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The Persecuted in Heart


Old Testament Reading­: Psalm 51:1-17

New Testament Reading­: 1 John 3: 18-22

Text: Thomas, saying 69a: "Blessed are those who have been persecuted in their heart; these are they who have known the Father in truth."

Here is a most interesting and striking beatitude of Jesus. I might speculate that Jesus did not originally say it in precisely this form; perhaps it is the result of some later redactor's conflation of two earlier beatitudes. "Blessed are the pure in heart" and "Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness sake."

But no matter. I want to preach on the text as it stands. If the saying is a secondary combination, it is a felicitous combination.

How might one be "persecuted in heart"? On one level, it might be the persecution, not of sticks and stones which break the bones, but rather that of words which in fact do hurt you, contrary to the stoic nursery rhyme.  And where do they hurt you? Of course, they pierce to the heart.

Any sort of cruel criticism aimed at you by someone close to you, but who chooses not to relate to you any longer in love, is certainly heart-persecution. You almost wish they would haul off and belt you one instead. That sort of bodily persecution would be easier to take!

But let's go deeper still. I suspect there is a kind of persecution that not only strikes the interiority of the heart but arises from there as well.

Let us take a brief look at the rogues gallery of heart-persecutors.  I think I can identify at least four of the ugly mugs in the line-up.

First, there is temptation. Persecution and temptation are both sometimes called "testing" in the New Testament, and from that equation, I think it is reasonable to suggest that temptation can be seen as a kind of persecution. Temptation is certainly a threat to your faith and its integrity, just as much as the threats of the ancient pagan tyrants who sought to induce Jews and Christians to renounce their faith by applying grisly tortures.

Every temptation is in that moment seeking to woo you, to win you to set aside your faith in favor of some easier, more attractive way. Perhaps it is a more attractive way of sexual behavior, or of making money, or of passing some test, or of avoiding answering uncomfortable questions. But that more attractive way, Jesus says, is the one that, if followed consistently, and for long enough, leads to destruction – that unpleasant destination hidden around the next bend, or the next, but sooner or later in any case.

Our second interior persecutor is guilt, perhaps for the temptations you gave in to in the past. Your heart is now persecuted because you feel your way to God is blocked. That he will not welcome your return from prodigality.

Why wouldn't he? Perhaps because when you sinned, you did so presuming on the blank check of his forgiveness, like the brutish husband who knows too well the addictive victim-instinct of his poor wife, who has always put up with every abuse in the past and can be counted on to swallow the outrage he is planning now. Perhaps you so presumed on the grace of God, planning to offer him a sham confession no more heartfelt than that of the Prodigal in the gospel parable, whose carefully rehearsed spiel is calculated to manipulate the old man's sentiments.

But if you are sensitive enough to feel the guilt and self-disgust you should feel for so having calculated to hoodwink God, then clearly, you have actually come to the point of genuine repentance despite yourself! Don't deny God the opportunity of forgiving you!

You may not even really be feeling guilt per se at all! You may just be ashamed of yourself, and there is a big difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is internal. You are filled with self-loathing for what you did. But shame is external; you have egg on your face. You have now been made to feel in retrospect that some thing you did when you thought it right, was actually wrong instead, or at least foolish.

But in either case, my friend, what is it that prevents you from entering your heavenly Father's forgiving embrace? Do not stay outside and be persecuted in your heart, when there is a place for you inside, where there is healing and forgiveness.

And when I say "a place," I don't just mean it metaphorically. The church is such a place. In the abstract the notion that God forgives may sound hollow, but it becomes a heart-felt fact in the midst of a forgiving and accepting community.

This is why Jesus did not simply proclaim the odd-sounding offer of forgiveness for prostitutes and traitors, something that seemed too crazy to be true. No, he went on to offer them a place in his fellowship, the band of disciples that was to form the nucleus of the church.

The third of the heart-persecutors is fear, the fear that future endeavors must fail as past ones have. You simply cannot believe that the future could be anything but a dreary and painful replay of the past. You are more of a determinist that John Calvin or B. F. Skinner!

Now in truth it might be that you are a victim of neurotic fear, that you act in a pattern of behavior once appropriate to a situation that, however, no longer exists. You cannot just wish that away, I admit. It's not like magic. But if you can even suspect that much, you can eventually change it. The hold of the past loosens once you uncover what's going on. You recognize that tendencies towards failure, towards distrust, towards rejection of love and risk, are not the ironclad law of your being, but rather accumulated conditioning that can be counteracted by the conditioning of new experiences in a new community.

Let me be my own example. In high school I was the archetypical nerd. I was a misfit, in ill-accord with my pimply contemporaries. Though I despised them, I did feel the brunt of being a pariah. It was not much good for my self-image.

I found a new peer group through the church youth group, one that was not committed to the unwholesome standards of the high school crowd, and one in which my values and interests were esteemed. Interest in the Bible was a liability with the in-crowd, but it was an asset with the clean-living bunch at church. This did a world of good for my self-image. I just needed to find my proper place. The positive feedback I got eventually negated the negative I was used to.

Last but not least among our persecutors of the heart is ­indoctrination­. In the course of intellectual and moral growth, we often feel a great pain, growing pains if you will, that would not be half so painful if we were not condemned in our hearts by voices from the past that try to pull us back, backwards to an immaturity of the mind.

"Don't step into that Protestant Church! Its a mortal sin! Instant damnation!"

"Don't read that book! It'll ruin your faith!"

"Don't consider that idea! What if it proved true? You would have to start all over again, rebuilding your beliefs from the ground up! Better let the pastor take care of it!"

"That's liberal theology, for God's sake! You'll wind up denying the faith if you accept it!"

All these, ironically, are the tempting voices, not of immorality, but of timid morality! But temptations they are, and you must resist them nonetheless!

Here is a case in which I think Kierkegaard's strange doctrine of the "teleological suspension of the ethical" applies. As you may know, if you have read his Fear and Trembling, a profound treatment of the story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac, Kierkegaard set Abraham, the knight of faith, apart from all the conventional heroes who made some great sacrifice in the name of morality. They had to transcend themselves in order to be true to the universal moral standard. By contrast, Abraham had to transcend precisely the universal moral standard to be true to himself and to obey God, who after all had commanded him to kill his own son!

I must admit that I think Kierkegaard's theory leads straight to moral nihilism. No one dares to use the notion except to excuse his outrageous behavior!

But if I may reapply the words of the Melancholy Dane, let me venture that you are indeed such a knight of faith, venturing forth into the howling wilderness of moral risk and intellectual quest, with no convivial company to wish you bon voyage – when you dare to defy the indoctrination of the past and accept a new idea you were warned against, but that now seems to you to be true nonetheless! You are transcending what you once took to be the voice of truth, the accents of the absolute, but which is only the chorus of the conventional. And you must do so to be true to yourself, true to truth, true to God, which is the same thing! Go forth! Dare to act, to think, to believe for yourself!

These, then, are four of the persecutors of the heart: temptation, guilt, fear, and indoctrination. They are threatening voices to be defied and ignored, if you can, until their menacing echoes die away.

Permit me one last observation: to turn away from these voices, these persecutors, is to act in the faith that is eulogized in Hebrews chapter 11, the faith that resolutely sets its face toward an unseen goal, despising the odds against ever getting there. It is the faith that is endurance, that believes as truth what all your contemporaries call a lie. It is faith in spite of, faith over against.

­­Why do I underline this point? Simply because it is often claimed against a freethinking theology, an Enlightenment, Modernist Christianity, that we have eliminated the need for faith. That we have adjusted our creed to fit the Procrustean confines of the modern worldview, so as to create a creed easy to believe but no longer worth believing.

Sorry, I will not countenance a faith that bids me make a sacrifice of the intellect. I don't think that is necessary. And to think that it is needful is to ignore where the real challenge to faith lies. It comes from these four persecutors of the heart. If you succumb to them, you will cheat yourself of faith's boons: forgiveness, confidence, new life, an emboldened mind. Faith must strike out like the questing knight of faith, not to believe in fables against reason, but rather to believe, against fear, temptation, guilt, and indoctrination, in a forgiving God whose other name is Truth.




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