The Doctrine of Permissions
3. Disease and accidents
by Rev. Peter. M. Buss
Even in the church the feeling has been expressed that a man, say a young man, has died because it "was his time to go." One cannot escape the conclusion from this that the Lord, who willed him to go at that time, then, must also have chosen a sad way for him to leave, because a young man in the vigor of his life will not just drop dead! The Lord permits him to leave the earth, as one unwilling, and then provides for his uninterrupted, eternal welfare, as well as for that of his loved ones on earth. Thus the Lord is in no sense the origin of the evil which caused the death; His operation has been to provide only good, and to permit that evil wherein He can provide good, because evil must be permitted.
Such a view seems the logical one from all the teachings which have been presented. The Lord provides good only, and so cannot be thought to have had a hand, even indirectly, in circumstances which are evil. He had no hand in causing an accident so that someone who is "needed in the other life" can be brought, perhaps in pain, to the end of earthly life. He in no way causes the very real loss to wife and family which results; and we, who see the exalted uses of the home, can hardly call this loss merely natural! He permits, and never ceases to provide good.
A final point: perhaps we ought to see that evil consequences which men bring upon themselves through an evil love are sometimes permitted directly for a purpose. Of them it may correctly be said: That happened so that good could result. Again the Lord does not provide any but good things; but it is reasonable to assume that He permits a man to suffer the consequences of his own evils - to be caught out, or to bring ill-health upon himself - in order that he may recognize his state. This is in accord with the general teaching that the Lord permits evil to appear, for otherwise it would consume the man from within.( See DP 251, et al.) When the evil comes out, however, especially when it results in the loss of some earthly delight, then the man's mind is directed toward it, and he can see it for what it is and be moved by the Lord from within to repent. This is a use of natural temptations. (See AC 8, 268, 762, 2284, 3147, et al)
We come now to three more questions for the answers to which the laws of how the Lord governs in permissions were necessary. There is no doubt that when a man falls ill, or when he suffers from some infirmity, perhaps from birth, he wonders why the Lord let it happen to him. This is in accord with the tendency of the natural man to seek the simplest of cause-effect relationships. Either the sickness is a punishment from the Lord, or else it has a direct and visible purpose of good which
forced the Lord to visit it upon us. Such thought was certainly common among the Jews, for it is recorded that when the Lord and His disciples saw a man who had been blind from his birth, "His disciples asked Him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither bath this man sinned, nor his parents." (John 9: 2, 3) Disease is not from the Lord. It is not of His will but of His permission. For us to see, then, why it must be permitted, we must go right back to the beginning, to the time when there was no such thing as sickness, and see the origin of diseases in the abuse of man's freedom.
Out of the story of the fall grew the belief that the first man would never have suffered death, but would have lived forever. This is from the Lord's warning to the man, when He said: "Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." (Genesis 2: 17) When the man did eat of it, then he was first forbidden to eat of the tree of life, lest, having sinned, he should "live forever" (Genesis 3:22); and for this reason he was cast out of the Garden of Eden. The penalty of the original sin, then, was that man was doomed to suffer disease and death.
Strangely, the Writings seem at first to agree with this thought. "It is known in the church that the death of man is from evils, or on account of sins; and it is the same with diseases, for these belong to death." (AC 5712) "Death is from no other source than sin." (AC 5726, 8364) The context, however, especially of the second passage cited, renders a different understanding.
Death from pain, disease and murder was unknown in the Most Ancient Church, before the fall of man. Of course a man died, and went into the other world, but his transition was such a natural one that it was not thought of as death. Without evil, we are told,
A beautiful description depriving death of all its unpleasantness and horror and presenting the order which is of the Divine will. Even today, such a transition is general elsewhere in the universe: the people of Jupiter, who are as the men of the Most Ancient Church, do not die by disease. (See AC 8850. Cf. SD 623)
When men chose evil, however, death as we know it arose (and we would reflect that even death in old age today is not the painless, gentle passing from one world to another described above). The cause of disease lies in two things. First, there is a correspondence of all things in the spiritual world with things in the natural. The beginning of evil meant, therefore, that there was an influx of infernal life into the natural world and its phenomena which endeavored to bring about physical insanities representative of hell. The destructive force which had perverted Divine order in the mental realm sought to wreak its will on earth.
Now the ills which beset the mind correspond to physical disorders, but it does not seem that correspondence is enough to produce an evil "creation" on earth without some ultimate invitation through man on earth. The second, and more lowly, cause was that man's choice of evil affected his body. His spirit closed itself to the influx from heaven, and so also the "very smallest and most invisible vessels" (AC 5726. Cf. SD 4592) of the body were closed, forming an obstruction to the general influx of the heavens, and a certain vitiation of the blood. Thus the body became susceptible to the influx of hell. Finally, an evil man lives a life that is disorderly and brings about irregular conditions in his body. This enabled the influx from hell to create perverted forms - germs - which could thrive in the physical states of disorder. Thus disease arose." (AC 5712, 5715; SD 2439; AC 8364)
Once in the natural world, life forms thus perverted which carried disease were kept alive themselves by the influx of hell, and were able to inflow into the bodies of men apart from those men's spiritual states. This is important. Were we without hereditary evil, our entire beings would reject evil, and with it disease. (See AC 5726) But we are in the tendency to certain evils, which obstruct the general influx of heaven; therefore we catch sicknesses from germs by natural causes. (See AC 5713) We must not think, then, that because diseases correspond to spiritual evils it means that when a man gets chicken pox it is because he is in a certain spiritual evil! His sickness is not the result of his state necessarily, but because of the general state of the world, which enables the hells to keep these germs alive. In summary, then, diseases correspond to and originate from hell (a number of specific diseases and their spiritual correspondents are mentioned in Arcana Coelestia, nos. 5715-5725). The disorders in the body and in physical behavior enable them to ferment; and now they spread by natural means. The evil spirits with a man are not allowed to inflow into the "solid parts of the body, or into the parts of which man's viscera, organs and members consist," (AC 5713) to cause disease as a direct cause of his evil. When he contracts a disease, however, evil spirits can inflow and aggravate the disorder, especially if he is in a love which corresponds to the disease! (See AC 5713, 5715) Thus it is not unreasonable to suppose that such a disease as cancer flourishes because the form of hypocrisy to which it corresponds is rampant in the hearts of men.
All this is a preamble to our main concern - the cause of the permission of disease. It makes clear that the hand of the Lord in such disorders is, once again, in accord with the laws of the Divine Providence. It is essential that there be freedom, and man's abuse of that freedom brings about disorder in the natural universe. Disease comes from man's attempt to destroy the order into which the Lord brings him, and whereas from omnipotence technically He could prevent it, to do so would be contrary to the Divine wisdom, which provides for man the path to heaven.
The existence of disease and its train of misery underlines once again the point made earlier, that the evil which we do affects others who do not deserve the suffering which they thereby experience. That is why evil is evil: because it brings unnecessary, undeserved misery.
Sickness today is so prevalent that no one is going to avoid its effects, at least to a degree. While we can believe that the Lord did not bring about disease, and know for a certainty that His Divine proceeding always works toward the elimination of all its forms, both natural and spiritual: while we accept these truths, we can know that He will make good use of even such disorderly states.
There is, in truth a peculiarly important use of states of mind which result out of sickness, misfortune and accidents. As this use is unfolded, it may appear once again that the Lord brings on the sickness so that He can accomplish these aims. We should not think thus: in a world in which there was no disease the Lord could accomplish these aims far more effectively, with no pain at all.
The use of disease comes from the fact that it halts a man's mental life, for a space of time. The pull of this world is very strong, and men who fall into its gyre often have difficulty in breaking away from its apparent necessities and turning their minds to more eternal concerns. Also, a man who falls prey to a specific evil so comes under its spell that he cannot turn his mind from it; it becomes a habit to think of this thing whenever he has the opportunity and the strength. He is caught up in the evil, a slave to its satanic instigators.
Then a man gets sick, and finds that he cannot enjoy the things of the world or practice his evil. His life is broken up, his delights temporarily suspended, productive for the moment of no joy. (See AC 8, 268, 762, 3147, 5127, 5353, 8651) Then the Divine Providence of the Lord goes to work once more; not that it has ever been inactive, but the man's conscious enjoyment of worldly or evil delights has rejected its overtures. The Lord has always been working from within, and has preserved even with the worst man the faculty of seeing that evils are bad for him, and goods potentially delightful (See AC 5127); it has been impossible for the man himself to see this while the lower passions have raged unchecked. Through the external order which sickness paradoxically brings about the remains within him can be stirred once more, and he can be brought to long for a good life again. (See AC 857, 2284)
Without some hiatus in their enjoyment of natural things, we are told, few men would turn to self-examination and the repentance which such introspection makes necessary. (See AC 8) Their loves would run on unchecked, and they would never find the strength to change them.
Now we can see, of course, that this kind of interruption of a man's life is a tampering with freedom, or could be. While he is ill, a man is not free to follow what he loves, so it is not "fair" to turn him to good when he cannot stand up for his favorite evil! There is a truth in this, and so the teaching is clear that while sickness serves to break up a man's life, return him to a sane view of evil, and give him a new impetus to good, yet he is not reformed unless he confirms his repentance after the sickness has passed. (See DP 142; AC 4352: 3) In His mercy, the Lord may touch a man's freedom, but He will do no more.
Finally, there are those who through immoderate enjoyment of this world have become "earth-bound" in their thoughts. They have become so interested in temporal things that they cannot have a spiritual love of good. Such, we are told, cannot be reformed in the normal manner, and have an affection for good only when in states of "disease, or misfortune or anxiety, consequently [of] . . . trouble and some combat." (AC 8981) Such a man remains forever natural, and learns to discipline his natural affections from obedience to doctrine. In order that he might have his truths confirmed, however, and so come into a greater sense of obedience, he has to have his natural loves lulled by some external misfortune; and then some good affection can flow in and help him. (Ibid.) For these people, represented by the Hebrew manservant, sickness, although still not visited upon them by the Lord, is something of a blessing in disguise.
It is certainly difficult to understand at times why disease should be allowed to have the degree of influence it has over the lives of people. When we see a particular example, in which a man or a child is deeply harmed through illness, we are very tempted to ask: "Why did the Lord let this specific one suffer?" We must realize at all times that He allowed it as one more unwilling than we; for that one who is suffering is His child! But to prevent it would be to do greater evil to all His children. Then we can trust that despite the suffering, He can work, and does provide all the blessings of infinite mercy. It is just the sadness of man's choice of evil that His work is often through tragedy. "Q Lord, revive Thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy." (Habakkuk 3: 2)
Accidents and Natural Disasters
So many of the general rules have already been given which also apply here that only further specifics need be added. The fact is that when an accident happens it is, perhaps, the least logical attitude to blame it on the Lord, for nearly every kind of mishap is the result of man's own intelligence. We often laud the brilliance with which man has fashioned for himself a civilization and a technology which provide untold comforts. We point to the ease of travel, the marvel of electricity, the economy of apartment dwellings, and feel that human ingenuity has done wonders. But when human ingenuity falls down, and there is an accident, we are tempted to blame the Lord!
Nearly all the accidents which occur are the result of a weakness in human invention. We have motor cars which carry us quickly, but they also kill many because we cannot develop fool-proof cars, or totally intelligent drivers. Yet we continue to drive them. We fly in airplanes which are rigidly tested for safety, but there is no way in which we can guarantee 100% safety. And if a vehicle is 99% safe, this means that to 1 % it is going to be harmful, or that in 1 % of situations it will be dangerous. In our freedom we, the Western world or the earth, have chosen this way of life, with its inbuilt percentage of accidents.
The Lord does not make the motor car. He cannot interfere to the point of insuring that no mechanic ever fails to tighten all the bolts in the steering assembly; that no engineer ever designs a road that is not perfect; or that the driver behind you will never become so impatient that he will try to overtake on a blind corner. He can lead and inspire and ameliorate. He will not dictate.
We ought to reflect now and then that technology is indirectly a killer. Because human inventiveness is not perfect, and because human diligence is far from ideal, there will be an element of destruction in our mechanical creativeness. Disease from pollution and death from road accidents are only the most publicized aspects of this problem. The writer does not suggest that we condemn technology or censure human inventiveness; especially since many efforts today are towards improving on the defects of the past. At the same time, we should realize that accidents are not implicit in the Lord's creation. It is in the arena of man's endeavors that they have their cause.
There is also a spiritual cause of accidents. The Divine will acts to prevent misfortune and to provide for an orderly life. When a sphere from hell invades, however, it opposes the Lord's will and, if a man allows it, can do so even in the ultimates of order. Thus a sphere out of hell can produce a proneness to accidents and misfortune in a recipient individual. Swedenborg was given to perceive how spirits tried to lead him into unhappy situations; and without such instruction he would have believed the events to have been dictated by chance, by accident. (See AC 6493, 6494) This ideal leading, and the perversion which results if hell can have a say, is summed up in the following sentence: "All things, nay the least of all things, down to the leasts of the leasts, are directed by the Providence of the Lord, even as to the very steps; and when such a sphere prevails as is contrary thereto, misfortunes occur." (AC 6493. [Italics added.] Cf. DP 212; AC 5179)
Of all the misfortunes that befall man, whether through evils of sickness or accident, the hardest to understand are those which seem to arise out of a fault of the creation itself. When an earthquake kills thousands, or a volcano does the same, it seems that the Lord has created an imperfect world in which men must live; for volcanoes are not the result of human endeavor.
To my knowledge the Writings do not speak directly to this subject, and it is difficult to see the inferences from which we may build an understanding of the problem. There would seem to be something of an answer in the fact that animals are far more aware of impending natural disasters than we are, and take steps to protect themselves. Before a flood, for example, animals often move to high ground, for no apparent reason. We may conjecture that man, too, when in the order of his life had this sensitivity to the elements, and could avoid certain natural occurrences. This is far from a complete answer, however, and it is possible that the knowledge of the origin of the cosmos will have to progress further than it has before we can enter with understanding into this particular mystery.
"The doctrine of permissions is an entire doctrine; he who does not understand permissions, or conclude [rightly] concerning them, falls into doubtful and negative things respecting the power of God-Messiah over the universe." (SD 398) To dispel doubt and negation the Lord has seen fit to give us a comprehensive picture of the disorders in His creation and His government of them, to strengthen our hands in the face of evil which may come to us from within and from without.
And just as in all things of the New Word; the doctrine is new, (Lord 65) so also is this a new concept. We should not approach the Lord's government of evil from the childlike concepts of yester year. Instead we should draw from the fresh waters of life which are now presented. We should start from essential, unassailable truths: the Lord is good, He never does or wills or visits any evil; He permits for the sake of freedom; yet still He governs, and His government is that through all the evil which man can do He still works good. Man may suffer in time; but the Divine wisdom never ceases to work within, softening and finally dispelling the pain. To the willing soul He does this, no matter what the circumstance; and His good must triumph until the sands of evil have run out, and it will be as if it had never been. "For the former things are passed away." (Revelation 21: 4)
-New Church Life 1972;92:538-545