READ : Matthew 5:8
Have you ever heard it said that “What you see is what you get”? Well, that’s more true than you may have realized.
The sixth of the Beatitudes, Jesus’ series of blessings that collectively define what it means to be a good person, goes like this: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Did you know that something has happened to God? Somehow he’s lost his place in our world. Not that God has left or abandoned us. I don’t think he has changed any, but we have. We no longer see him as the all-powerful Lord and ruler of the world, the divine Sovereign who governs and controls all things, the supreme Creator in whom we live and move and have our being, the ultimate judge before whom we will appear and to whom we must justify our lives. In the world of the Bible, people knew all those things, and they knew that whatever else might be happening, it was always God who was at the back of everything, and that he was the one with whom they had to deal.
But not any more. People no longer think about God like that. In fact, they hardly ever think of him at all in day-to-day life. In most people’s minds, he’s not at the center of life any more; if he is anywhere, it’s only hovering round the edges. For the majority, God is not the one who really controls all that happens, the one to whom we are all answerable. Modern people, if they think about God at all, view him as a sort of absentee landlord, with the world as his apartment building. He doesn’t trouble himself with day-to-day operations or get personally involved in making repairs. He leaves all that up to the tenants. In fact, he doesn’t even collect rent any more. We never see him at all. Nor is human history viewed any longer as a drama of which God is the author and director. Nowadays he is not even an actor in it. As our civilization has continued to play its story out into modern times, we have first pushed God backstage and then out of the theater all together. As one modern thinker put it, “God has become a hypothesis for which we no longer feel the need.”
The result of all this is that God is no longer God for the vast majority of our contemporaries. Even those who believe in him don’t really believe in him, at least in the sense of understanding who he truly is, and living each moment of every day accordingly. For most of us, God is just a name, a sort of idea (and a rather fuzzy idea at that), a being who exists out on the fringes but who doesn’t really affect our lives in the way, say, that money does. Because it seems very hard in the modern world to believe in God and because we often have to overcome huge obstacles just to do so, we’re tempted to think that those who have a faith in God ought to be congratulated, almost as if they’re doing God some kind of favor by acknowledging his existence.
It never dawns on us that the problem may be entirely with us, not with God. Did you know that Jesus said if we want to know God, something has to change in us? Listen to this: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” The reason we don’t see God or know God is not because he isn’t there or because he’s somehow changed or because it’s no longer possible for modern people to believe in him. No. It’s because our hearts are not pure. The barrier is on our side, not his. It is within us. And if we do want to come into the presence of God some day and experience his life, if we want to know him even here and now, then we need to change. We need to become pure.
PURE IN HEART
It’s obvious right from the outset that the purity God favors is a purity of a particular kind. That’s why Jesus qualifies his blessing. It is the pure in heart who get to see God. Jesus contrasts this kind of purity with other kinds; with two in particular. In the first place, purity of heart is internal rather than merely external. Jesus is talking about what we’re actually like on the inside, not just how we appear to be on the outside. The heart, in biblical psychology, is not the center of emotions or feelings the way we usually think of it. It’s more like the core of one’s personality. So purity of heart means purity at the very center, in your inmost self. It’s a purity that characterizes you as you truly are rather than the superficial you, the outward you.
Long ago in the Old Testament, God sent his servant Samuel to anoint one of Jesse’s sons king in place of Saul. Jesse had seven adult sons, each of whom appeared to Samuel to be worthy of anointing, but the Lord would not let him choose any of those who seemed so king-like. “Do not look on his appearance or the height of his stature,” God said to Samuel. “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7, nrsv). And what he wants to see there, Jesus reminds us, is purity.
Secondly, purity of heart means moral rather than ceremonial cleanness. Many religions have a great concern for ritual cleansing. There are taboos to be observed, ceremonies to be performed, washings to undertake, sacrifices to offer – all with an eye to making one’s self acceptable to God. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were concerned with that kind of purity. They followed the law to the letter in all ceremonial matters, faithfully performing all the washings and ablutions and anointings. They were especially concerned about ritual defilement, about becoming unclean through contact with the outside world. They were less concerned, however, about what Jesus called the “weightier matters of the law,” issues of justice and mercy.
Where all that could lead is most clearly illustrated in Jesus’ own history. Nowhere is the hypocrisy of pharisaical religion more obvious than at the death of Jesus. The same religious leaders who were so scrupulous, so punctilious about the ceremonies of the law, were the very men who seized and condemned Jesus and delivered him to Pilate, the Roman governor, in order to have him crucified. John’s Gospel, with an irony that would be delicious if the occasion were not so tragic, records that during Pilate’s examination of Jesus, the governor himself was forced to come outside in order to speak with Jesus’ accusers because none of the religious leaders would enter his palace. Why? Well, they were planning to eat the Passover feast later that day, you see, and to go into a Gentile’s house would have made them ceremonially unclean. Here we have the spectacle of the whole company of religious leaders scrupulously preserving their ritual purity while carrying out the murder of an innocent man! I wonder what God thought of those who so carefully kept all the rules even as they destroyed his Son – and then hurried off home afterwards to worship him. I don’t think he’s impressed by that sort of thing, do you? No, the kind of purity God wants is purity of heart; purity that is first of all inward and genuine, not just for outward show, and then that is personal and moral, not just a matter of carrying out rituals.
PURE IN HEART
Now let’s look at the other factor in the formula. What does it mean to be pure? The word Jesus chose suggests in the first place consistency or uniformity. It was used in Bible times to refer to a number of different things that were pure: grain without any chaff, metal that had no alloy, wine unmixed with water, an army composed entirely of brave men without any cowards. Something is pure when it consists entirely of the thing you want, unmixed with anything else. When I was a boy they used to advertise Ivory Soap as “99 and 44/100’s percent pure.” That meant it was almost all soap and nothing else. And that’s exactly what God means by purity. That’s what he wants in our hearts, only of course, he’s looking for 100 percent purity – purity of devotion to him. God wants our hearts to be pure in the sense of being entire and undivided and sincere in their allegiance to him.
I’m afraid I’m not like that, at least not yet. Part of me wants God more than anything else, but part of me also wants my old ways, the ways of sin and self. Sometimes I walk with the Lord but sometimes I seek out the haunts of my fallen nature. But God wants all of me, undivided, unmixed, without falsehood, inconsistency or hypocrisy. He wants integrity in me, wholeness, purity.
The kind of purity Jesus is speaking of also means cleanness. According to the Bible, our hearts are corrupt and defiled, dirty. “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked,” wrote the prophet Jeremiah. We need to be cleansed, washed on the inside. The stain of sin must be removed. This was Jesus’ own view. One day when his disciples were debating about the religious rules of clean and unclean (in this instance they were talking about food and dietary restrictions), Jesus took them to task. It isn’t what you put into your body that makes you clean or unclean, he told them. It’s what comes out. “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come . . . all these evils . . . and make a man ‘unclean,’” he said (Mark 7:17-23).
It’s an age old question. Where does all the evil come from? What is the source of the trouble in the world? Is it something within us or outside us? Is it our nature or our environment? Can it be corrected by external means – better education, better upbringing, eradication of poverty, more extensive therapy, job training, recreation programs, free health care. Will all those things finally solve our social and moral problems? Or is something more needed?
The Bible’s answer is clear. The trouble, alas, is within us. You can change everything outside and around us and it won’t do any good at all unless change takes place within, in our hearts. You can create utopia, paradise on earth, but put people in it and they’ll soon turn it back into the world we know. After all, we’ve done it before – in the Garden of Eden. No, we need a pure heart; we need a new nature.
Would you like to have that? Do you want to be changed in this way? It isn’t easy. Well, in one sense it is. All you have to do is put your faith in Jesus Christ. If you come to him honestly, sincerely, humbly, giving as much as you know of yourself to as much as you know of him, he will accept you, change you, wash you, give you a new heart.
But, of course, that’s only the beginning. Your heart must actually be cleansed by the power of God’s Spirit, and you must become holy. The purifying continues all your life long, and more often than not, the way of refining is by fire – the fire of testing, persecution, suffering, loss. But listen to this: in the end you get to see God. And what you see is what you also get.