Putting Conditions on God

A sermon by Rev. David Fekete

Genesis 28:10-22 – Jacob’s Dream at Bethel

Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.*

In our story from Genesis, Jacob is choosing which God he will follow.  There were many Gods for Jacob to choose from in Israel.  In the book of Genesis, the Hebrew word for God is El.  El has different titles which were tied to certain places in Israel.  El-Shaddai, which means “Mountain God, also “God Almighty.”  There is El-Elyon, “God Most High.”  There is the general name of God, the name of the God of creation, “Elohim.”  Elohim is a perplexing name for God because it means, literally, “Gods”—it is a plural noun.  In addition to these Gods, there were other Canaanite Gods.  One such God, who caused much trouble in the history of Israel is Baal.  And in the religions of the ancient near east, Baal’s Father is called El.  Then there are Canaanite Goddesses in Israel like Asherah.  Among all these Gods and Goddesses, Yahweh—also translated as Jehovah—was a competitor.

According to some of the Bible writers, the name Yahweh wasn’t given to the Israelites until Moses asked God for His name.  This happened in Exodus 3.  So these writers never use the name Yahweh in their Bible stories until God gives it to Moses.  But there were many writers whose stories were edited into what we now have as the Bible.  So we find Yahweh in the Bible before Moses.  That is who appears to Jacob in his dream of the stairway to heaven with the angels ascending and descending on it.  Yahweh says that He is the God of Jacob’s father and grandfather, Isaac and Abraham.  God makes the comforting promise that He is with Jacob and will watch over Jacob wherever he goes.  

This is an unconditional promise of God.  God does not say, “If you sacrifice a bull to me I will be with you.”  God does not even say, “If you keep my covenant, I will be with you.”  No.  God says unconditionally that He is with Jacob and will watch over Jacob wherever he goes.

That is true for us, too, for everybody.  God is with us and will watch over us wherever we go.  God also always does what is good to and for us.  God is always lifting us out of self and ego upward into charity, neighbor love, and love for God.  God puts no conditions on this effort to save.  God works to save no matter what we do.  

However, we need to respond to God, as does Jacob.  God takes care of us.  God works to save us.  But God can’t save us without us responding to God.  We need to say, as did Jacob, “Yahweh will be my God.”  But what Jacob says before this is interesting.  And it may suggest the way some of us respond to God.  While God unconditionally promises to be with Jacob, Jacob puts conditions on whether he will follow Yahweh.  Listen to Jacob’s response to his vision of God,

“If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear  so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God.” (Genesis 28:20-21)

I think that a lot of us put conditions on God.  Also, we have expectations on what belief in God means for us.

One way to call on God isn’t really sincere.  It comes from trouble.  Sometimes when a person is in deep trouble, maybe he or she is facing legal trouble, or is in some drunken calamity like facing jail for drunk driving, one cries out to God, “God get me out of this and I will go to church every Sunday!”  Then the person gets a break, the trouble goes away, and the person forgets about the promise he or she made to God.  Prayers of desperation don’t work all that well for a person’s relationship with God.  But still, God is with us and will watch over us wherever we go.  

There are other strange expectations that we put on God.  We make deals with God that benefit us.  Some of these deals with God are funny.  I remember a long time ago my parents took us children on a trip across America.  One of our stops was Las Vegas.  Of course, my mom played the slots.  She made a vow that she would give her winnings to the church.  But she was genuinely surprised that God didn’t let her win.  She lost money, and God didn’t let her win just because she was going to give her winnings to the church.  Her theology at the time didn’t understand that God made the laws of probability.  And God doesn’t violate God’s own laws.  And casinos are experts on God’s laws of probability and calculate their games and machines to make people lose.  

Another expectation people put on God is that no harm will come to believers.  But Jesus says, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).  I’ve seen people on TV say that if their faith is strong enough, God will protect them from COVID-19.  I’ve seen on TV a pastor who held church services with reckless disregard to social distancing.  He caught COVID-19 and died.  

A book came out a few decades ago called, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  As if only good things would happen to good people.  God causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on good and evil alike.  But because bad things happen to us, it doesn’t mean that God isn’t still with us, watching over us wherever we go.

Probably the hardest thing about our relationship with God is when it looks like our prayers aren’t answered.  Some of our prayers are funny.  God give me wealth, power, and total revenge on all my enemies.  Of course God doesn’t answer prayers like this.  And I doubt that many of us make prayers exactly like this.  But I think that we all make prayers that are variations of this prayer.  

I remember a long time ago praying for God to get me into Harvard.  I was feeling very alienated from society being raised a Swedenborgian, and from certain issues that devolved from the family life of my upbringing.  I pleaded with God to get me into Harvard, which I thought would solve these feelings of alienation.  God did answer this prayer.  And attending Harvard opened my mind to a great world that my parochial Swedenborgian upbringing blinded me to.  And going to that great, open-minded divinity school did two important things for me.  First, I was accepted as a Swedenborgian there for the first time in my life.  Second, I accepted peoples of other faiths who weren’t Swedenborgians.  This ecumenical attitude persisted through my whole life—even through my presidency of the Edmonton Interfaith Centre.  

I related that story to show that God does answer our prayers when good comes from it.  Going to Harvard was good for me, and it led to good deeds I did later as a direct result of my attendance at Harvard.  But I started out talking about when prayers aren’t answered.  Like my CD selling millions and that world concert tour that was supposed to come from it.  

Just recently, I made an earnest prayer about my poetry and my musical endeavors.  God did answer that prayer, too.  But not in that way I wanted at the time.  My prayer was like Jacob’s.  If you do this for me, I will follow you.  Only it was a little different.  It was more like, “Why can’t you give me these things?!  I know you can do anything.”  

My first impression was to recall the original words I made in my Harvard prayer.  I told God back then that if He gets me into Harvard that my score with Him is settled.  All the bad and wrongs I had suffered would be atoned for and I would consider us even.  So why was I still discontented, now?  Hadn’t I promised that our score was settled back then?  But God gave me a better answer to this prayer.  And it basically was, is that what you really want?  God then gave me memories of things I’d done in my life that were profoundly meaningful.  And they were not about fame and fortune.  They were memories of playing music at Convention, about playing in chapel at Almont.  About connections I made with young people that meant a lot to them and to me.  These experiences sit in my mind with pleasant and deep meaning.  Other experiences, such as me playing solo trumpet on stage before concert halls, or playing rock in bars are easy to forget, and don’t make much of an impression on me when I recall them.  

So my peak experiences were not ones of popularity or mass approval.  They were experiences of emotional connection and spiritual meaning.  Maybe to sum it all up is an email I recently received from a musician friend of mine.  He has played with international music stars in venues as large as arenas.  He wrote me that he plays for God wherever he is at.  That is an answer to prayer.  And that is how God works.

When God promises to be with us and watch over us wherever we go, it means that God will take care of us.  God gives us what is good for us.  And this may not be what we want.  Sometimes going through troubles opens our hearts up and breaks up self-will run riot.  As the musician Heather Brooks sings in one of her songs, “Without those desperate hours, would we turn to you, and recognize our weakness.”  Without being broken and beaten down, we would think ourselves invincible.  Our ego would rule.  We would never come to God.  We would never become humble.  Then we would not be saved.

We are conflicted people.  We are torn between ego and God.  We are torn between sin and salvation.  We are born with self-serving, destructive tendencies.  Swedenborg says that we need to be turned upside down.  That means ego needs to be below and God above. But we are in process.  God’s saving love is grafted on our egos like a cultivated fruit branch on a wild plant.

If God took our egos away instantly, before heavenly affections had deep roots in our souls, we would fall down dead.  Our life would be taken away from us.  So our spiritual process is one in which both sin and love grow up together.  That is the meaning behind Jesus’ parable.  The weeds of our ego grow up with the wheat of heavenly good.  Ego gives us drive, and God refines ego into heavenly love for others.  At the end of our spiritual process, heavenly loves will be separated from our lower drives.  That is what heaven is—when we are living a life of love.  But here on earth, we will notice weeds within our garden of love.  God will not water and feed the weeds, even if we set our hearts on them.

So by watching over us, God may not cooperate with the conditions we put on God.  God’s love for us is unconditional.  God gives us what is good for us.  God ever lifts us toward heaven and into communion with God.  God makes us kinder, gentler, humbler, more loving.  And we might never get there if God gave us what we want from God… 

*Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Rev. David Fekete, PhD, is pastor at the Church of the Holy City (Swedenborgian) in Edmonton, Alberta, and contributing editor of “Our Daily Bread” at spiritualquesters.org. His passions include literature, ecumenism, music and the arts, as well as interfaith dialogue.

“Friend of the Devil” -Swedenborg and Satan

Is there a Swedenborgian Devil?

Swedenborgians don’t talk about the devil very often. And there’s good reasons for that. It’s not really something that plays much of a role in Swedenborgian cosmology or spirituality. It’s kind of like the trinity: the times he talks about it is usually in the vein of “well, in the Christian church people believed a), but it’s really meant to mean b)…” 

Swedenborg did not believe that there was an entity such as the devil. I’ll let him elaborate to start off my reflection:

People in the world still believe that there is a devil who rules the hells and that he was created as an angel of light but was cast into hell with his gang after he led a rebellion. The reason for this belief is that the Word talks about the Devil and Satan, and about Lucifer as well; and in these cases the Word is understood literally. 

However, in these passages the Devil and Satan mean hell. The Devil means the hell toward the rear where the worst people live, the people called evil demons; and Satan means the hell that is toward the front where the less malevolent people live, the people called evil spirits. Lucifer means the people who are from Babel or Babylon, the ones who extend their control all the way into heaven. 

We can also see that there is no devil to whom the hells are subject from the fact that all the people who are in the hells, like all the people in the heavens, are from the human race, that there are millions there from the beginning of creation to the present day, and that everyone there is the kind of devil he or she became by opposition to the Divine while in the world.

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 […], 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 §544-545

The times he uses the term “devil” or “satan”, he is referring to what he would consider obsolete beliefs, or uses it collectively, to mean “hellish communities”, communal states of spiritual darkness, within the overall cosmology of the heavens and the hells, which are states of being we inhabit while we are still on the earth. 

So obviously the question of evil is addressed pretty thoroughly by Swedenborg. After all his best-seller is not called “Heaven”, but “Heaven and Hell”. One thing to note here that’s very different from a lot of other teachings is that Heaven and Hell are not places of reward or punishment. They are the states we freely choose to pursue.

Swedenborg is a strictly unitarian theologian. The idea of the one-ness of god plays a huge role. I already mentioned his rejection of tripersonalism, the idea that there is one god in three persons, which is a common understanding in many traditional forms of Christianity. 

A view which is still commonly held in the Christian world, especially among its more literalist/fundamentalist manifestations, is this strong sense of dualism. The notion that there is God and there is the Devil, and they are these kind of polar forces which are constantly trying to win over our souls. Not only is the power of darkness often presented as an equal force, there often are implications that on this earthly realm, it is primarily darkness that reigns. The whole idea of “the world” as inherently bad. And of course, another idea Swedenborg strongly rejects, original sin. The idea that we are so much doomed to sin and darkness that we need some kind of “ransom sacrifice” to make us worthy of heaven. These according to his theology, are hellish beliefs. Heaven requires no dogma, no religion, no faith, and certainly no entrance fee. It is open to all who truly wish to enter into its state of unconditional love and care. We have free will to commune with any spiritual society we please, be it heavenly or hellish.

A necessary appearance…

Sometimes, it’s tempting to understand Swedenborg’s idea of heaven and hell in a dualistic way as well. I remember one of those cool trippy editions of the writings from the seventies. It had this picture on the front with this globe and on top of it was this angelic, Christ-like figure, and on the bottom, just mirrored, it had some kind of satanic creature. While it was really cool art, I think it misrepresented a core element of Swedenborg’s view of heaven and hell. Heaven and hell, according to Swedenborg, are not equals. They are anything but equal.

Yet, the APPEARANCE OF DUALITY is essential to our earthly spiritual experience while we are bound in this physical body. It falls into the category of “necessary appearances” (see Divine Providence §310***)

Besically, necessary appearances, in Swedenborg, are beliefs and perceptions which are ultimately false, but serve a fundamental function in our psycho-spiritual reality. The appearance of a seeming balance between heaven and hell, an equal playing field, serves the purpose of maintaining our freedom of choice. In fact, he claims that this dynamic is the reason for the first advent of the Christ, who had to restore balance between the two realms by means of his human-divine incarnation of god-consciousness. Just like the false but useful appearance that we are the sources of our own being, the appearance of a duality of good and evil serves as a tool for our eventual transcendence of the latter.

Good and Evil are not two polar forces pulling at us. Heaven is reality, hell is falsity. 

I think the image that best illustrates Swedenborg’s concept of good and evil, of heaven and hell, is the image of the sun, his most common image of the divine. The relationship between good and evil is like the relationship between light and shadow. 

Light, in an of itself has power, it has life, it is animated and animating. It is SUBSTANTIVE. Meaning, it has a substance of its own. Evil is like the shadows our body creates when exposed to the sun. It has no substance of its own. It’s a distortion created by something blocking the free flow of light. In short, Good IS truth, evil IS falsity. In other words, hell is charactarized by distortion and delusion, Heaven is characterized by truth.

Swedenborg goes so far as to say that God is the only thing which is truly substantive. Absolutely nothing else has life from itself. From an ant to a flower to a human being, the animating force which truly gives life and substance is Divine Love and Wisdom. If we wanted to be radically non-dualist, which I like to be, you could say that God is the only thing which TRULY exists. 

So what’s the use of even bothering with this whole hell language? Can’t we just stick with Divine Love and Wisdom?

What would be so wrong with a book called just “Heaven”, not “Heaven and Hell”?!  I personally think we would be missing out. Because what characterizes our human experience is the experience of light and darkness, as I think all of us can attest to. 

Evil might not be substantive, it might only be a distortion of divine reality, but it sure is real in the sense that we are confronted with it daily as a matter of experience. All of our lives are characterized by an interplay of light and darkness. They “mark the set times, the days, the years”, as we read in Genesis. Without the presence of darkness, at least as a concept, we can’t move towards, and embrace and reflect the light.

Is God the cause of evil?

This does NOT mean that God causes darkness or pain or sadness. Or that he somehow uses them to test us. They simply come with the package of the ego, the proprium, the notion of ourselves as a separate entity, which is subject to suffering and death. Could it be that if nobody was there to consciously ask the question “is this right or wrong?” “true or false?”, is this “good or bad”, could it be that these two seemingly essential realities are really just a product of our distinctly human imagination? After all, what seperates us from other animals is our excessive self-awareness and self-identification. Our discrimination between right and wrong, good and bad as somehow transcentent realities? 

The “Serpent”

The first time that Satan or evil comes into play in Abrahamic mythology is in the Garden of Eden, which, to Swedenborg and other esoteric thinkers, is not a historical place, but a metaphor for our original, animalistic state. Adam and Eve are just sort of chillin. And than this random lizard person comes and tells them to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Note that it’s not the tree of evil, but the knowledge of good and evil. It is the tree that creates the egoic mind, which discriminates between the two. Also note that I did mean to say lizard person, not snake. Because if you think about it, it isn’t until after the “snake” tells eve and seeadam to eat the fruit, which, we should note, they eat of their own volition because it looks delicious, that God decides to curse the snake and have it crawl around on its belly. So that to me means that before that, it presumably had arms and legs, and it spoke English, I mean Hebrew.  😉

And it is here that what we know as the “human struggle” begins. It is not only something that comes with the package of being human, it is what makes us human, and enables us to seek out the light amid the darkness, I think with the ultimate aim of transcending both. 

There was a kind of mystical experience which I had that really changed my own understanding of this idea. I was at a Mahayana buddhist temple up in Mendocino County in California, and had just meditated inside. And I walked out into the garden and meditated some more there. I reached this state of total calm, bliss, and sense of unity with creation. And as I was soaking in this experience, I noticed a beautiful bird of paradise, which was walking along the hedge I was sitting next to. And as it walked, it was picking up little bugs from within the hedge and eating them. And I noticed something profound in me. I noticed that this almost morbid display of earthly reality did absolutely nothing to interrupt the state of bliss and connectedness I was experiencing. It just was. 

It was neither good nor bad, it just was. The taking and the giving of life. I had no sense of separation between myself, the bird, and the bugs. We all just WERE. 

Those, I believe are glimpses of heaven. Glimpses of eternity, where we get temporarily pushed out of the egoic mind into the state of one-ness and timelessness. 

Some people believe that we can permanently inhabit this state while still alive on the earth. I find this very hard to swallow, and I’m not aware of anyone I’ve been convinced was in a permanent heavenly state. Light and darkness are what makess us human, and allows us to rtruly experience growth, love, and re-connection. In our spiritual life, I truly believe we don’t have to focus on evil and darkness. Swedenborg thought that God was unable to even perceive sin and evil, a major difference between the egoic state and the state of god-consciousness. I believe that in Christ, we have an example of someone inhabiting both realms, and integrating them, calling us to do the same. A fascinating piece of Swedenborgian theologiy is that Christ, too, was not fully aware of his own divinity until the very end of his earthly journey. He struggled with the same inner devils as we do, and seriously and painfully struggled against his own inner darkness, setting the ultimate example of transcendence and eventual God-realization by “divining his human”. As we read in True Christianity §89 : “In his human manifestation he was an infant like any infant, a child like any child, and so on with just one difference: he completed the process more quickly, more fully, and more perfectly than the rest of us do.”**

I believe that deep down, evil truly has no substance, no form, but is a perversion of divine truth. 

We are not born evil. But some of us are denied our deeply engrained heavenly longings from an early age on: Comfort, safety, motherly and fatherly affection, acceptance, benevolence… and we develop skewed, distorted ways of seeking those out and in fact perpetuating our own trauma by hurting others. We are all, to one degree or another, on a misguided quest for light. 

It’s easy for us to demonize. To project. To attribute our own faults and those of others to some abstract evil force or entity. But by doing so, we de-humanize not only the perpetrators of evil, but their victims as well. After all it is the de-humanization of people that is often at the core of harmful, controlling or dismissive actions. 

I believe that we are all programed for, and destined for heaven. It’s not that it’s a straight and narrow path. It’s that the conditions of earthly life can be incredibly deceptive. 

I invite us all to observe the next time we call something evil. In ourselves and in others. And rather than responding with condemnation and shame, let’s see if we can look beneath the face of evil and hate, and see the face of hurt, the face of darkness in desperate need of light. And when we can, let’s see if we can shine that light, knowing that darkness cannot withstand it. 

Can we befriend our inner (and outer) devils?

What if we radically shifted our perspective, and stopped seeing evil as an entity, or a force, in and of itself, and looked at it as perverted, distorted light. What if we saw “evil” through our angelic eyes, which, according to the old Swede, see the true source, the true good, in all beings, and desire their happiness. I recall a friend taling about a beautiful tradition which exists in various cultures, including Tibetan Buddhism and African Animism: When making offerings, such as food, to deities and heavenly beings, some food is also set aside and offered to the demonic spirits, to the side. They are not ignored. They are acknowledged, and treated from a truly heavenly angle: one of care, compassion, and generosity. We can’t fight shadow with shadow. Within ourselves and with each other. I know that that’s going to be a lifelong struggle for me, but it’s a fight that’s worth fighting. 

Swedenborg did not shy away from paying attention to his inner demons. He had countless conversations with them, without identifying them as originating in himself, without personal attachment. I think of him as a “holy watcher”, an observer who exposes himself to the full depth of spiritual reality, warts and all, as a means to cultivate that which brings us closer to the Source. Can we do the same? And can we do it with our angelic minds and hearts, which befriend, and never judge?

I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from Swedenborg, which brings us back to what truly lies at the core of his mystical theology:

“God shows mercy to everyone, loves everyone, and wants to make everyone happy forever.”**** –Arcana Coelestia §904

*Swedenborg, Emanuel. Heaven and Hell. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 2000.

**Swedenborg, Emanuel. True Christianity. Translated by Jonathan S. Rose. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.

***Swedenborg, Emanuel. Divine Providence. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.

****Swedenborg, Emanuel. Arcana Coelestia. Translated by John Potts. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1998.

You can read and purchase all of the above works by Emanuel Swedenborg here: https://swedenborg.com/bookstore/new-century-edition/

Rev. Thom Muller is managing editor of Our Daily Bread at spiritualquesters.org, as well as pastor of Hillside Swedenborgian Church in El Cerrito, CA. His passions include interfaith spirituality, comparative mysticism, and the Western Esoteric Tradition.