In a fast-moving world that is full to bursting with opinions and marketing spin, isn’t it a relief to get a clear, yes-or-no answer to a question we care about? The “simple, unvarnished truth”—even if it is something we’d rather not hear—rings true and something within us relaxes when we get the answer. Our hearts recognize the ring of clarity. We feel glad the issue is settled, done. Our minds stop working so hard at trying to figure everything out. All our efforts–to decipher, to persuade, to convince—simply evaporate. We know now. The truth brings peace. The truth really does set us free.
But human nature being what it is, people often pad the truth with extra words, wrapping it in phrases that make it sound softer or fuzzier or more palatable to people who may or may not agree. Perhaps because they don’t want to offend, or they’re not sure, or they’re selling something, people can be purposefully vague, which leaves the rest of us feeling in our heart of hearts like something’s just not right. We may not know what it is, but our Spidey sense tells us something’s off. And that puts us on edge.
This week I read the verse in the book of James that says, let your yes be yes and your no be no and I thought about how glad I am that George Fox took plain and honest speech so seriously. The importance of the words we use—and the spirit of truth behind them—is woven deeply into the fabric of Friends tradition. Friends were careful about using their words in two ways: Plain speech—saying thee and thou to others without regard for their position—was considered Biblically accurate, something God wanted us to do. But speaking with integrity—clearly, truthfully, and in right order—is at the heart of who we are as a community of faith.
Quakers have long had a reputation for ethical business practices because of this idea—our yes is yes, our no is no, we’re not embellishing or hiding facts, and we’re not duplicitous in our dealings. We believe in a fairness for all—this is part of our testimonies of integrity, community, and equality–and ideally, we are listening for the leading of Spirit in all we do, whether our encounters relate to business, personal, or spiritual matters.
Years ago when I taught at Earlham School of Religion, I had a number of students from the Swedenborgian church. In their tradition they were deeply dedicated to service for others. The George Fox of their church was Emmanuel Swedenborg, a polymath—meaning a brilliant expert in many areas of life—who was born three years before Fox died. So they were contemporaries, more or less, in different countries. In Sweden, Swedenborg was first a scientist, then a mining engineer, a city planner, an astronomer, and a highly regarded counselor to the King. Late in his life, in his 80s, he turned his considerable intellect toward matters of faith. As he began to explore the world of spirit with his inquisitive mind, God gave him glimpses of the next realm. In his books, he describes his experiences and offers how he came to understand them, painting a fascinating picture of heaven that’s different from the expectation of his day and different from the ways we tend to think about heaven now.
First, he saw that everything that we do in this present life helps to shape our experience of the hereafter. When we choose well, forgiving, caring for others, keeping an open heart, living by the teachings of Jesus, we are creating a momentum of love that continues on in the next realm. He wrote that in heaven, the highest and happiest experiences involve doing what we love best in the service of others. In his most well-known book, called Heaven and Hell he explains the domains of heaven and hell in a unique way as well. The plan is not, “good people go this direction, and bad people go that direction,” he says, but rather that we are each drawn into the community that best fits who we truly are at the center of our souls. Our eternity is shaped by what Swedenborg calls our “ruling love.”
So if loving God has been important to us in this life, the community we’re part of will also love God. If we have loved ruthless business dealings and always wanted to come out on top, then our community will be a community of ruthless business dealers, where the hunt of the chase, the acquisition of power, is what—I hesitate to say—we will enjoy. But it’s also true that people who have hearts for God or service for others or love animals or take care of babies, people with those kind of heart values certainly wouldn’t be happy in a community that exploits and deceives and is looking for the thrill of the chase. That wouldn’t be heaven to people of the heart. But also, in contrast, experiences like caring for babies and planting flowers and singing praises to God would not appeal to someone who craves mastery over others and winning at all costs. If competition is their “ruling love,” they won’t be happy in a heaven that’s all about praising God and loving others.
He also wrote that another feature of heaven is that no soul—no matter what community they are drawn to—can hide who they truly are and what they truly love. It is evident for all to see and there is no way to disguise the truth in any way. It is simply not possible.
So the great hope Swedenborg offers is that our lives today—linked even now to our continuing eternal life in the hereafter–gives us the great opportunity to live with more love, to open our hearts, to choose well and act truthfully, and grow ever closer to God. And George Fox shows us how to make those changes—by letting the light of Christ lead us step by step. Living with light and love and truth in all our dealings was the aspiration and intention of Early Friends, and our testimony of integrity carries through all we do today. Wilmer Cooper, the first dean of Earlham’s School of Religion, said that integrity is the most important of all our testimonies, because if we live with integrity in all we do, all the other testimonies—peace, simplicity, community, equality, and stewardship—will happen naturally as a result of the right order integrity brings into our lives.
In our Old Testament reading today we heard from the prophet Isaiah, as he promises the children of Israel that after this time of hardship and trial, God will once again turn with kindness toward them. “For the Lord is a God of justice,” he says, “blessed are all those who wait for him.”
When we don’t know what the right answer is to a decision we’re trying to make—when we aren’t sure whether we should do or not do something, go or not go somewhere—we can take it to God in prayer and wait for clarity before proceeding. That’s often hard to do—because we get impatient for an answer we feel we really need–but it’s also the best and surest thing to do. Clarity will come—and our yea or nay will be clear. Isaiah said, “blessed are those who wait for him.” Quakers have a cautionary way of putting that: Be careful not to outrun your Guide.
Isaiah also reassures us that God will be faithful to our trust and will give us the guidance we seek. “Your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.”
What a relief that would be, to know when we take a step that it is absolutely the right step—the one God would have us take. How secure would we feel about our Yea or Nay? There would be no inward struggle, no outward worry. We could be at peace in our acting in the world. The truth would set us free.
After all, we already know the answers to the biggest questions:
- Does God know and care about our problem? Yes.
- Is God with us right in the worst of it? Yes.
- Can God act to bring about the best solution for us and all involved? Absolutely, no-doubt-about-it yes.
And we don’t have to think of this clarity as some kind of far-away possibility, when the world calms down and things get sorted out and there’s no more pandemic hanging over our heads. We can take any decision, any question, any hurt directly to God—right now—and trust Him with our need. He sees it. He knows it. He cares about it, and He will answer it. We may have to wait a bit for a sense of peace, a glimmer of an answer to arise. Likely we won’t get a huge big answer with neon arrows in the sky pointing it out. God tends to be quieter than that. But if we’re listening, if we wait, we will begin to feel a change. A next step, an inward leading, a new idea will come to mind. Isaiah said so. George Fox lived it. Now it’s our turn to test it and in living out our witness to the truth of God’s presence, to let our lives speak.
One of the most beautiful ideas at the heart of Friends tradition is the idea that Christ is teaching us and it’s a step-by-step process. We are all on the way. We don’t have to have everything figured out today, but we can trust the One who continues to lead us. He teaches us how to use our Yes and No judiciously; saying Yes to the ideas and activities that keep God central in our lives; saying No to things that scare us, cause us to doubt, or sweep us up into the doomsaying of our time. Gradually, as our eyes adjust to more and more light, we see the places where God is working miracles of grace in our lives, inside and out. And then, gently, choice by choice, our circumstances begin to order themselves. Peace comes. Harmony spreads. It’s the love and loving work of God, settling and watching over our lives.
An important part of the minding the pure Light of God within, as Quaker Elton Trueblood has said, is to begin to discern what is essential and non-essential in our lives—saying Yes to what’s essential and No to what’s not. Early Friends felt the “customs and fashions” of the world were designed to inflate egos with puffery and pride, which made those actions duplicitous and manipulative; therefore, those customs were non-essential and outside God’s intent. In their daily actions, they said No, we won’t participate in that. Similarly, Friends spoke with plain speech—George Fox wrote, “we …say ‘thou’ to a particular and ‘you’ to a number’ in accord with what the Scriptures taught, which was an alignment that was a major essential.
George Fox quotes this New Testament passage in Matthew as the basis for Friends saying No to swearing oaths, in a court of law or anywhere else:
Again, you have heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I tell you not to swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is His footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor should you swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ Anything more comes from the evil one.
Answer simply and clearly, Jesus says. Use your words—sparingly, the essential ones—to speak the truth in the clearest possible way. Be clear about what you’ll say Yes to and what your faith tells you is a No. Turn toward God—and wait on God’s answer—to be sure. This enables everyone to see and feel the divine answer unfolding. We will recognize the ring of truth in our hearts and souls. When that comes, duplicity and deceit are done; and peace and right order are on the way.
In closing, here are a few related queries we can reflect on this week:
- Am I mindful of the words I speak, taking care that they are simple and true?
- Do my actions demonstrate my belief in “that of God in everyone” with the people I meet each day?
- Do I spend my time on projects and activities that add something good to the world?
- Do I share my spiritual life and experience with others?
- Do I turn to God for guidance on matters of conscience and care? And am I open to doing so?
Each one of those queries, asked in the quiet of our hearts, will likely give us a simple Yes or No in response. Each one is a tiny, perfect seed of truth, a gift of spiritual sight we receive, simply because we asked. The answers are just for us to know, held precious in Christ’s Light. But they point us in the right direction. Let’s plant them and see.
- OT Isaiah 30: 18-21
- NT Matthew 5: 33-37
- Artwork is “George Foxes Refuses to Take an Oath,” by John Pettie
- Cooper, Wilmer, A Living Faith. https://pendlehill.org/product/a-living-faith-an-historical-and-comparative-study-of-quaker-beliefs-2nd-edition/
- Swedenborg, Emmanuel. Heaven and Hell. https://swedenborg.com/product/heaven-hell-nce/