The author, musician and preacher Marva Dawn has called this the most difficult Beatitude for Americans to understand, “because we have absolutely ruined the word ‘heart.’” I’m not sure I’d agree it’s the most difficult, but she has a point, as she usually does: when we think of the heart, it’s all about feelings. We’re ten days past Valentine’s Day, you don’t need me to tell you that. When we call someone “good-hearted,” we mean they have good feelings toward people around them—they’re kind and sympathetic and caring. They may also be spineless enablers who make excuses for everyone around them and are easily persuaded to do things that aren’t right, but that’s okay, because they have a “good heart.” Not according to the Bible, they don’t.
For the biblical writers, the heart was not the seat of the emotions; to the Old Testament writers, that was the kidneys, while the Greeks thought feelings came from the bowels. The Greek word that meant to be powerfully moved with emotion—wonderful word, splanchnizomai, sounds like a sneeze—basically meant to have your guts knot up on you. I don’t think it was used literally of a powerful cramp, but it could have been.
When the Scriptures talk about the heart, they mean a lot more. If you think about the human spirit, we’re three-part beings: the intellect, the emotions, and the will. We think, we feel, and we do—though not always in that order, or with all parts involved. The heart, biblically, involves all three of them, not at the superficial level, but at the core; it is the center of the intellect, the center of the emotions, and the center of the will. It is the root out of which the rest of our life grows—and as is always the case, the nature of the root determines the nature of the plant.
To be pure in heart, then, doesn’t just mean having certain feelings; it means to be pure in how we think, and what we think about, and what we desire, and what choices and decisions we make. In part this means not doing certain things, and we see that in Colossians 3; what is merely earthly in us, we need to put to death. But note the context here. We read verses 1-4 two weeks ago—seek the things that are above, where Christ is; set your minds on the things above, not on things of earth; for Christ is your life. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Last week, we read verses 12-14—put away anger and malice, don’t lie to one another, don’t undermine one another, but don’t stop there, go further: be humble and meek, actively patient with one another, and go out of your way to forgive others when you have a complaint against them, because that’s how Jesus forgave you. Blessed are the meek, and blessed are the merciful.
You see, purity of heart isn’t just the absence of bad things—don’t do this, and don’t do that; it’s a positive reality. What is pure gold? It’s gold that has nothing else in it: it’s all gold, and only gold, all one thing. What is pure water? It’s water that has nothing dissolved in it: 100% itself. So what then is a pure heart? Psalm 86, we used this for the call to worship earlier: “Teach me your way, O Lord . . . give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name. I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart.” A pure heart is a heart that is single, undivided, no additives, no preservatives, no high-fructose corn syrup: 100% set on God.
The Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard captured this in the title of one of his books: Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. When our hearts are impure, we desire contradictory things and our wills point us in mutually incompatible directions; we are at war within us, wanting both to follow Jesus and to spit in his face. We are divided against God and against ourselves. Purity of heart is singleness of mind and simplicity of will: no mixed motives, no hidden agendas, what you see is what you get, all for Jesus.
Again, as with the other Beatitudes, this is the Holy Spirit’s work in us. We can’t purify our will by force of will—our wills cannot purify themselves, for they cannot create a purity which they do not possess. Only a perfectly pure will can do that; only a perfectly pure heart can purify our hearts. Only Jesus can do it, by the power of his Spirit; and he is doing it in us, day by day, as we walk with him.
This is important, because it is the pure in heart who shall see God. Indeed, as the psalmist tells us, it is only the pure in heart who can, for God cannot tolerate impurity in his presence. At the end of all things, when this world is remade, those who belong to him, whom he has purified by his love and power, will be able to stand before him and see him face to face, as we now see one another—something which we could not now endure. Now, we are able to come to God in prayer because the blood of Jesus covers us, and he has declared us pure in him; but then, his work in us will be finished and we will fully and finally be what God in Christ has declared us to be, and we will see God with our own two eyes, with nothing in the way.
That’s a powerful truth; but I don’t think that exhausts the meaning of this Beatitude. It isn’t just that the pure in heart will see God in the new heavens and the new earth; it’s also that they are able to see God in this world in a way that others cannot. God is at work in this world through the body of Christ on earth, the church; his Holy Spirit is at work through us, and also in many other ways. God is still sovereign, he is still in control, and he is still fully engaged with this world he has made. The only question is, can we see him? To the extent that our hearts are divided and impure; like impurities in glass, the impurity of our hearts blurs and blinds our vision. The more God clears our hearts, the more we are able to see him in the church and in the world.