The heart has always been the chief concern of God, for it is the center of our being, and it manifests our true self more than any outward actions. We might praise Him with our mouths, but it may be that our hearts are far from Him (Mt. 15:7-8). We might refrain from committing adultery with our bodies, but it is still possible to commit adultery in our hearts (Mt. 5:27-28).
The Bible says that God knows our hearts, knows what makes us tick, knows our sorrows and sufferings, capacities and incapacities. The fact that God knows our hearts is, however, a two-sided coin, as the Scriptures reveal. Let’s take a look first at what we might call the negative (though still salutary) side of this divine knowledge of our innermost selves.
God knows our bad will, our secret sin, whatever darkness or duplicity there may be within us and, to use a phrase of St John of Kronstadt, whatever “unrighteous movements of the heart” He may find as well. In one of his stern rebukes to the Pharisees, Jesus said: “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). So the fact that God knows our hearts means that we cannot hide anything from Him. We cannot pull the wool over his eyes: “You have kept…our hidden sins under the light of your scrutiny” (Psalm 90:8). Nor can we appease Him with merely external acts or rituals when we are unreconciled to Him within. His harshest criticisms were leveled at those who presented a righteous exterior but who were interiorly corrupt: “You outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Matthew 23:28).
On the other hand, we find consolation in God’s thorough knowledge of us, because we can “reassure our hearts before Him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts and He knows everything” (1John 3:19-20). Often we don’t even know what is in our own hearts, and our inner life is in turmoil or confusion. After lamenting the inexplicable dark mystery of the human heart—“the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt”—Jeremiah cried out: “Who can understand it?” But God immediately replied: “I, the Lord, search the mind and try the heart” (Jer. 17:9-10). We are not stuck forever with the limitations and defects of our hearts, if we confidently entrust them to Him Who Is Greater Than Our Hearts. They may need a lot of healing, a lot of changing, but we can still rest in his providence and mercy.
Rare is the heart that is either all good or all bad. St Marcarius, the author of the famous Spiritual Homilies, tells us that both the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of the devil can exist in the same heart: “Within the heart is an unfathomable depth. There are reception rooms and bedchambers in it, doors and porches, and many offices and passages. In it is the workshop of righteousness and of wickedness. In it is death, in it is life…. The heart is Christ’s palace…There Christ the King comes to take His rest, with the angels and the spirits of the saints, and He dwells there, walking within it and placing His kingdom there… The heart is but a small vessel; and yet dragons and lions are there, and there likewise are poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There also is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there” (Spiritual Homilies 15:32-33 and 43:7).
All things are there, but not all things are supposed to be there. The main work of the interior life is the purification of the heart, through prayer and self-denial, through the sacraments and meditation on the word of God, preparing its joyful reception into the Kingdom of Heaven. Through divine power and the intercession of Our Lady and the saints and angels, coupled with our own unceasing vigilance and adherence to the truth and love of God, the dragons and lions and poisonous creatures must be driven out of every dark corner of our hearts—lest we fall prey to them. So the Apostle exhorts us (this is prescribed reading, by the way, every night at Compline, in the Latin tradition): “Be sober; be watchful. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1Peter 5:8-9).
It may take a long time before we discover what is really in our hearts, but it behooves us to be about this business as diligently and consistently as possible. We need to keep lifting up our hearts into the presence of God, that the Light of his Face will shine upon them to reveal both the good and the bad, and to guide us in cultivating the former and cutting out the latter. This work is not easy, as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn trenchantly remarked: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Let us pray and labor for a pure heart, with which we can see God (Mt. 5:8). He can make all things new within us, preserving our hearts in his grace and thus despoiling the devil of what he arrogantly claims as his own. Ask Our Lady to walk the labyrinthine corridors of your heart, crushing serpents as she goes. Only make sure to remain on the side of God’s righteousness and truth and holiness, for the adversary will continue to prowl, looking for a chink in the “armor of God.” The human heart may be impossible to understand fully, but it is still within the power of our free will to offer it to God for cleansing, healing, enlightening, and sanctification. And we can still consecrate our battered little hearts to the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, that ours may rest in theirs, taking comfort and strength as we are invited to share in the continuous exchange of love between the King and Queen of Heaven. For love covers a multitude of sins and restores our hearts to their long-lost likeness to God.