Using the Letter of the Word to Fight in Temptations, Part 1
Friday, December 16, 2011
New Church Perspective in Malcolm Smith, spiritual battles, spiritual growth, spiritual practice, the Word
Malcolm is developing his capacity to use the Word skillfully to fight in temptations. Part one of this essay addresses the power in the letter of the Word, and provides some doctrinal context. Part two? Well you are just going to have to wait! - Editor


Some time in the last couple of months I read a statement in the teachings of the New Church about spiritual combat and it’s stuck with me. I’ve been chewing on it since then—trying to think through the ramifications and possible applications of it.

Here’s the statement (preceded by a statement from a few numbers before that gives some context).

[T]here are both evil and good spirits with every man; the evil spirits are in his evils, and the good spirits in his goods. When the evil spirits approach they draw forth his evils, while the good spirits, on the contrary, draw forth his goods; whence arise collision and combat, from which the man has interior anxiety, which is temptation...

These combats are carried on by the truths of faith which are from the Word. From these man must combat against evils and falsities; for if he combats from any other principles, he cannot conquer, because in these alone the Lord is present. (New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine 188, 191; see also Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture 49, Secrets of Heaven 8962)

(This statement comes from the chapter on temptations in New Jerusalem and It’s Heavenly Doctrine, in the context of a whole lot of other ideas about the nature of spiritual life, temptations, and the Word. If you have ten minutes I would recommend reading it. Read a translation that keeps the chunky collections of other ideas about temptations at the end of the chapter.)

This is one of those statements that’s easy to read without taking in what it’s saying. So let me restate it: if you want to win in your spiritual struggles, you have to use truths from the Word; if you use anything else, you’ll never win. Never.

If your brain is like mine, your brow is starting to furrow a bit and you’re thinking, “But what about…?” And we’ll get into some of those in a bit. But, for now, I invite you to just go with this idea for a bit. Given that we have to use truths from the Word to fight in temptations, how can we do that?

The Power of the Letter of the Word

First we need to know what’s meant by “truths of faith which are from the Word.” Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture helps us out with that. There’s a section in there with the heading, “Divine Truth in the Sense of the Letter of the Word is in its Fullness, in its Holiness, and in its Power.” In this section there are some remarkable statements about the power and importance of the sense of the letter or literal sense of the Word (for example, Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture 48), including one that’s very similar to the one we just read from New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine.

The power of Divine Truth is directed especially against falsities and evils, thus against the hells. These must be combated by means of truths from the sense of the Letter of the Word. Moreover, by means of the truths that are with a man, the Lord has the power of saving him; for by means of truths from the sense of the Letter of the Word, a man is reformed and regenerated. (Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture 49)

This passage specifies that the truths from the Word that we need to use in spiritual combats are from the literal sense of the Word. So we’re talking about quotations from the Old Testament and the New Testament. How do we use these in temptations?

Jesus' Example

The first place my brain goes when I think of using truths from the literal sense in temptations is the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). For example, when Jesus was hungry the tempter said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3—“But He answered and said, ‘It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”’” (Matthew 4:3-4).

The teachings of the New Church make it clear, however, that the true nature of the temptations the Lord experienced aren’t visible on the surface of this story.

In the Word of the Lord's life, in the Gospels, none but the last is mentioned, except His temptation in the wilderness. More were not disclosed to the disciples. The things that were disclosed appear in the sense of the letter so slight as to be scarcely anything; for to speak and to answer in this manner is no temptation, when yet His temptation was more grievous than can ever be comprehended and believed by any human mind. No one can know what temptation is except the one who has been in it. The temptation that is related in Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13, contains all temptations in a summary; namely, that from love toward the whole human race, the Lord fought against the loves of self and of the world, with which the hells were filled. (Secrets of Heaven 1690:2)

This story is a symbolic representation of all the temptations that the Lord experienced when He was in the world, not a literal depiction of the true nature of temptations. Dealing with temptations isn’t simply a matter of learning the right magic words to use. And yet, the right words from the literal sense of the Word do have a power like nothing else, when they are an integrated part of an overall spiritual practice.

The Need for Preparation Beforehand

I’m no military strategist (I’m not even particularly good at games like Risk or Starcraft) but I’m going to make a declaration about the nature of war (and if it’s true, I probably unconsciously stole it from someone who knows what they’re talking about).

By the time the battle is joined, the fight is already won or lost in the preparations the armies have made or not made.

Or how about this:

He who is well-trained and well-prepared will always be victorious.

Ok, I don’t buy either of those myself, but the point I’m trying to get to is that to effectively use passages from the letter of the Word in temptations we need to have done preparatory work before the temptation. It’s the difference between the person who finds himself in a battle and only then looks around to try to find a weapon and figure out how to use it and the person who has spent hours training with various weapons, in anticipation of future battles, who, when he finds himself in a battle, calmly draws his sword (or M16, as the case may be). It’s the difference between David putting on Saul’s armor to go fight Goliath and David taking his shepherd’s staff, his sling, and five smooth stones to go fight Goliath (1 Samuel 17).

Here’s an example. I don’t know that it would count as a full blown temptation but hopefully it illustrates the point. Every so often I get overwhelmed by thinking about what might happen in the future. All these possible awful scenarios run through my head and I think about all the factors outside of my control that might lead to this awfulness, and there’s nothing I can do about it! In those times I’ve learned that it’s really helpful to me to think and say, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). For me that phrase from the Lord’s prayer encapsulates a whole bunch of ideas about how the Lord is in charge and He has given me everything that I need so far and that, even if I do go through hard things in the future, He will continue to give me what I need to get through it, so what I need to focus on right now is asking Him to give me the daily bread that I need today.

It’s like I’m driving on the highway and I see traffic ahead and I’ve learned that, if I get off at the Daily Bread exit, I can avoid sitting in frustrating traffic for hours. And the reason that I can do that is because I’ve learned alternate routes to take. There are other areas of my life where I haven’t figured out other ways of getting through things and so still get stuck in the stupid mental traffic. (And just to beat this metaphor to death) when I see traffic ahead in an unexplored area of my life, I can try getting off at whatever exit is there and find a way from there but that can sometimes be just as time consuming and frustrating as sitting in traffic.

So I've come up with a spiritual practice that I’ve been trying recently to use the literal sense of the Word more in temptations. I'll lay it out in Part 2 of this article. In the meantime you should come up with a better one.

Malcolm Smith

Malcolm is just about done his first year of being Assistant to the Pastor of New Church Westville in South Africa. He feels pretty new at a lot of the things he's doing in his life—being a pastor, being a dad, being a husband—but he also feels pretty darn blessed in those areas of life too.

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