When I was first out of college and responsible for my own cooking, I shopped for the cheapest ingredients I could find: generic brands, canned instead of fresh, and lower quality when the price was right. I even bought “imitation” items when necessary, like maple-flavored corn syrup for pancakes and imitation vanilla extract for baking.
It wasn’t until years later, when my bank account felt more forgiving and my palette more exacting, that I began spending more money on food selections. Now pancakes aren’t on the menu unless there’s actual maple syrup in the fridge, and I use only pure extract.
The pure vanilla is more expensive in large part because it comes from orchids grown in just a few places. Also, it’s called “pure” because the flavor comes from just the one source: vanilla beans. Even just a whiff reveals a richer, bolder fragrance (and promises fuller flavor, as well). With good vanilla extract, you can use half the amount of an imitation variety.
Purity of Heart
These qualities of source, flavor, and concentration that make vanilla “pure” are some of the same characteristics reflected in a pure life—a standard we’re called to live up to throughout Scripture. In Isaiah 52:11, for instance, the prophet calls exiled Judah to remain pure despite their captivity. In 1 Timothy 4:12, Paul exhorts Timothy to set an example of purity, despite his youthfulness. And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls His followers to purity, or more particularly, to be “pure in heart.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart,” He says, “for they shall see God.
So, what does it mean to be pure of heart? The word translated “pure” here is katharos, which means “unsoiled,” or without anything else mixed in. Elsewhere in the New Testament, it’s translated “clean” or “guiltless.” It’s the basis of our English word catharsis, which means “a release of, and then relief from, strong feelings”—like an emotional purification.
Spiritual purity also comes from a perfect, untainted source: God. We can’t make ourselves pure with any amount of good will or good deeds.
Similar to catharsis, the process of making pure vanilla extract also includes a type of release. Producers start with chopped vanilla beans, which are then percolated or macerated in ethyl alcohol and water to release vanillin and other organic components. After a few days, the bean pieces are filtered out, and what remains is pure vanilla extract.
I see a similar purifying process in my own heart. When I endure the daily percolation of life, the “vanillin” of God’s work in me is released, while the residual influence of the flesh is filtered out. According to James, these extracting trials lead to a pure heart, but more than that, they themselves should be counted as pure joy because “the testing of [our] faith produces endurance,” and perseverance leads to maturity and completeness (James 1:3).
One Specific Source
Also, there’s the issue of source. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has specific guidelines about what can be labeled vanilla “extract” as opposed to “flavor” or “imitation extract.” By definition, all “vanilla extract” is pure, because according to the FDA guidelines, that flavoring must come from only one specific source: vanilla beans. Also, if any liquids other than alcohol and water are used, it’s not pure and can’t labeled “extract.”
It’s one thing to talk about purity, but it’s another thing to consistently live that way. Even with God’s purifying touch, believers still have a lot of the “old beans” floating around.
In the same way, spiritual purity also comes from a perfect, untainted source: God. We can’t make ourselves pure with any amount of good will or good deeds. Rather, Christians are purified—or, in the words of Scripture, washed, sanctified, and justified—“in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).
But Jesus not only commends a life of purity to us; He also says the pure will see God. So what’s the connection between the two?
All Things Pure
It’s one thing to talk about purity, but it’s another thing to consistently live that way. Even with God’s purifying touch, believers still have a lot of the “old beans” floating around. Throughout the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, we see the struggle with living virtuously. For instance, Job wonders whether anyone can truly be made clean (Job 14:4). And Solomon comes face-to-face with potential for self-deception: “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit” (Prov. 16:2 ESV).
In Psalm 51, David also confesses some major lapses of righteousness and then begs the Lord, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10 NIV). It’s a vulnerable request, but it’s also an important recognition—as David says to God elsewhere, “To the faithful you show yourself faithful, to the blameless you show yourself blameless, and to the pure you show yourself pure” (Psalm 18:25-26 NIV).
It’s like the way pure vanilla extract makes the whole cake, pudding, or pie taste better. When we’re made pure through God’s refining work, purity becomes part of all we do. Or, as Paul put it, “To the pure, all things are pure”—and that includes how we see God (Titus 1:15). “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place?” David asked (Psalm 24:3-4). Only those with “clean hands and a pure heart,” and thankfully, God has made it so, even in us.
Illustration by Adam Cruft