A Sermon by Rev. Ian Arnold
“There is [what seems like freedom, but is in fact slavery] and there is heavenly freedom. [So called freedom, which is in fact slavery] is that into which people are born from their parents, and heavenly freedom is that into which they are brought by reformation from the Lord. From infernal freedom a person derives the will of evil, the love of evil and the life of evil; but from heavenly freedom a person derives the will of good, the love of good and the life of good.
These two kinds of freedom are opposite to each other, but the opposite does not appear, except so far as a person is in one and not the other. Nevertheless people cannot come out of infernal freedom and into heavenly freedom, unless they compel themselves.
To compel oneself is to resist evil, and to fight against it as if from oneself, but still to implore the Lord for the aid to do so; it is thus that a person fights from the freedom which is from the Lord interiorly in himself, against the infernal freedom which is from hell exteriorly in himself. It appears to a person, while in the combat, that it is not freedom from which he fights, but a kind of compulsion, because it is against that freedom which is born with him; nevertheless, it is freedom, since otherwise he would not fight as if from himself.
But the interior freedom from which he fights, though appearing like compulsion, is afterwards felt as freedom, for it becomes as if involuntary, spontaneous and innate. The case is comparatively like that of a person who compels his hand to write, to work, to play upon a musical instrument, the hands and arms afterwards performing these actions as if of themselves and of their own accord.
When a man has compelled himself against infernal freedom, he then sees and perceives that such freedom is indeed slavery, and that heavenly freedom is freedom itself, because it is from the Lord.” (Apocalypse Explained, paragraph 1151.2)
I want to pick up with you friends, from this story of Hagar in chapter 16 of the book of Genesis, where the angel meets her in the wilderness:
Now the Angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur. And He said, “Hagar, Sarais maid, where have you come from, and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai.” The Angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself under her hand.”
There is a myth, friends, which has come down to us through the Christian centuries that when it comes to angels and things angelic, that somehow we are in the realm of what is meek and trouble-avoiding, the burying of issues, the unwillingness to confront and challenge: this is the myth that, as it were, pervades traditional Christian thinking when it comes to angels and what is angelic. And indeed, it is comparable to the myth that is captured in the first line of the English hymn “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”, which is damaging in the picture that it creates of our Lord. Was the Lord meek and mild? How can you say that, when you think of the courage He possessed and the confrontations faced, whether in regards to the cleansing of the temple, or whatever else it may have been?
Now when it comes to this myth about angels and what is angelic, we need to stop for a moment and think to ourselves that if we go along with that type of thinking, then we make angels anything but real people. They become ethereal beings that have no contact with life as you and I are experiencing it. And yet angels are real beings, ruggedly so. Real beings. As we know from the teachings of the doctrines, angels are people who once lived in this world. Angels are people who once faced up to the heat and the fire of life in this world. Angels are people who confronted issues and worked through them. Angels are people who don’t avoid issues: they are not into the mindset of problem-avoidance.
That myth is exploded in any case when you come to this story of Hagar and to the words that the angel spoke to her:
“Hagar, Sarais maid, where have you come from, and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai.” The Angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself under her hand.”
Be sure of this friends, that that wasn’t a polite request; it wasn’t as if the angel was pleading to her to make up her mind what she would do. If we look at the Hebrew that is used here, the word that is translated “submit” means two things: abase yourself, chasten yourself or take yourself in hand; and use force if necessary. Now listen again to what he said: “Return to your mistress, take yourself in hand, and use force if you have to.” This was an angel talking; and the angel was giving an unequivocal, unarguable command.
So much then for the myth that angels are some sort of ethereal beings who never confront or challenge people, who only do nice things, who never raise issues with people. Not a word of it!
Hagar had taken herself into the wilderness. Now a wilderness is where you die: we know that well enough in Australia when people don’t take precautions and don’t advise others when they’re going to drive through our deserts. A wilderness is where you die, and there was no future for Hagar where she was. She was going nowhere. And though she wouldn’t have recognised it at the time, it was a mercy that the angel spoke so commandingly to her. “Return to your mistress”, pull yourself together, get your act together again, abase yourself, chasten yourself: it’s very pointed what he said to her. You see, she had already been so indulgent: pouting because she was pregnant to Abram, smug and parading her pregnancy in front of the barren Sarai. And here she was in the wilderness because she was drowning in her self-pity: “I’ve been badly treated, and it’s not fair.” The angel wont buy a word of it: “Return to your mistress, abase yourself, use force if necessary.” Like I said, though she may not have seen it at the time, it was a mercy that he spoke to her in that way.
“Use force.” It is hopeless and useless to use force with others. It is hopeless and it is useless to try to compel another person to your way of thinking, to your way of approaching problems, to the way that you respond to life. It is a hopeless exercise to try to force or compel another person. Conversely however, we can, we should, and we need to compel ourselves and use force on ourselves from time to time. The teaching in the Writings is utterly clear, and there are a hundred passages on the topic: the Lord never forces anyone, for nothing into which anyone is forced appears as his own. We take that very seriously in the New Church. Sometimes people have complained that we are bland: where is the emotion, the happy-clappy, the obvious enthusiasm and excitement? Well, we are wary of it, because even in an atmosphere of emotional excitement and awakening, there can be an element of compulsion of getting people to do things, say things, or give things that they wouldn’t ordinarily have done so. And because the Lord will not compel, why should we? But some people: parents trying to compel their children, children trying to force and compel their parents; you hear them in the supermarket: “I want …, I must have …” Husbands try to compel their wives, and wives try to force their husbands. And it is a hopeless and useless exercise, because nothing into which we are forced is ever taken on board as our own. On the contrary, it builds up resistance and resentment. And when we get the opportunity and break free of the compulsion or the sense of obligation, we cast off what is foreign and revert to our old ways. The Lord does not compel or force, and nor should we. We wrestle with that so far as the Lord is concerned, we anguish and agonise over it, at times we wonder why He doesn’t intervene or override somebodys free will, but He does not and will not do so because greater outcomes are at stake.
When it comes to forcing ourselves it is, however, an altogether different matter. Because in forcing or compelling ourselves, that is the way we move from what we mistakenly think is freedom to the real freedom the Lord wishes us to enjoy. In the wilderness, in the desert, Hagar believed that she was free at last: she’d run out, she’d left her old tormentor at home. She wasn’t free at all. As I’ve tried to indicate earlier, she was a prisoner of her self-indulgence and her self-pity, and it was only by her willingness to obey what the angel had commanded her to do that she moved back into a much more genuine and real freedom.
What are the circumstances in which we find ourselves where it is true of us that we need to abase self, chasten self, and if necessary, use force? Just check yourselves out friends. I hear others, and at times I hear myself saying, “I know I should help, but I don’t feel like it. I know I should help, but they wouldn’t help me. I know I should forgive, but as it so happens, I don’t want to.” When we hear ourselves, or hear somebody else, speaking like that, we can be 101% sure that we are speaking from the wilderness. We think we are free, but we are a prisoner of our selfishness or whatever it may be, but we are not free. And it is in those circumstances, frequent enough, common enough, real enough to us, that we need to recall what this angel said to Hagar: “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself under her hand. Return to your mistress and chasten yourself, pull yourself together and submit yourself, using force if necessary, under her hand.”
In the spiritual, internal sense, Sarai is our sense of what Truth is saying to us. Its almost like what we might commonly say is a “gut feeling”: that’s Sarai. But we often run away from our gut feeling into the wilderness. The angel is our conscience, and our conscience doesn’t beat around the bush. Our conscience speaks sharply and commandingly to us, and says: “Return and submit. I’m not going to argue and I’m not going to listen to your protests. Return and submit.” There’s no mistaking the message, words for us to remember when we find ourselves running away from this perception at this point. This perception comes from deep within: what we should be doing, how we should be responding, whether we should be restraining ourselves or having the courage to speak up. How many times have you walked away from a situation and said, “I did not have the courage to say what should have been said, I did not have the courage to speak up for somebody who was being maligned”? It’s all part of our experience. We run away at times because Sarai seems to be a harsh taskmistress.
The teachings in the Writings tell us that we generally have no difficulty in restraining ourselves, in obeying what we know to be true, if external considerations are what we are looking to. In other words, if other people are looking on, or if we are concerned for our reputation in some way, we find it relatively easy to pull ourselves up. That same teaching goes on to say this: that just as you can restrain yourself, pull yourself in, keep to your knowledge of what the truth is saying for external reasons, it is just as easy to do so for internal reasons. We tell ourselves that it is not, but the Writings are clear that it is.
And lastly, the angel goes on to say to her that having returned, “I will multiply your descendents exceedingly, so that they shall not be counted for multitude.” Fruitfulness, blessing and prosperity. The wilderness is dead; we die in the wilderness. But return and submit, and there is fruitfulness, blessing and prosperity. A sense of self-worth, of decency, of integrity, and an increasing sense of being a channel through which the Lord’s blessings can flow out into the world: all of these are promised if we will return and submit. Return and submit. Take yourself in hand, and use force if necessary.