Human beings are complex creatures. Even within the space of a single day, we can experience emotional highs and lows, go through states of peace or agitation, and perform actions that we’re either proud of or regret for a long time afterward. Over the course of a lifetime, we experience so many changes that it can be hard for us to get an objective sense of where we are spiritually. If you wake up in a bad mood and lose your temper with a family member in the morning, and then go out of your way to help a stranger later on in the day, where does that place you on the road to spiritual growth?
You might not expect anyone to be able to give you a specific answer to that question, but believe it or not, Emanuel Swedenborg has one:
In the other world, all spirits are divided up in this way: Those who wish evil on others are hellish or diabolical spirits, but those who wish well to others are good or angelic spirits. We can tell which group we are associating with, hellish or angelic. If we intend harm to our neighbors, think only evil thoughts about them, actually hurt them when we can, and enjoy doing so, we are associating with hellish spirits and become hellish spirits ourselves in the other life. If we have good intentions toward our neighbors, though, think only good thoughts about them, and actually do them good when we can, we are associating with angelic spirits and become angels ourselves in the other life. This is the sign. Examine yourself by this standard, if you want to know what you are like. (Secrets of Heaven §1680:2)
During his lifetime, Swedenborg had the experience of interacting with spirits during his visionary travels through heaven and hell, but whether you believe in the existence of spirits or think of those experiences metaphorically, the underlying principle is the same: Your spiritual path isn’t only a matter of what you do, it’s what you think and what you intend.
Swedenborg also uses the terms good and evil, words that can have very different meanings depending on who is speaking. When Swedenborg talks about good, he describes actions that are motivated by love for others; when he speaks about evil, he’s talking about actions that are motivated by a love for ourselves and the pleasures of the world. For him, good and evil aren’t attributes of a person so much as they are characteristics of the way that people think and act—characteristics that can be changed with a conscious effort.
In order to accomplish that change, Swedenborg emphasizes the importance of self-examination and awareness:
It takes wisdom, though, to know what our own aims are. Sometimes our goal seems selfish when it is not, because out of custom and habit we naturally ponder self-interest at every step. However, if you want to know what ends you hold in view, simply notice the kind of pleasure you feel when given praise and glory and the kind of pleasure you feel in useful activity apart from personal benefit. If you enjoy the latter, your desire is genuine. We ought to pay attention to the various states we pass through, because the states themselves usually change our perception. This is something we can examine in ourselves but not in others, because the Lord alone knows the aim of every desire. (Secrets of Heaven §3796)
The first step, then, is to pay attention to what’s happening in our own minds, making an effort to notice what thoughts arise in different situations and how those thoughts make us feel. The next step after that is to take a step back and ask ourselves where those feelings come from. What are the unconscious beliefs and attitudes that influence your reactions?
Swedenborg says that why we do something is more important than what we do. For example, lying for personal gain or to hurt a rival comes from a much different motivation than does lying to try to spare someone’s feelings. From an inner perspective, if we “own” an action by putting conscious thought into planning it, by enjoying the process of doing it, or by planning to repeat the action over and over, it becomes a part of us. (For more on this concept, see Secrets of Heaven §1317 or this excerpt from True Christianity §§532–33.)
We start to see a progression develop: Having a thought or feeling is a basic reaction, almost impossible to control. Swedenborg says that spiritually speaking, we aren’t held responsible for those thoughts and feelings, although they do reveal something about our deeper beliefs. Acting impulsively based on a negative thought or feeling is worse, though, because now our thoughts affect others. Even worse than that is thinking about potential responses and then consciously deciding to take a harmful action. The worst is when we believe that negative actions are justified, we repeat them over and over again even though we know we’re harming others, or we feel pleasure in doing them. In the last case, those actions become a part of who we are, and that, Swedenborg says, has very long-term spiritual effects.
Looking at the above, if we wanted to really lay out our spiritual progress from day to day, we could almost assign a point system to our actions based on their long-term impact. If we were to apply that to a day in the life of a hypothetical spiritual seeker, it might look something like this:
It looks like our hypothetical spiritual seeker was having a bad day, but it could have been worse. Like all of us, he has his good moments and his bad moments. And by really thinking about his intentions, he might see that he’s got some pent-up aggression around that parking space . . .
The downside of self-examination is that it can also become very easy to judge ourselves. With that in mind, we close with this quote from Divine Providence §280:
The Lord forgives everyone’s sins. He does not accuse us or keep score. However, he cannot take our sins away except by the laws of his divine providence; for when Peter asked him how many times he should forgive someone who had sinned against him, whether seven was enough, he said that Peter should forgive not seven times but seventy times seven times (Matthew 18:21, 22). What does this tell us about the Lord, who is mercy itself?
The question of how we can be more aware of our spiritual state came up on a recent episode of our weekly webcast, Swedenborg and Life. Follow the link to see how a panel of guests tackled that question; or you can watch the entire episode, titled “Everyday Spirituality,” for more great insights. One of the guests featured on that episode is Peter Rhodes, whose book Observing Spirit will help you evaluate your daily progress in spiritual growth.
Our free e-book download Regeneration: Spiritual Growth and How It Works contains a a compilation of Swedenborg’s writings on the process of spiritual rebirth. You might also enjoy The Joy of Spiritual Growth and its sequel The Joy of Spiritual Living, where authors Frank Rose and Bob Maginel offer practical exercises for spiritual growth based on Swedenborg’s teachings and their experience running a spiritual growth group.