When Thoughts and Prayers Don’t Matter (and When They Do)
-Rev. Thom Muller
As you may suspect, the title of this piece is a reference to a debate, or maybe the better word is lamentation or outcry, that’s been a theme in both social media as well as main stream media. There is a sense of frustration with the phenomenon of “sending thoughts and prayers” when a tragedy strikes, and then not actually doing anything to make a change.
I find that the topic of prayer is a particularly interesting part of Swedenborg’s writings, and he challenges a lot of the traditional views on what prayer is. I think he addresses a major problem in many common understandings of prayer, and something I’ve personally always struggled with.
Let me illustrate the issue I have from a Swedenborgian theological perspective with the idea of intercessory prayer. Say, someone I or someone in my community cares about is sick in the hospital. And we go ahead and pray for this person, for their healing, their recovery, their state of mind, etc.
Next to this sick friend is a homeless person who does not have anyone who bothers to pray for them, or even think of or empathize with their suffering.
Do we think or expect that God will choose to magically heal this particular person because we chose to say a prayer, and thus choose to bless and heal them more than the homeless person next to him? This seems to be in complete opposition to Swedenborg’s idea of God, who cannot do anything BUT bless us, and does not withhold that blessing from anyone or anything.
Some people cherish the notion that God turns his face away from people, spurns them, and casts them into hell, and is angry against them because of their evil. Some people even go so far as to think that God punishes people and does them harm. They support this notion from the literal meaning of the Word where things like this are said, not realizing that the spiritual meaning of the Word, which makes sense of the letter, is wholly different. So the real doctrine of the church, which is from the spiritual meaning of the Word, teaches something else. It teaches that the Lord never turns his face away from anyone or spurns anyone, never casts anyone into hell or is angry. *
-Heaven and Hell §545
The same then, as one may assume, goes for asking God for forgiveness. In the Lord’s prayer we ask God to “forgive us our debts”. But there really is no debt that we have before God. God cannot and does not choose to not forgive us because he was never in a position to forgive.
There is no need for us to list our sins before the Lord and no need to beg that he forgive them. The reason we do not need to list our sins before the Lord is that we searched them out within ourselves and saw them, and therefore they are present before the Lord because they are present before us. The Lord was leading us in our self-examination; he disclosed our sins; he inspired our grief and, along with it, the motivation to stop doing them and to begin a new life.
There are two reasons why we should not beg the Lord to forgive our sins.
The first is that sins are not abolished, they are just relocated within us. They are laid aside when after repentance we stop doing them and start a new life. This is because there are countless yearnings that stick to each evil in a kind of cluster; these cannot be set aside in a moment, but they can be dealt with in stages as we allow ourselves to be reformed and regenerated.
The second reason is that the Lord is mercy itself. Therefore he forgives the sins of all people. He blames no one for any sin. He says, “They do not know what they are doing” **
–True Christianity §539
Now, the seeming irony of this is that Swedenborg was known to pray the Lord’s prayer daily, like a mantra.
So what’s up with this? If God doesn’t magically intervene in our live, or absolve us from some kind of perceived debt, what’s the point of prayer? I believe that the Writings point to two distinct layers of prayer, its function, and its benefits.
First off, prayer is a tool for self-reflection. In fact, Swedenborg goes at length into the inner meaning of the different kinds of prayers and offerings described in the Old Testament. He identifies a universal need to express gratitude, remorse, change of heart, and humility. It truly is a practice that is for our sake and for the sake of our regeneration. It is an acknowledgement of our own limited-ness and the reality of Divine Love and Wisdom. By anthropomorphizing God, we enter into a relationship that we can connect to our own humanity and humility, and opens us up to divine influx. It is in a very real sense, a psycho-spiritual self-help tool.
The Lord does not demand [humiliation, adoration, thanksgiving] for His own sake, for the Divine has no glory from our humiliation, adoration, and thanksgiving. In the Divine, anything of the love of self is utterly inconceivable-that such things should be done for His own sake; but they are for our own sake; for when a we are in humility, we can receive good from the Lord, because we have been separated from the love of self, which is the obstacle; and therefore the Lord wills a state of humility in us for our own sake; because when we are in this state, the Lord can flow in with heavenly good. The case is similar with adoration, and with thanksgiving. ***
–Secrets of Heaven §5957
Prayer is transformative, because it enables us to “get off our high horse” so to speak, to get off the pedestal of our ego/proprium, that which we claim as our own. And I can personally attest to the power of this kind of prayer. Rather than magically fixing or intervening in things, prayer, among other things, enables us to be vessels of of the divine, distributors of love and wisdom, which is how God moves in the world, and blesses us by means of each other.
With all of us, God flows into our concepts of him and brings us true acknowledgment of him. He also flows into us and brings us his love for people. If we accept only the first inflow but not the second, we receive that inflow with our intellect but not our will. We keep the concepts of God that we have without arriving at an inward acknowledgment of God. Our state is then like a garden in winter.
If we accept both types of inflow, however, we receive the inflow with our will and then our intellect – that is, with our whole mind. We then develop an inner acknowledgment of God that brings our concepts of God to life. Our state is then like a garden in spring.
[Lovingkindness] makes the connection, because God loves every one of us but cannot benefit us directly; he can benefit us only indirectly through each other. *
–Heaven and Hell §457
This idea was instrumental in drawing me to the Writings. I remember a friend of mine, who shared about the existential crisis they went through after the tragic death of a loved one. To them, as perhaps to anyone, this crushed the meaningfulness of an idea of a God who intervenes, blesses and curses. Their belief in God, in the Swedenborgian sense of the word was renewed when he reflected on the love and the wisdom, the care and concern and compassion and generosity they experienced around them in the wake of these unbelievably painful and challenging events.
But there is a second element to a Swedenborgian approach to prayer, which takes us back into the metaphysical realm. The Writings teach that in the spiritual world, which transcends but includes this realm and lies at the core of our experience of consciousness, there is no time and space, only the appearance thereof, and that close-ness, as well as distance, spiritually, are matters of affection, not physical location.
This means that we are, according to Swedenborg, constantly connected with the spiritual world and this each other, while simultaneously under the appearance of an exclusively material, earthly presence. We are in constant connection with spiritual communities, based on our internal affections and the states of mind and spirit we chose to inhabit. This puts a different spin on intercessory prayer.
I have actually heard the argument made from fellow Swedenborgians that one should not engage in this kind of prayer, since it assumes an notion of god as somehow unjust and interventionist. I’d like to respectfully challenge this position.
Let’s look at the hypothetical example from earlier. Our friend is in the hospital, doing really crappy, and they’re in a dark spiritual place. While we are physically apart, we can be spiritually present with them. By expressing our solidarity and empathy, and our wish for them to feel better. And if we buy into the notion of spiritual close-ness being a matter of affection and spiritual state, rather than physical location, I believe there is a case to be made for the notion that this kind of spiritual exercise creates a very real connection, which can be incredibly tangible and helpful.
But once again, it is our choosing to express love and wisdom, to open ourselves up to divine reality, that lies at the core of the process. We are not the doer, but we are the vessel through which God manifests. Too often, a reliance on overly theistic ideas of God leads us to inaction, and prevents us from embodying the divine, rather than simply evoking it.
As we engage the complexities of human life and human relationship, including the major social and political and cultural issues we are wrestling with these days, let’s remember that we are called to be the hands and feet of God. And that union with God is union with each other, not some kind of religious practice or belief.
God is love and love is God. And it is through the embodiment of that love that we unite ourselves to her, and as we read in the Psalm, “Awake in her likeness”.
* Swedenborg, Emanuel. Heaven and Hell. Translated by George F. Dole, Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.
** Swedenborg, Emanuel. True Christianity. Translated by Jonathan Rose, Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.
*** Swedenborg, Emanuel. Arcana Coelestia . Translated by John Faulkner. Potts and John Clowes, Swedenborg Foundation, 1998.
Rev. Thom Muller is pastor at Hillside, an Urban Sanctuary/Hillside Swedenborgian Church in El Cerrito, California, as well as co-editor of Our Daily Bread. His passions include the intersection of religion and psychology, interfaith spirituality, comparative Mysticism, and the Western esoteric tradition. He was ordained into the ministry of the Swedenborgian Church of North America in 2016, upon receiving his theological education at Bryn Athyn College of the New Church and the Center for Swedenborgian Studies / Pacific School of Religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.