by Rev. Thomas L. Kline
How do you feel about yourself? Do you feel you are worthwhile? Can you feel what the world calls "o.k." about yourself? Do you feel o.k. about others? What about our children's sense of self-worth? Should we strive to help our children feel good about themselves, or is this catering to their innate selfish loves? Above all, should we even be concerned about these things? In the light of the teachings of the Writings, should we be concerned about our self-esteem, our self-image? Is it spiritually healthy or selfish for us to think about these things?
What do the Writings teach about self, about feelings of self-life and self-esteem? When we go to the Writings in search of teachings on self esteem, we have a problem - not that they are vague or mute on this subject, but because of the overabundance of teachings on this subject of "self."
"Self' is a key concept throughout the Writings, a concept that sometimes is so broad in scope that we can have difficulties understanding the true teachings. Sometimes the teachings in the Writings approach the subject from such different angles that they almost seem to contradict themselves.
Think of some of these teachings. The Writings call our feelings of self-life the proprium. We find teachings about the proprium, such as "...man regarded in his proprium is nothing but a beast," or, "...the proprium of man is nothing but evil" (AC 714 and 597:3). And yet the Writings also speak about heavenly proprium that is a gift from the Lord (AC 1947:2).
The Writings talk a great deal about man's proprium, and yet they also teach that only the Lord has a proprium; only the Lord is a source of life in Himself (AC 149:2). We receive life from the Lord and only feel as if it is from ourselves. Our proprium, our feeling of self-life, is just an appearance. Another teaching of the Writings is that we are to shun all selfish loves as sins against the Lord. Yet in other places in the Writings it is taught that the Lord actually instills into our minds the knowledge that all love begins from self, and that knowledge is a positive step in regeneration (AC 3701:2). In fact, the Writings talk of oneself as a neighbor to be served (AC 6934).
The Writings teach us to shun worldly honor, reputation, and gain, but they also speak positively of mediate states of self-reward and merit. They say the Lord often allows us to feel merit in the things we do (AC 4145:2). These are states of mediate good - times when innocence can clothe and protect us from fully seeing our selfish states. Sometimes selfish states can be stepping stones toward regeneration.
The Writings also teach us about humility. They say that in the loathing of self, and thus in the absence from self, man is then in a state capable of receiving the Divine from the Lord (AC 3994). Yet we are also taught that this life is not to be one of sorrow (HH 528).
Finally, the Writings present us with a paradox concerning self-life. They say, the more man is conjoined with the Lord, the more distinctly does he seem to himself as if he were his own (DP 42). The closer we get to the Lord the more do we feel our life as our own. The Lord spoke these same words in the times of the New Testament when He said, "Whosoever will save his life will lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for My sake shall find it" (Matt. 16:25).
What are we to think about feelings of self-life? We need a simple, concise picture of who and what we really are, a picture of who we really are in the Lord's sight. We need a mental model that we can use in our day-to-day life.
We find such a model of our self-life in the second chapter of the Gospel of John, in the story of the miracle of the Lord turning the water into wine. There was a marriage feast in Cana of Galilee. Jesus and His disciples were at that marriage. Mary, the mother of the Lord, came and told Jesus that there was no more wine. In that same room were six water pots made of stone. We are told that these water pots were there "after the manner of the purification of the Jews." The Jews had a ritual of cleansing their hands and feet when they came into a house. Jesus told the servants to fill those water pots with water, draw it out, and give it to the governor of the feast. Then the miracle took place; when that water had been drawn out it had been miraculously turned into wine. This was the first miracle performed by the Lord when He was upon the earth.
Six water pots made of stone - this is the key. Six vessels waiting to be filled with water by the servants - vessels waiting for the miracle of new life from the Lord. This is the clear, simple, Divinely revealed picture of our true self-life. This is the spiritual model that we can use to know who and what we are. You are a vessel receptive of life. Your proprium - your self-life - is just a vessel. It's like a stone water pot in the house of the marriage feast. In the truest sense your proprium is not evil, nor is it good. Your proprium is just a vessel.
The Writings do say that we are totally evil apart from the Lord. But they qualify this by adding that we are filled with hereditary inclinations toward evil (TCR 521). These tendencies are a selfish source of life that we have to shun, but they are not ours. The Lord never imputes these hereditary tendencies to us.
Your true being is first just a vessel waiting to receive life from the Lord, a choice mechanism. You can become evil, or you can become good, depending upon how you eventually decide to fill up that vessel. But strictly speaking, you are still just a vessel, receptive of life. That is your true self; that is your proprium; and that is the self-image that the Lord wants you to see.
Let's just try our question again. How do you feel about yourself? You can answer from these teachings, "Well, it depends on what I'm receiving at the moment, whether it is coming from heaven or hell."
But better questions, more suited to the teachings of the New Church, are these: Do you fully realize who and what you are in the Lord's sight? Do you fully realize the heavenly potential for which the Lord has created you? Do you fully realize and feel what it is to be a vessel created with the potential of receiving life from the Lord Himself? Let that be your self-image.
Think of that picture of a stone vessel waiting to receive something. It translates spiritually into the words "unlimited potential." That's what a stone vessel means, because forever it can receive more and more life from the Lord. It is unlimited - a vessel able to receive life eventually from the Infinite Itself. As we will see, it is a self-image, a kind of self esteem that's not selfish. It's a kind of self-image that finally enables us to bow down before the Lord in humility, and finally give our lives over to Him.
The vessel at the marriage feast was formed of stone. Stone corresponds to truth from the Word. We have to form our self-image from the truths of the Word. What are the truths that form a picture of who we are before the Lord? What truths form a solid vessel that potentially can receive life from the Lord? They are powerful truths.
Take for example the concept: The Lord loves you. This is a foremost truth. This one truth, taught throughout the Word, is going to enable you to get through a lot of temptations. The Lord loves you.
Second, the teaching: The Lord created you for a purpose. Your life is not an accident; it has a definite purpose. See the vessel that's being formed; see that the Lord calls you. The Lord says in the New Testament, "You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you" (John 15:16).
Third: You are worthy. In the Lord's sight, you are worthy of performing heavenly uses - worthiness not for self-love, but for going out and serving others.
The big teaching: Nothing is impossible. That's what the Lord said. Nothing is impossible in your life.
Another teaching: You are needed by the Lord. The Lord needs you in His heavenly kingdom. You are essential for the perfection of the Lord's heavenly kingdom.
The list can go on and on. Notice the quality of these truths. Notice how they form a vessel. These truths are not selfish. They don't lead to states of pride and self-aggrandizement, but they are truths that open our minds to possibilities - possibilities of loving the Lord and serving the neighbor. We could call them "bowing-down truths" or "vessel truths." From them, we come to see ourselves as a vessel waiting to begin the great task of putting away selfish loves and to receive the miracle of new life. These vessels, if they are solidly formed, can receive the water that we need to cleanse ourselves - waters of repentance. And with that cleansing, the miracle can take place: we can receive new life from the Lord. First, the stone vessel, then the waters of repentance, and finally, new life.
That stone vessel, knowledges from the Word that show us a true self-image, is gradually formed in our minds from our earliest childhood onward. Picture little children reading the Word, learning of the Lord's love, learning the life of use, or little children feeling their parents' love, playing and interacting with peers. A stone vessel is perfected gradually in each one's life. And it can become beautiful and healthy, so that in adulthood, when we need to use it, it can be filled with the waters for spiritual cleansing, and then turned into wine.
We have to be so careful with our little children that they form their self-image from the Word, not from the world. They need to feel they are worthy in the Lord's sight, that they are worthy to serve Him.
A self-image based upon the truths of the Word - it is so beautiful that the hells will do everything they can to destroy it. As we said, that stone vessel is formed gradually; it is formed from infancy onward. The hells are there to damage that vessel, to make it misshapen, to put cracks in it, to give it soft spots, to make it unable to hold the purifying waters of repentance. They want to make us incapable of beginning the path of regeneration.
We had that beautiful list of powerful truths that formed that stone vessel. But there is another list - another list not so beautiful - a list that is, in fact, hellish. There is another list of subtle falsities that the hells instill into our minds from earliest childhood, that can ruin that Divine self-image, that can destroy our vessel. We all know that second list. It comes from many sources. Often it comes from those who love us the most or have the greatest influence over us. The list stays with us. We have all been hurt by that second list.
This list sometimes comes from parents, teachers, peers, and later on in life it comes directly from the hells. Here are some examples of that second list:
The list goes on and on. We all have our own lists of hurts, negative statements, subtle half-truths or outright falsities that we have accepted and we have believed - falsities that we have built our lives upon. They form a vessel that's closed off, a vessel hesitant, cracked, lying on its side, a vessel that's hurt and wounded. The hells will do anything they can to prevent us from going on that journey of regeneration. They will give us such a self-image that we sometimes cannot even begin that journey. Picture a person hurting so much that he can't even shun evils as sins against God. Picture a vessel that no longer can hold the purifying waters of healthy repentance.
The Writings tell us that no one is reformed in unhealthy mental states. These states take away freedom and rationality, and these are states of melancholy, they say - a spurious conscience, grief of the mind, natural anxieties or a sick mind (DP 141). And until these states pass we cannot make spiritual progress. The miracle can't take place. The Lord puts in the purifying water, and we can't use it.
What is your self-image? It is indeed an important question. It's an essential question for the church. And when we ask this question we do not ask it to appeal to selfishness and self-pride, but we ask it simply that we can be servants of the Lord. We ask it so that we can begin to see ourselves as the Lord sees us, as we really are. That's the point - see the truth of who you are, both the good and the bad. Realize both, so that you can stop believing the falsities about yourself and see the truth as the Lord sees it.
With a vision built upon a solid foundation of truth from the Word, we can be on with our journey. With a vision from the Word of our self-image, we can be strong enough to begin to fight against the hells. Then, with the Lord's help we can be cleansed. We can use the water pots for their intended purposes. With that vision, then we can finally feel worthy of inviting the Lord to be with us on that journey. With that vision we can finally have the strength to lay down our self-conscious lives and use our life vessels to receive true life from the Lord.
Next month we will continue our discussion of the story of the wedding feast and see the new wine that is formed as the result of the Lord's miracle. We will see what it is to feel the Lord's life as our own.
Last month we began to speak of self esteem. We concentrated on the story of the wedding feast at Cana, the miracle of changing water into wine. Here we saw the key to understanding our self-life. It was the simple, stone water pot that was used for cleansing in the house of the marriage feast, a vessel waiting to be filled with water. We saw that this was a picture of our self-life, what the Writings call our proprium. The Writings tell us that our life can be compared to a vessel (see SD 2470, 3759). The question of who we are, or what we are to become, is simply the question of what we are going to fill that vessel with - whether we fill it with life from the Lord or with life from the hells. This month we will speak about filling that vessel with life from the Lord.
The Lord and His disciples were at a wedding feast where the wine had run out. Jesus came to the servants of the house and gave them a simple command. He told the servants to take the stone vessels that were in the house and fill them up with water. Just think how strange this command must have seemed to those servants. Here they had run out of wine and yet the Lord told them to fill up the cleansing vessels with water. The servants probably wondered to themselves, just what does this have to do with running out of wine? Were they supposed to wash themselves? Little did they know about the miracle that was about to take place.
The same story is often true in our lives. Spiritually, wine pictures the truth and joys of heaven. Often we find ourselves lacking that spiritual wine. We feel that a sense of heavenly fulfillment is missing from our lives. The wedding feast has been cut short. Sometimes we can feel that our lives are nearing spiritual death. And what does the Lord command us to do when we come into these states? He commands us to do something that at first appears strange. When we run out of heavenly joy the Lord commands us to go and cleanse ourselves, to fill our vessels of self-life with the waters of repentance. He commands us to cleanse ourselves by shunning evils as sins against Him. If we as the servants of the household don't know about the miracle that's about to take place, this can seem like a strange command. Why does the Lord want us to cleanse ourselves when what we really want is the joy of heaven?
We come into states in our lives where we are unhappy and unfulfilled, and Jesus says to us, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 4:17). Sometimes we can't understand this command, but then comes the miracle, a miracle we have to trust will take place.
As the servants drew the water, it was wine - the best wine. This teaching is central to the church. As we shun evils, putting away our exterior conscious evils, the Lord is secretly cleansing our interior life. In place of our old hereditary will He is implanting a new will, a new life of heavenly joy, the wine of the marriage feast.
Wine pictures truth from good, new truth in our life that comes from the new will that the Lord has given us. Think what a beautiful miracle that is, to fill up the vessel of our self-life with new wine - to receive the Lord's life as our own. Suddenly we have something heavenly in that vessel, the joy of regeneration. We know that the Lord is present with us when the vessel is filled up. We feel the heavens opening. We feel love and kindness toward the neighbor. We feel good. And yet it's not our own good. It is the Lord's good, and we feel it as our own.
Or do we? Can we really feel all these things as our own? Can we really feel the Lord's love when we regenerate? Can we feel that new life, that miracle wine, and know about it while we are still on this earth? Can we feel and taste the joys of regeneration?
At first this seems to be a silly question. We want to answer to ourselves, "Of course we feel those things as we regenerate, because what would be the use of having this miracle take place if we couldn't feel its effects in our life. Why have the miracle if it is hidden from our sight?" Yet, in the light of the Writings, this is a serious question.
We read the following teaching from the work Heaven and Hell. "Whenever man looks to himself in the good that he does he is let into what is his own, that is, into his inherited evils; for he then looks from good to himself and from himself to good, and therefore he presents an image of himself in his good, and not an image of the Divine" (no. 558). Here is a passage that seems to say that whenever we are led to consider the good that is in us, suddenly our inherited evils rise and take over. The passage goes on to explain why this is the case. It speaks of evil spirits that love nothing more than to flatter us and to give us pride and self-praise. It we start feeling good about what we think is the Lord's good, how do we really know it's from the Lord? It may be the hells flattering us. Can we ever know that the miracle has taken place?
The Lord, when He was in the world, taught us: "Judge not that ye be not judged" (Matt. 7:1). And in explanation of this the Writings say that no one is allowed to judge the spiritual quality of another person, for the Lord alone can see that spiritual quality (see CL 523). To what extent does this teaching apply to judging our own states? Can we judge our own spiritual states? Maybe those heavenly, good states that we feel are really not so good. Maybe they should be shunned. Maybe the hells are tempting us again.
We read teachings such as these, and we can become hesitant about the process of regeneration. We can start feeling good in a certain area of our life, and then there is that nagging question: Are these new good feelings states of genuine life from the Lord to be nurtured and enjoyed, or are they the love of self creeping up from the hells again in self-flattery? Often we are tempted to take the apparently safe road and say, "Well, it must be the hells again," and shun them.
We come to questions in our life such as this: "Is the new joy I felt in my marriage today from the Lord or is it the hells tripping me up again?" "Did I walk the extra mile to serve my neighbor out of heavenly love from a new will?" We ask, "Are the hells putting me on a spiritual ego trip, letting me imagine that I am making progress when I am really going downward toward hell?" Soon we become hesitant about the church. We become hesitant about the Lord's power to save us.
Imagine knocking on someone's door to tell them about the Lord's church, that the Lord has made His second coming. We tell them about the church and then add: "But there is just one thing about this church: these doctrines really aren't going to change your life, at least as far as you can tell. The minute you start feeling good or seeing changes in your life, you had better shun them because they might be from the hells." Why would anyone join a church where the very people in that church can't testify that that church has affected their lives?
Are we just to repent just to keep filling those water pots with the cleansing water, and hope and trust that somehow, unknown to us, the Lord might be doing His part? Is that our destiny in the church?
The Writings do teach that the hells often flatter us, and that we can't totally judge our spiritual state. We can never be certain about where we are. But this is not all the Writings teach. This is just part of the picture, and we need to see the whole picture. There is nothing that the hells want more than for us to take just part of the truth and to base our lives on that. There is nothing the hells want more for us to believe than the distorted truth that whenever we feel goodness from the Lord we need to shun it because it's really from hell. What better way to shut off the possibility of salvation; what better way to keep the Lord's presence out of our lives forever? Picture a person waking up in the next life and still rejecting heaven because he believes it's from the hells!
What else do the Writings teach about our ability to feel and know the Lord's presence working with us? Consider these other teachings that balance the picture: One passage in the Writings begins with these words: "...man knows nothing of how he is being regenerated, and scarcely that he is being regenerated. But if he is desirous to know..." and then the passage goes on listing certain positive signs that he can look for to see that the Lord is working with him (see AC 3570:2). Another passage begins with the words: "A man can know among whom he is, whether among the infernal or among the angelic" (AC 1680). Again we are given certain positive signs that we are with the heavens. And finally, another passage: "Nothing is more necessary to man than to know whether heaven be in him, or hell" (AC 7181). And here we are given positive signs that we are to look for to know that the Lord is present with us.
What are these positive signs? From the Writings we read: "...the man who intends good to his neighbor, and thinks nothing but good respecting him, and actually does it when he can, is among angelic spirits, and also becomes an angel in the other life. This is the distinctive characteristic. Let everyone examine himself by this in order to learn what he is" (AC 1680). And we read further: "When a man feels or perceives in himself that he has good thoughts concerning the Lord, and that he has good thoughts concerning the neighbor, and desires to perform kind offices for him, not for the sake of any gain or honor for himself; and when he feels that he has pity for anyone who is in trouble, and still more for one who is in error in respect to the doctrine of faith, then he may know that he dwells in the tents of Shem, that is, that he has internal things in him through which the Lord is working" (AC 1102).
Can we know that the Lord is working in us? Can we know the difference between evil spirits' flattery and the Lord's presence? Can we see the miracle taking place - the new wine? "Yes" is the answer from the Writings. In fact, the Writings say that we must - it is necessary for us to know, for unless we know that the miracle is taking place, it is of little use in our lives.
We can't make spiritual judgments about ourselves. We can't say that we are already completely, positively reborn. We can never make that judgment. That was the message of those first two passages that we read. We can't make that judgment. As the Writings say: "...there is no definite period of time within which man's regeneration is completed, so that he can say, `I am now perfect'" (AC 894). But again, we can, and the Writings say that we even should, see certain signs that the Lord's presence is working in our lives. If we don't see the signs, we had better get busy and start working with the Lord.
And the key to knowing the difference between spirit flattery and the Lord's presence is that we don't point to ourselves as the source of goodness. But we will point to the Lord as the source of progress. When we feel that goodness, we will testify not of man but of God.
At the beginning of the first article we said that the Lord's miracle of turning water into wine was the first miracle. It thus pictures all other miracles done by the Lord. The heavenly marriage of good and truth (the new wine) is a spiritual picture of the miracle of healing the blind, the lame, the raising of the dead, the casting out of demons. They are all the miracle of new wine. And whenever the Lord healed a man, woman or child in the miracles of the New Testament there is a response from the person who was healed, a simple innocent testimony. Take for example the story of the man who was born blind. The Lord healed the blind man and then the Pharisees came to that man and argued with him, telling him that Jesus really didn't heal him of his blindness. And the man gave a response to the Pharisees, just a simple statement of fact: "One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see" (John 9:25). It was a simple testimony of the power of the Lord in his life. The man didn't point to himself - he wasn't flattering himself - he was just pointing out the reality of what the Lord had done in his life.
Or consider the story of the man who had been possessed by the devils. Jesus commanded those devils to flee into the herd of swine. Afterwards it says that the man came seeking Jesus when Jesus was in the boat, and the Lord spoke these words to him: "Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion upon thee" (Mark 5:19). He was to speak not of the things that he had done, but the things that the Lord had done for him. It was not to be self-flattery, but a testimony of God.
At the outset we asked the question, how do you feel about yourself? And now we can ask the final question: How do you feel about the Lord's presence in your life? This is the important question, for His presence is going to be your level of self esteem and self worth. Don't look for your own goodness, nor your own self-worth; look for the Lord's presence in you. The Lord's presence is your heavenly self. When you lay down your own self-life, and give your fife to the Lord, you receive true life from Him.
As your life progresses you will see signs of progress. If you don't, you should seek this miracle, and pray to the Lord for help. As you make progress you will see your loves change for the better. As each thread of your hereditary self-life is pulled out by the Lord and a new thread of genuine life from Him is put in its place, you will feel a change in your very being. You will see the miracle of new wine taking place. Enjoy these states from heaven, because they are the Lord with you. And testify of the power of the Lord in your life. Don't hesitate to know the Lord and speak of His power to others. Testify of His presence in your life as the simple people did in the New Testament. Spread the gospel, the good news that His church can change your life. Tell the message to others: "The Lord Jesus Christ reigns." Let these words of the blind man echo in your life: "One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see." Obey the words of the Lord to the man who was possessed: "Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee."
-New Church Life 1983;102:419-423, 461-466