By Jeremy Simons
In the summer of the year 2000, my wife and I were in the ocean at Pawley’s Island in South Carolina. A wave caught her, and when she surfaced, something was clearly wrong. We were soon in an ambulance headed for Charleston, where she was treated for severe damage to her neck. On the ambulance ride down the coastal highway, I looked out over the sea, and a rainbow appeared. It was a stunning rainbow, and it was not the first one we had seen on that vacation. I took it as a sign that things would be all right. It was not an easy recovery, but eventually she was okay; and twenty years later, we still look back at all those rainbows and wonder whether they were telling us something.
Does the Lord give us signs from heaven? Many people assume that he does, and in hard times, we often look for them. They may come as signs of comfort or as signs that help us with difficult decisions. Are these occurrences really signs from the Lord, and if so, could the opposite be possible—that evil spirits give us signs to lure us off track?
Christianity has always taught that the Lord leads and guides us by means of angels. Similarly, it has said that there are evil spirits who would lead us in an opposite direction. So how does this work? According to Swedenborg, angels and spirits, both good and bad, surround all of us, influencing our thoughts and actions. However, despite this close association, he says, neither do we have any awareness of these angels and spirits nor do they have any awareness of us. Essentially, we are invisible to each other.
There are good spirits and evil spirits with every individual. We have our union with heaven through the good spirits and our union with hell through the evil ones. . . . These spirits are totally unaware that they are with us. Rather . . . they believe that all [the] matters of our memory and thought are actually theirs. They do not see us, either, because their sight does not extend to things in our subsolar world. The Lord takes the greatest care to prevent spirits from knowing whom they are with. (Heaven and Hell §292)
The traditional picture of how these angels and spirits work is that they somehow sit on our shoulders and whisper in our ears, planting good or bad suggestions in our minds, or that they show us signs. This imagery paints them as being completely aware of us and conspiring to influence us, but Swedenborg says that this is not what happens at all. Instead, even though they are as unaware of us as we are of them, our lives are linked.
How can the spirits and angels with us be unaware of us?
This idea might seem strange at first, or even impossible, but we should consider how it is that we are generally unaware that spiritual things, much less an entire spiritual realm, even exist. Claiming that there is no such thing as the spiritual world, and that we have no way of proving that such a world exists, is the easiest thing to do. If angels and spirits are there, why are we not able to perceive them?
[People in this world think in an earthly way], but spirits think spiritually; and natural and spiritual thought make one only by correspondences; and in a oneness by correspondences neither one of the two knows anything about the other. (Apocalypse Explained §1182:4)
Like the higher frequencies of light and sound that we are unable to see or hear, the spiritual world is on a higher level than the natural world that we perceive. Nevertheless, that higher level is intimately connected to the lower one, because the two correspond to each other and are bound together by love.
Heaven’s union with us is not like the union of one person with another, but is a union with the deeper levels of our minds and therefore with our spiritual or inner person. There is, though, a union with our natural or outer person by correspondences. (Heaven and Hell §300)
The nature of this union is the key to understanding why the spiritual world is invisible to us, how it is that such a world can be real, and how that higher level actually affects us. The connection is through our feelings, which are so slippery and difficult to pin down that we have no idea where they come from. They seem to result from things that happen in our outer world—by our choices, by our activities, by our physical state, or by something else—but we cannot ever be sure.
Swedenborg tells us that all of these things are true but that the actual substance of those feelings comes to us from our spiritual associations. Our feelings flow from them, to us, and back again, according to the correspondence of our outer state (the natural world) with our inner state (the spiritual world). The smile in our heart becomes the smile on our face, and that smile communicates what we feel in our heart to the heart of someone else. The outer form corresponds to the inner feeling, and our inner feeling is derived from the connection with our spiritual associations. The outer form and the inner feeling mutually cause each other, and all of our feelings come to us from the Lord through these spiritual associations—whether they are good or bad spirits. We then receive these feelings according to a whole host of different factors.
The spirits and angels themselves, however, are just living their lives. They do not know that their actual proximity to us, and to even higher angels, forms the substance of their loves and that their feelings are shared with everyone whose loves are similar.
What does this inner connection with the spiritual world have to do with signs?
If angels and spirits are not even aware of us, how can they give us signs? The answer is not so much about them as it is about us. I am the one who saw the rainbows, and I am the one who took them as a sign. So the spirits with me had an influence on me, whether they were aware of it or not. Our spirits are just like us, thinking and believing whatever it is we think and believe. This is the reason, in fact, why they are with us in the first place: in spiritual terms, like attracts like. As Swedenborg points out, our spirits even agree with all of our wrong ideas!
The spirits with us also adopt our false convictions, whatever those may be, as has been borne out for me by much experience. They adopt our delusions not only on public and private issues but also on spiritual questions of faith. Plainly, then, when spirits are with people who subscribe to heresies, to fallacies and delusions regarding religious truth, and to outright falsities, the spirits buy into the same bad thinking and do not waver from it a hair’s breadth. The purpose is to leave people in freedom and prevent a spirit’s own ideas from causing them trouble. (Secrets of Heaven §5860)
Our spiritual associations, therefore, reinforce whatever it is that we happen to think.
Whenever a spirit from like affection favors [a person’s] thoughts or principles, one leads the other as the blind lead the blind until both fall into the pit. (Apocalypse Explained §1182:4)
Here is the point: If I see a rainbow and the thought occurs to me that it might be a sign, I may get a deep inner feeling about it that affirms that thought. I can see it as a sign from heaven. It gives me hope.
The catch, however, is that this very same mechanism may also provide me with signs that could lead me astray. For example, I might take the rainbow to mean that I am not at fault for something hateful I just said and that things will get better. Since I am the one looking for a sign, and I am the one who decides whether to view something as a sign or not, I can interpret that sign to mean whatever I want. Whatever the interpretation, my invisible spiritual counterparts will agree with me. They may not intend to lead me astray, but that is what happens.
The same relationship holds true when it comes to our ability to read meaning into what is happening in the world around us. Is political unrest a sign of the end of the age? Are current controversies and injustices signs that our system is failing? Our observations of current events can support any number of narratives, with specific events providing evidence for the narrative that we have accepted. Regardless of the narrative, the spirits by our side will help us to feel certain about our conclusions, whether true or false, creating for us our own personal echo chamber.
What about actual communications from spirits?
Sometimes it happens that the signs are less subtle than my above example describes. People have seen and heard things that are very explicit—spirits or angels actually speaking with them. For example, a man once told me that he was once in a bar, wishing that he could control his drinking, when suddenly someone across the room said loudly and clearly, “You do not need to take another drink!” He turned to see who spoke those words, but there was no one there. The man was sure that it was the voice of God, and he never had another drink again.
When [we talk with spirits], they talk with us in our own everyday language and use only a few words. Further, the ones who have the Lord’s permission to talk with us never say anything that would take away our freedom to think rationally; and they do not teach, either. Only the Lord teaches us, indirectly, through the Word. (Divine Providence §135)
I have heard many stories like this one—a brief appearance or an audible voice that sometimes comes in dreams and other times comes when one is awake and in a time of stress. Often there are no words, but when there are, they are few: “You will be okay” or “I am fine” or “There you are.” The point is usually to reassure the person. However, when we make efforts of our own to communicate with spirits and receive guidance from them, it immediately changes our connection to them.
As soon as spirits begin to speak with [a person] they come out of their spiritual state into [the person’s] natural state, and they then know that they are with [that person] and they conjoin themselves with the thoughts of his [or her] affection and speak with him [or her] from those thoughts. They can enter into no other state of [a person], for all conjunction is by like affection and thought therefrom, while unlike separates. For this reason the speaking spirit must be in the same principles as the [person] is, whether they be true or false; and these [the spirit] stirs up, and through [the spirit’s] affection conjoined to [the person’s] affection [the former] strongly confirms them. (Apocalypse Explained §1182:4)
If we look for information or guidance from these spirits, they will mislead us, or simply reinforce what we already think, and they will give us signs to lure us off track.
When spirits begin to speak with a person, one must take care not to believe them at all, for almost everything they say, they have made up, and they are lying. If for example they are allowed to tell what heaven is like, and how matters stand in the heavens, they would tell so many lies, with great assurance, that the person would be astounded. . . . For they are very fond of fabricating, and whenever any topic of conversation is raised, they think they know all about it, and express their opinions about it one after the other, as if they knew exactly; and if anyone then listens to them and believes them, then they press on, and in various ways trick and mislead the person. Or if they are allowed to tell about things to come, about things unknown in the whole heaven, about anything whatever that a person hopes for, then everything, as it is from themselves, they would say untruthfully. So such persons must take care not to believe them, this being the reason why the condition of speaking with spirits on this planet is most dangerous, unless one has true belief. They bring on such a strong persuasion that it is the Lord Himself speaking and commanding, that the person cannot help but believe, and obey. (Spiritual Experiences §1622)
Spirits who become aware of and speak with people in this world are so persuasive that the person cannot help but believe and obey them. Angels, on the other hand, do not attempt to teach or to give advice; instead, they quietly or even silently support the person in his or her own choices.
It is otherwise with those whom the Lord leads. . . . Such are enlightened when they read the Word; for the Lord is in the Word, and speaks with everyone according to [their] apprehension. When such hear the speech of spirits, as they sometimes do, they are not taught but led, and this with such precaution that [they are] left to [themselves]; for every [person], as has been said before, is led by the Lord by means of affections, and from these [they think] as if from [themselves] in freedom; if this were not so [they] would be incapable of reformation, nor could [they] be enlightened. But [people] are enlightened variously, each according to the quality of his [or her] affection and consequent intelligence. (Apocalypse Explained §1183)
Life presents us with all sorts of things that we may take as signs, and these signs may help to guide our lives, but the truth is that they are only signs to the extent that we choose to see them as such. They actually only reinforce decisions, points of view, and hopes that we ourselves have chosen. Our spiritual associations influence us to see things that way. They do this because even though they are as unaware of us as we are of them they sense our feelings as their own, and whatever agrees with their deeper loves gives them great pleasure, and this pleasure is then communicated to us.
Swedenborg does not warn us against taking things as signs. In fact, it is a perfectly normal way of thinking. In the New Testament, Jesus goes so far as to criticize our inability to read the signs.
When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. (Matthew 16:2–3)
So signs can be very important. I can still see that amazing rainbow over the ocean, and I can remember how it helped to quiet the fear in my heart concerning what would happen as we raced toward Charleston; but it is not the signs themselves that guide us, or that should guide us. Things may not always feel right to us, since our spirits only want us to hear what we already believe, so we should not necessarily trust our feelings. Instead, we need to have ideas about goodness and truth based on real information from outside of our own thoughts. With love and wisdom as the foundation, we can form conclusions about the justice or injustice that we see in the world around us and then think about the best way forward. This real information is what the Word of God can provide.
Jeremy Simons is former Senior Pastor at the Bryn Athyn Cathedral and today in retirement serves as the Cathedral Chaplain.