Moving Beyond Self-Judgment
My sermon today combines the theme of repentance with one of the more famous sayings of Jesus, which is also my text for today. It is one of the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, that great collection of Jesus' teachings that the author of Matthew assembled in a three-chapter discourse from Matthew 5 through Matthew 7. The particular beatitude I'm going to speak about is Matthew 5:8, a very familiar one. It goes like this: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."
I want to begin by talking about how I understood repentance and being pure in heart earlier in my life, all the way back to childhood and adolescence. In those years, these two themes—repentance and being pure in heart—came together, intersected in my life, and that's because, in my mind, repentance was very much associated with sin. It meant to turn from your sins. It meant owning one's sins and feeling really guilty about them and resolving not to continue in them.
I heard this saying about being pure in heart moralistically, that is, as a moral demand— a very rigorous and demanding moral demand—and that's because I heard the saying in the context of Jesus teaching about lust being the same as adultery, anger being the same as murder. I heard those intensifications that we find in the Sermon on the Mount as meaning that we are supposed to be pure on the inside and not just on the outside.
I was a pretty good boy in many ways, a pretty good adolescent for that matter (I missed a lot of wonderful opportunities), and yet this saying would deeply conflict me. Even though I knew that my external behavior wasn't really all that bad, I also knew that on the inside I was not pure. I had impure thoughts, which of course we all recognize as a euphemism for sexual fantasies, and I felt very badly about them.
I also had other impure thoughts. I was covetous. There were lots of things that I wanted. I had doubts. My faith was imperfect, not pure, and so the season of Lent as a season of repentance meant trying to purify my thoughts, trying to purify myself on the inside. I would work hard on this, trying to get rid of my impure thoughts, though I was never successful. They remained, and I experienced them as an indictment of my repentance, as a sign of the failure of my repentance.
I now understand both repentance and being pure in heart very differently, and that's what I now want to tell you about. Let me begin with repentance. You will recall that in my childhood I thought of repentance as meaning turning from my sins. I now see that in the Biblical tradition, repentance actually had very little to do with sin and guilt.
We can see this by looking at the Hebrew and Greek roots of the word, which are different in each case. The Hebrew root of the word for repentance—teshuvah—means to return from exile. It's associated with the Jewish people coming back from the Babylonian exile to the Promised Land, to Jerusalem, to the place of God's presence. To repent was to return from exile.
Now, do a spiritual metaphorization of that. What does exile correspond to in our lives? Well, it's that feeling of separation from that to which we belong. It's that feeling of alienation. It is what Paul Tillich called a couple generations ago that experience of estrangement, separation from that to which we belong, that lies very near the experience of all of us. So repentance means a journey of return from our alienation.
The Greek roots of the New Testament word point to another meaning, and I see these as complementary, not as competitive meanings. The Greek verb metanoeo used in Mark 1:15, "The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent, "has two Greek words as its root—meta which means "after" sometimes, but in this context means "beyond," and noeo comes from the Greek word for noose, which means mind. To repent in terms of its Greek roots in the New Testament means to go beyond the mind that you have.
It's a very interesting notion of repentance to go beyond the mind that you have. The minds that we have of course are minds shaped by our socialization; minds shaped by our culture with all of its labeling and domestication of reality and all of its desires; minds shaped by our past; minds shaped by the age we live in. To repent means to go beyond the mind that you have to another mind.
I now understand pure in heart quite differently as well. To explain, I need to talk briefly about the Biblical meanings of both heart and pure. The heart in the Biblical tradition is most frequently a metaphor for the self at its deepest level, a level of the self below our thinking, our feeling and our willing, a level of the self below our thoughts and behaviors. The heart or the self at its deepest level is actually in control of our thinking, our feeling and our willing. And thus, when I was a teenager, by trying to purify my thoughts, I was working on the wrong thing. The problem wasn't with my thoughts. It was a level of myself much deeper than my thoughts.
We see this meaning of the heart in Jesus' well-known saying about the tree and its fruits. It's found in Luke 6:43-45, also in Matthew, therefore is very early material. Jesus says, "A good tree does not bear bad fruit, and a bad tree does not bear good fruit." Then, in case that's puzzling, He goes on to say, "Figs are not gathered from thorns [you don't get figs from a thorn bush], nor are grapes gathered from a bramble bush." You get grapes from a vine, not from a bramble bush. All of this is an image for the heart and its behaviors, behaviors in a comprehensive sense, meaning our internal thoughts as well as our external behaviors.
The point of the whole saying is that to try to change your heart by fooling around with your thoughts is like hanging figs on a thorn bush. You still have a thorn bush. You don't change it by diddling with the fruit. We need changed hearts.
The other meaning here is pure—to be pure in heart. You will recall that I had understood that moralistically. I think I got that moralistic understanding of pure hearts from the notion that to be pure is to be spotless in a moral sense. It is to be unstained. It is to be free from sin. But there is another meaning of pure in the Biblical tradition, which I think is the meaning intended in this verse.
This is pure as undivided. This is pure as whole. You recall the old Ivory soap advertising slogan—99 and 44/100ths percent pure. That means to be whole, to be undivided.
To be pure in heart is to be a whole self, an undivided self. What does that mean? Let me try to explain it by talking for a moment about the divided self or the divided heart. When we think about this, we realize we're divided in many ways. Let me give you some examples that range from the trivial to the more serious, to begin with the trivial.
divided whenever we are doing two things at the same time, which is pretty darn
often when you think about it. Some of you right now might be sitting there
listening to me and thinking about what you have to do when you get back to the
office. That's absolutely natural, but that's a divided self. It's not always a
bad thing to be doing two things at the same time.
For example, I do a lot of commuting, and some of that commuting is on a wide-open highway with very little traffic. I will think about other things while I drive, and it's very fruitful. So it's not always bad to have this kind of division within the self, in which we're doing two things at the same time. But if you can never stop doing two things at the same time, that becomes far more serious, as when that internal chatter is always going on in our heads like a sound track commenting on everything we're experiencing. We're divided at that point.
More seriously, we experience the divided mind whenever that internal critical voice comes on in our head—that voice that second-guesses you, that gets down on you. The tricky thing is that sometimes that voice should be listened to. Sometimes there are things that we get into that we probably shouldn't be into, and that voice can serve a function there. But again, if you're like me, that critical voice can be critical when it really has no reason to be so, that critical voice that basically says to us, "You're never enough, you're never enough."
In addition to that kind of divided mind, there is also what we might call a divided will. By this I mean that we want or desire more than one thing. Again, there is nothing terribly unusual about that. We live in a culture that conditions us to want a whole bunch of stuff. Most of us want to make an adequate income. I don't know that there's anything wrong with that. Some of us want to be successful in addition to that. We also want to be a good family person who has quality time with spouse and children, and we want time for rest and recreation so that we have a balanced life. All of those are okay wants, I think. I don't know about the successful one, but the other ones strike me as okay.
But all of you know—unless you've reached that level of saintliness that some people do— all of you know that these wants very oftentimes conflict. Can you have adequate R&R and an adequate income and quality family time and so forth? Sometimes it's not just that there are too many wants to fit into our days, but sometimes the wants directly conflict with each other. And we are divided.
In other words, this phenomenon of the divided self is our common state. Yet, if your life is like mine, the very best moments in your life are probably those moments when you have not been divided, when you have been undivided, whole, wholly present. This, I'm suggesting, is what it means to be pure in heart, to be undivided, to be whole.
A very provocative way of putting this comes from the great 19th century philosopher/theologian, radical Christian Søren Kierkegaard. He sums up what it means to be pure in heart with a three-phrase definition. I'm going to give you the first phrase first. Commenting on this verse—blessed are the pure in heart—Kierkegaard says, purity of heart means to will one thing, not many. The second and third phrases I'll do together, for they fill out his definition of purity in heart.
The second phrase: to will it unconditionally. What is that one thing? The third phrase: one's own self-acceptance. Purity of heart is to will one thing, to will it unconditionally, and that one thing is one's unconditional self-acceptance.
Most of us most of the time put conditions on our self-acceptance. Again just reflect about your own life here. I can accept myself if ________ and you can start filling in the blank yourself…if I'm attractive enough, successful enough, healthy enough, sensitive enough, et cetera. Whenever we attach conditions to our self-acceptance, then we begin to live the life of trying to measure up. We try to meet those conditions so that we can feel okay about ourselves.
This is life under the superego, that voice that says you're never enough. What Kierkegaard says is purity of heart is leaving that way of being; it is willing one's own unconditional self-acceptance. Now, in some ways, that sounds outrageous. Isn't that the way of narcissism? Isn't that the way of sociopathic narcissism even to accept one's self unconditionally? It's at this point that Kierkegaard becomes a Christian theologian, namely, he goes on to say that the reason we are to accept ourselves unconditionally is because God accepts us unconditionally.
This is very different from many forms of conventional Christianity, where God will accept you if your repentance is earnest enough, if your faith is strong enough, if your righteousness is good enough, and if you feel guilty enough about the times that your righteousness isn't good enough. Those are all conditional forms of the Christian Gospel, and once you have a conditional form of the Christian Gospel, you're no longer talking about grace. You're talking about performance, measuring up, works.
Kierkegaard, as a radical Christian theologian in the Lutheran and Augustinian and Pauline tradition, says grace means God's unconditional acceptance of us. And if God accepts me unconditionally, who am I to put conditions on it? By the way, this is also one of the central themes of Lent, unconditional grace. Two of the most common meanings or interpretations of the Cross are expressions of this, that understanding of the Cross which sees it as a demonstration of the depth of God's love for us. How much does God love us? God loves us so much that God is willing to part with that which is most precious to God, namely, within the language of the story, the only beloved Son. That's the depth of God's love for us.
The other very common interpretation of the Cross sees it as the once-for-all sacrifice for sin. If the once-for-all sacrifice for sin has happened—and don't literalize that or it becomes nonsense—if the once-for-all sacrifice for sin has been made, that means that God has already taken care of our sin and guilt. It is a metaphorical proclamation of unconditional grace, which is the central meaning of Good Friday and Easter.
I think we are kind of afraid of this unconditional self-acceptance. If I accept myself unconditionally, does that mean I'm never going to change? Even though I might be a little bit comfortable with accepting myself unconditionally, do I want other people to accept themselves unconditionally?
To guard against a misunderstanding, unconditional self-acceptance does not mean that nothing will change or that none of us need to change. Rather, if we begin to see ourselves as God sees us—as precious in God's sight and honored and beloved— we will begin to change. We will experience that freedom of the children of God, that self-forgetfulness of faith, that freedom from self-preoccupation that enables us to be wholly present to the moment and wholly present to the person in front of our face, free to see. An internal transformation begins that begins to change everything.
Copyright © 2000 Dr. Marcus J. Borg
Excrepted from a sermon originally delivered at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis TN as part of the Lenten Noonday Preaching Series.