Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God. Matthew 5:8; 2 Corinthians 7:1
Søren Kierkegaard says that purity of heart is to will one thing. That one thing is God and his will. Apart from God, our hearts remain hopelessly divided. What is impurity, then? Impurity is separation from God. In the sexual sphere it is the misuse of sex, which occurs whenever sex is used in any way that is forbidden by him.
Impurity never pollutes us from without. It cannot be outwardly wiped away at will. Originating in our imagination, it breaks out from inside us like an infected sore (Matt. 15:16–20). An impure heart is never satisfied, never whole: it always wants to steal something for itself, and even then lusts for still more. Impurity stains the soul, corrupts the conscience, destroys the coherence of life, and eventually leads to spiritual death.
An Impure Heart Is Neither Satisfied Nor Free.
Whenever we allow our soul to be touched by impurity, we open it to a demonic force that has power to gain control over every sphere of our life, not only the sexual. Impurity can take the form of idolatrous passion for professional sports; it can be the ambitious craving for prestige or power over other people. If we are ruled by anything but Christ, we are living in impurity.
Impurity in the sexual sphere often consists in using another person, even when there is consent, solely in order to satisfy desire. It is there wherever people enter into situations of sexual intimacy with no intention of forming a lasting bond.
One of the starkest forms of impurity occurs when a person pays money for sex. A person who does this “becomes one with the prostitute,” as the Apostle Paul says, because he is using the body of another human being simply as a thing, a means of self-gratification. In doing this he commits a crime against the other person, but also against himself (1 Cor. 6:15–20). Even in marriage, sex for its own sake is sex separated from God. As Dietrich von Hildebrand writes, it possesses a poisonous sweetness that paralyzes and destroys.
It would be a grave mistake, however, to imagine that the opposite of impurity is the absence of sexual feeling. In fact, the lack of sexual awareness is not necessarily even fertile ground for purity. A person who has no sensitivity to sex is in actual fact an incomplete person: he or she lacks something not only in natural disposition, but in that which gives color to his or her whole being.
People who seek to live a pure life do not despise sex. They are simply free from prudish fear and hypocritical shows of disgust. But they never lose reverence for the mystery of sex, and they will keep a respectful distance from it until they are called by God to enter its territory through marriage.
For unmarried Christians, suppression of sexual feelings or simply avoiding the opposite sex is not the answer; only when they are surrendered completely to Christ will purity be found. In marriage, two people entrust the special holiness of the sexual area to each other. Yet in the deepest sense it is not they who give this gift to each other, but God, who created us all as sexual beings. Thus, whenever we give in to temptation – even if only in our thoughts – we are sinning against God, who created our sexuality for his purpose.
God wants to give inner harmony and decisive clarity to every heart. In this lies purity (James 4:8). As my grandfather, Eberhard Arnold, writes:
If the heart is not clear and undivided – “single,” as Jesus put it – then it is weak, flabby, and indolent, incapable of accepting God’s will, of making important decisions, or of taking strong action. That is the reason why Jesus attached the greatest significance to singleness of heart, simplicity, unity, solidarity, and decisiveness. Purity of heart is nothing else than absolute integrity, which can overcome desires that enervate and divide. Determined single-heartedness is what the heart needs in order to be receptive, truthful and upright, confident and brave, firm and strong.1
The Key to Purity Is Humility.
In the Beatitudes Jesus blesses the pure and the meek; he says that they shall inherit the earth and see God. Purity and meekness belong together, because they both arise from complete surrender to God. In fact, they depend on it. But purity and meekness are not inborn; they must be struggled for again and again. There are few things more wonderful a Christian can strive for.
The struggle against sexual impurity is not just a problem for young adults. For many people, it does not lessen as they grow older and more mature, but remains a serious struggle for life. Certainly a desire to live a pure life is good and necessary, yet it remains impossible for anyone to simply “resolve” never to give in to temptation again. Only through the experience of forgiveness can the gift of purity be given. And even then, our battle against temptations will continue. Still, we can take courage. No matter how often or how sorely we are tempted, Jesus will plead to God on our behalf if we ask him. In him we have the promise that we can find victory over every temptation (1 Cor. 10:13).
Yet only the humble can experience God’s infinite goodness. The proud never can. Proud people open their hearts to all sorts of evil: impurity, lying, stealing, and the spirit of murder. Where there is one of these sins, the others will not be far behind. People who strive for purity in their own strength will always be stumbling. Seemingly self-confident, they fall into darkness and sin because they think they can handle their problems on their own.
Each of us faces temptations in the sexual area, and our only hope in overcoming them lies in our willingness to confess our struggle to someone we trust. When we do this, we discover that we are by no means unique.
Frank, a young man who has shared with me about his struggle for purity, writes:
Even as a small child, I considered myself to be a special and “spiritual” person. Once I established this image, I found it extremely difficult to share my problems with my parents or with anyone else. As I grew up, all my energy went into being a “good” boy. I would watch people I thought were “cool,” and I would try to imitate them. This self-obsession continued during my college years. I chose to follow the crowd and drift along wherever the stream of college life took me.
As I grew older, I saw my peers maturing into functional adults. Scared that I was being left behind, I refined my efforts to hide my deep insecurity, a problem that by now amounted to a mental disorder. Rather than look for suave role models, I turned to men who seemed to be spiritually gifted and tried to copy them.
As the years went by, my fear that something might be chronically wrong with my life increased. Because of my pride, I was tormented and plagued by mistrust, doubts, and hatred. At the same time I led a secret life of sexual impurity. But I suppressed all this and lived in constant fear of being found out.
Too often I have watched people who could have been helped early on lose hope and slide further into sexual sin. Like an avalanche, their problems mount. Some even fall into a life of crime, drugs, and alcohol abuse simply because they see no way out. Often all such a person needs is a friend or pastor to point him toward God and encourage him to work for the purity he actually craves. (Frank eventually confronted his desperate need and asked for help.) A person’s intense self-absorption, which is often camouflaged pride, shields him from the great promise that every temptation can be overcome – if only he is willing to admit his failings and turn away from himself.
Humble people, on the other hand, live in God’s strength. They may fall, but God will always lift them up and rescue them from a downward spiral.
Of course, not only our struggles but everything in our lives should be placed under Jesus. Jesus overcomes the desires that tear us apart and dissipate our strength. The more firmly we are gripped by his Spirit, the nearer we will come to finding our true character.
Who Is Pure In Heart?
In the Sermon on the Mount we can see how seriously Jesus takes the daily fight for purity. He says that if we look at another person with a lustful glance, we have already committed adultery in our hearts (Matt. 5:27–30). The fact that Jesus warns so sharply against lustful thoughts – let alone lustful actions – should show us how important a decisive attitude of heart is in this fight.
Bonhoeffer writes, “Who is pure in heart? Only those who have surrendered their hearts completely to Jesus that he alone may remain in them; only those whose hearts are undefiled by their own evil – and by their own virtue as well.”2
Pure men and women are able to discern both the good and the evil in the sexual sphere. They are awake to its intrinsic qualities and fully aware of its goodness and beauty as a gift from God. But they are also keenly aware that even the slightest misuse of this gift opens the door to evil spirits, and they know they cannot free themselves from these spirits in their own strength. That is why they avoid every situation, including images, that defiles the soul, and abhor the thought of leading others into sin.
It is of vital importance that in our fight for purity we reject everything that belongs to the domain of sexual immorality, including greed, vanity, and every other form of self-indulgence. Our attitude cannot be one of “partial” fascination with lust – only one of complete rejection. If our hearts are pure, we will react instinctively against anything that threatens to cloud this attitude.
Here the church community has a great responsibility to fight daily for an atmosphere of purity among all of its members (Eph. 5:3–4). Accountability and mutual support are paramount. But the fight for purity must also go hand in hand with the fight for justice and the common good, because there is no true purity of heart without a feeling for the need and suffering of others (James 1:26–27). Purity is not just related to the sexual area; to know that a neighbor is hungry and to go to bed without giving him food is to defile one’s heart. That is why the early Christians pooled everything they possessed – their food and drink, their goods, their strength, even their intellectual and creative activity – and gave it up to God in service to others. Because they were of one heart and soul and held all things in common, they could battle evil in all its forms as one united fellowship.
Marriage Is No Guarantee of Purity.
It is an illusion to think that the struggle for purity comes to an end as soon as one is married. Marriage can even be a trap. Many single people think that all their problems will be solved the minute they are married, but the fact is that many of their problems will only begin then.
Certainly, the union between husband and wife is a great grace. It can have a redeeming effect, especially in the sense of softening one’s ego. But the redemptive effect of marriage in itself can never solve the need of a burdened conscience. Full redemption can be found only in Jesus.
A marriage certificate is no guarantee of purity. Whenever a living relationship with God is missing, sex quickly loses its true depth and dignity and becomes an end in itself. Even in marriage, superficiality in the sexual sphere spells ruin because it erodes the preciousness of the bond between man and woman.
It is tragic how so many today, even among Christians, use the marriage certificate as a license for satisfying every desire. A middle-aged couple I once met shared with me that, in the privacy of their own bedroom, they periodically watched pornographic videos to help “keep their love life alive.” They saw nothing wrong with this. “Doesn’t God want a couple to enjoy each other?” was their rationale. Little could they see how twisted and cheap their love life had become. Their attempts to substitute their lives with those of others only served to fuel their dissatisfaction with each other.
Nothing should reveal the need of God’s special sanction more plainly than marriage. Therefore, whenever a man and woman unite, they should have the attitude Moses had when he came upon the burning bush: “Here is holy ground!” (Exod. 3:5). Their attitude must always be one of reverence for their creator and for the mystery of marriage.
As the union of a husband and wife under God, sex fulfills its divinely ordained purpose in a profound way: it is tender, peaceful, and mysterious. Far from being an animal-like act, it creates and expresses a unique bond of deep, self-giving love.
When a couple experiences the sexual sphere in this way, they will feel that their union cannot be meant only for procreation. At the same time, they must always be mindful that through their uniting a new life may come into being. If they are truly reverent, they will feel such awe for the holiness of this fact that their coming together will become like a prayer to God.
Without Christ, a man or woman who has lived a life of impurity cannot grasp the mysterious depths of the sexual sphere. But in Christ there can occur remarkable healing. “For we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).
1.Eberhard Arnold, Innerland (Farmington, PA: Plough, 1999), 37.
2.Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan,1958), 95–96.