“He summoned the crowd again and said to them,
‘Hear me, all of you, and understand.
Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile.
From within people, from their hearts,
come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit,
licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
All these evils come from within and they defile.’”
How much money you make, what kind of clothes you wear, what kind of car you drive, how many followers you have on Instagram, where you live, where you went for you last vacation, what your title is, what degrees you have earned, what level of success you have achieved—these things may be significant accomplishments, reflect your talents and drive, and be recognized as gifts from God. They will not, however, get us to heaven nor do they indicate our value as a human beings. They may even become chains that bind us. We live in a world where image counts and status means something. I get that. When the image or status becomes more important than the reality of our hearts, however, we are trapped. Trapped on a treadmill of keeping up appearances, maintaining the outside as our inside crumbles.
In the religious world of Jesus’s day, this image or status was achieved by fidelity to ritual customs or traditions. Even in our own day and within the church, we can get caught up in outward expressions of piety or religiosity, creating the image of a good (or good enough) Catholic. Pious practices can be an authentic and good reflection of our interior life or they may even be powerful tools for us to assist in changing our hearts, but if they are done only to be seen, they can become a barrier to breaking our hearts open before God. When the pious image or status becomes more important than the reality of our heats, we are still trapped. We can get caught in the same cycle of having to maintain an outward religious appearance while our inside withers.
This is a great danger in the spiritual life. Whether by worldly or pious standards, we can become so focused on the outside that we are afraid to admit what is actually going on inside. We become isolated from authentic relationships with others, with God, and with ourselves. We can deny the loneliness, pain, suffering, sadness, longing to be accepted, grief, challenge, struggle, or heartbreak going on inside us. We can deny the fear, anxiety, insecurity, paranoia, impulsivity, cynicism, narcissism, compulsiveness, or complacency inside. And, perhaps most significantly, we can deny our sinfulness, that which comes from within and defiles.
Our fear and denial cut us off from God’s healing mercy, forgiveness, grace, and love. The focus on exterior image keeps us from laying our hearts bare before God. In maintaining the false image, the facade, we can never be transformed to allow the true image of God within us out. We keep ourselves trapped when all God wants to do is set us free. I have created a dichotomy of opposites above to make the point. Most of us, however, are somewhere in between. We are not exclusively focused on image and status nor are we wholly and completely free. The question is, “Which way are we moving?” Are we allowing God to draw us to encounter him more deeply within, in the reality of our hearts? Can we crack open our shells just a little more today to let God in? Will we loosen our grip on image or status for authentic relationships and love? Dare we pray?