When we hear the word purity, we often think in terms of color and light—whiteness and brightness. We likely conjure those images when we hear the beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). We struggle to know how to cultivate purity of heart, knowing full well the darkness that dwells within us. But Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard offers us a different and more directional concept of purity: Purity of heart is to will one thing.
In our distracted day and age and with our rapidly diminishing attention spans, the idea of willing one thing seems like a near impossibility. Focus is hard to come by. It requires steadiness, discipline, and resolve. In addition to these realities, the idea of willing one thing is narrowing and limiting, especially in a culture that loves a glut of choices and freedoms.
As strange as it seems, the wisdom of a nineteenth-century philosopher may be just what we need. Many modern-day thinkers claim our problem lies in the complexity of life and offer solutions that might lead to more simplicity. But Kierkegaard finds the source of the problem a level deeper by addressing the duplicity within our hearts.
While it’s easy to point our fingers at the complexity of our society, it’s much harder to assess the complexity of our own hearts. We were wired by God, as his image-bearers, to will one thing: a relationship with him—our Creator—on his terms and for our good. From him, as our prioritized passion, all else would flow. Yet, our forebears fell for the same schtick that we fall for today: We long to have our eyes opened so we can know and pursue more than our good master intended (Gen. 3:5). Since the moment when Adam and Eve fell, the duplicity of the human heart has been multiplied generation after generation.
When Jesus was on the earth, he addressed the duplicitous nature of the human heart, teaching his disciples that no one could truly serve two masters, for he would love one and hate the other (Matt. 6:24). He encouraged his disciples to seek unity of heart and vision, telling them, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all things will be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33). When he was in the presence of Martha, whose heart was being pulled in a hundred different directions, he encouraged her with a similar command: There is but one thing needful (Luke 10:38-40). Yet we keep trying to serve multiple masters, much to our own demise.
Thus, Kierkegaard’s charge to will one thing is really a restating of God’s charge to his people all along. But what might it look and feel like to will one thing in such a complex age that says we can have it all?
Willing One Thing
When David hid in yet another cave from King Saul, he found peace and solace from his purity of heart. While he envisioned the armies encamped around him and father and mother forsaking him, David’s willing one thing held him steady like an anchor.
“One thing I have asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.”
More than willing safety or physical security or vindication, David sought more of the presence of God. He knew he would receive that because he trusted in God’s character, saying “For he will hide me his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock” (Ps. 27:5).
The sons of Korah offer a similar prayer and posture to promote unity of heart:
“Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name. I will give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever.”
To live with whole, united hearts in a distracted age may seem strange and myopic. It will, at times, feel limiting, lonely, and uncomfortable. However, the reward of such striving after purity of heart is well-worth the strain we’ll feel and the strange looks we’ll receive: We will see more of God. We will experience more of his nearness and likeness. In a world that gives everything to gain a something that amounts to nothing, believers have a Savior who has given everything so we can gain him who is everything.