READ : Matthew 5:8
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Jesus said if we want to know God, something has to change in us.
The Beatitudes are Jesus’ series of blessings that collectively define what it means to be a good person. The sixth one goes like this: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Have you ever noticed that something has happened to God lately? Somehow he seems to have lost his place in our world. Not that God has left us or abandoned us. I don’t think he has changed, but we have. Many 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. A lot of people don’t think about God like that today. In fact, they hardly ever think of him at all. In most people’s minds, God is not at the center of life any longer; if he is anywhere, he’s only hovering around the edges. For the majority, God is not the one who really controls all that happens, the one to whom we all must answer. 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. You don’t see him at all.
Nor do most people view human history any longer as a drama of which God is the author and director. Nowadays he’s 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 said of God: “I have no need of that hypothesis.”
The result of all this is that God is no longer God for a lot of our contemporaries. Even those of us who believe in him may not really believe in him, at least in the sense of understanding who he truly is, and living every moment of every day accordingly. For many 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 that, say, money affects our lives. 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 of us who have faith in God ought to be congratulated, almost as though we’re doing God some kind of favor by acknowledging his existence.
It doesn’t dawn on us that the problem is entirely with us, not with God. Jesus said that if we want to know God, something has to change in us. Listen to this again: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” The reason we don’t see God, the reason we may not know God, is not because he isn’t there or because somehow 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 see God face to face some day and to experience his life in fullness, 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 at the outset that the purity God favors is 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 types of purity, 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 merely the center of our emotions or feelings the way we usually think of it. It’s more like the core of our 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 (you may remember this story in the Old Testament) God sent his servant Samuel to anoint one of the sons of Jesse to be king. 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 to be such great king material. “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 purity. 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 pure or clean or 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. Do you remember in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan how the priest and Levite passed by the wounded man on the other side of the road? They were afraid to get too close, because if that man happened to be dead and they touched him, they would be made unclean by the contact. The priests and the Pharisees were especially concerned about this sort of ritual defilement. They were less concerned, however, about what Jesus called the “weightier matters of the law,” issues of justice and mercy.
Where all of 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 piercing irony records that during Pilate’s examination of Jesus, the governor 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, 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, in fact, of the very Son of God! I wonder what God thought of those who so carefully kept those external ritual rules even as they were in the act of destroyed his Son. I don’t think he’s impressed by that sort of purity, 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. That purity is personal and moral, not just a matter of carrying out rituals. “Blessed are the pure in heart.”
PURE IN HEART
But now let’s look at the other factor in this Beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” What does Jesus mean by pure? The word that he 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 alloys, wine unmixed with water, an army composed entirely of brave men without any cowards. Something is pure when it consists completely of the thing you want, unmixed with anything else.
When I was a boy they used to advertise Ivory Soap as “99 and 44/100s percent pure.” It was almost all soap, in other words, 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 our love for him.
I’m afraid I’m not pure in that sense, at least not yet. Part of me does want God more than anything else, but part of me always seems to want my old ways as well, the ways of sin and self. Sometimes I walk closely with the Lord but sometimes I seek out the haunts of my fallen nature. 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; we need to be washed on the inside. The stain of sin has to be removed. This was Jesus’ own view. One day when his disciples were debating about the religious rules of clean and unclean, 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 really. Where does evil come from? What is the source of the trouble in the world? Is it something within us or something outside of us? Is it our nature or our environment? Nature or nurture? Can it be corrected by external means by better education, better upbringing, the eradication of poverty, more extensive therapies, job training, recreation programs, free health care? The list goes on and on. Will those things finally solve our social and moral problems? Or is something more needed?
The Bible’s answer is clear. Ultimately the trouble is within us. You can change everything outside and we should work to be doing that. But in the end to make a lasting difference, unless change also takes place inside us, in our hearts, it won’t do any good. You can create utopia, paradise on earth, but put people into 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 pure hearts; we need new natures.
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 sincerely in Jesus Christ. If you come to him honestly and humbly, if you give 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 just a beginning. Our hearts must actually be cleansed by the power of God’s Spirit, and we must become holy in fact, in nature, as we are in Christ. The purifying continues all our life long, and more often than not, the way God chooses to refine us is by fire the fire of testing, the fire of suffering, the fire of loss. But listen to this: the end of the process is we get to see God. And what you see is what you get.