I can still remember the first time I saw one. I had gone to work with my dad—a big thrill for a ten-year-old whose father worked in the oil fields. I sat in the cab of the pickup as tall as I could, stretching to see the endless West Texas plain. The countryside was flat and predictable, boasting nothing taller than pumpjacks and windmills. Maybe that is why the thing seemed so colossal. It stood out on the horizon like a science-fiction city
“It’s a refinery,” Dad answered.
A jungle of pipes and tanks and tubes and generators—heaters, pumps, pipes, filters, valves, hoses, conduits, switches, circuits. It looked like a giant Tinker-Toy® set.
The function of that maze of machinery is defined by its name: It refines. Gasoline, oil, chemicals—the refinery takes whatever comes in and purifies it so that it’s ready to go out.
The refinery does for petroleum and other products what your “heart” should do for you. It takes out the bad and utilizes the good. We tend to think of the heart as the seat of emotion.
We speak of “heartthrobs,” “heartaches,” and “broken hearts.”
But when Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” he was speaking in a different context. To Jesus’ listeners, the heart was the totality of the inner person—the control tower, the cockpit. The heart was thought of as the seat of the character—the origin of desires, affections, perceptions,
thoughts, reasoning, imagination, conscience, intentions, purpose, will, and faith.
Thus a proverb admonished, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”
To the Hebrew mind, the heart is a freeway cloverleaf where all emotions and prejudices and wisdom converge. It is a switch house that receives freight cars loaded with moods, ideas, emotions, and convictions and puts them on the right track.
And just as a low-grade oil or alloyed gasoline would cause you to question the performance of a refinery, evil acts and impure thoughts cause us to question the condition of our hearts.
But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man “unclean.” For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.2
The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.3
These verses hammer home the same truth: The heart is the center of the spiritual life. If the fruit of a tree is bad, you don’t try to fix the fruit; you treat the roots. And if a person’s actions are evil, it’s not enough to change habits; you have to go deeper. You have to go to the heart of the problem, which is the problem of the heart.
That is why the state of the heart is so critical. What’s the state of yours?
When someone barks at you, do you bark back or bite your tongue? That depends on the state of your heart.
When your schedule is too tight or your to-do list too long, do you lose your cool or keep it? That depends on the state of your heart.
When you are offered a morsel of gossip marinated in slander, do you turn it down or pass it on? That depends on the state of your heart.
Do you see the bag lady on the street as a burden on society or as an opportunity for God? That, too, depends on the state of your heart.
The state of your heart dictates whether you harbor a grudge or give grace, seek self-pity or seek Christ, drink human misery or taste God’s mercy.
No wonder, then, the wise man begs, “Above all else, guard your heart.”
David’s prayer should be ours: “Create in me a pure heart, 0 God.”4
And Jesus’ statement rings true: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
Note the order of this beatitude: first, purify the heart, then you will see God. Clean the refinery and the result will be a pure product.
We usually reverse the order. We try to change the inside by altering the outside.
The message of the beatitude is a clear one: You change your life by changing your heart.
How do you change your heart? Jesus gave the plan on the mountain. Back away from the beatitudes once more and view them in sequence.
The first step is an admission of poverty: “Blessed are the poor in spirit. . . .“ God’s gladness is not received by those who earn it, but by those who admit they don’t deserve it. The joy of Sarah, Peter, and Paul came when they surrendered, when they pleaded for a lifeguard instead of a swimming lesson, when they sought a savior instead of a system.
The second step is sorrow: “Blessed are those who mourn….” Joy comes to those who are sincerely sorry for their sin. We discover gladness when we leave the prison of pride and repent of our rebellion.
Sorrow is followed by meekness. The meek are those who are willing to be used by God. Amazed that God would save them, they are just as surprised that God could use them. They are a junior-high-school clarinet section playing with the Boston Pops. They don’t tell the maestro how to conduct; they’re just thrilled to be part of the concert.
The result of the first three steps? Hunger. Never have you seen anything like what is happening! You admit sin—you get saved. You confess weakness—you receive strength. You say you are sorry—you find forgiveness. It’s a zany, unpredictable path full of pleasant encounters. For once in your life you’re addicted to something positive—something that gives life instead of draining it. And you want more.
Then comes mercy. The more you receive, the more you give. You find it easier to give grace because you realize you have been given so much. What has been done to you is nothing compared to what you did to God.
For the first time in your life, you have found a permanent joy, a joy that is not dependent upon your whims and actions. It’s a joy from God, a joy no one can take away from you.
A sacred delight is placed in your heart.
It is sacred because only God can grant it.
It is a delight because you would never expect it.
And though your heart isn’t perfect, it isn’t rotten. And though you aren’t invincible, at least you’re plugged in. And you can bet that he who made you knows just how to purify you—from the inside out.