Wednesday, January 31, 2007

In Whose Hands Is Our Fate?

The Lord really wants us to be conjoined with Him, to have a relationship with Him. This is why He goes to such a great effort to make Himself be known to us. And what is more, He wants us to have a healthy dependence upon Him. The subject here is the wonderful balance (or does it feel like tension!) between our selves and the Lord, and between what we actually feel and what we rely upon revelation to believe.

Whether we feel it or not, the fact is that “Everyone from infancy even to the end of his earthly life is led by the Lord in the most individual things and his place is forseen and also provided.” (Divine Providence n.203) So, from considering the nature of God, we turn now to how he operates. (This topic is also appropriate as we mark the first anniversary of the evil acts of September 11, 2001)

Things happen to us all the time that compel us to stop and ask, WHY? They can be important events or only trivial ones. For instance, you’re stopped at a traffic light. The breaks of the car coming up behind you fail, and it smashes into you. Why did the Lord let that happen to you? You forget to turn off the oven and the roast burns. Again, you ask, (perhaps out loud!), what’s the point, Lord? You’re in the mountains, enjoying the magnificence of the Lord’s creation, and an avalanche hits you. That couldn’t have been your fault!

We’re told that God knows the number of hairs on our head! The teachings of the New Church tell us that this means that the Lord’s providence is over the very particulars of our life so that He may also rule the universal or general things (AC 4302:3, 8478:4). He couldn’t manage over the big things if He didn’t have control over the little things. And since He is the infinite God, His rule extends to everything that happens to us, with no exceptions. So, how do we deal with the things that just happen to us? How can a God of love, which is what He is, allow bad things to happen to us? In whose hands is our lot?

Often, we can see in retrospect how the Lord has led us; how He has guided our hand in drawing the lot that is our life (Divine Providence n.187). It is relatively easy to see how all the good things, our joys and successes, were given us by the Lord. For He provided the situation and the opportunity, He gave us the talent and the vision to see how to attain them. But what do we think of the bad things that happen, our sorrows and failures? What is our attitude toward them and toward the God that rules over them?

Many people conclude that God is not love, or that He doesn’t exist at all. Many people believe that, since God is love, and since His providence is always working for our good, that it is our sin that has removed us from His care, or that we are not protected because we are not saved, that we haven’t “found” Christ. The teachings for the New Church tell us that none of these are true (see Divine Providence n.117). God exists and He is love itself. And He is not limited in any way. And He always is working for our good, regardless of whether we are in sin or not, saved or not.

Christians know that God takes care of His children, but they haven’t known how. All believers know that God is love. But many people wonder how infinite love can allow evil (since He cannot be the cause of it). How can He permit accidents that hurt us or our loved ones? When we don’t know how or why God’s providence works, we’re left only with His “mysterious ways.” We’re told to have faith in Him despite all that happens, and then we will be made happy. This is just not true. That is, our happiness will not necessarily come just from believing that God works in mysterious ways. So the New Church has been given an understanding of how God cares for us so that we can place ourselves in His stream of providence. We may never fully know why something has happened to us, but we are able to understand our Lord and love Him. We have been given a new understanding that makes it possible for us to have a new attitude toward life. And it is this attitude that puts our life on earth into perspective.

First let us examine the teachings that give us this new understanding. The divine providence is the Lord’s government of His creation (Divine Providence n.1). That government is concerned solely with our eternal welfare. Now, of course, all that happens to us, no matter how trivial or traumatic, affects our eternal life. After all, life on earth is part of our eternal life. Yet His attention is on our reaction to what happens than on the event itself. He is concerned for our attitude because it is the product of our love–which can be materialistic and selfish or spiritual and charitable. The Lord’s leading does not look to temporary or earthly happiness solely, or primarily. He wants to lead us to heaven. And so He provides that everything that happens to us can be a vehicle for His leading us to a happy, successful, eternal life. Therefore He doesn’t prevent things from happening, or make them happen, simply because they will cause us some pain or provide us with pleasure. The Lord does not step in to change events that, from our finite, limited view, seem negative.

If this seems a hard saying, or limiting the infinite God of love, consider this: What if God provided something joyful to us, say, winning the lottery, and it caused us to neglect our spiritual life in the pursuit of material pleasure. Would He not then be working against our spiritual welfare? Or, what if God caused some terrific pain, say the loss of a loved one, and so we blamed Him and became bitter and resentful and turned away from Him. Would He not then be working against our spiritual welfare? These are extreme examples; but they portray a wrong understanding of who God is and how His providence works; an understanding that promotes a selfish, worldly attitude about life (Divine Providence n.217).

God is love. He is constantly reaching out to His creation to make all its parts perfect. When He created the human, His desire was that there should be something to return His love. To do this He had to create us with the possibility of imperfection. He had to provide that we would have absolute freedom to choose not to return His love. So, while He is not limited, His love’s infinite law is that He cannot violate human freedom. He cannot step in and change things simply because we think they ought to be changed. All the time He is leading us, bending our steps, providing opportunities. He is maintaining our freedom. If there is one great principle in the Lord’s providence, it is that He will not, indeed cannot, interfere with the people’s freedom to love, think and do what they want.

The issue is this complex as direct result of the creation of the material world, the world where space and time obscure our thought on the matter. We think this world is the very reality. We cannot help but think that its laws are the only laws there are. But this is not true. The spiritual world is very reality, and its laws supersede and, indeed, cause the natural laws we see operating all around us.

The laws of the natural world cannot but seem capricious and accidental in their effects upon us. Why did the brakes fail just then? Why were we at that spot? Why did the friend come to the door so that we forgot the roast? Why did that person die? But in fact, the Lord’s spiritual laws, which we don’t as easily see operating in this world, are much more stable than the natural laws we see operating all the time. Natural, physical law seems fixed and set: what goes up must come down; there is a limit to the speed we can go; things wear out; the odds are that you will have an accident. And yet, despite all this, there is actually much leeway in this world’s laws, for there is still a chance that you will never have an accident - there are odds! And physical law demands that things return to dust - so how stable can things here really be?

So the process whereby the Lord’s spiritual laws that are His divine providence are manifested in the physical world is very complex (Divine Providence n.220). His laws are immutable. They do not change. They are infinitely predictable. But something happens as those laws descend in the process of creation. And in the end we are now in a world of seemingly fixed laws that really are not. We are in a world that seemingly we can trust to sustain us and protect us; and that seemingly will show us what will make us happy and what to avoid that will make us unhappy. And yet it does not. The world’s laws do not provide clear answers, especially when we are trying to discover spiritual truths, such as those relating to divine providence.

And here we come to the point. The teachings of the New Church tell us that we must not limit our understanding of God and what He does and how He does it to the physical world and our natural sensations. Our essential character, our freedom, our consciousness, are all spiritual things that operate on the level of our spirit–indeed they are our spirit. Our body, our actions, the things that happen to us, are all on the level of the material world. They are outside of our spirit and so are beneath and subject to, our spirit. The Lord works in our spirit in an effort to prepare us for heaven. A powerful way to make this real for us, is to picture how, regardless of the events and circumstances of our life here, the Lord counts the hairs on our head. He controls His creation so that every experience is a chance to turn to Him and follow His guidance.

It is in seeing life from this perspective that we can understand that the Lord leads the individual things in our life through us and through what happens to us. We are part and parcel of His creation and so of His providence, His government. And just look what He has done for us! In His infinite wisdom, the Lord has provided us with the ability to rise above our earthly life and our sensations, and put our place in His creation into perspective. We can look down and out to the world! What is more, He has provided us the perfect place to learn this lesson–on earth, where we can see and feel the difference between His leading of us and our trying to lead ourselves . There is no better place to learn that we are not God. We have the freedom to choose to live in His created order, or to invent one which we think is better able to operate in the material world. Nowhere else could we make this comparison, since we live in both worlds at once - material and spiritual.

We are here given the chance to see and feel the difference between charity–doing unto others what we would have them do to us, and selfishness–forgetting that our happiness is dependant upon others being happy too.

We have an opportunity to put into effect what we understand about our God and His love for us, experiencing both the pain of separation from Him and, in contrast, the joy of being in the stream of his providence.

What an opportunity He has provided us! Life on earth, with all its joys and sorrows, is our opportunity to see the Lord’s spiritual laws in operation, if we will but look for them. We can learn His truth in a situation in which we are absolutely free to accept those laws as our own. No matter what the event, we can, if the eyes of our spirit are open to the light of heaven, see how our reaction can be the result of a trust in Him and a sure acknowledgement that we live forever.

In believing this and living according to it, we have achieved the attitude that the happenings in our life are just that–things that go on around us and to us. Happenings are separate from our spirit. How our spirit reacts to these happenings determines our happiness here and now, and determines whether we will accept the Lord Jesus Christ as our God who infinitely loves us and cares for us, or not. We can trust in Him. Not a blind trust that knows nothing of the Lord’s providence. Not even a simplistic trust based on the fear of accidents.

We can trust in our Lord, a God of love, who wants us to be happy to all eternity. We can trust the Lord who maintains our freedom, despite all that happens to us. We can find confidence in Him in knowing how He uses all the things that happen to us to teach us about Him and His spiritual laws; in discovering how our essential being is above natural law; in experiencing how the purpose of life here is to build our relationship to the Lord; and how we do all this in absolute freedom (Divine Providence n.27).

This attitude will surely bring peace, contentment and happiness to our life here and forever, regardless of what happens to us. As He said, He knows about everything we need, and He will give us all of it, if we but “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Matthew 6:31)

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