Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In the tradition of the Church, this beatitude of “blessed are the pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8) has been interpreted in three ways: Ascetic, mystic and moral.

The ability to see God 

The mystical interpretation focuses on the vision of God. Gregory of Nysaa taught on our need to contemplate God and to purify our hearts from any worldly ties or distraction.

By clearing our hearts, we will be able to see God more clearly.

Later, Saint Bernard said: “Purify your heart, free yourself from all things, become a monk, that is, become singular of heart.”

What determines the purity or impurity of an action is located in our intention.

The ascetic interpretation focuses on chastity. This is the most common interpretation today and understandably so, in our highly sexualised societies.

If one can live with temperance and abstinence from immoral expressions of the lusts of the flesh, he or she will be able to see God more clearly.

Experience-wise, we know this to be true as guilt and shame often stand in the way of our sense of God’s presence. 

This may surprise us, but this interpretation was not very common in the early centuries of the Church.

Pure in purpose

Instead, the moral interpretation was the most common, where the focus is on one’s intentions. It fits the best in the immediate context of the Gospel texts.

Sin starts, not so much with an act, but intention.

Jesus taught that what determines purity or impurity of an action – whether in praying, fasting or giving – is located in our intention.

Likewise, sin starts not so much with an act but intention, for instance anger that leads to murder, and lust that leads to adultery. 

Jesus was an excellent example of one who is “pure in heart”.

In Mark 12:14, the Jewish religious leaders observed: “We know that you are true, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men, but truly teach the way of God.”

Jesus’ strong rebuke of hypocrisy is another reflection on what “impurity of heart” means. 

St Augustine taught clearly on this. He said: “All our works are pure and well-pleasing in the sight of God, when they are done … with a heavenly intent, having that end of love in view … It is not therefore, what one does, but the intent with which he does it, that is to be considered.”

I believe all three interpretations have some truth in them and taken together, take us deeper into this beatitude.

An irresistible attractiveness 

But I would like to call attention to the moral interpretation of intention as this is more easily missed today.

It is a lifelong aspiration to be what is pure, good and God-like in character.

In our social-intensive lives, where so much is determined by how others view us, we can all too easily slip into an “acting” mode. A lifetime of “acting” can form or “deform” our hearts in ways which we know are neither pleasing to God nor fits well into our aspirations to be better human beings.

Like the ancient prayer, we need to constantly ask: “Search me O God and know my heart today” (Psalm 139:23-24).

It is a lifelong aspiration to be what is pure, good and God-like, and to ensure that we grow inner qualities of love, humility, purity of intentions, integrity and so on. These qualities are universally recognised and when seen in us, attract people to God.

May we live for the audience of One that one day, we may hear Him say: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:21)

This article was first published in the weekly service bulletin for St Andrews Cathedral under the “Vicar Writes” column. More articles can be found on the St Andrews Cathedral website here.

Reflection and Discussion

  1. How would you describe the state of your heart in this season: Singular or distracted? 
  2. Do you often judge a person by his/her actions or their intentions? How might judging them by their intentions change the way you view them?
  3. If you have been a Christian for a while now, take stock of how you have grown in Christ-likeness. Consider this question over an extended period of time, say two, five or even 10 years ago. 
About the author

Canon Terry Wong

Rev Canon Terry Wong is the Vicar of St Andrews Cathedral. He writes weekly for the weekend service bulletins.