When Jimmy Carter was President, he agreed to be interviewed by a famous magazine. During the course of the interchange, echoing the moral strictures imposed by Jesus, he said he had ‘lusted in his heart’. He was well aware of the movements within that are not morally neutral yet do not result in exterior acts. Jesus tried to show in His teaching that what happens in the heart is very important, for from the inside both the good and the bad emerge and cause blessings or curses for the world: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:18-19).
This is the primary concern of the saints who have written extensively about what happens inside the human mind and soul, because it matters. What happens within will affect the life of another, especially with someone who is in a position of authority over the lives of many others. I think of St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis de Sales, and St. Catherine of Siena. They meticulously studied the interior life because the direction of eternity is mapped out there and the history of the world is prefaced.
When things go wrong inside the person, many things are already preordained. These momentous errors in the human heart happen in a variety of ways: the absorption of historical biases in the culture, deafness to one’s conscience, acceptance of fake narratives coming from family or nation. These forces, often unconscious, shape the person’s consciousness and create scenarios of goodness or wickedness that are unleashed on the wider world.
The importance of the interior life is attested to by Scripture when St. James asks, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts” (James 4:1-2). Even in the works of the great mystics we find the warning that your cell (private room) will teach you everything. By that they mean that in solitude you will confront (and hopefully disarm) those demons that will try to make you do all kinds of evil.
The true battlefield is not an earthly place; it is in the soul of the man who can order the drums of war to sound.
This is on two levels. Let’s say someone is thinking of committing a crime, say a robbery. He wants to do it and is even thinking about how he could do it and get away with it. But he does not do it. On one level, his thinking is corrupt since it could lead to the very action of robbery. But on another level (and this is true of the example we are considering), even the act of thinking and planning corrupts the person in that it creates a paradigm in him that could be used in the future and its momentum and structure could be the means of another type of vice other than robbery.
This double-corrupting influence was what Jesus was talking about in dealing with another sin: that of adultery. Lust in the heart is corrupting on its own terms.
Therefore, we can clearly see that there is an important drama that occurs in the heart of each person that can have wide ranging and disastrous effects for the individual and the world at large. What happens in the interior of a person like Hitler or Stalin is not just a private affair devoid of social import. On the other hand, what is transpiring in the mind, heart, and soul of an Ignatius of Loyola or a Mother Teresa of Calcutta can have positive transformative effects in the life of the world of their time.
Hence, the overriding importance of the interior life. What happens there is decisive for the rest of the world. The different methods of influencing in a positive way the human soul then increase in importance. Spiritual Direction, Counseling, Therapy (when undertaken with the overall desire to serve God and to grow in self-knowledge) are not merely private affairs. They can bode either well or ill for the future of many people and events.
It is essential, therefore, to pay attention to the movements of the heart since they can be either harbingers of wellness or of woe for the existence of the world and all it holds.
“The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, but the Lord tests the heart.” – Proverbs 17:3