out that good for the welfare of our neighbour, then that more loving, open, kindlier self is who we really are.

It’s what we truly care about most that makes us who we really are (inside), our public life and actions notwithstanding. As Swedenborgians often say, “We are what we love.”

This does not mean, however, that we become either “all good” or “all bad”! None of us are either perfect or perfectly evil. Rather, all of us contain a mixture of both. What eventually tips the balance in either direction is the nature of our inner selves, our souls, whether what we love most is for ourselves alone or for God and our neighbour.

If the love that we are is more for the latter, then we are bound to heaven in this life and in the next. If not, then the opposite is the case. People reveal an intuitive sense of the truth of this when they says things like “She’s such an angel!” or “He makes life hell for himself.”

But if the spiritual world is essentially about states of being (rather than places “up there” or “down there”) what are these like? What exactly happens such that we all transition into this other dimension of life?

A Short description of the Spiritual World

It was revealed to Swedenborg that the spiritual world or dimension consists of three parts. Two of these have been well-known by many religions for a very long time: heaven and hell. However there is a third state in-between the other two and serving as a kind of antechamber to them both.

(A) The World of Spirits

Swedenborg called this the “world of spirits”. This is the world of which we are an (unconscious) part while we live our earthly lives and to which we arrive after the death of our physical bodies.

In dying, our inner self or soul – all that we are (feelings, thoughts, memories, sensations, etc.) – is a unity released from our physical body. We take everything of ourselves – our form and appearance, our senses, our personality – everything except our physical body into the spiritual world.

It was revealed to Swedenborg that everything there is still very real and tangible to us but simply spiritual rather than physical in nature. Indeed, Swedenborg witnessed that it was a common reaction of many newly-awakened spirits that they could not believe they had died – everything looked entirely as it had before!

There are no beings with wings to be seen (which is why we never read about angels with wings in the Bible either!) Nor, for that matter, are there individuals with horns and pitchforks. Angels and demons certainly do exist but they are the good and bad spirits of those who have previously passed into the spiritual world. There are no angels or demons that are pre-existent, quasi-divine beings who have lived from the beginning with God! Heaven and hell have been formed entirely from the human race, from the kinds of lives (or loves), heavenly or hellish, which people have chosen for themselves while in their bodies here on earth.

In any event, though, heaven and hell are not immediately present to us when we first come to the world of spirits. It is that world that seems more real than anything else to us.

However, we need to remind ourselves (as hard as this is!) that this world, like those of heaven and hell, are not “places”. We are dealing here with a dimension outside of space and time. These “places” are therefore actually spiritual states, meaning states of being, whether good (heaven), bad (hell) or a mix of the two in-between (the world of spirits).

In this material world, what is spiritual is normally invisible and inward, whereas in the spiritual world there is no materiality and it’s the spiritual that is now completely visible and manifested in all kinds of forms.

(B) Heaven

Swedenborg saw that heaven was really made up of an infinite number of different little heavens, little communities or heavenly societies as he called them.

Each was composed of persons (angels) who shared a similar kind of good love. They did not have wings, as previously noted, nor did they sit on clouds playing harps!

Angels lead busy and satisfying lives in very real worlds of great beauty, doing what they love best that serves to help build up the kingdom in and amongst human beings on earth. They have wonderful friendships and may even marry (becoming “soul mates”!).

(C) Hell

Hell is similarly composed of a diversity of different societies, each one indicative of a particular kind of evil love shared by its inhabitants. It is an ugly, barren and bitter place, although to the eyes of those who live there it seems entirely natural and normal, even “right”. This is because hellish personalities are only comfortable in hellish surroundings (just as heavenly people are only comfortable in heavenly surroundings).

God does not punish people in hell, rather people there, being self-centred, mean and cruel, punish each other. God prevails to keep the evil spirits from hurting one another excessively until they gradually learn at least to refrain from the worst excesses of their natures.

How You Get Where You Are Going

But as newly-awakened spirits, we do not normally go directly either to heaven or to hell. Instead, we first enter that in-between state of the world of spirits. (Note: it was revealed to Swedenborg that those who die in infancy or childhood go directly to heaven, where they are raised by the angels and given their proper place in one of the heavens.)

It is in the world of spirits that the much talked-about (and feared) “judgment” takes place, determining which way we shall go.

Judgment is NOT meted out by God nor by a St. Peter figure standing at the “pearly gates”! What happens is this: we awaken in the world of spirits as completely ourselves, with our particular mix of good and bad. We meet and socialize with others including those we may not have seen since their own passing some time previously. 

At first there is a great sense of camaraderie and general delight in a new life that many scarcely expected or believed possible. However, as this is now a spiritual realm of existence, the outer self associated with the material body begins to fade away.

Thus the “public face” gradually disappears and what emerges to sight (and to mind) is the true inner self, the spirit or love that a person really is. In the world of spirits, people go through a process of becoming completely who they really are inside.

Thereafter a separation soon occurs. The truly good become more comfortable in each other’s company and more uncomfortable in the company of the truly evil (and vice versa). Soon each group discovers the paths that lead them to the “place” (i.e. state) most amenable to and like their own. The good spirits soon find other angels waiting for them and other states of goodness (heavens) that are just right for them. Evil spirits find other companions waiting that match their own evil and they soon take themselves off to one of the hells that suits them.

It was revealed to Swedenborg that everyone chooses where it is best and most pleasing for them to go. Those who have made a more heavenly life for themselves while on earth, by the way they have chosen to live (and such that they have, all unconsciously, lived in the company of other good spirits) enter into that society of angels after they die. Those who have made their life a hell by the way they have chosen to live continue in that hell after they have transitioned into the spiritual dimension.

For this reason, Swedenborg saw that, such is the mercy and loving kindness of God, there is a “right place” for every spirit where they will be happiest, according to their own nature. Thus it is that the angels cannot drag an evil spirit into heaven – it would be torture for that person to be there!

So it is that we all go where we need and choose to go. In other words, we all enact our own judgment upon ourselves, by the lives we choose to live here and the kind of love we thereby become.

God does everything – short of forcing us, which would be unloving! – to lead us on right paths. Indeed, Swedenborgians say that God’s plan is to “make a heaven of the human race”. 

The truth is, we are all expressly made for heaven by a loving Creator Spirit but that outcome is always ultimately our choice. Our spiritual destiny is in our hands!