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Repentance as a concept has gathered some baggage, but looking at what it really means makes it a lot more encouraging—and achievable. Whether you’re looking to dispel monsters or make your way to heaven, repentance is the key.
In this episode, hosts Curtis Childs and Dr. Jonathan Rose explore the writings of eighteenth-century scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg to learn about repentance—and how sinners can still make their way into heaven.
The Two Monsters
The chief obstacles to human happiness are two dangerous passions.
There are two loves that have been deeply rooted in the human race for a long time now: love for dominating everyone, and love for possessing everyone’s wealth. (True Christianity §533:1)
These “monsters” make their homes within people—even including Curtis while he works on the show!
Love of dominion takes root when you value your own ideas and needs over everyone else’s; a well-intentioned tendency to push your own agenda because you’re sure you’re right can easily turn into enjoyment of making others do what you want.
Love of other people’s wealth is pretty obvious—a sense of envy of what others have. But it can start with something as relatively minor as helping yourself to something that belongs to another person because you feel you need it more.
Both of these negative impulses can be defeated with repentance. But what does repentance mean?
If all we do is make a blanket acknowledgment that we are sinners and declare ourselves guilty of all evils but without examining ourselves—that is, seeing our own particular evils—we are making some kind of confession, but not a confession that leads to repentance. Since we do not know what our evils are, we live the same way afterward as before. (New Jerusalem §162)
In his work True Christianity (§528), Swedenborg lists four steps to active repentance: examine yourself, recognize and admit your sins, pray to the Lord, and begin a new life. Sounds easy, right? Curtis finds out that it’s harder than it looks.
So how do we go about getting rid of our negative traits for good?
Jonathan opens with some definitions, starting with sin. Many of us have baggage around the word sin, but when Swedenborg uses it, it takes on a different meaning:
The evil that is sinful is simply evil against our neighbor; and evil against our neighbor is also evil against God, which is what sin is. (True Christianity §525)
In other words, sin is doing harm to others. It’s not an arbitrary judgment imposed by a higher power; it’s being in a state where you’re actively hurting others, even if you didn’t realize it.
So what do you do when you realize that you’ve sinned? Confess.
Confessing sins is to recognize things that are evil, see them within ourselves, acknowledge them, accept that we are at fault, and condemn ourselves because of them. When this is done in the presence of God, it is confessing our sins. (New Jerusalem §160)
Self-condemnation might sound harsh, but for Swedenborg, it’s not about beating yourself up. It’s part of the acknowledgment process, not only recognizing that we’ve caused harm, but acknowledging that it was wrong.
After we have confessed our sins in this way and have prayed for forgiveness with a humble heart, repenting is to stop doing them and to lead a new life that follows the principles of caring and faith. (New Jerusalem §161)
And a little farther on Swedenborg emphasizes that repentance is not about guilt but about change:
Saying that we repent but not changing the way we live is no repentance at all. Our sins are not forgiven when we say we repent; they are forgiven when we change our lives. (New Jerusalem §165)
Real change doesn’t come just from stopping an action but comes from stopping the desire to take an evil action.
If we are practicing self-examination in order to repent, it is important that we examine our thoughts and the intentions of our will, and note what we would do if we could get away with it—that is, if we had no fear of the law or of losing our reputation, our job, or our wealth. Our evils live in our will; that is the source of all the evil things we do physically. Therefore if we do not search out evils in our thoughts and our will, we will be unable to repent, because afterward we will have the same thoughts and intentions as we had before; and intending evils is the same as doing them. This therefore is what self-examination entails. (New Jerusalem §164)
It’s Not That Bad
All of this might sound difficult, but it’s not as hard as it sounds. It’s not about creating shame but about fruitful regret. It’s about saying to yourself, “That’s not the way I want to be.”
As with anything else, practice is a huge part of successful and recurring repentance. You don’t have to get it perfect the first time to make it worth doing. And once you’ve started the work, there are heavenly resources available to help you keep going.
People who, through repentance, have laid aside some evils that are sins, though, develop a resolve to believe in the Lord and to love their neighbor. They are held by the Lord in a resolution to abstain from many other things as well. Therefore if it happens that because they did not realize what was going on or because they were overwhelmed by desire, they commit a sin, it is not held against them. It was not something they had planned to do, and they do not support what they did. (True Christianity §523:1)
In the wrap-up, we remember that the loves of dominance and possession are the obstacles blocking our access to heaven, but conscious avoidance of causing harm to others can put us on the path to spiritual health.
If we are leading a life of caring and faith we repent every day. We reflect on the evils in ourselves, acknowledge them, take precautions against them, and pray to the Lord for help. You see, on our own we are constantly falling down, but the Lord is constantly raising us up and leading us toward goodness. This is our state if we devote our lives to doing good. (New Jerusalem §163)
Resources for Repentance
Begin a New Life — this website, run by a Swedenborgian pastor, contains a wealth of resources for people who want to meet people who want to practice spiritual growth from a Swedenborgian perspective.
Frank Rose and Bob Maginel have run a spiritual growth discussion group based on Swedenborgian principles for decades. They’ve written two books of practical exercises that anyone interested in repentance and regeneration can work through on their own or with others: The Joy of Spiritual Growth and The Joy of Spiritual Living.
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About Swedenborg and Life
In a lighthearted and interactive live webcast format, host Curtis Childs from the Swedenborg Foundation and featured guests explore topics from Swedenborg’s eighteenth-century writings about his spiritual experiences and afterlife explorations and discuss how they relate to modern-day life and death.
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