The Shelter of Innocence

From Rev. Jared Buss
April 19, 2016

 

Olivet New Church; April 17, 2016

 

The story we heard today is the story of the turning point in the Children’s of Israel’s journey out of slavery. At the beginning of this story they are in bondage in Egypt; at the end of the story they have been sent away, to go to the promised land. So this is a story of liberation, of redemption. But it may not seem to be about these things. It may not seem to be a very uplifting story at all. Probably the most memorable image from this story is of the Children of Israel taking shelter in the tiny spheres of their homes while, in the darkest hour of the night, this thing called “the destroyer” kills the firstborn of every Egyptian. How does this inspire us to live better lives?

In its deeper sense, this story describes how we are delivered from evil. It shows us how, even if we’re in darkness in a land populated by our enemies, we can break free and start to take steps towards real spiritual freedom. It’s a powerful story, and it’s powerful because it gives us a taste of how frightening evil can be. It’s powerful because sometimes we recognize this “destroyer” in the forces that are actually present in our lives. And the story is powerful because it shows us that we can still escape these things. We can escape even the ugliest and most awful forces in our lives.

But before we can see this as a story of deliverance we may have to deal with a stumbling block, which is the idea that it’s the Lord who sends the destroyer—it’s the Lord who kills the firstborn of the Egyptians. “And it came to pass at midnight that the Lord struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon” (Ex. 12:29). If the Lord does things like this, then who do we turn to for safety?

This stumbling block isn’t unique to this story—over and over, especially in the Old Testament, the Lord is assigned responsibility for things that we would call evil. And we know that if He is really God He can’t be responsible for these things. But why are the stories written this way? Strangely enough, we’re told in the Writings of the New Church that the Lord’s anger actually means mercy (see AC §§6997, 8875). The Lord only looks on us with mercy, no matter how evil we are. But sometimes when He regards us with compassion what we experience is anger. Listen to this passage from Arcana Coelestia:

The reason why [“the Lord’s anger”] is used to mean leniency and mercy is that all forms of punishment that the evil suffer arise because of the Lord’s mercy shown towards the good to protect them from harm done by the evil. Yet the Lord does not inflict punishments on the evil; rather, it is they who inflict them on themselves since evils and forms of punishment in the next life are bound up with one another. The evil especially inflict punishments on themselves when the Lord acts mercifully towards the good, for at such times evils and the resulting punishments are on the increase in [the evil]. (§6997.6)

The Lord shields all of us with His mercy—but sometimes the fact that He does that means that He’s thwarting us. If we really want to hurt somebody we’ll be running up against the Lord’s mercy, and that mercy is unshakeable. We only hurt ourselves when we throw ourselves against it. So evil brings pain on itself. But when we’re caught up in false thinking, it seems like the pain comes from the Lord. So in this story the Lord gets credited with sending the destroyer against the Egyptians. But in the deeper sense the Egyptians represent spirits of hell, and the destroyer represents hell also—it’s hell’s own evil testifying against it and condemning it. And the children of Israel represent people who have been touched by evil, people who have been slaves to evil, but who are not condemned. They take shelter in their homes, and the destroyer passes over them, and they are safe. And the thing that keeps them safe is the Passover celebration that they’ve observed, and the markings, made with the blood of a lamb, on their doorposts. That Passover meal of lamb and unleavened bread, and the markings on the doorposts, all represent things having to do with innocence.

But before we dig into this any further, let’s consider how we usually look at our struggle with evil. What’s the word for what we’re supposed to do with evil? Resist it? Fight it? Conquer it? Shun it? Run from it? Maybe the right answer is “all of the above.” But we often get the message that we’re supposed to fight evil. Certainly there’re plenty of movies and stories showing us “the battle between good and evil,” and the Word is full of stories like this as well. But what does it mean to go into battle against evil? Or, to come at the question from another angle: when we’re struggling to get hell out of our lives, how often do we find ourselves facing an enemy we can see clearly, in broad daylight—an enemy who will wait for us while we put on our armor, and organize our lines, and attack?

When we realize that there’s something in our minds and in our hearts that we want to get away from, it’s almost always in the aftermath of an ambush. We’re caught up in something that snuck up on us in the dark. We can recognize that we want to get rid of this thing, but how? It’s not a “fair fight.” The enemy doesn’t want to be seen. That’s why we so often find ourselves wondering, “What do I do to stop feeling this way? How do I change the way I am? How do I stop wanting this when this is the only thing that feels good?”

It would be so nice if we could fight hell on our own terms—if we could meet our enemies in a predetermined place, and lead a charge against all the parts of ourselves that we want to get rid of. But hell’s strategy is to trick us, to lie to us, to make us comfortable and then enslave us, to systematically pollute every truth we could use to force ourselves to get up and leave that bondage. So what can we do? How do we fight that?

Think of how small the children of Israel would have felt on the night of the Passover. They were slaves, powerless against the Egyptians, and now there was an even worse terror all around them. They couldn’t even leave their homes, because the destroyer was out there—it was like the night itself was their enemy. All they could do was seek shelter. Most of the time the evil we face doesn’t seem that big and terrible—and that’s a sign that the Lord is protecting us. But sometimes we will feel surrounded and closed in on, and very small. How do we defeat hell then? What protects us then?

The blood on the Children of Israel’s doorposts that kept the destroyer away is said to represent, “Holy truth belonging to the good of innocence” (AC §7846). Symbolically, painting that blood on the doorposts means taking refuge in innocence, and letting that innocence be marked on the gateway to our minds.

First of all, why innocence? What can innocence protect? Isn’t that word synonymous with naivety? Think of the innocence of our children. Isn’t that something that we work to protect, because it seems like there are so many things that could just snatch it away?

Secondly, what if we’re not innocent? Maybe it’s all well and good to say innocence can protect us, but if we’ve already sinned and let hell in the front door, isn’t it too late to be innocent?

The innocence that the Word talks about isn’t these things. It isn’t the naivety of childhood, and it isn’t the perfect blamelessness of someone who’s never done evil. In the lesson from Arcana Coelestia we read that we are purified from evil and falsity not when we erase every bad thing we’ve ever done and every false thing we’ve ever thought; we’re purified when we’re able to be held in innocence. And that innocence involves our understanding that we can’t just wash away all our evil. We can’t forget every bad thing we’ve ever thought. We can’t just throw the destroyer into hell. “Innocence,” we read, “consists in acknowledging that nothing but evil resides in oneself and that any good comes in from the Lord, and also in believing that one neither knows nor perceives anything, including the truth of faith, if left to oneself, [but] only with the Lord’s help” (AC §7902). This attitude might strike us as being no help at all, as though it amounts to saying, “I’m evil already, so come right in. Walk all over me, destroyer!” But the truth is the other way around. Innocence is about seeing our evil and our powerlessness, and then saying to the Lord, “come into this space in my heart, because I can’t fill it by myself.” And because innocence drops its defenses and turns to the Lord, evil can’t touch it. The destroyer could not come into a house that had been marked with that sign of innocence. So in a way, our power lies in powerlessness. Our ability to overcome the worst evil lies in the simplest willingness to say that we need the Lord.

Listen to this passage:

Charity devoid of innocence is not charity, and still less can love to the Lord exist without [innocence]. Innocence is therefore an absolutely essential element of love and charity, and consequently of good. A proprium of innocence [that is, innocence that can really be said to belong to us] consists in knowing, acknowledging, and believing, not with the lips but with the heart, that nothing but evil originates in oneself, and everything good in the Lord, and therefore that such a proprium is altogether black …. When a person confesses and believes [this] in his heart, the Lord flows in with good and truth and instills a heavenly proprium into him which is bright and shining. Nobody can possibly be truly humble unless that acknowledgement and belief are present in his heart…. (AC §3994)

This teaching touches on a tension that is at the core of the teachings of the New Church. Innocence is about recognizing that we are black inside, and we need the Lord—and then when we humble ourselves that way the Lord is able to make us bright and shining. In the basic statement of the faith of the New Church we read that we must do good and shun evil, “as if by ourselves, but we must believe that these things are done by the Lord in us and through us” (see TCR §3). When we give everything good to the Lord, then we’re able to do good seemingly on our own. When we take shelter in the simple truth that we need the Lord’s help, we receive the ability to get up, as though in our own power, and go out of slavery to the promised land.

So when we feel trapped in patterns of evil we can’t break, when we feel the destroyer prowling, we can go inward—go into an inner part of our minds, where it’s just us and the Lord, and say in our hearts, and with our prayers, and with our actions, that we want to be servants of the Lord, because He can keep us safe and He is the only thing that can. Innocence isn’t about just saying that we need the Lord. The blood marked on the doorposts represents truth belonging to innocence, but that truth isn’t just words. The truth of innocence is whatever bears witness to a heart that is willing to follow the Lord. If we say we’re willing to follow Him, and then don’t get up and follow Him, that action testifies much more loudly than our words. But if we are willing—if we truly want to be in the shelter of the Lord’s strength—then He knows that. And then hell can’t touch us. The destroyer is all around us, and it passes over us, and evil collapses under its own weight. And then we start the journey towards freedom.

And that is how we gain victory over hell—not by our own strength, but because we become humble enough to take refuge in the strength of God. And the more we are willing to live in that space of innocence, the more entirely safe, and full, and free our lives become. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me…. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps. 23:4-6).

Amen.

 

Readings: Exodus 12:21-32; Arcana Coelestia §7902


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