Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year B: God is Greater than our Hearts


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.”

6 Responses to Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year B: God is Greater than our Hearts

  1. Patrick says:

    I found this homily consoling, particularly the idea that “God is greater than our hearts,” and that the condemnation we experience – if I’ve understood the homily correctly – may not be in line with reality, as in: “We can be haunted in similar way by our own past sins, even after repentance…”. My sense is that those “‘accusations’ that originate from a place deeper than our own thinking and willing,” that “come from the roots of life itself, from the twisty depths over which we have little control,” while very ‘real’ in our experience, may not be the truth.

    And yet, I’ve struggled to reconcile this take with the actual reading itself, at least in part, because it says that: “if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence in God and receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him” – but what if our hearts do condemn us? By implication, do we or should we then have no confidence in God? What if we have not kept his commandments and done what pleases him?

    Our love in deed and truth, if lacking, seems to me to indicate that we do not then have any grounds to “reassure our hearts before him in whatever our hearts condemn.”

    That is at least how I understood the logic of John’s point, though admittedly, I don’t then understand what he means about God being greater than our hearts and knowing everything.

    • Aaron Pidel, SJ says:

      The logic of this sequence of verses is, admittedly, pretty hard to reconstruct. I suppose I presumed that, since he was speaking of reassuring our hearts by examining whether we’re loving in deed and truth, there was a condemnation of the heart that went deeper than the intellectual or ethical sphere. Once reassured by this reality check, our hearts can then approach God boldly. I don’t know if I would say that the condemnation is entirely false (these “distortions” and “wounds” are very real). Total salvation would include the healing of this diffuse “sinfulness” or “brokenness” as well as the forgiveness of our discrete sins. But it would be wrong to confuse this sort of condemnation (the rebellion of our unruly feelings) with properly moral condemnation (the guilt at having chosen to break a commandment). I was taking John to mean that God understands the limits of our fallen condition, and that he has the ability to reach those places within us that we can’t. This “untwisting” of our nature will be complete in heaven. But we can make significant progress on earth (with God’s help). In the mystical tradition this happens most notably in the passive purgations, but it also takes place more commonly in forms of “healing prayer” and in God’s providence over the circumstances of our life.

  2. Peter Wolczuk says:

    I was quite taken with this but couldn’t think of anything to comment with until my morning bible reading for today brought me to Job 32 and the first verse caught my attention “So these three men stopped answering Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes.”
    Although I’m sure that I’ve read this line a number of times, this morning it was almost like it leapt right off the page and shook me through and through.
    How often, in my life, had I checked off the “God box” in the shallows of myself and concluded; in my own perception of my heart; that I was righteous. Been to church fairly recently on some Sunday or another – tick one box. Volunteered now and again to help those less fortunate – tick another box. But, when God looked beyond those superficial things and into my heart, what did He see? The times that my Saturday night antics, so often, led to me missing church on yet another Sunday after I shut the alarm off and flung it against the wall.
    My life going downhill as a result of my increasing dependence on alcohol while I sought the advice of friends who told me things that were comfortable. Once in a while one of them would mention something that was a little uncomfortable, but that amounted to no more than a little spice on fluffy pseudo food in order to make it seem nourishing. The same kind of advice that I offered them. Fare trade kinda sorta. Filler instead of nourishment going both ways like in the first chapter of the Book of Daniel where Daniel teaches one of Nebuchadnezzar’s officials how to do a scientific experiment so that he (Daniel) and friends could get some real nourishment.
    What about the discomfort of the truth which Jesus gave us to set us free, John 8:32? Well, there was a sort of flipping around checking out miracles instead of facing that sort of truth. There were other spiritual teachers whom one could read. Buddha, Kung Fu Tse (Confucius) and many more whose teachings were logical and comfortable but didn’t help against emotional and spiritual sickness. Maybe that’s why they became so popular in the late part of the last century. Comfortable.
    It wasn’t until I accepted that I was not comfortable and that I had to experience the truth that God gave us and not the imitations of how to become famous for supposed humility. The other stuff didn’t cause pain by blowing my illusions out of the water as they, instead, encouraged me to judge my own degree of righteousness. However the water bouying me up was fetid and distasteful but I could hide from that with another drink, another drug or another distracting and self destructive behaviour. Those illusions directed me from my heart to another illusionary and superficial feel.
    When I turned to God’s gift of the Twelve Steps of Recovery and found Him mentioned there I was left wondering why so many of the Twelve Step groups keep so silent about turning to Him. Embraced His help and the stress which is put on facing the uncomfortable feelings and the lies which I’d created around them. Things I’d buried at a terrible cost; emotional security, financial security, self respect and … what about that lake of fire after. Didn’t want to think about that so turned to ways to keep me from thinking about it and how much it was my own efforts that were steering me that way.
    Jesus was willing to die for us through truth and righteousnous, and not by being comfortable but by the Cross.

  3. Elvis says:

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  4. thurifer says:

    God’s heart is greater too!

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