Woe to those weak and timid souls who are divided between God and their world! They want and they do not want. They are torn by desire and remorse at the same time…. They have a horror of evil and a shame of good. They have the pains of virtue without tasting its sweet consolations. O how wretched they are. – FRANÇOIS FÉNELON
Purity of heart is to will one thing. – SØREN KIERKEGAARD
Purity is a wonderful thing. When something is pure, it exists in its essential nature—undefiled, unblemished, uncontaminated.
We are serious about some forms of purity in American society. A whole department of the federal government, the Food and Drug Administration, is charged with monitoring and protecting the purity of what we eat. But our standards of purity are not always what we might hope. Here are the federal guidelines of purity for a few familiar products:
Apple butter: If the mold count is 12 percent or more, if it averages 4 rodent hairs per 100 grams or more, if it averages 5 or more whole insects (not counting mites, aphids, or scale insects) per 100 grams, the FDA will pull it from the shelves. Otherwise, it will go right onto your English muffins.
Coffee beans: (Caffeine addicts beware!) Coffee beans will get withdrawn from the market if an average of 10 percent or more are insect-infested or if there is one live insect in each of 2 or more immediate containers. (The FDA says people just don’t like getting too many live insects with their coffee beans—one container is okay, but with more than that we draw the line.)
Mushrooms: Mushrooms can’t be sold if there is an average of 20 or more maggots of any size per 15 grams of dried mushrooms.
Fig paste: If there are more than 13 insect heads per 100 grams of fig paste in each of 2 or more subsamples, the FDA ruthlessly tosses the whole batch. (Apparently other insect body parts are tolerable, but we don’t want to be staring at too many insect heads.)
Hot dogs: You don’t want to know about it.
If anything is really good, we long for it to exist in its pure form: oxygen without exhaust fumes; snow unmixed with slush.
This holds true of the people we know. Purity is a word greatly prized in the New Testament. Unfortunately, in our day it has been largely lost. It sounds quaint, Victorian, prudish, bloodless. It sounds as if a person isn’t fully human, when actually God’s call for us to be pure is precisely his call for us to be purely human—humanity as he intended it to be, uncontaminated by sin. The opposite of this uncontaminated condition is what the apostle James called “double-mindedness.”
Another way to think of double-mindedness is to regard a life of divided loyalties. James used the image of a person being “like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.”
Every once in a while we observe someone whose life is about one thing. That person has a singleness of purpose and focus that gives consistency to his or her choices and commitments.
Some public figures are so closely associated with a single-minded purpose—in image if not reality—that their names bring to mind one overriding word: Donald Trump (money), Napoleon (power), Hugh Hefner (lust), Imelda Marcos (shoes).
In the movie City Slickers, Billy Crystal plays a confused, dissatisfied thirty-something character with a vague sense that life is passing him by. Jack Palance—ancient, leathery, wise to the ways of the world (“a saddlebag with eyes”)—asks Crystal if he would like to know the secret of life.
“It’s this,” Palance says, holding up a single finger.
“The secret of life is your finger?” asks Crystal.
“It’s one thing,” Palance replies. “The secret of life is pursuing one thing.”
Somehow this resonates deeply with Billy Crystal’s character. His life is scattered. He is torn between his obligation to his family and his desire for career advancement; between his need for security and his appetite for excitement. He is divided somehow. His life is about many things, and so, he senses, it is about nothing.
So what is that one thing? Jack Palance can’t tell Billy Crystal. “You have to find it for yourself.”
Søren Kierkegaard saw double-mindedness as the essential disease of the human spirit. His book Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing is a reflection on a statement by James: “Purify your hearts, you double-minded.” The disease diagnosed by Kierkegaard is the failure to achieve simplicity—to have a life that is integrated, that is focused on one thing. It is the failure to make an ultimate commitment to what Kierkegaard calls “the Good”—what Jesus spoke of as “seeking first the kingdom.”
Ortberg, John. 2009. The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Check out the new Bible Study, The Life You’ve Always Wanted. It is available on Amazon, as well as part of the Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service. (Like Netflix for Bible lessons.)