Swedenborg’s concept of use (or useful service) has a simple starting point: everything that has been created exists for a reason. Just as all of nature works together to form a whole, from the tiniest particle to solar systems and galaxies, so too does every person have a reason for being—a specific purpose to fulfill.
While it is true that everyone is born to fulfill some heavenly purpose in the design of creation, some people choose to reject their God-given calling. Instead, they perform functions that are entirely self-serving.
Swedenborg tells us, “Whatever love brings forth it calls useful” (Divine Love and Wisdom #336). This works in two different ways. On one hand, there are people who love goodness and out of that love for goodness do good works (what are called “good uses” in some translations of Swedenborg’s works). On the other hand, there are people love evil, and therefore find it useful to act in selfish and cruel ways. Whatever works out best for them what they call “useful”—even if it is harmful to others. It is for this reason that Swedenborg speaks of “good uses” and “evil uses.” Because we have free will, we can decide which direction to go.
Swedenborg tells us that all of creation—everything in the natural (material) world and in the spiritual world—was created with a goal in mind. That goal is to create a heaven from the human race.
Just as the Lord is always giving us opportunities to become better people and to step onto the path to heaven, the whole of the natural world is designed to support us in that endeavor. This is the ultimate use or purpose of creation. The food chain exists to support life because we need to live in order to grow both physically and spiritually The urge to study the world and draw conclusions from it exists so that we’ll develop our minds and, as a result, make a free, rational choice to become spiritual people (or not!). Religion exists to support us on our individual journey of spiritual growth—if we choose to embark on that journey.
Because everything comes from God, everything reflects and supports the perfect order of creation. Inanimate objects like rocks, living creatures like plants and animals, all of these things have a useful function to perform that is part of this design. Even the workings of our body—growing, eating, sleeping, reproducing, and eliminating waste—exist because those uses correspond to a vital function in the spiritual realm. For example, “sleeping” corresponds to resting in the Lord; “eating” corresponds to learning spiritual truth; “eliminating” corresponds to the removal of selfish concerns, and so forth. The myriad functions that our bodies perform in so many secret ways, even without our conscious cooperation, are a reflection in miniature of that grand design in which uses are being continually performed. (For more on this, see our page on the Universal Human.)
If that’s the case, then where do harmful objects or dangerous animals come from? Are those part of the design, too? Swedenborg tells us that many of the bad things that happen in this world—disease, for example—happen because of the influence of evil spirits in the spiritual world. The Lord allows them to choose evil, and will also allow them to manifest evil in this world. By confronting those evils, we discover who we truly are, and ultimately that helps our spiritual growth. But, as we saw on the divine providence page, the Lord doesn’t allow anything to happen that doesn’t eventually produce some good and useful result.
Being useful is also an important part of our spiritual growth. If we have chosen to embark on the path of regeneration and work toward becoming better people, then an essential part of that process is trying to be useful to others. This includes not only doing good deeds and helping people, but also doing our daily work well. A trash collector who does a thorough job of getting rid of people’s garbage is far more helpful to others than one who, in hurrying to finish the job, leaves trash strewn all over the street. A mother or father who stays at home with the kids is performing the very useful function of helping to bring up the next generation of society. A retired grandfather who spends his time studying astronomy might inspire one of his grandchildren to become a scientist. And sometimes, just being our true selves (the person God intends us to be), without pretending to be anything else, is the most useful thing we can do for others.
Although Swedenborg tells us it’s important to be useful to others, it’s also important to take care of ourselves. If a person quits her job to spend all of her time taking care of the homeless, that’s a very noble gesture, but without a way to support herself she’ll soon be one of the homeless people who needs care! In other words, it’s OK to think about our own needs so that we’re not doing harm to ourselves.
Swedenborg sums it up this way:
Can anyone fail to see quite clearly that the goals of creation are useful functions? Simply bear in mind that nothing can arise from God the Creator—nothing can be created, therefore—that is not useful. If it is to be useful, it must be for the sake of others. Even if it is for its own sake, it is still for others, because we are useful to ourselves in order to be fit to be useful to others. Anyone who keeps this in mind can also keep in mind the thought that functions that are truly useful cannot arise from us but from one who brings forth nothing but what is useful—the Lord. (Divine Love and Wisdom #308)
You can read more about what Swedenborg had to say about use in these passages:
Psychologist and mystic Wilson van Dusen wrote a short essay on the idea of usefulness in everyday life; you can download it as a booklet here.