Sometimes when I’m at Mass or doing something out of charity, I still feel this emptiness inside. Despite being told over and over that living the Faith will bring the greatest sense of fulfillment to my life, sometimes I’m just not feeling it.
After a closer look at Scripture, though, it becomes clear that in those moments, I’m just missing the point. In my effort to praise God through my words and deeds, I often hold back the most important thing: my heart.
When the rich man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to follow the commandments. The rich man says he has always done that, so Jesus replies, “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me”’ (Mark 10:19-20).
The rich man walks away sad. Why? Because he treasured his possessions, and “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mark 6:21).
God wants our hearts. Nothing less will suffice. If we put our heart in lesser things, we can’t give it to God. But why does God want our hearts so much? The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a good answer:
The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live … the heart is the place “to which I withdraw.” The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others … The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant. (CCC 2563)
No wonder that’s what God really wants (Jeff Cavins discusses the importance of the heart in his new study Wisdom: God’s Vision for Life). The Lord knows I have given my heart to things—and people—I shouldn’t have given it to; and he knows when I give my heart to something or someone, I give them my full attention. If my favorite team’s game is on, don’t expect me to do anything else but watch it for those few hours. When I was a teenager, if my heart’s interest happened to walk by, my whole day would stop as I looked for a chance to talk to her.
It sounds a little pathetic, but in a very real way, I’ve often given my heart to nothing more than games and feelings. Clearly, whoever—or whatever—wins my heart, no matter how insignificant it may be in the big picture, has a pretty deep influence on me. Meanwhile, when I practice my faith, I must admit it’s more outward, and my heart isn’t always in it.
God wants me to obey his commandments, yes, but not in some rote fashion. He knows if he can win my heart, he can get me to actually enjoy following him in the same way I enjoy the much less important things to which I’ve given my heart.
Time and time again in the Old Testament, God tells his people to stop showing him superficial devotion, and show some heart:
- “In the blood of calves, lambs, and goats I find no pleasure … Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim” (Isaiah 1:10-20).
- “I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart” (Jeremiah 24:7).
- “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord … He who has clean hands and a pure heart… will receive blessing from the Lord” (Psalm 24:3-5).
Long before Jesus was reprimanding the Sadducees and Pharisees for their shallow religiosity, the Holy Spirit was guiding the hand of prophets and psalmists to tell us to put our hearts into our faith.
The Heart and Chastity
Thankfully, God knows we’re human. He understands we’re going to need some help understanding this whole heart thing. So he made us to give our hearts to another person who can aide us in loving him. In a way, he meets us in the middle. He graciously created the sacrament of matrimony to serve as a bridge between our carnal, temporal passions and the unconditional love that will bring us eternal life.
Christ sees in the heart, in man’s inner self, the source of purity. —St. John Paul II
While the Church promotes the celibate religious life, she also has always upheld marriage as a sure path to holiness when lived out with integrity. St. Cyril of Jerusalem stated to fellow priests, “While you maintain perfect chastity, do not be puffed up in vain conceit against those who walk a humbler path in matrimony…. Because you have a possession of gold, do not on that account hold the silver in contempt” (The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1: 818c).
The Church lifts up marriage so highly because the love for spouse required in marriage is akin to the love for God required in our spiritual life; it’s an all-or-nothing kind of love. It requires that we love for the sake of the beloved, not just for what they can give us, not just for any particular quality they have. That is the principle underneath the virtue of chastity. More than a list of do’s and don’ts, it’s a state of the heart; and when we reach that state, it all makes sense.
Just as loving God for his own sake is the essence of holiness, loving our spouse for his or her own sake is the essence of chastity. If we don’t grasp this essence, following the Church’s teachings on sexuality doesn’t make sense. It seems foolish to say “no” to contraceptives, for example, if we do not understand the sanctity of marriage, and the spousal, theological meaning of our bodies.
Lust and Chastity
Lust is desiring sexual pleasure for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes (CCC 2351). This is very different from loving the person for their own sake. It disregards what is best for the person, and places desires of the flesh before desires of the heart.
St. Paul touches upon aspects of chastity when he explains how the desires of the flesh interfere with the desires of the Spirit:
- “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Galatians 5:16-17).
- “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (Romans 8:5).
St. Paul’s words warning us about sins of the flesh are in accord with Jesus’ strong words regarding sins of lust:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matthew 5:27-30 )
Let’s be careful not to lose the heart of the matter here, though. St. Paul and Jesus are not saying our bodies lead us away from God. Many people believe Jesus is speaking in hyperbole in Matthew 5:29-30, but I think his point is quite literal. When we commit sins of the flesh, it’s not our hands or our eyes that are causing us to sin. The act originates from the desire—as St. Paul suggests—and the desire comes from the heart. It is our heart that causes us to sin, not our eyes or hands.
In the days of the early Church, the heresy of Gnosticism vilified the body and blamed it for sins of the flesh, but Jesus taught that these desires originate in the heart:
For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery … All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.” (Mark 7:21-23)
A Broken and Contrite Heart
So, if the heart is the cause of lust, then should I rip it out as well? If by “heart” you mean the innermost part of us, then yes. God wants to rip out our hearts so he can uproot sin at its source. He wants to wage battle with the devil on the battlefield that means the most, and this battle is likely to cost us our lives. For Christ tells his disciples, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
If I am to be a disciple of Christ, I need to be that vulnerable. Christ sacrificed himself to lead by example. So, if I feel empty when doing the things the Faith calls us to do, maybe my efforts to put my heart into it have not been enough. I can put a piece of my heart into anything, or I can even put the whole thing in and then retrieve it later when I find something else to give it to. The hard part is sacrificing it—putting the whole thing in and not asking God for it back.
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