By now, it's likely our children and young people know the importance of washing their hands, and how to do it properly. But what does it mean for us biblically? And how can we ensure our insides, our motives and behaviours, match the cleanliness and purity of our outside? Jason Royce, director of the Souster Youth Trust, encourages us to look towards cleaning our hearts as well as our hands. Why not pass on his advice to your youth group?
Have the hands of the world ever been cleaner than they are in this moment? The answer is: probably not. UK Government ministers have been emphasising the need to wash our hands, perhaps based on recent research into hand washing that showed of all people in the UK, 31 per cent of women and 57 per cent of men don't wash their hands after going to the toilet.
Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, our supermarkets were sold out of hand sanitisers and hand wash, and we read the news about how a student was temporarily excluded from her school for selling his hand gel for £1 a pump. He made £9 (and in case you were wondering, he planned on buying a kebab with the proceeds).
We're talking about keeping clean a lot. But what does the Bible have to say about cleanliness and hygiene?
Surprisingly, there's lots. In fact, large sections of the Old Testament are dedicated to keeping people clean; from ceremonial hand washing and the removal of dirt from everyday items, right down to how we should clean ourselves after going to the toilet.
The Bible writers would say that the need for internal cleansing is just as obvious as this need for external washing. No amount of hand washing will give us a clean heart. That's true in ancient Bible times and true today. We can wash the outside of our bodies and everything around us, but still have thoughts and behaviours that are doing us no good.
Psalm 24 reads like this: "Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false God. They will receive blessing from the Lord and vindication from God their Saviour." (v. 3-5)
The verses tell us exactly what kind of worshipper God is looking for - and it is those whose hands are clean, but also those with 'clean' hearts.
Having clean hands is a way of talking about doing the right thing on the outside, like with out behaviour. It includes washing - of course - but also, giving to the poor, acting justly, not abusing positions of power and so much more.
Our motives and thoughts matter too. It is possible for us to do the right things without pure hearts. This is what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing in Matthew's Gospel (Matthew 23:25). Jesus reserved some of his toughest words for those who spent all their energy on looking holy on the outside but were anything but on the inside.
There are at least two aspects to purity of the heart in Psalm 24. The first is to refrain from turning to idols - that's any time we look for purpose or satisfaction or meaning in anything other than God. Perhaps our society is less tempted by the wooden or stone idols of the ancient world, but when it comes to pointing our worship in the wrong direction we still have plenty of options.
Secondly, don’t be deceitful. That’s when the outside doesn’t match the inside. We say ‘yes’ when we want to say ‘no’ and vice-versa. We are motivated to do certain things so that others will think well of us, we try to manage the opinion others have of us.
Worshipping the true God and living honestly are the keys to breaking the tiring and destructive ways of idolatry and deceit. Verse 6 promises blessing and vindication from God when we rightly direct our lives towards the creator.
We're all thinking about following the rules at the moment. You don’t have to look far to see the vilification of those who enjoyed too much time in the sun this past weekend. We must follow the government guidance, but rules can make Pharisees of us all. Rules can change behaviour and perhaps slow the spread of a virus, but they can’t change the human heart.
Jesus offers us what we really need - a new heart! ‘New heart’ language is the Bible’s way of talking about a complete transformation from the inside out enabling us to live as Jesus taught us to.
This journey of heart transformation begins as we accept Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and life in all its fulness. It continues as we ask the Holy Spirit to keep transforming us from the inside, and as we take steps of loving action in our families, churches and community. How desperately our world needs the presence of those whose hearts are being transformed by a loving and merciful God!
Perhaps the next time you wash your hands you might want to pray that God would transform your heart and help you take steps of loving action. Clean hands, pure hearts.
Jason Royce is director of the Souster Youth Trust based in Northampton.