Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. This beatitude is everything. It captures the goal of contemplative Christian spirituality. It tells us the one thing that truly matters in life and what needs to happen for us to experience it. Even the most rationalistic, anti-mystical, fundamentalist Christians recognize that the words “heaven” and “hell” signify whether or not we experience communion with God. To “see” God is everything. Whenever you’ve have a glimpse or a taste, you realize that nothing else matters. Of course, the reality is that we see God all the time; we just don’t recognize God in the world around us.
Christianity teaches that all human beings are icons of God, meaning that we have the capacity to radiate God’s light when we’re properly aligned. The problem is that we’ve been corrupted by sin. There’s a range of understanding about the nature of this corruption. Many Christians believe that two historical human beings named Adam and Eve created sin by eating a fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. I believe that the Adam and Eve story is an allegory that speaks to humanity’s loss of innocence and the curse of self-consciousness both as a species in the primordial past and within each individual life.
Regardless of how you understand original sin, our inability to experience communion with God is the result of our warped view of reality caused by our self-preoccupation, which no human being is able to escape. Our hearts are filled with idols, addictions, anxieties, irritations, lusts, and resentments which are derived in our default state of self-idolatry. The things we do to hurt ourselves and other people have their source in these spiritual toxins in our hearts. That is why our hearts need to be purified. Christianity describes the purification of the heart as a two-part process: justification and sanctification.
The chief obstacle to any kind of spiritual growth is a posture of self-justification, the need we have for everything we’ve done to make perfect sense so that we react defensively to all criticism and correction. A person who cannot be wrong is imprisoned in the most impenetrable of spiritual dungeons. Sadly, many of the most virulently religious of Christians are trapped in this prison. They self-justify because they have not accepted God’s declaration that they are justified only by grace through Jesus Christ, even though they officially confess this doctrine as part of their self-justification.
The reason that Jesus died for our sins on the cross was to rescue us from this prison of self-justification. When we accept his sacrifice as our forgiveness, then we can admit our flaws and be honest and vulnerable with God and each other. That is how the stiff iron door of our hearts is opened. Some Christians believe that justification happens as a single instantaneous decision and conversion event. My life has not taken that shape. I am still learning to trust God and stop digging in my heels to justify my sin. Some days, I grow in trust; other days, I regress.
The more that we trust in God’s mercy, the more we are open to the sanctification of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is when our hearts are actually purified. The Holy Spirit cleanses our hearts of the fruit of the flesh like “lust, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, and carousing” (Galatians 5:19-21) and replaces them with the fruit of the spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
A metaphor that Christians use to talk about the justification and sanctification process is to say that we are crucified and resurrected with Christ. We “put to death” (Colossians 3:5) every part of us that belongs to our default selfishness so that we can become a “new creation” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). However, a danger can arise with the concept of “new creation.” If we expect our self-identity to be utterly discontinuous with our past and put on a front to prove to other people how “sanctified” we now are, then the iron door of our heart will snap shut and we’ll slip right back into the spiritual straight-jacket of self-justification. “Sanctified” self-justifiers are way more spiritually toxic than blatantly sinful ones, because their “sanctification” becomes their immunization against the disarming power of God’s mercy. “Unsaved” self-justifiers can still be saved, but “sanctified” ones may be sealed in their damnation.
This is why we should expect for our spiritual crucifixion and resurrection to be a continuous process. Every time God shows me how pathetically egotistical and untrusting of his love I am, it is a gift because it prevents my heart from hardening. A pure heart is not a heart that we’ve scrubbed clean until it shines like a crystal. A pure heart is a heart that is completely, utterly opened to God’s mercy. It still generates spiritual cysts and toxic enzymes, but God’s love has the access to wash them gently away.
Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is an illustration of what it looks like to have a pure heart. The priest and the Levite are the characters we would think to be pure because they are morally clean. They follow all the rules meticulously; they recite all the doctrine flawlessly. But sadly their perfect performance of piety hardens their hearts so that they don’t see God in the wounded traveler on the side of the road. When the Samaritan stops to help the wounded traveler, it’s not out of obedience to any particular rule. It’s because he is “moved with pity” (Luke 10:33). In other words, he does see God in the wounded traveler. It has everything to do with his heart, which was somehow uncluttered and un-self-justified enough to see the face of the other. True obedience to God does not look like meticulous rule-following; it looks like being moved by love.
Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan as his response to a lawyer’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” That means that the posture the Good Samaritan embodies is what salvation looks like. For some “liberal” Christians, this story means that the church should focus on community service and charity work and not worry so much about prayer and the Bible and all that God stuff. But that misses a critical linchpin of the story. You can do all kinds of community service work and provide material help to marginalized people with a heart of stone. In fact, some of the meanest people in the world are those who have to deal with the frustrations of working with poor people all the time and don’t have adequate practices of spiritual self-care. We don’t just need to do what the Samaritan did; we need to have the heart of the Samaritan.
A pure heart is a heart that can be moved by the Holy Spirit. To maintain this posture of perpetual open surrender requires daily crucifixion and resurrection. The best way to offer myself to be crucified and resurrected is through a life of prayer and spiritual discipline. The reason for fasting and praying and immersing myself in scripture is so that when I see the wounded traveler, my heart will make me stop. If I am not sufficiently surrendered, I will not stop, or I will stop for spiritually toxic, self-justifying reasons. The pure in heart are those whose hearts are like leaves blowing about in the breath of God. They are true icons of God because they can see God in the face of the other.