Acts 9:26-31; Ps 22:26-27, 28, 30, 31-32; 1 Jn 3:18-24; Jn 15:1-8
There’s a verse in today’s second reading that hints at the depth of healing that Christ makes possible: “[I]n whatever our hearts condemn … God is greater than our hearts and knows everything” (1 Jn 3:19b-20a). Sometimes we get so used to cadences of biblical language, that it’s easy to overlook the depth of the mystery being expressed.
The first remarkable feature of this verse is surely this: it speaks of the heart as the origin of a certain kind of condemnation. What could this mean? Nowadays we use the heart to refer strictly to our emotions—and usually to out positive emotions. We often oppose the “heart” to the “head,” and we describe compassionate and generous people as having “big hearts.” In Scripture, though, the word is broader and deeper: it is the source of bad emotions as well as good; it is the seat of our cravings, the organ of our private thoughts, the storehouse of our memories.
The condemnation of the heart, understood biblically, can consequently refer to “accusations” that originate from a place deeper than our own thinking and willing. These accusations come from the roots of life itself, from the twisty depths over which we have little control.
1) One example of a condemnation that comes from “deep down” would be the effects of original sin, the weakening and distortion of our human nature that we inherited from Adam and Eve. The upshot of this is that we incline reflexively toward sin. Before we are even morally aware, we find ourselves lingering on an attractive person with our eyes, angry at the man who thwarted our will, sad at the thought of another’s success, anxious because our finances are insecure. Sometimes, even when we are doing something objectively good, we sense that our motives are not entirely pure. I have never given a homily, for example, in which I was entirely forgetful of my own glory or reputation. Because largely involuntary, these motives and reactions are not really sins—not even venial sins. The tradition called them “imperfections.” Yet we know that these imperfections expose our heart’s selfishness and distrust of God. In this sense our heart seems to “condemn” us.
2) There are other condemnations that come from “deep down,” though perhaps not as deep as original sin. These are what we might call the “wounds” of life. None of us chooses the century or the country or the family into which he is born. Nobody asks to be sexually abused, or to be bullied at school, or to witness her parents’ divorce, or to lose a son or daughter to an accident—yet all of these experiences leave a mark. We inherit prejudices and fears and anger; and even when we recognize them intellectually, they can still overmaster us. They can weaken our trust, our confidence, our radiation of Christ’s joy.
We can be haunted in similar way by our own past sins, even after repentance: the trust broken in a marriage cannot be restored overnight; the addictions that we developed in our youth make us vulnerable for the rest of our lives; words that we said in anger are not easily forgotten. Even though in our heads we know we’re forgiven, the condemnation of the heart remains.
But St. John doesn’t mention the “condemnation of the heart” to rub our noses in our misery. He does it to help us understand the power of God. For he knows a vindication even deeper than the condemnation of the heart. “God is greater than our hearts,” he says, “and knows everything.” The great 20th Century priest and theologian, Romano Guardini, once explained these verses as follows:
The holiness to which wrong has been done partakes of the dignity of God. His trust has been infringed. That is terrible. But He Himself, His magnanimity, His creative love, is greater than all this wrong. John does not say: Cheer up, it isn’t so bad after all. He does not say: Don’t take life so seriously. God says: Give these things their full weight. Then I will come to you. I am God.
Christ, in other words, has come not come to ignore or trivialize the condemnation of the heart. He has come to acknowledge it and heal it at its roots. This condemnation of the heart that seems immune to all our best arguments, paradoxically, is one of the experiences where we most clearly recognize our need for a Savior. We cannot make ourselves humble. We cannot make ourselves trusting. We cannot forgive ourselves.
We can pray, however, that God will show Himself greater than our hearts. We can seek a power greater than our own by going to sacramental confession. We can receive the “medicine of immorality” in the Eucharist. And even outside these privileged moments, we can pray by asking the Holy Spirit to enlighten our hearts, to show us where we’re “stuck,” where lies have taken root. And then we bring these accusations before God. Though He speaks in many ways and images, He always offers the same reassurance: “I am greater than your hearts and know everything.”