Perfection, then, is clearly not achieved simply by being naked, by the lack of wealth or by the rejection of honours, unless here is also that love whose ingredients the apostle described and which is to be found solely in purity of heart. Not to be jealous, not to be puffed up, not to act heedlessly, not to seek what does not belong to one, not to rejoice over some injustice, not to plan evil—what is this and its like if not the continuous offering to God of a heart that is perfect and truly pure, a heart kept free of all disturbance?
I read this quote in a book of daily wisdom from contemporary and ancient monastics. It is a restating of Paul’s most famous writing, his words about love in 1 Corinthians 13. Though Paul does not use the word perfection in that chapter that is so familiar to us, to love and live with a pure heart could be a good definition of perfection.
Often, our focus is on achieving outward perfection. We want to be thought well of by others and we may act to achieve that end rather than from the desire to love God well by cultivating a pure heart. I know I have sometimes acted in a way not in accordance with the desire of my heart because I wanted to present a good outward appearance. Yet the dissonance within, created by going against the grain of my heart’s intuition, did violence to my soul.
We know from scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments that God is more concerned with the state of one’s heart than with actual deeds done. You can cross all the spiritual ‘T’s and dot all the spiritual ‘I’s and leave God unimpressed. The prophets chastised the people to attend to their hearts rather than cover all the bases with their sacrifices, and Jesus spoke of those who clean the outside of the cup but leave the inside full of filth.
Why do we give more weight to outward acts rather than attending to the state of our hearts? I believe there are several reasons. Pride is a strong force, and we can be recognized by others as “good people” based on what we do, even if we harbor hatred and bitterness within. Ease is another motive—it’s a lot easier to do an outward something, even something difficult, than to commence the long path of inward change and growth, which requires much discipline. I’ve encountered many who, when challenged to begin a practice of self-reflection, look within, dislike what they see, and choose not to go any further down that path. In her book, The Interior Castle, Teresa of Avila speaks of this propensity with colorful metaphorical language. She talks about the snakes, vipers and venomous reptiles we encounter as we begin the journey inward, and how we have to persevere to get past these.
The most important work we can do for God is the work of allowing our hearts to be changed. It is through purity of heart that our outward acts become pleasing to God.