“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
We live in a culture where identities are under attack. Online predators don pseudo-identities in order to lure unwary victims using their private information in order to strip their bank accounts or exploit them sexually. Almost daily the news warns of identity fraud or identity theft where our identities can be taken over by criminals so they can take advantage of us. Even more complex is the matter of gender identity which is increasingly finding its way into public discourse. Back in February 2014 Facebook provided its users with a bewildering array of 58 gender identity choices they could use to describe themselves on the sexual continuum – that is, 58 ways of signifying their precise gender preference excluding the traditional male and female identifiers. In fact in our present-day world gender is now so fluid that it is no longer linked to biological realities but rather to subjective feelings. This maze of complexity and off-kilter logic has complicated rather than clarified one’s identity. It is into this mishmash of confusion that Jesus’ message about purity of heart takes on new force as it strikes at the very core of the identity issue. Linked as it is to the other beatitudes, it provides the only clear way forward.
Purity of Heart = Seeing God
First of all, what does it mean to have a pure heart? Additionally, what does it mean to see God? And why is seeing God the desirable result of having a pure heart? The Scriptures testify to the fact that purity of heart is the only means by which anyone can see God. In this vein the writer of Hebrews exhorts his readers to:
“Strive for peace with everyone and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14, emphasis mine).
And again in 1 John 3:2-3 we read:
“Beloved we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (again, emphasis is mine).
So then, what does it mean to be “pure in heart”? Does it mean to be sinless? If so, then none of us qualifies except for Jesus! But if only pure hearts qualify to see God, then how am I ever going to see him, because my heart is decidedly impure? Since it is Jesus himself who is demanding this purity of heart, then he must also provide the means by which this seemingly impossible condition is possible. In reality, all the Beatitudes are impossible to achieve or to demonstrate using our own brute human strength and ingenuity. Only the breath of God – his Holy Spirit – can make this purity of heart a reality in me.
The Heart of the Matter
The issue before us is purity of heart. First of all, when the Bible talks about the heart we need to know what it is referring to. The heart is not merely the muscle situated roughly in the center of our chests that pumps blood around our bodies. Scripturally, the heart is the center of one’s being, the wellspring or headwaters of life (Proverbs 4:23), the very core of one’s substance as a human being. Jesus said that what is in my heart dictates my outward actions as well as what comes out of my mouth (Matthew 12:33-37; cf. 15:18-20 and Luke 6:43-45). If there are good things stored in the heart, there will be corresponding good actions in my hands and feet. If there’s trash coming out of my mouth, then there is trash in my heart. And so the question is: who or what fills my heart? Who or what controls my heart? Everything we do, say or think emanates from the heart. Why do you suppose the first and foremost of all commandments is, to love your God with your whole heart?
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart (Deuteronomy 6:5-6).
Did you notice where this love for God must be found first? It must begin at the core of one’s being, the heart. The heart is of first importance.
We’re going to jump ahead to the last part of this Beatitude – the promise part – where we are told what happens to those who are pure in heart. In many ways I feel totally unqualified write this area since I have such limited life experience living out Jesus’ words. But allow me to make some observations and suggestions about what seeing God might look like.
First of all, it is a gift of mercy and grace that anyone should be allowed to see God at all! In many Old and New Testament contexts, to see God is a terrible thing; to see God’s face is a frightening experience which may result in death for the beholder. But here, in the promise uttered by Jesus, it is the reward given to those whose hearts are pure. So how is the face of this dangerous and invisible God “seen”? What could Jesus be talking about here?
Seeing God in Creation
I suppose the most basic way we can speak of “seeing” God is by observing the creation, the world which we believe our God created from nothing. When we look at the beauty and complexity and intricacy of creation from the vastness of the universe, to the beauty of scenery, to the diversity of living creatures, we are, in a certain sense, seeing God. Psalm 19 speaks of two kinds of revelation. The middle section of the psalm (verses 7-11) deals with how God’s will is revealed in his word. This is called special revelation. But the first part of the psalm (verses 1-6) declares that God’s glory is revealed in the natural world, that is, in the observable cosmos. Paul elaborates on this theme in Romans 1:19-20 when he states,
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
Years ago my wife and I stood on the shores of Lake Winnipeg when a storm swept across the water of that huge lake and we both independently had a sense of God’s mysterious and powerful presence and our own puniness. It overwhelmed us. Or another time we watched the mighty waves crashing on the rocks at the Amphitrite Lighthouse on the west coast of Vancouver Island and there again we sensed the overwhelming presence of God . It’s as if we heard the roar of his thunderous voice in those rushing waters (Revelation 1:15).
Clearly, God has created the world in such a way that we are meant to see something of him in it. With pure hearts we gaze at the cosmos and see him and we worship. Does this mean that those who do not have faith in God do not see the beauty of the created world? Of course not! But they do not have the capacity to “see” God in it. Only those who have a pure heart look at creation and see God.
Seeing God in the Face of Jesus
In part, the answer to the question of how do we see God, is also found in the doctrine of the incarnation. In other words, Jesus makes the invisible God visible.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . No one has ever seen God; the only Son who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:14, 18).
What is more, Jesus makes the terrifyingly unapproachable glory of God (1 Timothy 6:16) approachable. In other words, in Jesus we have a “full on” view of the God the Father (John 10:30; 14:9). And it is only the pure in heart who are able to recognize in Jesus the face of the Father.
“. . . no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27).
When our sin-deadened heart is regenerated by the Spirit of God in this sojourn of faith (expressed so concisely in the Beatitudes), we come to the place where our purified hearts are ready to look upon Jesus and recognize in his face, the face of our Creator God. Purity of heart, then, gives us that new perspective, that renewed vision whereby God is revealed to us in the person of his Son.
Seeing God Eschatologically (i.e. at the end of days)
Many commentators believe that what Jesus is referring in Matthew 5:8 is an eschatological revelation of God when the Kingdom of God is fully consummated. This is certainly one of the ways in which the pure in heart will see the face of God. The New Testament has a number of references that speak of seeing Jesus when he returns. But when it comes to actually beholding the face of God, none is more direct and vivid than Revelation 22:3-4 which states,
“No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.”
Seeing God’s Face in the “Least of These”
Perhaps there is an additional truth to derive from this text, namely, that a purified heart enables us to see the face of God in the faces of other Christ-followers who are experiencing critical and chronic need. Could it be that a pure heart enables us to see more clearly God’s face in the poor, the naked, the hungry and the prisoner? In Matthew 25:35-40 Jesus declared that if you serve the least of his brothers and sisters, you serve him. So in a real sense, when we look at the poor, the needy and the suffering Christians of this world, we are looking into the face of the Lord. For me this truth is convicting because of how often I have missed seeing because I did not take time to serve other Christians who were in need? That tells me something about the condition of my own heart; if I do not see the Lord in their faces, then perhaps my heart is far from pure.
Having a Pure Heart
The more I contemplate this Beatitude, the more I am convinced that being pure in heart has everything to do with restoring our identity. Let’s journey back once again to the creation-fall-curse account in Genesis. We’ve already established (in previous installments) that what happened there was something like a cosmic tsunami. The unrelenting wave of destruction that rolled across humanity and the cosmos destroyed and distorted everything. We have discussed how all primary relationships were damaged. The most primary of those relationships was between God and humanity. The intimacy and innocence that originally defined that relationship was lost. But in Genesis 3:15 (sometimes referred to as the proto-evangel) God mitigated the effects of the fall by promising a deliverer, one who would crush the head of the serpent. And thus the long history of salvation began; the long road of the redemption that leads to the restoration of all things. The real turning point along that road occurred when Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God through preaching and accompanying miracles, finally culminating in his bodily resurrection. In his act of sinless self sacrifice on the cross followed by a triumphant victory over death, Jesus mapped out the pathway for the new humanity. True, Jesus is the unique Son of God, but in him we also discover what it looks like to be truly human! Jesus is the prototype. And for us, that prototype leads to the issue of identity. In him we are restored to what we were created to be. In him, our true identity as the image and likeness of God is re-established. In him we find, just like Jesus did at his baptism, that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters, in whom he is well pleased. In him, we find that we are his brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:48-50), joint heirs along with him of the inheritance of God (Romans 8:17).
What happens when we embrace the salvation and forgiveness that Jesus offers? What happens when we repent of our sin and bow our knees to his lordship? What happens when we hear God say to us that we are his beloved daughter or son, and that he is well pleased with us? If we truly understand and believe this in the core of our being, it changes everything. If we truly grasp that, in Jesus Christ, we are just as loved by the Father as he loves his only begotten Son, it positively transforms everything! Fear is banished, our identity is secured and our trust in God’s plan and purpose is established. Our holiness — that is, our set-apartness from sin and to God — increases exponentially! So I maintain, purity of heart is intimately connected with the idea of our identity and rediscovering that identity in Jesus.
I am learning this lesson rather slowly. Back in the 1990s I remember attending a gathering which dealt with men’s deep heart issues. An exercise all were encouraged to participate in was being paired with an older man who spoke a blessing over us younger men. For me it was a bit of an uncomfortable moment when the man who was paired with me (I think his name was Dave) looked straight into my eyes and declared: “On behalf of God the Father I say to you, Dan, you are my son whom I love, with you I am well pleased.” The fact that I remember that moment so vividly is testimony to the fact that a significant transaction took place in my life that evening. But only part of me believed those words, and to be honest, it is still only part of me that believes them today. I struggle mightily with being acceptable before God. I know all the theology, but I battle inwardly to truly accept it (as I’m convinced many of us do), to accept this restored identity. More recently, the Lord whispered to me again in my quiet time. Reading how God chose and redeemed Israel in Deuteronomy followed by how God was Israel’s keeper in Psalm 121, I felt the strong inner voice of God’s Spirit saying to me, “Dan, I chose you and you are my heritage. I had to stretch my arm a long way to save you, but save you I did. And do you know what, Dan? I’m going to keep you, because you’re a keeper!” Wow!
Those words became an anchor to my soul. When discouragement comes, as it inevitably does, those words reverberate in my heart: “I chose you, and you’re a keeper.” Thank you Father. They are words that establish identity (“you are chosen”) and thus they are words that purify my heart by keeping it undivided and unsullied.
Purity of heart is a heart defined by singleness of devotion to God, undivided loyalty to his mission and a restored and reshaped identity. A pure heart looks at people and sees them as God sees them. A pure heart treats people as Jesus would treat them. A pure heart is one that finds its identity in God. And strangely, that identity frees the pure heart to enjoy the very earthly things of this life and to see God here and now in a multitude of ways. The defilement of competing identities and divided loyalties have given way to the one: I am a beloved son or daughter; I am chosen; I belong to Abba; no other pursuit or object holds sway over me. This is what it means to have a pure heart. But how do I get there? How do I get from where I am, to where I am supposed to be?
The sequence of the Beatitudes once again provides the solution. In this Magna Carta of the Kingdom, Jesus has set out the solution for our sinful predicament in a sequential manner. First, poverty of spirit, that is, total bankruptcy in the sphere of our spiritual realm is addressed. As Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “God creates everything out of nothing – and everything which God is to use he first reduces to nothing.” Starting from nothingness, we realize our powerlessness to impress God or to lift ourselves from our own pitiable condition. We, like the despised tax collector, bow our heads and beat our breasts as we cry out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). We move then to mourning – mourning over the loss of relationship with our Creator. In mourning we are moved into the state of repentance which proceeds from recognizing our impoverished state. Repentance is followed by meekness which is a further acknowledgment of our rebellion followed by a submission to God’s rulership and sovereignty. We acknowledge our meek/weak status. Indeed, we embrace it because it is the only place we can begin anew to take hold of the stewardship given to us by God alongside our image-ness. Ironically and counter-intuitively, meekness/weakness bestows on us the freedom to rule God’s good creation in the way he intended from the beginning. This humility and tenderness toward the will of our Father-King in turn leads us into the condition of the heart that causes us to hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice, a commitment to seeing evil and injustice overturned and truth, goodness and beauty restored. This longing for justice is then balanced by the addition of mercy. Mercy is extended to those who are overwhelmed by injustice and are perhaps regarded as least deserving. Mercy (i.e. compassion, forgiveness and release) is extended even to those who express personal opposition toward us, who have wronged us, who are our natural enemies. Those who practice mercy toward the “undeserving” discover anew that they too are the undeserving recipients of God’s greater mercy. And in receiving the mercy of God, they begin sense that something has transpired in their own hearts, that a work of purification has begun to take hold.