“Use” – the noun.
Who could imagine that such a little word – three simple letters, in English – could
encompass such power and significance? Of course, “God” contains only three letters in
English as well, and we note that “God” – who was, who is, and who is to come – is
always capitalized. Also, while “God” is ever and only One, members of the New
Church tend to employ “use” more as a plural – “uses”. “The Lord’s kingdom,” wrote
Emanuel Swedenborg, “is a kingdom of uses.” [Heaven and Hell § 387]
“Use” quite plainly implies some sort of activity, and indeed activity does round out the
three “essentials” that make a sort of Trinity within each of us – our souls, our bodies and
our activities in the world.
The easiest way to enter an understanding of this is probably as “works”. “Let your light
shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father
in heaven.” [Matt. 5:16] “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but
if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.” [John 14:11] “I by my
works will show you my faith.” [James 2:18]
Historically, the term “works” fell into profound disfavor and remains so in many
Protestant denominations to this day. The medieval Church, headed by its Pope in Rome,
had in many ways lost itself in its worldly power and become spiritually bankrupt –
“vastated”, to use a word popular with Swedenborg. When Martin Luther published his
95 Theses on the Power of Indulgences in 1517, he unleashed a growing resentment in
Christendom toward the notion that somehow there are “works” one can do to earn a
quicker and easier salvation – an attitude the too-worldly Church was exploiting for its
own earthly gain.
God’s grace cannot and need not be “earned”; “All are elected and predestined to heaven,
because all are called”, Swedenborg wrote in True Christianity § 664. Swedenborg, too,
rejected the concept of “meritorious works”. “It is contrary to the Lord's merit and
justice; those who place merit in works claim justice for themselves, for they say that
justice is their portion because they have earned it, when yet this is the height of injustice,
because only the Lord has merit, and He alone does the good found in anyone.”
[Apocalypse Revealed § 86]
The abiding Protestant doctrine became sola fide – “faith alone”. For this reason, to try
to explain “uses” in terms simply of “works” may raise a red flag for some who would
approach our beliefs.
Swedenborg was sensitive to this subtlety, and while he could not avoid the word “work”
(it is simply too difficult to write without it) it was not one he emphasized. Rather,
Swedenborg made “charity” one of the pillars of his faith – a manifestation of the divine
essence “Love”, while “faith” manifests the other divine essence, “Wisdom”.
“Charity” is another word which suffers in our modern forms of speech; for all too many
of us, it raises only an image of a tax-deductible effort. “Is this considered a charitable
donation?” In its broadest sense, “charity” means activity carried out primarily for the
benefit of someone other than ourselves. Imagine, then, if all our lives were lived
charitably; what a better world that would make, and what a headache for the IRS! Of
course, at such time there would be no need for extensive and expensive government; the
Lord’s kingdom would be securely established.
Charity is not having faith, it is living faith. Swedenborg wrote many, many times that
Faith without Charity is no faith at all, “but merely knowledge of such things as
constitute faith”. [Arcana Coelestia § 7778] In our New Testament, we read “Faith by
itself, if it has no works, is dead.” [James 2:17] On a purely philosophical level,
Swedenborg argues that “unless divine love and divine wisdom were as much reality and
manifestation as they are substance and form, they would be only theoretical constructs
that in and of themselves are nothing”. [Divine Love and Wisdom § 43]
Sola fide, then, is too limiting, too intellectual.
Here we begin to see “uses” as charitable acts, but the concept goes far beyond a series of
isolated acts. When we begin to see one “use” as folded within many other “uses”, we
begin to see a progression that points us toward nothing less than the meaning of life.
“The useful functions of everything created tend upward, step by step, from the lowest to
us, and through us to God the Creator, their source.” [Divine Love and Wisdom § 65]
Lest I myself become too “heady” in this discussion, let me bring it down to very
We wake up in the morning, bathe and brush our teeth. This makes us feel better about
ourselves; we hope that it makes us more attractive to other people. Even (especially?) in
our New Church we tend to view self-love with suspicion; what if it is our primary love?
But taking care of ourselves is a good thing. Cleanliness promotes health, so we have
more opportunity to go out and be useful in the world. And if good hygiene does indeed
make it easier for our neighbors and co-workers to interact with us, we can build our
communities more easily. This is a good use.
We head out the door to our car. Now here is a world of uses wrapped up in one neat
package. How many engineers toiled to design this machine, how many miners wrested
the primary materials from the ground, how many technicians tended the elaborate
assembly equipment, how many are employed to service and maintain the vehicle, the
roads and all the complex infrastructure that makes putting your key in the ignition and
simply going a reality? They did this to produce something good, something useful. And
didn’t this cause each of them get up in the morning, bathe, brush their teeth and head out
the door? Their jobs allowed them to take care of themselves, to provide for their family,
to indulge themselves in restorative recreation, to build a better community. Uses upon
Now, where do we head in our car? To what “use” do we put it – to go to school, go to
work, go to church? Go to the store, to our friends, to the ballgame, to the park? We are
entirely free to decide. Do we “use” our car to drag-race others on what we hope are
empty streets, or to burn rubbery “doughnuts” in idle intersections?
I must confess that I have trouble seeing these last activities as “useful”. It is not my
place to judge (perhaps there is some useful recreational value for the individual), but it is
hard for me to see how this fits into the divine purpose. And what is that purpose?
Emnuel Swedenborg had a very succinct answer: “The Lord’s divine providence has as
its goal a heaven from the human race… Since heaven comes from the human race, then,
and since heaven is living with the Lord forever, it follows that this was the Lord’s goal
for creation. Further, since this was the goal of creation, it is the goal of the Lord’s divine
providence. The Lord did not create the universe for his own sake but for the sake of
people he would be with in heaven. By its very nature, spiritual love wants to share what
it has with others, and to the extent that it can do so, it is totally present.” [Divine
Providence § 27]
This is an astonishingly bold statement. Of course, it can never be proven nor, I believe,
disproved. The only evidence I have to verify it is that I have never encountered another
philosophy that so completely explains what I should be concentrating on in my life – a
life that I completely and freely confess was once quite lost, without direction… a life
that was essentially useless.
“[Everything in heaven, in the world, and in the human body] both great and small, was
created from use, in use, and for use. A part in which this last – its being “for use” –
ceases, is separated as harmful.” [Apocalypse Explained § 1194] Thus, many people
drop their “bad habits” – hot-rodding, smoking, drinking, carousing – as they mature…
and not just because “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”. The spirit grows just as
the body does, and as with the body this is a lifelong process.
The apostle Paul recognized the challenge. “I know that nothing good dwells within me,
that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I
want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no
longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” [Romans 7:18-20]
A challenge, but not necessarily a difficult one. If we devote ourselves to good uses,
giving our full devotion to every little task we undertake (don’t forget to floss!), realizing
that we are constantly being invited into heaven – that is to say, a full conjunction with
our God – the Lord will lead us home.
Is this “useful” information to you?