Divine Providence in Misfortunes
by M. R.
Among the most unusual of all the teachings of the Lord in the Writings is the one about His providence in misfortunes. It is so different from ordinary thought that it is also one of the most difficult for people to understand and accept.
We live in a highly skeptical world - a world which acknowledges the Divine providence, if at all, as existing only in the most universal things; and it is also a world which, if it does not reject altogether the existence of a spiritual world, still and at best has only the most vague ideas about it - so vague that most would utterly fail to comprehend, or if comprehending would reject, all the laws of the association of spirits with men; for all truth about the spiritual world is now confused with what is termed "superstition," or "mysticism."
Before looking at these teachings, we should observe that they are not given in order to mark out a magic formula by which we may save ourselves from misfortunes and natural calamities. If (and I only say "if") a formula for this should exist, it might consist of two requirements, as we shall see: (1) remaining in the sphere of order of our Divinely-provided religious affiliations, natural occupations and civil life: (2) rejecting all sense of merit, that is, refusing to attribute any good to ourselves, and attributing all good to the Lord alone.( SDm 4630)
But, we may reflect, these two requirements are beyond our capacity except in the degree that we are regenerating. So we see that it is no magic formula, the observance of it being limited by our state of life. We can only say that if we were able to fulfill these requirements to some extent, we would be protected from some of the more severe spiritual and/or natural misfortunes.
Let us now look at the teachings on this subject. And, in doing so, we should proceed from the general truth that the Divine providence is in all things, even the most minute. For this at once enables us to believe and to understand that what men call fortune - all the things that happen to them - are really provided or permitted by the Lord.
To this we should add the further truth that those things which are good and happy for us are of the Divine providence. For the Lord in all things wills and intends and works for the natural and eternal happiness of every human being. On the other hand, the misfortunes, calamities, and other bad things which may happen to us are of the Divine permission where human and individual freedom are involved. But the Lord's permission is also of His providence in the sense that He permits misfortunes when our eternal and spiritual welfare can be served in no other way. The misfortunes are not of His will in the supreme sense; but He allows them to happen when He sees that there is no other way to give us the chance to come to our senses, to provide us with the chance or opportunity to turn from evil, and to strive for spiritual and eternal life beyond and above the demands and desires of our natural and temporary life.
It is for this purpose that the Lord permits temporal misfortunes such as wars, shipwrecks, falls, fires, loss of wealth, of occupation, of honor, etc. These misfortunes, permitted by the Lord, do not serve the welfare of the evil. For, if a man thinks about God and asks His aid only at those times, he is not reformed, for afterwards he will return to his former state. (AR 140) And this is from the same reason that it is said that there is no aid in fleeing to prayers only when evils and misfortunes occur. (SD 3678)
But states of misfortune do serve the spiritual welfare of those who have thought about spiritual things formerly and have tried to live according to the Lord's will as they understand it; these may simply need the chastisement of misfortunes for their further meditation and amendment of life. And several passages speak of the use of these. For example, in treating of the seven stages of man, it is said,
Again it is written,
Now we may ask, what are the mechanics, the means by which such misfortunes are brought about? The Writings seem to teach that they are brought about by the presence of evil spirits. If this seems bizarre to us at first glance, it is because we forget that the spiritual world is the primary world of causes, while the natural world in this relationship is the world of effects from the causal spiritual world. All happenings in the natural world must stem from some kind of cause in the spiritual world - beyond the merely natural and immediate causes.
If an earthquake occurs, and many people are killed or injured, much property damaged or destroyed, the merely natural man says it happened only because at that certain area of the earth, the pressure of gases became so high that it finally split the earth's surface in a violent upheaval. But he cannot answer such questions as why some people were killed and others were not, or why those who were injured just happened to be in a certain spot at a certain time. If driven into a corner, he will be forced to say that it happened so just by chance.
But if we place the final cause in the spiritual world, we at once have some degree of a rational explanation. And since the cause is in the spiritual world, regardless of whether or not we can perceive it, it must operate through those who constitute that world.
Regarding the causing of misfortunes through evil spirits, it is written:
From several passages it may be plainly seen that misfortunes especially come about when a state of disorder exists. Thus we are told that the Divine providence operates especially through the ultimate or lowest things of order, (AC 6493) and that the Divine inflows or influences a man most effectively through the Divinely provided, orderly things of his natural life. When a state of life prevails which is contrary to the influx of the Divine, or when a sphere prevails which is contrary to Providence, what is unfortunate happens. (ibid.; SD 4562) In confirmation, we have only to consult the statistics on the number of car accidents which happen to the driver who is in a high state of emotion - anger, grief, even a high state of joy.
Let us go a little further here by asking ourselves, "What are the general, ultimate things of order in our lives through which the Divine especially influences us?"
First, it is obvious from the Writings that every man is provided with some kind and degree of religion, theology and religious affiliation, even the atheist; this is one ultimate of order. Second, there is the natural occupation provided to a man - by chance, birth or training, we often think, but really by Providence. Third, every man is provided with a certain civil society and environment in which he lives - his country and community with their laws of civil order. Fourth, every earthly marriage is of ultimate order provided by the Divine Order. These four will suffice for illustration.
Now if we are to pursue the train of thought here, it must be that when some thought or affection; some event or action comes to a man which takes him out of the ultimates of order, either in his religion, his occupation, civil society or marriage, then it is that misfortunes arise. Then it is that the Lord, unable because of the man's freedom of will and thought, to provide fortunate things, permits unfortunate things brought by malignant spirits who may be associated with a man at such times.
To discuss these four fields of human life in some detail: it may be inferred from this that every man is born into or led to the religion or religious association which will best serve the eternal and temporary needs of his spirit, at least for a time. Further, it may be said that if he is to remain in the direct and protective stream of Providence, it is essential that he remain in that religion, and that he cling to its ultimate things - its worship, its doctrine and the society of others in the same religion.
This does not mean, of course, that a man may not change his religion if he sees what appears to him as a better one. Thus the Mohammedan may see simple Christianity as a better thing than Mohammedanism; a simple Christian may receive the truths of the New Church with much delight. But he does not leave the general field of religion; and so he is still in the stream of Providence.
Yet it seems reasonable to affirm that if we go outside of this general field, we do lose some measure of the protective order which the Lord can provide only through those orderly ultimates, and hence become more subject to those misfortunes which arise in states of disorder.
Now this is not magic. To reduce to the absurd, it does not mean that when we miss church, we can expect an immediate calamity - like Mark Twain's small boy who played hooky from Sunday - school, and then when a storm came up, shook in his boots for fear the Lord would strike him dead with a bolt of lightning! If such were the case, we might be misled into making neat little charts showing comparative figures on the rate of calamities which came to those who missed church on a Sunday compared with those who attended! We could also be misled into the superstitions of primitive peoples such as thinking that a special protection would be ours through touching or seeing holy things - the articles of furniture or worship in the church. We might also begin to think that a mere physical attendance and support of the church, without any attempt to understand or daily live its teachings would automatically ensure immunity from accidents, sicknesses and other catastrophes!
It would seem clear that, in general, adherence so far as possible to the ultimates of order in our lives, in this case, in our life of piety, is one of the means by which misfortunes are lessened. Yet, as we shall see, they are not effective by themselves, needing other elements besides. For it is obvious that people who are quite faithful to the external things of their church life are often just as susceptible to misfortunes as are others.
The same general things may be said in regard to the other fields of a man's life - his occupation, the civil society and surroundings into which he was born, and the marriage to which he has been led.
By themselves, the orderly ultimates of these fields are dead and impotent. In themselves they have no protective power. A man could, and men do, observe all these things without gaining anything from them. For if, as with the evil or man before regeneration, he does them solely for the sake of himself, for the sake of reputation or honor or wealth, or for protection from misfortune, then they have no life in them. The Lord cannot breathe into these representative human forms of action the breath of spiritual lives.
Misfortunes, indeed, occur both to those who live in order and to those who live in external disorder. The Lord causeth His sun to shine upon the just and the unjust; and He sendeth His rain upon the good and upon the evil.
What, then, is the element which must be added to a man's observance of external order, so that he may have some measure of the protection we have been talking about?
In order to answer that question fully, we must first define that element, and then notice a distinction which the Writings make between natural misfortunes, which they call "common misfortunes," and spiritual misfortunes.
The missing element is described in several different ways, all of them meaning essentially the same thing, To quote the passages in brief: "No disasters or fortuitous evils can happen to a man who is with the Lord." (SD 4138) "But if they (the faithful) were not such as to attribute good to themselves, they would often be excepted from common misfortune." (SDm 4630)
As to the first of these, it may be reflected that the Lord is always with us, but we are not always with the Lord. To be "with the Lord" means to have Him as the constant goal of our attention, even when engaged in our daily occupation and civil pursuits, and not consciously thinking of Him. We are with the Lord when we think from use, from obedience to His laws, and from love to the neighbor in our faithful observance of the ultimates of order. This state is not constant with us until regeneration is complete. However, it is quite evidently that element or state which gives the orderly ultimates of life the life and power to protect a man from misfortune in some degree.
In extension, the second passage speaks of "the faithful." It is they who can be excepted or protected often from common misfortunes, but only if they do not attribute good to themselves. And, as a corollary we can add the teaching, only if they do not ascribe evil to themselves, but to the hells from whence evils flow. It seems plain that by "the faithful" are meant those who are faithful to their religion, in their occupations and, in general, in the normal functions and responsibilities of life. And here again we may see that this faithfulness is not enough by itself; for the faithful must also not attribute good to themselves. Otherwise they will be afflicted just as much as the ungodly and foolish. To infill this, we should here take note of the whole passage:
It would seem from this that we cannot assume that a great number of misfortunes is any sign of goodness or of evil!
The real condition here is that man must not attribute good to himself, but to the Lord alone. This makes his faithfulness alive and effective. And we can see why this may often except him from common misfortune if we compare it with the second stage of regeneration. This second stage, we may recall, is when a person begins to make a distinction between
things which are of the Lord and those which are proper to himself. And since this state rarely comes about except by temptation, misfortune or sorrow, (AC 8) it is obvious that until it is attained, such calamities will not lessen or decrease - this in order that the things of the body and the world may be brought into quiescence.
We should notice here that it is not said that temptations will be removed or lessened by this. Temptations are spiritual misfortunes, and are necessary to people throughout their natural lives. It only says that common (i.e. natural) misfortunes may be lessened as to their number and degree. Nor is it said that they will cease altogether, for it is quite apparent that it takes a lifetime of endeavor before we entirely ascribe all good to the Lord and none to ourselves.
As an interesting side-light, it is known that people have experienced premonitions of disaster, and so have escaped it. At rare times, this can come about without the person sensing any least signs which might have telegraphed through the subconscious. It would seem that something has occurred to change the state, and therefore the misfortune which was about to be permitted for the sake of his spiritual life is no longer necessary. It may well be that it has been averted, by suddenly being made aware, even though dimly and without sight of the spirits, of something of their sphere and machinations.
For example: something looks or feels definitely wrong, or even evil, in the surroundings through which we are driving - though we cannot by any means put our finger on it, and say that it is this or that thing, or even a combination of things. There are no other cars in sight, no pedestrians, no clouds or lightning, no gaps in the pavement, no ice or snow on the road, etc. Yet we unconsciously let up on the accelerator as we approach the brow of a hill, when normally we would maintain our speed, even though carefully staying on our side of the road. And then, just over the crown of the hill, not more than 50 feet ahead, there is a car stalled in the middle of the road, and we are able to stop or avoid it only because of our unusually slow speed.
Most people would say that it is all due to natural causes and/or mere chance. But this is begging the question, and is not really any answer. And, of course, if we allowed this condition to become extreme to the point of having no trust whatsoever in the operations of Providence, we would see danger in every foot of the road, and would never go over the top of the hill!
It should be remarked that these same things in regard to fortune and misfortune apply to groups as well as to individuals. This, we take it, is why it is taught that the quality of a nation, and thence even its moral and civil welfare, depends upon its idea and worship of God. It has protection from misfortune, possibly even from extinction, solely in proportion to the faithfulness of its citizens to its functions and to the worship and love of God. To the extent that a country's citizens are faithful and "'with the Lord," and believe that all good is from Him, then to that extent, even though calamities may come, it will be protected from final extinction and, in general, things will go well with it; if not, things will go badly.
The same is the case with any church or religious body.
And we might pause here to reflect upon how true this is of the New Church also, to perceive once more the special gravity which is involved in our own membership in any body devoted to her establishment.
It was due to a particular set of circumstances that each of us was led to those gates of the New Jerusalem which are the Writings. In the Divine providence of the Lord, we have become associated with this Church. And so it is given us to cooperate with the Lord to the end that His specific Church may be established. We can never lose the mark which that Providence has put in our foreheads. We can never escape or forget the deeply affecting truths which have been brought to us as precious gifts of heaven. Nor can we even if we would, entirely stamp out the spark of love with which we approached her gates. And some conscience as to loyalty and fidelity in her ultimates of order, in her worship and instruction, will always remain with us - a conscience which will gall us in our unregenerate states when we fail of our duty.
To return to the individual in relation to misfortunes, we might ask the question, "Of what use are these to man?"
Well, it seems clear that if his spiritual sun, the center of his attention, is not the Lord, but only himself and the world, then the uses of misfortunes to him can only be negative ones. That is, by disaster he will only be forced into external order merely for the sake of health or wealth or reputation or livelihood. His will remains the same; and there will be no spiritual life or quality within his external order.
But if, in general, his primitive intentions have something of remaining good in them, then deprivations and accidents can serve to lead him to make rational judgments, to reflect upon the lessons conveyed through them. They can subdue his natural man, can humble, humiliate him to the point where he may exclaim in anguish, "I am a worm, and not a man," and this to the point where, if he is a true Christian, he will begin to acknowledge with his heart, not just with his lips, that all good and truth are indeed from the Lord.
The final end in view is that by these humiliations through misfortune, man may see the Divine providence in all things, and derive from all the events and circumstances of his life the spiritual goods and truths, the hidden lessons of eternal life which the Lord strives to impart to him as the true blessings.
As this happens with a man, so he may come to perceive in ever greater light that natural things in themselves are neither blessings nor curses, that wealth is not a blessing in itself, nor poverty a curse in itself, that there is no essential distinction between the circumstances of one man's natural life and another's, that one occupation is no more delightful than another - in relation to eternal life.
What makes natural things, whether fortunate or unfortunate, either spiritual blessings or spiritual curses, is man's own attitude toward them. If he possesses wealth, then he will experience some of the vicissitudes and misfortunes associated with that condition, also the temptations thereof. It will become a curse to him if his delight in it is solely on account of himself and his own - because of what it gives him in power, comfort, luxury, natural pleasure, security; for soon or late, his delight in it for these reasons is turned into boredom and undelight, and in the spiritual world, into insanity. But if his delight in wealth is on account of its use to the neighbor, on account of the way in which it increases his own usefulness to society and the Lord's kingdom thereby, then it becomes a blessing, and an eternal blessing in the other life.
And so it is likewise with poverty. If a man's distaste and despair in it are solely on his own account, because of the discomfort, inconvenience and narrowness of life which he suffers, then it can become an eternal curse and burden to him. But if a person's bad feelings over poverty are on account of his use to society and because he wants to provide for his family as well as himself, because he wishes to be of wider use to society - then the poverty may become a blessing in disguise, spurring him to greater enlightenment and effort, and so bringing him into wider usefulness which he desires, and even diminishing his impoverished condition.
It can be said that whether we like it or not, the Lord leads us toward the choice of either a mere resignation or a real contentment with His dispensations. He does so both by good things and by permitted misfortunes. And it depends upon us as to whether we will merely become superficially resigned while remaining inwardly rebellious from the loves of self and the world, or we will come into a living contentment without and within with His dispensations.
New Church Life 1978;98:468-476