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And the people complained against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” So he cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a tree. When he cast it into the waters, the waters were made sweet. Exodus 15:24, 25


These last few weeks we have been discovering the spiritual lessons of some of the stories of Exodus for the purpose of advancing our spiritual development and so realize spiritual freedom. The journey of our life has no ending, no final conclusion, but there are observable mile posts along the way. We are touching on a few of them during this series, with the promise that the last stage we examine is one of fulfillment and peace.

The repeating cycle of spiritual growth begins by coming to realize that there are thoughts and desires that, because they are false, evil, worldly, selfish and just generally negative, imprison us because they trap us into ways of being and acting that do harm to ourselves and others. So we decided to try on the notion that that way of being is miserable, and that, whether we can see it clearly or not, there is a better way to live. We chose to do this because, in large measure, we are influenced by the love and wisdom of the Lord, who gives us glimpses of His power over evil and falsity, at least as it is applied to others, as symbolized in the ten plagues.

We next considered what happens whenever we step out and confront those enslaving thoughts and desires. We went forth excited, buoyed by the great increase in true, helpful ideas and an increased desire to escape. We quickly discovered, however, that the barriers to this new life are more than we can remove by ourselves. We noticed the old feelings, and all their justifications and rationalizations, come charging back into our consciousness. We again cried out to the Lord, wondering why we should go to this effort if it just means we will get stuck and spiritually die.

Now, every time we stood still and listened to what the Lord had to say, reading and reflecting on His Word, praying, seeking the support of our loved ones, instead of believing the old falsities, nurturing the old evil desires, falling back into the old behaviors, another miracle happened. This time it was directed at us, for our benefit, just as the parting of the waters of the sea directly helped the Israelites. A new path for a new life opened right in front of us. Our natural mind learned that the Lord’s truth is a wonderful tool, and our spiritual mind learned dependence on the Lord.

You have likely experienced this process in smaller or larger ways. Perhaps you interact with another person on a regular basis, always seeking to develop a relationship on some level. Maybe you generally communicate well, but there are some times, or some issue, that are difficult. You don’t have good feelings about it. It is unpleasant. After such encounters you walk away in distress, either wondering how it happened, or wondering why you did it again. Over the course of time, despair sets in, perhaps even coloring the whole relationship. This is one way that marriages can become cold.

And then, one day, you realized that you were stuck; that you had to do something. So you prepared yourself by learning and reflecting on what the Lord says a spiritual person does in such situations. And so, the next time you had the opportunity, you were able to react differently. It felt very uncomfortable. All the old ways of thinking, feeling and acting were pressing on you. But this new way opened up for you. It might even have felt as though you didn’t do it! Some greater force took over, and you and your coworker, friend, or spouse came to a new place in your relationship.

The next stage in this repeating epic journey narrative, is the ever tighter, organically growing connection of the natural mind’s reliance upon the external, practical tools you have acquired with which you mange thoughts, feelings and actions, with the spiritual mind’s reliance upon the inner love, wisdom and mercy of the Lord. In a phrase, the fullness of this stage is realized when you are governed by a love of doing acts of goodness for your neighbor, and you are thus being led by the Lord by means of that goodness, into the life of heaven.

To describe this process, the Lord uses the image thirsty people despairing until the bitter water is made sweet by the introduction of some quality contained in wood.

One of the things we notice first is that the Sons of Israel had, only three days earlier, witnessed one of the most impressive miracles in the entire Bible. We can easily disparage them. But then we remember the spiritual work we are trying to do, and we stop to consider, and realize that we do exactly the same thing. The traits of our natural mind are fascinating. On the one hand, we can dwell on an incident for days and weeks. We especially do this if we can make ourselves feel better than another person in doing so. On the other hand, if a new incident catches our attention, we very easily stopped talking about the last event that had so captivated out attention. And let us not be too simplistic about this and just blame the media. They are feeding our needs. So let us clearly get that our natural mind has these traits of a short attention span, and felt needs of its own, distinct from our spiritual needs.

So it is quite understandable that at the dawning of the third day with no water, the discovery of a pool of brackish, undrinkable water would get all the attention, and suck up all the energy the people had. And then, just like we do in our natural mind, the first thought is to complain to someone. Often we just complain to whomever will listen. Our natural mind loves to complain, so to bring what is wrong to the attention of someone who can do something about it is often not the first thing we do. But, as we are seeking to develop spiritually, we follow the Israelites model and complain to someone about how our needs are not being met.

The Writings for the New Church give us a wonderful and very useful insight about this complaining. In the story, the people “murmured against Moses.” We are told that “‘And the people grumbled against Moses’ means grief caused by the bitterness of the temptation.” (Secrets of Heaven §8351). As spiritual people, on a journey to freedom, we expect a battle against the false ideas and evil desires we have delighted in. But we often don’t know exactly what those ideas and feelings are. Or we don’t know that they are connected to that is hidden more deeply in our spirit. A mundane and humorous example can illustrate this. A woman watched her mother cut the ends off the ham before placing it in the roasting pan and putting it in the oven. She realized that there seemed to be no reason for this, and that, while her mother had taught her years ago to do it, she didn’t know why it was done, so she asked her mother why it needed to be done. Her mother was startled, and said she also didn’t know, but that she had learned it years ago from her mother. So together they went into the living room and asked the elderly mother and grandmother why she cut off the ends of a ham before cooking it. The wise woman soberly answered: “So that it will fit in the pan.”

There will be times in our journey that the advice of the Lord will become unpleasant to us. Any number of basic truths can become so challenging that we can despair ever fully realizing them in our life. Think of “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength and mind,” and consider the weight you give to your own desires. How about the truth “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and the man next door who lies to you, or the boss who lies about your performance to make him look good, and your ability to love him on a par with your regard for yourself. That gets complex, for you are also told to respect yourself and protect your property. How about the truth “Do not covet,” and your ongoing sadness that you don’t have what the magazines and television ads say everyone should have but you don’t? Hopefully, you can see that whenever you complain, grumble, murmur or whine to yourself about your circumstances, you are really complaining to the Lord, and there is some truth that has become bitter, unpleasant and unuseable in your life.

It is good that we are complaining to the Lord, because He is the one who can do something about it. However, He asks us to consider the idea that we are responsible for the bitterness of the water. And He asks us to remember all that He has done for us in the past, and that this current despair is necessary to realize spiritual freedom.

The Writings for the New Church, especially the whole book “Divine Providence,” show us how the Lord cares for us continually and consistently, through good times and bad, through joy and misery. He has never caused our despair. What He does do, for our eternal good welfare, is reveal His love and mercy through all the spiritual truths of His Word. So we have to respectfully disagree with our natural mind and its message of complaint against the Lord. We have to take on the new task of looking for the goodness in the truths that taste so unpleasant to us.

Listen to this powerful declaration in the Writings for the New Church: “In temptations the spiritual life is for the most part brought to this extremity [of despair], for in that way the natural life is snuffed out, since while a person is in the midst of despair the Lord keeps his inmost [mind] actively engaged in the fight against falsity. As a consequence also such despair is soon after that dispelled by the comfort which is then supplied by the Lord; for all spiritual temptation is followed by comfort and newness of life.” (AC 8567)

In the story before us, immediately after the waters were made sweet, the next sentence is “There He made a statute and an ordinance for them.” And that is followed by the promise of healing if they obey. I confess that I feel unsure about how to emphasize the goodness and love that is the core of all truth, while diligently heeding the voice of the Lord to do what is right in His sight. On the one hand, I have felt very deeply the goodness of loving my neighbor as much as myself. On the other, I feel called to call attention to the harm my neighbor’s love of evil causes. These are dangerous waters. I complain to the Lord that He has not given us clearer, more specific instructions.

Indeed, in the text, we are told “There He made a statute and an ordinance for them. And there [the Lord] tested them.” Temptations’ battles will recur. And our natural mind will never be able to rise above the thought that the Lord is causing our misery. So it is up to us to continue to compel our natural mind and our bodies to obey the laws of order of our spirit. When such spiritual effort becomes our only choice, because we despair ever being saved otherwise, a miracle will happen. The water will be sweet; our lives of heavenly order will be delightful.

You have tasted this experience too. You got through a messy time with your coworker, your neighbor, your friend, your spouse. There was a delight, and sometimes a deepening of the relationship. Remember to give thanks to the Lord for that miracle.

As we rejoice in this new, sweet and satisfying truth, even as we remember how bitter it was once, we can approach communion with our Lord offering great and deep thanks. As you come forward, you can ask for forgiveness for hardheartedness. You can ask for help. The Lord invites you to drink in the refreshing truth and absorb the nurturing love. For, as He tells the Israelites as He shows them the oasis with twelve wells, “I am the Lord who heals you.”


Lessons: Exodus 15 and From Swedenborg’s Arcana Celestia:


A genuine love for truth consists in wishing to know what the truth is for the sake of life in the world, and for the sake of eternal life. People with this desire enter temptation when the truths they possess begin to be lacking, and especially when the truths they know seem to be unpleasant. The origin of this temptation lies in the fact that the links with good have been broken. These links are broken the moment that a person moves in the direction of his ego, for in so doing he slips into the evil of self-love or of love of the world. (§8349)

Experience too demonstrates this; for people who lead a good life, that is, who love God and their neighbor, also love the truths of faith. That being so, as long as good is flowing in and being received, truth appears pleasant. But as soon as good ceases to flow in, that is, as soon as evil begins to predominate and the inflow of good to be held back, truth is immediately sensed to be unpleasant; for truth and evil repel and loathe each other.    (§8356)

Temptations, which the travels of the children of Israel in the wilderness depict, are the means by which the Lord imparts heavenly life to a person. The life of heaven consists in being led by the Lord through good; and if a person is to attain that life, good must be implanted through truth, that is, charity through faith. As long as this is being done a person is on the road to heaven, but is not as yet in heaven. In order that the truths of faith may be corroborated and also linked to good, a person is pitched into temptations, for these serve as the means by which goodness and truth are joined together. When therefore a person is governed by good, that is, by an affection for doing good for its own sake, and so for his neighbor's sake, he is raised into heaven, since the order of heaven governs him and he is being led by the Lord through good. (§8559)