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The Blessedness of the Pure in Heart

Blessed are those who have preserved internal sanctity of soul; who are conscious of no secret deceit; who are the same in act as they are in desire; who conceal no thought, no tendencies of thought from their own conscience; who are faithful and sincere witnesses, before the tribunal of their own judgments, of all that passes within their mind. Such as these shall see God in Nature and in Man himself.


God’s gift of a purity of soul

That will not take pollution, ermine-like

Armed from dishonour by its own soft snow.


Les purs de cœur sont les simples, les droits, les chastes, qui ne s’arrètent pas même à la pensée du mal.—LOISY.

If Jesus had said, “Blessed are the pure,” the thoughts of His auditors would have turned to the ceremonial purification that occupied so large a place in the religious life of the time. The idea of “taboo” finds a place in most of the primitive religions of the world. Contact with certain things and people involved exclusion from the tribal worship till some ceremonial of purification had taken place. The Book of Leviticus is largely occupied with the Jewish law of “taboo” and the ceremonial purification of the offender. In the period just before the coming of Christ the scribes had developed an elaborate code of ceremonial acts for the protection of the pious from defilement. On several occasions Jesus came into collision with these traditions of the elders, and on one of these occasions, when complaints were made that His disciples did not observe the ceremonial washings before meals, He took advantage of the opportunity to lay down a moral proposition that struck at the root of the whole system. Defilement, he told them, was from within; nothing entering in from without could defile a man—so, adds the evangelist, He “made all meats clean.”

In insisting on the entirely ethical character of purity, Jesus was appealing back to the teaching of the great moral leaders of the nation. As soon as the prophets began to recognize the essentially moral character of God’s requirements, it became clear that no merely ceremonial act could cleanse the conscience and heart. The prayer of the psalmist is, “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” and his assurance is that “God is loving unto Israel, even unto such as are of a clean heart.” Jesus swept aside all external “taboos,” and carried His demand for purity behind mere acts to the inner recesses of the character. “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” As He added “in spirit” to the first Beatitude, to show that it was not merely external poverty that was blessed, so here He added “in heart” to show that it was not external purity for which He was asking.

What, then, is purity of heart? The word “pure” means unadulterated. Pure gold is gold without alloy; pure water is water free of “specks of earth.” Yet purity is not a merely negative quality. Pure gold is gold as it ought to be; and a pure heart is a heart in which no unnatural impulse of evil is allowed to dwell. The pure in heart are those whose characters are in tune with God. The special characteristic of purity is whole-heartedness.1 Yet purity is no cold detachment from evil. “No heart is pure that is not passionate; no virtue is safe that is not enthusiastic.”2 The analogy of physical health will help us. Health is the normal condition of the body, by which it is enabled to resist the attacks of disease. When a man ceases to be “every whit whole,” the germs of disease enter in and dwell there. So purity of heart is the condition that enables a man to withstand the assaults of evil, since there is no traitor within the gates to open them to the enemy.

But in asking for purity of heart, was not Jesus setting an unattainable good before His disciples? Poverty of spirit, meekness, mercifulness—these are in some measure attainable—but who can dare to claim to be pure in heart? Yet it would be strange if this one Beatitude differed from all the rest in asking for the impossible. Purity of heart must in some measure be within our reach even now. We must not too easily despair of ourselves. As the single-eyed man is the man who turns his whole face towards the light, so the single-minded man is the man who turns his whole self towards God. He recognizes every evil impulse as something alien to his true self; he holds the citadel of his life in trust for the King, and if the enemy breaks in at some unguarded gate, he will never mistake him for an ally or tolerate his presence. It is a little unfortunate that the word “purity” should have come to be associated mainly with victory over the sins of the flesh, for in the teaching of Jesus it had a larger meaning. Pride and censoriousness and covetousness are as unclean as sensuality; every impulse is unclean that brings discord into the inner life.

There is a difference between purity and holiness. Holiness is an attribute of God, since He “cannot be tempted of evil.” In so far as any man is holy, he cannot sin. “He that abideth in him, sinneth not;” “He cannot sin, because he is born of God.” It is possible for a man so to walk with God that certain kinds of evil are, in fact, impossible for him. He has become “partaker of the Divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world by lust.”1 So, even here, we may become in some measure “partakers of His holiness.”2 But purity is a human attribute; it belongs to the character of the Christian warrior while still beset with enemies; it is like the peace of God that garrisons our hearts and minds. Like Sir Galahad—

My good blade carves the casques of men,

My tough lance thrusteth sure,

My strength is as the strength of ten,

Because my heart is pure—

we overcome evil things only when we are whole-hearted in our battle against them. So purity of heart is a condition to be maintained only by ceaseless watchfulness and constant prayer. “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love Thee, and worthily magnify Thy holy name.” Holiness is the goal that still lies before us, the “rest that remaineth” to the people of God when their warfare is accomplished; but purity of heart is the gift that God gives to His soldiers when they go out to the fight, born from above in the laver of regeneration. If they lose it, they must “be converted and become as little children” again, that they may not forfeit their right to the Kingdom of heaven.

In the blessing attached to purity of heart, Jesus carried the idea of the Kingdom to its highest conceivable point. The expression may have been derived from the idea of “seeing the face of the king,” a privilege granted, in an oriental court, only to the most honoured servants (2 Kings 25:19; Jeremiah 52:25; Esther 1:22). To see the king’s face is to be honoured with his confidence. But the thought is wider than this. To see God, in the Old Testament, is regarded as the supreme good to which a man can attain; yet “there shall no man see Me, and live.” Was Jesus thinking of the confession of Isaiah, “Woe is me for I am undone, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts”? How can a man dare to stand before the awful purity of God?

Eternal light! eternal light!

How pure that soul must be,

When, placed within Thy searching sight,

It shrinks not, but with calm delight

Can live, and look on Thee!

So the vision of God that Jesus promised to the pure in heart belongs to the Kingdom yet to be revealed in its fullness. But, as in the case of all the Beatitudes, the blessedness that is still future throws its light along the path by which the pilgrims are travelling towards the Kingdom. Even now it is true that the pure in heart see God up to the extent to which they are able to bear the sight. Darkly, as in a mirror now, but then face to face.

Nature is a mirror that reveals God, but purity of heart is the necessary qualification for seeing Him there. Science only reveals God to the man who brings to his task the moral character that loves goodness and sincerity. Wordsworth’s message to us all is that the presence of God in the world of Nature is revealed to the simple hearted, who have not sold their birthright for the mess of pottage that is all that the world will pay for it. But the revelation of God in Nature is incomplete. “The invisible things of Him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even His everlasting power and divinity”1 But the moral character of God is only faintly reflected in the mirror of Nature.

Then there is the mirror of history. It is not only in the history of the Jewish people that the moral law of God finds expression. “England too has a history that is Divine; an Eternal Providence presiding over every step of it, now in sunshine and soft tones, now in thunder and storm, audible to millions of awe-struck valiant hearts in the ages that are gone; guiding England forward to its goal and work.”2

But history reveals God only to those who live in the spirit of the 119th Psalm, making His moral law their delight. The complacency of a Macaulay, the materialism of a Karl Marx, the cynicism of a Gibbon, miss the clue to the interpretation of history. The teaching of Jesus was Apocalyptic in this, that He taught men to see in history the record of the judgments of God.

There is only one mirror in which men may see the whole mind and character of God reflected. “We see the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father”—not only the “Wisdom and Spirit of the Universe,” or the all-ruling Providence that shapes the ends of history, but the Father whose love reaches out to all His children, unsatisfied till they are holy as He is holy. The revelation of God in Christ is a moral, not a metaphysical, revelation. It is hidden from the wise and prudent, and revealed unto babes—simple-hearted men who respond to the moral appeal of the gospel story. The moral compromises in which we involve ourselves dim our power of insight, and the image in the mirror becomes blurred and faint, not because our intellectual powers have failed but because our heart has lost its purity. Doubts that are merely intellectual do not touch the deeper springs of conduct and character; it is the will not to believe that blinds the eyes of the heart so that it cannot see God.

It is possible to attain to a knowledge of God adequate for the purposes of human life here on earth, but the words of Jesus point on to a more direct and immediate knowledge granted to the pure in heart in the Kingdom of their Father, where His servants shall serve Him, and they shall see His face. Mysticism offers the vision of God to the elect few who are able to tread the mystic path to the end; but Jesus promised this final good to all who in the dusty highways of life keep themselves unspotted from the world. It is written of the way of holiness, “There shall not pass on it any that is unclean,” but, “the wayfaring man, yea fools, shall not err therein.” Yet Jesus knew that the type of character that He was setting before His hearers in the Beatitudes was not one that would attract the multitudes. It was a strait gate and a narrow way that He called them to choose.

There are who ask not if thine eye

Be on them; who in love and truth,

Where no misgiving is, rely

Upon the genial sense of youth;

Glad hearts, without reproach or blot,

Who do thy work, and know it not.1

But for most men the wide gate and the broad way prove irresistibly attractive. Only when we recognize that it is leading us away from the City of God do we turn and retrace our steps, asking for the purity of heart that is not afraid to face difficulty and danger, if only at last we may enter in through the gates unto the City and be satisfied with the vision of God.

1 “The single heart is the same as is here called the pure heart.” St. Augustine. Cp. St. James 4:8.

2 Seeley, Ecce Homo.

1 2 St. Peter 1:4.

2 Hebrews 12:10.

1 Romans 1:20.

2 Carlyle, Miscellanies VII.

1 Wordsworth, Ode to Duty.

Masterman, J. H. B. (1921). Aspects of Christian Character: A Study of the Beatitudes (pp. 84–94). Longmans, Green and Co. (Public Domain)

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