Repentance - Or, Why Being Nice Is Not Enough

A sermon by Gordon Meyer, May 17, 2015

Texts: Ezekiel 18:30-32; Matthew 3:1-2; Luke 15:8-10; True Christianity 509.


Emanuel Swedenborg told us that repentance is the beginning of the church within us.  He wrote,  "We are all regenerated when we abstain from things that are evil and sinful" (True Christianity, 510-1).

People frequently share with me their concern that no matter how they try, they cannot stop doing evil things.  Not big evils that would, say, attract the attention of law enforcement agencies.  Not things that are so heinous that everyone, even criminals, would recognize their evil nature.  There is no one in this congregation who engages in such behavior.  After all, we're Minnesotans, and Swedenborgian Minnesotans at that.  If we aren't truly good, we are at least nice.

Minnesota nice.  We hear that phrase all the time.  Does it qualify us as regenerated people?  When John the Baptist cried, "Repent!" did he mean become like a Minnesotan?  Probably not.  He had, of course, never heard of Minnesota, and even if he had, even if he was baptizing in the Minnesota River, he wouldn't have meant for us to be Minnesota nice.  Being "nice" doesn't cut it when it comes to repentance. 

How does being nice fall short of repentance?  The simple answer is that it doesn't go deep enough.  People don't understand this if they don't now about the levels of existence.  We have levels within us.  The deepest level is the heaven within that Jesus spoke about to his disciples.  That is where we receive life from the Lord.  That is where the remnants of truth and goodness the Lord implants in us exist.  These remnants are the necessary ingredients in our regeneration.  Unless our repentance reaches through the outer levels and enters into that deepest level, we cannot be regenerated. 

Practically speaking, this is because it is only in that inmost level of our being that we can actually connect with the Lord.  Unless we connect with the Lord, there is no functional change in our understanding of truth or in our will to do good.  These remain secular in our motivations, even though we think they are spiritual. 

Examples are all around us.  People who display their religion in order to attract business or advance their position are one of the most obvious examples.  Some financial advisors say they are "Christian" financial advisors to make themselves appear more respectable and trustworthy, and perhaps imply that if we invest with them, God will help to ensure the profits.   

Some politicians flaunt their religion to get votes.  These folks speak, often with great feeling and a sense of righteousness, of the goodness of God and the need to accept Christ for our salvation.  They speak ardently of the life to come, of eternity and the dangers of hell.  But some of them don't really believe in eternal life, and they don't even really believe in God.  They say these things to become rich and famous and enhance their egos. 

People like this are hypocritical.  The people they appeal to lack understanding because they are also living mostly in their external self.  They are gullible.  They are concerned with saving themselves.  They are also concerned with acquiring the things of this world.  I'm generalizing and oversimplifying, but I'm doing it to make the point.

The fact is that we humans all have some of this hypocrisy within us.  We are all guilty of worrying about our self.  Much of what passes for repentance is fear.  But fear is only in the outer levels of our thinking and feeling.  Fear does not lead us to a union with the Lord.  That union is only approached in one way and that way is repentance.  To repent, we must look inward and examine ourselves. 

Some people believe that declaring themselves sinners in a general sort of way is repentance.  This is a sort of attempted repentance that arises out of fear.  Its result is a general feeling of contrition.  We have heard that all human beings are sinners and that we can't help it.  This is a frightening idea.

The thinking goes something like this.  Since God is omnipotent, he can do anything.  God created me, but because we humans are the way we are, we can't help but do things against God's will.  But since God is loving he will forgive what we do and save us anyway.  All I have to do is believe in God and ask for his forgiveness and I'll be saved, even though I can't stop myself from doing sinful things. 

If we take this idea that we can't help but be sinful because it is the nature of the human being to be selfish, what happens is that we excuse ourselves and stop trying to love our neighbor.  We may pay lip service to being loving and are Minnesota nice to show we are loving, but in reality our real basic goal is to serve our self.  Obviously, this is not what the Lord means by repentance. 

Swedenborg reinforces this by writing "By itself, an oral confession that we are sinners is not repentance."  The problem with oral confessions is that they are just words.  Our minds are such that we can think and say one thing while intending its exact opposite. 

We hear this sort of thing all the time in commercials.  Often the words make no sense, but sound good.

We can apply that same principle to oral confessions stating that generally we recognize that we are sinners, but in reality, we cannot itemize a single sin within us.  Or if we do identify a sin, we quickly justify it and push it out of our awareness.  This is not repentance.

This sounds pretty bleak.  How can anyone repent if we have to recognize all the sins within us and then stop committing them?  We can't.  But, fortunately, we don't need to.  Swedenborg tells us that if we recognize and acknowledge even one sin and then actively resist it because it is a sin against God, this begins our regeneration.  We are acknowledging that we need God's mercy and cannot save ourselves, but also that we must take an active part in our salvation. 

The idea that we are all sinners comes from the idea that Adam and Eve first sinned and because of that all humanity are born sinners.  It's called hereditary evil.  But Swedenborg explains hereditary evil differently.   

He says that we are not born sinners, but with a tendency to sin.  Like our physical and mental traits that are inherited, we also inherit a tendency toward certain behaviors from our parents.  We can see this in our children and grandchildren.

Other tendencies cannot be recognized so easily.  Many traits that lead to sinful behavior are carefully hidden from the public.  Minnesota nice.  It is often difficult to see these in people.  It is not so difficult to find them in our self, if we look honestly.  We can know our self pretty intimately if we are willing to look.  Sometimes we can see evil tendencies in our self and then, upon reflection, realize which parent or grandparent they came from.

Swedenborg points out that we are not held responsible for these inclinations toward sins.  We are only responsible for the ones we choose to exercise.  In other words, the evil tendencies we have within us, some of which never even come to our awareness, are not attributed to us until we condone them in our self, and intend to act on them if and when we can.

He goes on to say some things that can give us hope where all might seem hopeless.  Repentance is possible.  He even tells of an easier way to repent. 

He writes, "Therefore here is an easier kind of repentance: When we are considering doing something evil and are forming an intention to do it, we say to ourselves, 'I am thinking about this and I am intending to do it, but because it is a sin, I am not going to do it'.” (True Christianity 535)

This does not require examination ahead of time.  It does require paying attention to our self in the immediate moment and recognizing that what we are thinking of doing is wrong.  I've tried this and it works.  Sometimes.  What I've noticed is that it depends on whether I truly want to refrain from doing something sinful, or I'd rather go ahead and do it. 

It is not easy to repent.  But it is possible.  The first thing we have to do is want to.  Wanting to begins with understanding why it is better to stop doing sinful things.

Repentance means changing.  We can't stay the way we are and repent.  We have to give up some things we think we love or need.  We won't choose to do this until we understand why it is important.  So the key to repenting is to begin to understand. 

Our conscience is in our understanding.  If our understanding is only from the physical world and not from the truth the Lord implants in us, we will never choose to repent.  We must look within, examine our selves, seek the truth and the truth will make us free to choose the good that comes from repenting.