The Peril and Promise of Purity
THE PERIL AND PROMISE OF PURITY
THE PERIL AND PROMISE OF PURITY
I’ll admit it, I am not a fairy princess nor have I ever imagined myself to be one. But as some of you might know, because I have basically told everyone by now, a pretty awesome woman named Kari, who is here today, has come into my life, and for her three-year-old daughter Emmalee, princesses are all the rage. Some argue about whether it is culture that conditions girls to like princesses and men to like explosions. I certainly think there is some cultural influence involved, but I also think there is something deeply ingrained in the male and female psyche. And as a girl becomes a woman, no matter how progressive she may be, there seems to be a desire in her to be treated like a princess. To meet Prince Charming, have a wedding where she is clothed in white, and to get married and live happily ever after.
I even met an African American Feminist theologian – certainly not your typical housewife, certainly not a believer in traditional gender roles – who talked about how the African American community needed their men to “cover” their women. I am not sure she even fully understood what she was saying, or the implications to her own theology, but I believe at its core when the Bible talks about the spiritual authority of a husband, it is talking not about the husband dominating the wife or even making all the money, but a husband spiritually covering his wife’s heart. Because there seems to be, in the hearts of women especially, a desire to be treasured, a desire to be pure.
Even the prototypical “ladies man,” if he settles down and has a daughter, may find himself more protective and honoring of his daughter than he was with many women in his youth. Men and women, we know the perils and promise to this purity language. We’ve been shamed by it, some of horribly so, but in the center of our hearts, perhaps we want it to be true. Perhaps we could believe in it if we knew what the world Jesus was talking about in today’s beatitude. For the peril of purity is that when we interpret what Jesus meant incorrectly, then people are shamed and flee from the Lord. The promise of purity is that if we discover what Jesus truly meant, then he promises us that we will see God. And I believe that it is when we see God, that we change, and the world changes with us.
We should note that today’s beatitude does not say blessed are the sexually pure, the theologically pure, the politically pure, the ideologically pure, the financially pure, or any other thing in this world that we use to gauge who is acceptable and who is not. Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. “ To understand what Jesus meant, we must first understand what the Bible means by the “heart” and, second, what the Bible means by “pure.”
According to Billy Graham, in his book The Secret of Happiness, “In the Bible the heart is considered to be something far more complex than a bodily organ. It is called the seat of the emotions. Fear, love, courage, anger, joy, sorrow, and hatred are ascribed to the heart. It has come to stand for the center of the moral, spiritual, and intellectual life of a person. The ‘heart’ is said to be the seat of a person’s conscience and life” (Graham, pg 127). The true meaning of the heart is a unity of purpose and emotion. It is living with a clear conscience so that in the clearness of our hearts people can look through our intentions and see our Heavenly Father working through us.
On the subject of purity, Graham says this: “The word which is translated ‘pure’ here was used in several ways in the original Greek language. For one thing, it was often used to mean something that was unadulterated or unmixed with any other metal, or milk which has not been watered down. Or again, it often simply meant ‘clean,’ like a dish which had been thoroughly washed or clothes that had been scrubbed” (Graham, 128). Graham notes that yet another dimension to the Biblical concept of purity was, “It also sometimes meant something which was purged of wrong so it could be used for right. William Barclay points out that it could be used of an army which had been purged or cleared of soldiers who were cowardly or weak and unable to fight. It would then be a ‘pure’ army, filled with dedicated and trained soldiers ready for battle” (Graham, pg 128).
Purity of heart is directing not just our emotions, but our entire being, towards God. It is the willingness to do anything for God, even when that means admitting we were wrong or sticking to the courage of our convictions, even when doing so would be costly for us.
I think a prime example of purity of heart, both today and when the Bible was written, is the soldier. Paul often describes the saints of the church as soldiers in the army of God equipped with spiritual weapons. What is it about the soldier that so embodies purity of purpose, purity of heart?
I have never had firsthand experience in the military or in combat. My grandfather served as a chaplain in the Pacific during World War II. And all my dad told me of my grandfather’s experience is that he saw horrible things in the Pacific theater and rarely ever spoke of them. But recently I listened to a Technology Entertainment and Design (or TED talk) by war correspondent Sabastian Junger entitled, Why Veterans miss war, and it gave me an insight into the experience of our veterans that fewer and fewer civilians understand these days.
As the title of the talk suggests, Junger tries to explain the very common phenomenon of why veterans, especially combat veterans, have such a hard time adjusting back to civilian life after the war is over. To quote Junger, “Any sane person hates war, hates the idea of war, wouldn’t want to have anything to do with it, doesn’t want to be near it, doesn’t want to know about it. That’s a sane response to war. But if I asked all of you in this room, who here has paid money to go to a cinema and be entertained by a Hollywood war movie, most of you would probably raise your hands. That’s what’s so complicated about war. And trust me, if a room full of peace-loving people finds something compelling about war, so do 20-year-old soldiers who have been trained in it, I promise you. That’s the thing that has to be understood.”
Junger goes on to tell about the experience of Brendan O’Byrne, a soldier who returned home from Afghanistan and had gotten out of the army. Junger had Brendan over for a dinner party one night. To quote Junger, “I invited him, and he started talking with a woman, one of my friends, and she knew how bad it had been out there, and she said, ‘Brendan, is there anything at all that you miss about being out in Afghanistan, about the war?’ And he thought about it quite a long time, and finally he said, ‘Ma’am, I miss almost all of it.’ And he’s one of the most traumatized people I’ve seen from that war.”
“Ma’am, I miss almost all of it.” What possible explanation could Junger have for such a strange response from his friend who had returned from war back into civilian life? Junger poses an answer, which I think is profound, when he says, “What is he talking about? He’s not a psychopath. He doesn’t miss killing people. He’s not crazy. He doesn’t miss getting shot at and seeing his friends get killed. What is it that he misses? We have to answer that. If we’re going to stop war, we have to answer that question. I think what he missed is brotherhood. He missed, in some ways, the opposite of killing. What he missed was connection to the other men he was with. Now, brotherhood is different from friendship. Friendship happens in society, obviously. The more you like someone, the more you’d be willing to do for them. Brotherhood has nothing to do with how you feel about the other person. It’s a mutual agreement in a group that you will put the welfare of the group, you will put the safety of everyone in the group above your own. In effect, you’re saying, ‘I love these other people more than I love myself.’”
I love these other people more than myself, more than my own life. In the Bible, that is what we call sacrificial, selfless, or agape love. It is the love with which God loves us, sending his Son, while we were still sinners, to die for us. It is the love that a husband is told to have for his wife, that he may lay his life down for her as Christ laid his life down for the church. It is the love of a soldier for his or her brothers and sisters in arms.
I was reminded of purity of heart and the soldier when I was watching the 1999 film The Thin Red Line, which focuses on the taking of Guadalcanal in World War II. The movie is as much a spiritual reflection as it is a war movie. In the pivotal scene, Captain James Staros is ordered by the egotistical Lt. Colonel Gordon Tall to take a machine gun bunker on a high hill through a frontal assault. Staros refuses a direct order, saying that he had been with his men for two years and would not send them on a suicide mission. Instead, he sends them on a flanking maneuver that saves the entire company and wins the battle. For his efforts, he is relieved of command and quietly sent back to the States. As he leaves, his men thank Staros for looking out for them. Staros tells his men that they have been like sons to him. And in his inner monologue, the audience can hear him thinking, “You are my sons, my dear sons, you live inside me now. I’ll carry you wherever I go.”
You see, purity of heart is not just about brotherhood it is also about purpose, it is about leadership, it is about conviction and compassion. As those men approached the thin red line between life and death, they were being ordered around, not led, by Colonel Tall, a man who had no regard for their lives, only for his own goal, his own glory, and was willing to sacrifice them for no reason. Tall had never been shot at, he was safe behind friendly lines, he had not been forged in the crucible as Staros had been with his men. Staros stood as the Roman Centurion in Matthew chapter 8 did, with soldiers below him, and bureaucrats above him. Staros, like the Centurion, knew the weight of leadership, he knew what was at stake, but was not so far removed that a lack of compassion and pursuit of the goal had turned his heart to stone. He brought the purity of purpose his brotherhood needed to achieve their mission.
In the opening scene of the movie, we are introduced to Private Witt, a soldier who has gone AWAL with one of his fellow soldiers on one of the many remote islands in the Pacific. As the movie opens, Witt is getting to know the native people, fishing with them, swimming with them, celebrating with them, even flirting with their women. It is the closest thing to peace and paradise you will see in the movie. During this peaceful time, Witt reflects on the death of his mother. In his words, “I remember my mother when she was dying. Looked all shrunk of and gray.I asked her if she was afraid. She just shook her head. I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. I heard people talk about immortality, but I ain’t seen it. I wondered how it’d be when I died. What it’d be like to know that this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did. With the same… calm. Cos that’s where it’s hidden – the immortality I hadn’t seen.” And indeed, at the end of the movie, Witt acts as a decoy, leading a Japanese patrol away from his fellow soldiers, so that his friend could return to his platoon and warn them of the impending attack. He died in an open field. Surrounded by the enemy. But at peace.
It is sort of insane that Jesus should say “blessed are the pure in heart,” for later on in Matthew 15:10-20, Jesus declares, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person… But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” The Pillar New Testament Commentary says this about Jesus’ teaching on the pure in heart: “The heart is not the place where we naturally expect purity, but Jesus demands purity right there. To be pure in heart is to be pure throughout (Psalm 24). And the consequence of this kind of purity is that they will see God. There is a sense and a measure in which this is true of life here and now. The pure in heart see God in a way that the impure never know. But the main thought is surely eschatological; it points us to a vision too wonderful to be fully experienced in this life but that will come to its consummation in the world to come” (pg 100).
That’s where it is hidden, the immortality I haven’t seen, in the calm. I think a lot of us may feel like Witt at our wit’s end. Caught up in chaos and conflict. Conflict in our families, conflict in our church, conflict in our nation. We stake out a hill to die on, a Maginot line, where we say “this far and no further.” And yet the winds of change, some good, and some bad, sweep in and do a blitzkrieg on all that we have lain in concrete, outflanking us in a blink of an eye. We are so anxious, so caught up in the heat of the battle, in defending our own position, in proving the other side wrong, that we simply can’t be still and find that calm. That place of rest, that place that maybe we have had moments of in our life, but we have never had the discipline to pursue. For it is from that place of stillness that we can hear the still small voice of the Lord and act in the purity of His Will instead of the impurity of our hearts.
To quote Erik Kolbell, “Anxious moments are impure moments because in them we are not disposed to God, not listening to God’s assurance that things will play out as they must, and that God will help us with all of our whatifs. Instead we are consumed with precisely the things that Jesus – a man who never had a steady job or a roof over his head, who never knew where his next meal was coming from or when he would be arrested for the courage of his convictions – has told us to let go of. Purity of heart means lightening our psychological and emotional loads;
What is the benefit to a man if he gains the whole world but looses his soul? If he wins the battle but all his men are dead in the end? When we let go of the need to be right, the need to have the last word, and enter into the stillness, and let the word of God which is a double edged sword, dividing soul from spirit, bone from marrow, when we let that living Word of God sift through us and undo us, we become the instruments of peace the Lord needs us to be. For we have received by faith a kingdom that cannot be shaken. And since we have received such a kingdom let us offer to God, acceptable worship, our lives as a living sacrifice, our minds to be renewed, fear to be cast out through the perfect love of God. Let us worship Him with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. And he is coming to purify our hearts. ( Hebrews 12:29, Romans 12:1)