[Jesus says to his Apostles] “So you, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know what day your Lord is coming. Understand this: If a homeowner knew exactly when a burglar was coming, he would keep watch and not permit his house to be broken into. You also must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected.
“A faithful, sensible servant is one to whom the master can give the responsibility of managing his other household servants and feeding them. If the master returns and finds that the servant has done a good job, there will be a reward. I tell you the truth, the master will put that servant in charge of all he owns. But what if the servant is evil and thinks, ‘My master won’t be back for a while,’ and he begins beating the other servants, partying, and getting drunk? The master will return unannounced and unexpected, and he will cut the servant to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 24:42-51
[Swedenborg reports this experience of the spiritual world, which is just one among very many, that convinced him that there is a permanent, spiritual community of those who reject the notion of, and influence of, a loving God, for which Swedenborg uses the commonly accepted term “hell”].
“From each hell there breathes forth an aura of the cravings that obsess its inhabitants. When this aura is sensed by people who are obsessed with a similar craving, it touches their hearts and fills them with delight because the craving and the delight are inseparable – whatever we crave is delightful to us. This is why [people now passed into the spiritual world] turn in that direction and are impelled there by their hearts' delight. They do not yet realize what kind of torment there is in hell, and the ones who do know still feel the craving. In the spiritual world we are all incapable of resisting our impulses because the impulses come from our love, and our love comes from our intent, and our intent comes from our nature, and we all act from our nature there....
“The “gnashing of teeth” [which Jesus uses to describe the spiritual experience of hypocrites] is the constant clash and strife of false convictions with each other (and therefore the warfare of the individuals who hold the false convictions), united to contempt for others, hostility, derision, mockery, and blasphemy. These even break out into various kinds of butchery. Everyone there is defending his or her own false convictions and calling them true. From outside the hells, these clashes and battles sound like gnashing teeth, and they turn into the gnashing of teeth when truths from heaven flow into hell.
“In these hells dwell all the people who acknowledged nature and denied the Divine. The people who deliberately convinced themselves are in the deeper hells. Since they cannot accept any ray of light from heaven and can therefore not see anything within themselves, most of them focus on their senses and their bodies. These are people who do not believe anything they cannot see with their eyes and touch with their hands. So for them, all sensory illusions are the truths on which they base their arguments. Because teeth correspond to the outmost aspects of nature, and to our own outmost natures, which have to do with our senses and our bodies; and because in the spiritual world false statements grate; therefore, their arguments sound like the gnashing of teeth.” Heaven and Hell §574, 575
The wonderful conclusion of our really hearing Jesus, and having him in our heart, is that we experience an awesome, intimate connection between our inner, spiritual sensation of life, and our outer, physical sensation of life. This is when we look at a tree and smell its fragrance, understand its contribution to the world, and feel delighted by its presence in our experience. This experience is when we are with a loved one and we have a pleasurable sensation of their proximity or touch on our skin, we think of their affirmative contribution to our life, and we feel delighted by their being in our life. This experience of life happens when we accept the Lord’s unconditional love for us as one of his creations, and appreciate the mystery of our connection to our God, and delight in our intentional dependence on his love.
This is the experience Jesus was giving his closest allies as he was preparing to do what was necessary to himself connect his inner Divine life with his outer physical life. We know from his prayer in the garden only a couple of days later, that, while knowing what was coming, and steeling himself for the experience, he would rather not experience it. He prayed, watching what was happening in him and around him, while setting his jaw in readiness. But, I imagine, he did not grit his teeth.
“Gnash,” may have its roots in an attempt to describe the sound of grinding teeth. Medically, the term is “bruxism,” from the Greek word for the grinding of teeth. We can put aside the issue of our grinding our teeth during sleep or while awake due to known stressors or unknown. Such problematic physiological or psychosomatic behaviors are not our concern here.
To our point here is our personal experience of reacting to circumstances by clenching our jaw, setting our teeth, but then twitching our muscles because we simply must be moving something in our irritation. Likely we are clenching our fists, and making more or less audible groans, depending on the situation. Anyone watching us will see our cheek muscles bunch and twitch. Like smiling and frowning, I am sure this is a universal sign of annoyance with a person or circumstance.
It is instructive, as we approach the spiritual circumstances that Jesus describes as gnashing our teeth, that it has been reported by a variety of professionals* that people who tend to more or less consciously grind their teeth respond differently to depression, hostility, and stress compared to people without bruxism. Interestingly, people over the age of 50 with bruxism are more likely to be single and have a high level of education. Also commonly noticed are aggressive, competitive or hyperactive personality types. It has been suggested that suppressed anger or frustration can contribute to bruxism. In what must have been a difficult experiement to conduct, it was recorded that the rats who witnessed the electrocution of other rats were under emotional stress which may have caused the bruxism-like behavior.
Jesus, and now modern science, is telling us that we will become angry when we experience or anticipate experiencing, any circumstance that attacks our truth and/or our desires. If you or some situation casts doubt on might rightness, or thwarts, or threaten to thwart, my will, I will react, I will watch carefully, even in a heightened state of awareness, and I will prepare myself, I will get ready to act. Mentally, I will be marshaling my arguments for why I am right, and I will be creating feelings of disgust and righteousness.
Now, it makes perfect sense, and is quite acceptable, if you do not believe you are not one of the hypocrites that Jesus is exposing here. But I invite you to be mindful for a moment, and simply and non-judgmentally notice your version of this experience. As Jesus suggests: watch.
In order to do as Jesus tells us here, we have to position ourselves to watch. We need to be ready to observe. And so we read the Word, we gather spiritual principles, we memorize aphorisms, we listen to people we hold as wise. And we adjust our behavior based on people’s reactions. We react to the inner messages of unhappiness, anger, sadness and fear. Slowly, we build up a viewing stand from which we watch what is happening to us.
Jesus is saying that acting with sincerity, justice, and honesty will create the circumstance in which our inner truth and goodness, which are available to us because God loves us and so already dwells in us, will be connected to our experience of our living. And, he further predicts, that acting selfishly, materialistically, dishonestly, will create a circumstance in which our inner truth and goodness, which are available to us because God loves us and so already dwells in us, are not connected to our current experience.
And now a reality check. This is not merely a thought experiment. It is not the case that people quietly and privately suffer a lack of connection to the Divine. It more or less immediately and profoundly affects all life on the planet. And, now, here is a challenge. How many of us have gnashed our teeth when we have come up against a selfish, materialistic, and dishonest hypocrite? I have! this gives me pause. With what am I in conflict that physiologically and psychosocially has produced my gnashing my teeth? Did I not get my way? Was my truth attacked? Was I denied the delight the world owes me?
Jesus is not haranguing us to shame us. He is challenging us to watch and get ready, rise above what we discover to be our selfishness, worldliness and hypocrisy in the light of the Word lived in life of usefulness.
The Lord Jesus Christ is promising to be present in our lives so that we know the beauty of his truth, the delightfulness of his goodness, and pleasure in our senses, arising from the physical world. We are not to fear taking on the responsibilities of living that our Lord gives us. He actually intends that we feel so in control and responsible that he does not appear present! And our inner delight is knowing that, even in the midst of an intense experience of pleasure, we are ready for his appearing at any moment. Indeed, we welcome those moments when, as watchful as we usually and normally are, we see and feel his presence in our hearts, as he has assured us he always is.
* In the following studies
Shetty S, Pitti V, Satish Babu CL, Surendra Kumar GP, Deepthi BC (September 2010). "Bruxism: a literature review". Journal of Indian Prosthodontic Society 10 (3): 141–8. doi:10.1007/s13191-011-0041-5. PMC 3081266. PMID 21886404.
Lobbezoo F, Van Der Zaag J, Naeije M (April 2006). "Bruxism: its multiple causes and its effects on DENTAL IMPLANTS - an updated review". Journal of Oral Rehabilitation 33 (4): 293–300. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2842.2006.01609.x. PMID 16629884.
"Bruxism/Teeth grinding". Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. 19 May 2009. Retrieved 2009-06-11.
Manfredini D, Lobbezoo F (2009). "Role of psychosocial factors in the etiology of bruxism". Journal of Orofacial Pain 23 (2): 153–66. PMID 19492540.
Poveda Roda R, Bagan JV, Díaz Fernández JM, Hernández Bazán S, Jiménez Soriano Y (August 2007). "Review of temporomandibular joint pathology. Part I: classification, epidemiology and risk factors" (PDF). Medicina Oral, Patología Oral Y Cirugía Bucal 12 (4): E292–8. PMID 17664915.