“Purity of heart,” wrote Soren Kierkegaard, “is to will one thing.”
I thought of that quote while watching triathletes compete in this past summer’s Olympic games. Each competitor swam nine-tenths of a mile, biked 24.8 miles, then ran 6.2 miles. (The Ironman Triathlete is far worse: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and at 26-mile marathon.) The mental toughness needed to compete in, let alone complete, such a race is nearly impossible for a confirmed couch potato such as myself to ponder. When you factor in the years of arduous, single-minded training that had prepared the athletes for the race, their accomplishment appears all the greater.
In a sense, of course, these triathletes were pure of heart. They willed one thing: Victory. On training days, they chose to swim, bike, or run, not to sit lazily about watching Jerry Springer on TV. And in the race itself, they willed themselves to continue swimming, despite the salt water inadvertently gulped while swimming, despite the fatigue of biking up steep hills, despite the muscle cramps and foot blisters brought on by stride after joint-jarring stride of the race. Why? To win.
Purity of heart is to will one thing, to choose the best over a host of lesser goods, and to stick with that decision when it becomes painful, which it always does.
Spiritually speaking, purity of heart means to “seek first [God’s] and his righteousness” (Matt. 6.3). It means to pray, with Jesus, “yet not my will, but [God’s] be done”(Luke 22.42). It means, following Paul, to think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable,” not to mention whatever is “excellent or praiseworthy” (Phil. 4. 8). Purity of heart, in other words, is a single-minded decision to pursue holiness, and thus to struggle against sin.
And what a bone-jarring struggle that is! In Romans 7.21–24, Paul writes: “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul’s good desires fought his bad habits, and the battle was so pitched that it was unclear which would win. I’ve felt that battle in my own life. Perhaps you’ve felt it too.
Without purity of heart, we cannot see God. But, problematically, we cannot attain purity of heart on our own efforts. In this life, the war between good desires and bad habits is unwinnable, by us at least, but not by Another. “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7.25). It is only by means of his pure heart that any of us see God.