Thursday, October 28, 2004

The Heart of the Matter

I Timothy 1:5
“… the goal of this command is love …”

Now this sounds like Paul! This verse asserts that the meaning of all that is, the essence of life, the core of the gospel and of the work of the gospel, the reason for the struggle, the basic definition of God … is love.

What is worth fighting off heretics for? Love.

What is worth giving one’s life for? Love.

What is the meaning of the Law, the prophets, and of Jesus? Love.

Thank goodness that Paul asserts this truth here, at the beginning of the letter, in the midst of his harangue against heresies and false doctrine. Without this proviso that “the goal of this command is love,” then Paul’s counsel sounds legalistic, harsh, and negative.

But the problem with wrong doctrine is that it doesn’t lead to love. When we believe the wrong things and are engaged in fruitless controversies, love is simply impossible.

Paul has elsewhere defined “love" for us (I Corinthians 13), and so he doesn’t take the time here to do so, but I ought to remind us that "love" is an action word, which connotes acts of peace, justice, and concern for others.

This kind of love is only possible within a matrix of three personal attributes – “a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.” Here’s an easy three-point sermon!

Let me be very Lutheran first – each of these three things can only be given to us, bestowed upon us by the grace of God. Our heart is made pure by God alone; our conscience can be re-made by God alone; and our faith can only be made sincere by God alone. No human effort is required, or desired!

Let me be very Wesleyan second – these three attributes correspond to John Wesley’s threefold conception of grace. A “good conscience” is parallel to “prevenient grace,” that grace which is given to every human being, to know the basic difference between right and wrong, and to seek after and desire to know God. A “pure heart” is the result of “justifying grace,” or justification – we have been forgiven by God through Jesus Christ. And a “sincere faith” is the goal of “sanctifying grace,” in which we mature into God’s image through the power of the Holy Spirit. When these three characteristics are present, then one is "going on toward perfection," which is, as Wesley defines it, the life lived in perfect love toward God and others.

But finally, let me be personal. I understand this verse theologically, but I also have lived it. Having a “pure heart” means that I live with a confidence and assurance that my heart is, in the eyes of God, innocent. I am perfectly aware that I am a sinner, and that I am riddled with sin (past, present, and future). But I honestly don’t have to struggle with the guilt and pain of that sin as it relates to my standing with God. For when God looks at me, God accepts me. That is the truth of Christian salvation.

Related to this idea is the concept of a “good conscience.” When one is innocent before God, then one can proceed to walk without shame or blame. There’s nothing better in this life than to have a clean conscience. Likewise, there is nothing worse or more counterproductive for living than to have a secret, hidden away in one’s heart. I remember the film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, by Woody Allen, which dealt with this conundrum. Through a character in the film, Allen suggests that one can harden one’s conscience sufficiently to protect oneself from guilt and still live a productive and meaningful life. But it’s not possible for me, that’s for sure! I prefer to go to bed at night with a clean conscience.

Regarding “sincere faith,” I believe what is meant is piety in the best sense of that word -- an earnest, zealous and disciplined approach to one’s faith. Sincere people are always looking for ways to deepen their faith, and become better disciples. They don’t retard their spiritual development by believing they know everything – they challenge their assumptions and keep learning. They are never content with the place to which they have arrived. Sincere people are restless … it’s the yearning of which Bono refers to when he sings, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for …”

When heart, conscience and faith are graced by God, then love is possible. When all is said and done, it will be the only thing left standing after all.