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What are grace and mercy, and what makes them different? In this episode, hosts Curtis Childs and Jonathan Rose answer that question with the help of eighteenth-century theologian Emanuel Swedenborg.
This was inspired by a viewer question from the Good Question! episode “Karma, Communication from Angels, and the Lake of Fire?”.
Can you explain the difference between grace and mercy (spiritual and heavenly)?
Before we go further, let’s break the ice with a question.
Jonathan has struggled with different habits in the past, and he has found that he could only break through them with God’s help. It can be terribly challenging to change something that feels like it’s a part of you. Curtis has trouble increasing the amount of order in his life without God’s help.
The signal from God is all around us, but we need to open ourselves up to it. This is all related to Swedenborg’s description of spiritual and celestial heavens, but first let’s get a common understanding of grace and mercy. The Bible is a great place to start. Here are five biblical quotes about grace:
And here are five more about mercy:
To really understand the difference, though, we need to get pretty metaphysical. Basically, there are distinct auras that emanate from God, and we all have our own aura that can affect how we take in the signal from God. In the spiritual world, Swedenborg could actually see these auras.
I experienced a visual aura before I knew what an aura is, namely, an aura of grace, like a golden yellow atmosphere reddening when it was one of mercy. And in that aura I then saw that there was grace, when it was also one of mercy. (Spiritual Experiences §3344)
These aren’t just colors—they have a meaning, too. The aura of grace is the delight in truth, while the aura of mercy is God’s deep yearning to bring us all to the highest heaven. These signals can only come to us if we accept them.
So how much are we doing to accept God’s love? It’s hard for us to admit when we need someone else’s help, even though we all depend on each other. It can be even harder to let ourselves depend on God.
The Lord . . . desires a humble attitude in us on our behalf, because when we have that attitude, the Lord can flow in with heavenly good. (Secrets of Heaven §5957)
Humility opens our minds to this incredible joy God has made available to us. Accepting grace requires a spiritual mindset, while mercy requires a more heavenly mindset.
People who respond to truth cannot lower themselves enough to acknowledge in a heartfelt way that everything is a gift of mercy, so they speak instead of grace, [or favor]. The more meager their response to truth, the less humility they feel when they mention grace. On the other hand, the stronger a person’s response to goodness, the more humility that person feels in mentioning mercy. From this it is evident how much the reverence and therefore the worship of a person who loves truth differs from that of a person who loves goodness. (Secrets of Heaven §2423)
With that foundation, let’s dig deeper into Swedenborg’s understanding of grace and mercy in order to build upon it.
The Lord is present in each of us, but the further we distance ourselves from neighborly love, the more the Lord’s presence is absent, so to speak—which is to say, the more remote the Lord is. The word favor is used rather than mercy because of something I believe is unknown today: people of heavenly character speak not of favor, [or grace,] but of mercy, while those of spiritual character speak not of mercy but of grace. The reason for the difference is this: Heavenly people acknowledge that the human race is sheer filth, that in itself it is made of excrement and is hellish. On this account they beg the Lord for mercy, since mercy is the fitting word for people who feel this way. Spiritual people, on the other hand, might know intellectually that the human race is such, but they do not accept it internally, because they hold fast to their sense of self-sufficiency and love it. As a consequence, they have a hard time saying the word mercy but an easy time saying grace. This results from the type of humility in each of the two. The more we love ourselves and consider ourselves capable of doing good on our own in order to earn salvation, the less able we are to plead for the Lord’s mercy. The reason some are able to ask the Lord’s grace, [or favor,] is that it has become a customary way of speaking. When the request is merely formal, grace contains little of the Lord, but is full of oneself. (Secrets of Heaven §981:2–3)
People are and can be amazing, but it’s impossible to ignore the terrible things we do to each other. Heavenly people know how high the bar is, and therefore they know that mercy is their only hope.
What It Means “To Be Nothing.”
There were spirits who did not understand what it meant when it was said one “must be reduced to nothing” or “become nothing,” thinking that when they lost those things which were their own, nothing would be left, so that the person or spirit would no longer be in control of himself, but like a machine, devoid of all sense or thought. So they very often told me that I was nothing, or would become nothing, making fun of me, because they did not understand what it is “to be nothing.” But I was given to reply to them that this was my wish, that is, to be nothing—in fact, entirely nothing, for then only I would begin to be something. (Spiritual Experiences §2043)
Afterwards they were instructed that “nothing” meant that one would lose all that is one’s own, that is, one’s own desires, and thus iniquities, and that then a different person would emerge. They were told that they could not be something before they had lost what was their own, and to the extent that they lose those things, or are reduced to nothing, they begin to be something, and then they would have whatever they longed for and thought about. . . . For people are given by the Lord to long for the right things, which they surely obtain in abundance, together with enjoyment—and this constantly, so long as, and so far as, they are nothing unto themselves. So they receive countless things, together with innermost joy and gladness, and with immeasurably fuller awareness than a person feels in his or her enjoyments, and in unending variety. The sensation and awareness, which they had thought would be gone, then also increase unendingly when the sensation and awareness of enjoyments from their own loves cease. (Spiritual Experiences §2044)
What It Is To Be Nothing.
I heard when the most deceitful ones overhead were speaking among themselves, even wanting to destroy me, that they said they could not, because “he” is nothing, and if he were something, they would be able to. Then I realized that to be something as something of one’s own—that it was then so portrayed that they could attack and destroy it, and that then the most deceitful ones would have that right. But when it was represented that I was nothing, then it seemed to them that they had no power over what was then seen to be nothing, for then they did not have anything to attack. Thus he is safe who having the truth of faith, believes himself to be nothing. (Spiritual Experiences §4067)
What It Is To Be Nothing.
A certain upright spirit spoke with me, saying he is nothing, and he was asked what his conception was of being nothing, realizing that he had the idea that compared to the multitude of spirits and the whole universe, he is nothing. But I was inspired to tell him that this is one conception, but that there are many others, such as this, that he has no power from himself; then also, that he has no thought from himself; then that he has no life from himself; especially, that he is something dead from himself, something filthy, and nothing but evil from himself—thus that all goodness is from the Lord. These, I said, are several ideas of [being] nothing. (Spiritual Experiences §4341)
When we confront our insignificance on the cosmic scale, we can finally begin to understand God’s love. With that love, we can start to find our true selves.
The more closely we are united to the Lord, the more clearly we seem to have our own identity, and yet the more obvious it is to us that we belong to the Lord. . . . Since people who are united to the Lord are neither willing nor able to think and intend what is evil, the outward appearance leads others to believe that this amounts to a loss of identity; yet it is the exact opposite. . . . Our ability to think and intend what is good, and to say and do it when circumstances permit, comes from heavenly freedom. . . . [U]nion with the Lord makes us feel that we have freedom and therefore identity; and the closer our union with the Lord, the greater our freedom and our identity. The reason our identity seems clearer is that divine love by its very nature wants to give what it has to others, which means to us on earth and to angels. All spiritual love is like this; divine love most of all. (Divine Providence §§42–43)
When we unite with the Lord, we get closer to who we truly are. To learn more about this, check out, “How to Find Your True Self.”
Having planted those three seeds in our minds, let’s take a moment to meditate on these ideas.
When we accept that God makes us who we are and acknowledge our reliance on that love, we are freed to become better versions of ourselves. We just need the humility to accept his mercy.
Curtis: Heaven on earth
At the beginning of the episode, we asked where viewers need God’s help. Here’s what they had to say:
- For myself…. Everything – Ashanthian Coles
- I cant love myself without Gods help – Ali Lou
- Having peace from knowing the long term will be okay. – Yokopo
- Find my way back home from where I came …….. – DJ L
- Get past my ego reactions to the world around me, and live of course. – Sean Smith
- Exist. When you lose someone really close to you, you realise that the common saying ‘Every day is a gift.’ Is a statement of the purest truth. – Victoria Gates
- Everything. It really helped me to realize that I can’t do anything without the Lord – Matthew Bush
- I know I can’t deal with personal loss without God’s help. He has inspired me always to have faith and be strong for others when I have felt totally bereft of either. – Pete Dawson
- Stop worrying – Jon Childs
- Avoid temptation…. – mtp358
- I cant deal with my husbands death without God’s help – Diane Tindilia
- You can’t deal with grief without God’s help – Brooke Mellen
- Empathizing with others when they’re behaving badly, especially if they’re attacking and making me angry – EarInn
Thanks for joining us—we’ll see you next week!
Related Swedenborg & Life Videos
“Karma, Communication from Angels, and the Lake of Fire?” (Good Question!)
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About Swedenborg & Life
In a lighthearted and interactive 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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