It used to be that people named their children based on what the name meant. Today, with some exceptions, of course, many of us name our children whatever we want regardless of meaning. But names are powerful. A name tells us something about the person who owns it and the people who bestowed it.
In the Bible, in fact, names are incredibly important. I can’t list them all, but there are a few that seem especially significant and worth mentioning.
Abraham’s grandson Jacob was given his name because he was grasping his twin brother Esau’s heel when they were born. That’s the literal meaning of Jacob—“he grasps the heel”—but the phrase figuratively implies deception, which predicted the way Jacob would trick his father into giving him the birthright that belonged to Esau. God later renamed Jacob to be Israel, which likely means “he struggles with God,” in recognition that Jacob had changed his ways.
In the Gospels of Matthew and John, Jesus changes Simon’s name (meaning “listener”) to Peter, which means “rock.” And although Peter alone wasn’t as constant as that name suggests, through the Holy Spirit he became a steadfast leader in the new church.
My parents christened me Katherine. It’s a classic name, never entirely going out of fashion, although it does wax and wane a bit in popularity. The original etymology of Katherine isn’t entirely clear, but in the early Christian era it came to be associated with the GreekKatharos, meaning “pure.” So Katherine means “pure one.” Unlike some names, which speak of the person’s value (like “beloved” or “gift from God”), “pure” is a personal characteristic. And as it turns out, it’s a hard quality to live up to.
What is Jesus calling us to?
Jesus knows that purity is hard to achieve; he also knows that we need to constantly set our sights on it. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” he says in Matthew 5:8, part of his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus came not only to transform our outward actions, but even more what is on the inside. It’s Jesus’ hope that the hearts of his followers will turn toward him and be indwelled by the Spirit, but that can’t happen in an unclean heart. So working to make our hearts clean, to keep out the mess and grime, is vital to Jesus; it’s part of his work on the cross, but it’s part of our life as disciples as well.
Christians tend to think of purity as having solely to do with our sexuality, and I think it certainly includes that. But purity, especially the way Jesus talks about it here, is larger in scope. It’s our interior life—a wholeheartedness, a lens through which we view the world.
To be pure means to be without contamination. So how do we keep our hearts from being contaminated? A hard question. I think life does what it can to beat us down, giving us plenty of difficult circumstances to work through. Instead of swallowing these bitter pills, we can tend to chew on them, allowing them to lead us toward resentment and cynicism that make us bitter and mean-spirited. Friendships that go sour, relationships that fail, family that pours salt on wounds of their own creation, injustices big and small—it all eats away at us. It’s enough to make any heart a dark place.
The life of the heart is unknowable but to ourselves and God. It encompasses the attitudes we harbor, the resentments we foster, the loves and hates we cherish. Marilynne Robinson writes in her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel Gilead, through the thoughts of pastor John Ames who is pondering the resentments in his life: “I have always liked the phrase ‘nursing a grudge,’ because many people are tender of their resentments, as of the thing nearest their hearts.” Whatever takes root in our heart will end up ruling it.
The state of our heart and what takes hold in it leads to who we are, how we treat others, and ultimately how we see and relate to God. And that, I think, is what Jesus is warning us about: our hearts are his, and what goes on inside of us is as important as what goes on outside. In fact, what we do on the outside, our actions, flows from our hearts, from what is going on inside of us. In order to keep our heart a hospitable place for the Spirit to dwell, we have to keep it clean, making sure those bitter resentments and other contaminants don’t take hold.
Being pure, then, means being aware of ourselves, consistently in check, and constantly turning toward God.
One way that we keep our hearts clean is by being mindful of what we take in. We live in a culture bombarded with messages about the things we should buy, what we should watch, the feelings we should have, what we should fear, who we should blame. If we indulge every desire it can lead to envy, or fear, or something equally ugly—it can stain our hearts. Making a choice to not buy something, or to not watch something, or to forgive, is hard to do, but sometimes necessary. Here’s an example. My husband loves to watch scary movies, but I choose not to watch them with him because it leaves me with images in my head that are hard to get out. I begin to believe that those images have power over me, instead of believing the truth: that Jesus has power over them.
And of course, we can pray. We can pray that we won’t be led into temptation, and we can pray for forgiveness when we give into the temptations we face, when we realize we’re nursing our grudges.
To see God means to sit in his presence, to be awestruck by his goodness, his power, his holiness, and his faithfulness to us. With a clean heart, we can know him, we can be in relationship with him, and we can sit in his presence—the presence of a perfect king. It is a comfort that we have God’s mercy, because purity is a high standard. But with his help, and by his grace, our hearts are made clean every day.
Images by Matt Kirk. Graphic by Laura Li-Barbour. Thanks to all the kids who volunteered for the images, and whose expressions helped us more deeply understand the Beatitudes.
This is the sixth in a series of posts exploring the Beatitudes, pronounced by Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount and then recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Check back each week for a new post in the series, and catch up on what you missed.