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The Expulsive Power of a Greater Affection

Recently I’ve been reading through Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship, and I was struck by his exposition of the sixth beatitude “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. Bonhoeffer writes

A pure heart … belongs entirely to Christ; it looks only to him, who goes on ahead. Those alone will see God who in this life have looked only to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Their hearts are free of defiling images; they are not pulled back and forth by the various wishes and intentions of their own. Their hearts are fully absorbed in seeing God. They will see God whose hearts mirror the image of Jesus Christ.

A number of things struck me in reading Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on this verse. The first was my complete inadequacy to ever be one who possesses a pure heart. What would it be like to never have an impulse or desire that became more important to me than Jesus—even for a second—so that my highest, uncontested desire is always for him and what he desires? I’m the first to admit that I would never have the strength to accomplish that kind of purity of desire on my own. And yet, the second thought that followed in rapid succession was that Jesus gave these commandments to help us realise exactly this. The law was given to point us to Christ, and so it is with the beatitudes. These traits that should be common to every Christian serve to put on display the God who loved us and saved us by giving his life for us.

When I consider the way that Scripture presents the one coherent narrative of God’s redemptive action towards all that he has made, I know that there are answers to be found to this initially impossible task. And I also know that God doesn’t give commands simply to get us down because we’ve realised we’ll never live up to the dizzying high standard.

The answer came to me while reading what God said to King Nebuchadnezzar through his servant Daniel. After interpreting the king’s dream (and not in the way the king was hoping for!) Daniel offers the king this sage advice:

Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.” (Daniel 4:27, emphasis mine)

How was the king to make progress towards a pure heart? He needed to break off his sins. But we all know that sin has a powerful hold, and we would almost always prefer the pleasure, fleeting though we know it is. But this is where the words of Daniel go a step further than what often occurs to us. We don’t simply stop doing something—leaving a void that only serves to remind us of the sin we’re trying to leave behind—we replace that desire with a true and better desire. We develop new habits, we form different neural pathways, we desire new delights. Jesus himself tells us that when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, we are blessed because we shall be satisfied (Matthew 5:6). Nothing else will ultimately satisfy these hearts that were made by God and for God, and so we recognise that what we need is the expulsive power of a greater affection. I’ve realised more that if I’m ever going to be successful in breaking off sin, I need to more actively seek after the all-satisfying Saviour.

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Published inChristian Living