It’s a question that people have wrestled with for ages: Why would an all-powerful God, one whose essence is literally love and wisdom, allow evil and suffering to exist in the world?
Swedenborg devotes an entire book to answering this question: Divine Providence. In it, he explains that the Lord’s goal is the formation of a heavenly community, bringing everyone—every human being on earth—into heaven. Divine providence is the way he works to do that. But he will not do this without our freely given consent and cooperation. In other words, there can be no true salvation without free will; nor can there be a full commitment to spiritual growth without first understanding the role that evil plays in our lives.
Swedenborg systematically describes the way that divine providence works in our lives by condensing it into five laws:
1. We should act in freedom and in accordance with reason
Freedom, in this case, means spiritual freedom. Our bodies limit what we can see and hear and do. Governments have laws that prevent us from acting in certain ways. But in the privacy of our own minds, we can think and feel just about any way that we like. In other words, we can choose to inwardly embrace thoughts and feelings that are either good or evil. Swedenborg tells us:
The origin of evil is the abuse of the abilities proper to us called rationality and freedom. By rationality, I mean the ability to discern what is true and therefore what is false, and to discern what is good and therefore what is evil. By freedom, I mean the ability freely to think, intend, and to do such things. (Divine Love and Wisdom #264)
The actions that we choose—and, more importantly, the underlying attitudes that motivate those actions—become a part of us. Swedenborg may have anticipated modern psychology when he observed that the thoughts and feelings we embrace never truly leave us. We may repress them, or deny them, but the thoughts and feelings that we dwell upon become part of our essential self. Ancient wisdom teaches, “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). Swedenborg takes it a step further, saying that “we are what we love.” (Divine Love and Wisdom #1). The more we are motivated by and act upon our noblest desires, the more that nobility becomes a part of our very being. This is the way we cooperate, connect, and come into communion with God. But it must be done freely, and we must make that decision rationally rather than acting out of fear or external pressure.
2. We should reject any tendencies toward evil that we notice coming into our mind
What is evil? In its most basic form, it refers to any desire or any tendency to turn away from God, or from the highest principles we know. Swedenborg describes angels as perpetually turned toward God—not in the literal sense of always facing the same direction no matter which way they’re walking, but in the spiritual sense that their minds, their inner selves, are always guided by the Lord’s love and wisdom. In the same way, he says, evil spirits are always turned away from God, guided by their own obsessions with power and prestige.
We should not think of “evil spirits” as medieval characters in fictional literature. They are real influences masquerading as our thoughts and feelings. While these thoughts and feelings may feel like our own, they do not become a part of us until we identify with them, embrace them, and lead our lives by them.
The process of noticing the negative thoughts and feelings that arise in our minds, and then rejecting them, begins on earth. This is a basic aspect of our common humanity. None of us is born “perfect,” but we can strive to become better. As Swedenborg notes, we are all born with a tendency to be selfish and to crave material pleasures. And yet, more deeply, we are also born with an inner spiritual essence that comes from God. In Hindusim this is called “Atman”; in Buddhism it is our “Buddha nature”; and in Swedenborg’s theology it is “the innermost.” It is in this “innermost” part of us where we connect with God, allow God to guide us, and become cooperative channels through whom God’s love and truth can flow.
When Swedenborg talks about rejecting evils, then, he is talking about our tendency to be selfish—to always act in what we regard as our own best interest rather than our neighbors’; to love power and crave domination over others; to steal, or kill, or otherwise do harm.
But what we do isn’t the whole story. Why we do it goes deeper. For example, let’s say that a man working for a large corporation—overworked, underpaid, and perpetually mistreated by his tyrant of a boss—discovers a loophole that will allow him to steal money from the company without anyone noticing. Over the course of a couple of years, he’s stockpiled enough money to quit and start his own business. No big deal, he tells himself. Nobody got hurt. The corporation is so large that nobody even noticed the money was missing. Anyhow, he deserves the money as compensation for the way he was treated.
Though it may not seem like a big deal, this kind of rationalization and justification of actions that we know are wrong (rather than acknowledging and rejecting them) leads us away from the Lord. The more we tell ourselves that it’s okay to help ourselves at others’ expense, the farther away we get.
However, if instead we make a concerted effort to reject those selfish thoughts and feelings, try to make amends for past actions, and truly work to become better people, we open the door for God to enter our lives and put us on the path to heaven.
3. We cannot be compelled to think or believe in a certain way
Swedenborg asserts that nobody can be reformed by threats and punishments, or even by miracles and visions of the afterlife. In order for faith to be real, and for reformation to be actual, we have to examine ourselves in the light of our highest values and see if we are living in accordance with them. It is only when we choose to act consciously in accordance with our faith that the process of reformation really begins.
An external event like a miracle may make a big impression, and it may even force us to rethink our beliefs. However, “force” is the key word here. If we have a vision of God telling us to go help the poor, we may feel compelled to do so simply because of the overwhelming experience we’ve just had. It’s no different from acting to help others because an authority figure has told us that we must do so. If we have not consciously chosen to become a better person, to do good simply because it is good, then our inner selves are not changing—and deep inside is where it really counts. What we actually do doesn’t matter if we’re motivated by fear or external pressure.
For the same reason, people who have mental illnesses, or who suffer from some other disability that prevents them using their freedom and rationality, are not held spiritually responsible for their actions. This also includes emergency situations where a person is acting out of instinct or desperation, or times and places where people are genuinely ignorant of spiritual truths.
4. We are taught and led by the Lord, although it may appear that we are acting independently
In many places throughout his writings, Swedenborg emphasizes that all life comes from God, that his love, wisdom, and energy flow into everything. If God were to withdraw from anyone, even for a moment, that person would simply cease to exist. Because of this, even people who have chosen to do evil still have God’s presence in their lives, sustaining them. God never stops trying to lead people to do good things and to love each other, and as long as we are on earth it’s never too late to change. (Although the longer we wait, the harder it gets!)
5. We will not feel the workings of divine providence in our lives
We are not allowed to see God at work in our lives for the same reason that we can’t be converted to faith by miracles: we have to choose to do good because we truly believe it is right, not because we are forced to or because there will be an immediate reward for doing so.
That’s why some people choose to abandon their belief in God. They are looking for an immediate reward—or even an eventual reward—for being good, and are disappointed when they do not see divine providence working in their lives. They do not realize that the God “who neither slumbers nor sleeps” is always working in their lives, bringing the best out of everything that happens, no matter how dark the moment appears to be. This is a hard but important lesson—especially when there has been a serious misfortune. Sometimes it’s not until long after the fact that the lessons we learned or the positive results that ensued become clear.
But what about innocent people who are doing their best to lead good lives and yet still suffer misfortune? What about natural disasters like floods and earthquakes that kill thousands of people? What kind of lessons do we learn from that?
The evils in the world are real, Swedenborg says, but are permitted to happen so that we can grow:
Saying that God allows something to happen does not mean that he wants it to happen but that he cannot prevent it because of his goal, which is our salvation. . . . [Divine providence] is constantly focused on its goal; so that every moment of its work, at every single step of its course, when it notices that we are straying from that goal it leads and turns and adapts us in accord with its laws, leading us away from evil and toward good. . . . This cannot be accomplished without allowing bad things to happen. (Divine Providence #234)
Following a natural disaster, there might be an outpouring of love and support that inspires people to treat everyone better. Perhaps a person who helps during this time might decide to dedicate their lives to helping others, affecting thousands of lives for the better. Technologies may be developed that prevent bigger disasters down the road. With our limited perspective, it’s impossible to see all the positive consequences that might arise from a personal crisis or natural disaster. Part of faith is learning to trust, as Swedenborg assures us, that the Lord will not allow anything to happen if it cannot eventually be turned to good (Secrets of Heaven #6574).
Disaster, crime, disease, and other misfortunes also force us to confront the fact that evil exists in the world. When everything is going well, when there is peace and prosperity and nobody is suffering, we tend to take things for granted. We relax and enjoy the good times without thinking too much about it. Disasters make us realize what’s important to us; they wake us up to the fact that we matter to each other. From that starting point, we can think about who we are and, more importantly, who we want to be. Ultimately, if we let them, even the worst events in life can be the first step on the path to heaven.
We have a number of videos on our offTheLeftEye YouTube channel about divine providence, including “Why Bad Things Happen” and “Does God Control Good Luck?” For a quick overview, check out our short videos “Divine Providence Is Active in Your Life” or “Is God Fair?” Or, for an overview of Swedenborg’s work Divine Providence, check out our Swedenborg & Life Live episode titled “Divine Providence.”
You can read more about this in Swedenborg’s own words in this chapter from Divine Providence: “Evils Are Permitted for a Purpose: Salvation.”
Bruce Henderson gives an engaging overview of Swedenborg’s teachings on divine providence in Why Does God Let It Happen?
You can also download a booklet by Donald Rose called “Chance, Good Fortune, Divine Providence” here.