Because this heading and headings to follow concern reformation and regeneration, and reformation pertains to the understanding but regeneration pertains to the will, it is important for you to know the difference between the understanding and the will. The difference between them has been laid out [at the beginning of the first chapter of this book]. Therefore I recommend that you read that section first, and then read what is here.
The evils we are born with are in the will that is part of our earthly self; this earthly will pressures the understanding to agree with it and to have thoughts that harmonize with its desires. Therefore if we are to be regenerated, this has to happen by means of our understanding as an intermediate cause.
This process draws on pieces of information that our understanding receives, first from our parents and teachers, and later from our reading the Word, listening to preaching, reading books, and having conversations. The things that our understanding receives as a result are called truths. Therefore to say that we are reformed by means of our understanding is the same as saying that we are reformed by means of truths that our understanding receives. Truths teach us who to believe in, what to believe, and also what to do and what to will. After all, whatever we do, we do from our will and in accordance with our understanding.
Since our will is evil from the day we are born, and since our understanding teaches us what is evil and what is good and that it is possible for us to will one and not the other, it follows that our understanding is the means by which we have to be reformed. During the phase called our reformation, we come to mentally see and admit that evil is evil and goodness is good, and make the decision to choose what is good. When we actually try to abstain from evil and do what is good, the phase called our regeneration begins.
For this purpose we have been granted the ability to lift our understanding almost all the way into the light enjoyed by the angels in heaven. This lifting allows us to see what we ought to will and what we ought to do in order to be successful during our time in this world and blessed with happiness after death to eternity. We become successful and blessed if we gain wisdom for ourselves and keep our will obedient to that wisdom. We become unsuccessful and unhappy, however, if we devote our understanding to obeying our will. The reason for this is that from the time we are born, our will has a tendency toward evils of various kinds, including evils that are horrendous. If our will was not restrained by our understanding and instead we let it run free, we would quickly fall into criminal behavior; because of our inborn savage animal nature, for purely selfish reasons we would wipe out and butcher everyone and anyone who failed to show us favor or indulge our lusts.
For another thing, if our understanding were incapable of being perfected on its own and of then perfecting our will, we would not be human at all; we would be animals. If there were no separation between our will and our understanding and if the understanding could not rise above the will, we would be unable either to think or to say what we thought. We would only be able to make noises that expressed our feelings. We would not be able to act in reasonable ways, either; we would act on instinct alone. We would be completely incapable of knowing anything about God or seeing him through what we knew; as a result, we would be unable to form a partnership with him and live forever.
We have thoughts and we will things as if we did so on our own. This feeling that we think and will on our own is what allows for a reciprocal partnership [with the Lord]. No partnership can exist without reciprocation. For example, no partnership would exist between an active element and a responsive element if there were no adaptation or point of contact between them.
God alone is an active force. We allow ourselves to experience that active force and we cooperate with it to all appearances as if we were acting on our own, although inwardly we are actually acting from God.
From the statements just made, if you take them in the right way, you can see what human beings are like. You can see the quality of love the human will has if it is lifted up by means of the understanding; and you can see the quality of love the human will has if it is not lifted up.
It is important to know that the capacity to lift the understanding even to the level possessed by the angels in heaven has been created as a part of every human being, the evil as well as the good. In fact every devil in hell retains this ability, since all those who are in hell existed as human beings [in the physical world]. I have often been shown through living experience that this is the case.
Nonetheless, the reason the devils in hell are insane rather than intelligent in spiritual matters is that they will what is evil and not what is good. Knowing and understanding truths is repulsive to them, because truths favor what is good and oppose what is evil.
These points also make it clear that the first step in our being generated anew is to receive truths in our understanding. The second step is to intend to put those truths into practice; eventually it takes the form of actually putting them into practice.
No one can justifiably be called a “reformed” person solely on the basis of his or her knowledge of truth. By lifting our understanding above the love that resides in our will, we are all capable of grasping those truths, saying them, teaching them, and preaching them. A truly reformed person is someone who desires the truth because it is true. This desire attaches itself to our will, and if it persists, forges a partnership between our will and our understanding. Then our regeneration begins. (Later sections will deal with how our regeneration proceeds and is perfected after that.)
The following comparisons can illustrate what people are like when their understanding has been lifted up but the love in their will has not. They are like an eagle that soars on high, but as soon as it sees something to eat below, such as hens, cygnets, or even little lambs, it drops like a stone and devours them.
They are also like an adulterous husband who has a whore hidden in his basement. He keeps going back and forth to the top level of his house. Up there in the presence of his wife he says wise things to his guests about faithfulness in marriage, but now and then suddenly leaves to go downstairs and satisfy his lewd desires with his whore.
They are also like swamp flies that fly in a column above the head of a running horse. Once the horse stops, they plunge back into their swamp.
This is what we are like when our understanding is lifted up but the love in our will remains below, near our feet, immersed in the unclean desires of its nature and lusting for sensual gratification.
Because people in this state shine intellectually as if they possessed wisdom and yet their will is contrary to wisdom, they are like snakes with scales that reflect the light, or like beetles that shine as if they were made of gold. They are also like the strange light over swamps at night, or from the glow of rotting wood, or from phosphorus.
Some who are in this state can masquerade as angels of light, both among people in this world and, after they die, among angels of heaven. After a brief examination there, however, their clothes are removed and they are thrown out naked. They cannot be detected in this world, because here their spirit is not visible; it is covered over with a mask, like the one a comic actor wears on stage. The fact that they can use their faces and words to masquerade as angels of light is both a result and a sign of the fact that they can lift their understanding almost all the way into angelic wisdom, above the love in their will, as I mentioned before. Since our inner and our outer self can go in opposite directions like this, and because our body is cast off but our spirit remains, it is clear then that a dark spirit can live behind a bright face, and a raging spirit can lie behind soothing words.
Therefore, my friend, know people for what they are, not by their mouth but by their heart—that is, not from what they say but from what they do. The Lord says, “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but are inwardly as predatory as wolves. Recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15, 16).
from Regeneration, Pages 58-63