Do Orthodox Christians Have Jesus in Their Hearts?


Sunday of the Canaanite Woman, February 14, 2016
II Corinthians 6:16b-18, 7:1; Matthew 15:21-28
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

“You are a temple of the living God, even as God has said: ‘I will dwell in them, and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’”

This is the second part of 2 Corinthians 6:16, and I want us to contemplate this powerful passage today.

What does it mean for us to be a “temple of the living God,” that God will “dwell” in us and “walk among” us? This is a notion that the Evangelical world emphasizes to great effect. Indeed, even the conversion moment itself is said by many of that revivalist tradition to involve “asking Jesus into your heart.” While we wouldn’t usually put it that way in the Orthodox Church, there is something to that idea, and we see here in 2 Corinthians 6 that Paul is essentially talking about having God inside us.

So let’s hear something from the Orthodox tradition that speaks in this same way. Here is an excerpt from the life of St. Ignatius of Antioch, a much-beloved saint in our own Antiochian tradition and throughout the Church. This scene is from when Ignatius confronts the Roman Emperor Trajan, who has arrested Ignatius in Antioch because of his preaching Jesus Christ:

As the two stood face to face, Trajan asked, “Who art thou, thou wretch of a devil, that art so ready to disobey our royal orders, whilst thou seducest others also, that they may come to an equally bad end?” Ignatius answered, “No one who bears God can be called a wretch of a devil. I say this, on the one hand, because the devils stand aloof from the slaves of God; but, on the other hand, if thou sayest this because I am troublesome to the devils, then I concur. For since I have the heavenly King Christ, I confound the devices of the devils.” Trajan said, “And who is he that bearest God?” Ignatius answered, “The one who has Christ in his heart.” Trajan asked, “Dost thou not think that we too have gods in our hearts, since we have them as allies against our enemies?” Ignatius replied, “Thou art deceived when thou callest the demons of the nations gods. There is one God Who created the heaven and earth and the sea and all things that are therein, and one Christ Jesus, the only-begotten Son of the God and Father, Whose friendship I would be prepared to take risks to enjoy. If thou, O emperor, wouldest come to acknowledge Him, thou shalt set firm the throne of thy kingdom and wear a splendid diadem on thy brow.” Trajan remarked, “Thou speakest, dost thou not, of the One Who was crucified by Pontius Pilate?” Ignatius declared, “I speak of Him Who blotted out the bond written against us and nailed it to the Cross. He put off the principalities and the powers, openly making them an example and triumphing over them in it. He sentenced every malice of the demons to be trampled underfoot by those who carry Jesus in their heart.” Trajan then inquired, “Dost thou bear this Jesus in thy heart?” Ignatius answered, “Yea, for it is written: ‘I will dwell in them, and walk about with them.’” (Great Synaxaristes, December 20, pp. 904-905)

Here, in his bold witness before the emperor, Ignatius interprets Paul’s quotation of the “I will dwell in them” language, which appears several times in the Old Testament (Lev. 26:12, Jer. 32:38, Ez. 37:27). He says that this means that he carries Jesus in his heart. And he also says that he is one who “bears God.” And of course Ignatius’s epithet, a sort of nickname, is Theophoros, which means “God-bearer.”

So, as we can see, this language of having God in our hearts, even specifically of having Jesus in our hearts, is firmly entrenched in the Orthodox tradition even from a very early stage. Ignatius, as you remember, was a disciple of the Apostle John, was martyred in the early second century, and, according to tradition, met Jesus Christ Himself when he was a small child. There is nothing wrong with us saying that we have God within us.

I know this kind of language might be a little daring for some of us. How many of us have said lately, “I have God within me” or “I have Jesus in my heart”? I myself don’t often speak that way. But it is true: I do have God within me. I do have Jesus in my heart.

But is that too much? I am, after all, not on the spiritual level of Ignatius the God-bearer of Antioch. Do I dare to say such things? Are our Evangelical friends making audacious claims when they say this?

It is not actually an audacious claim. Where did we begin today? We began with the Lord Himself speaking by His prophets and expanded upon by Paul: “You are a temple of the living God, even as God has said: ‘I will dwell in them, and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’”

So God Himself has said this. He has called us His temple. He has said that He would dwell within us. Am I going to argue with God and say that that’s just too much? A Christian who says that he has God within him is just repeating what God Himself has said. We should not only dare to say such things about ourselves, but we have an obligation to say this! If we are Christians, Jesus Christ Himself is in our hearts. We have God dwelling within us. We are His temple.

So what does this mean exactly?

Let’s leave aside the question of what exactly Evangelicals mean when they say that they have Jesus in their hearts. If you’re interested in that, we can perhaps discuss it another day. But what does Ignatius mean when he says he has Jesus in his heart? What do I mean when I say that I have God within me? What is meant when God Himself tells us this through the prophets and apostles and saints? How does this happen?

We believe that it happens in baptism, in which we “put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). And when we receive Holy Communion, we are literally receiving God into our physical bodies—He is inside us (John 6:56). And in Revelation 3:20, Jesus says that He stands at the door and knocks, and if anyone opens to Him, He will come in and dine with him. And Jesus also says in John 14:23: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” So we have to be baptized, to commune, to open the door to Jesus, and to love Jesus by keeping His word in order for this to be possible.

And what is the actual experience of having God within us? Here we move into trying to use human language to describe a mystical experience that is beyond language. It is not about feelings, but sometimes “feeling” is all we have to describe what happens. We may experience peace. We may experience love. We may experience joy. These are experiences that are beyond our understanding. As Paul says in Philippians 4:7: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

This is difficult to describe, so please forgive me. But let me be quick to say that even if we do not feel a sense of any of these things, we can still objectively have God dwelling within us. Emotion is not necessary, though we do sometimes feel it. And even the “feeling” that is not emotion but a kind of sensory realization is not always present for us when we have God dwelling within us. But He is still there, if we are baptized, commune, open the door to Him and love Him, even if we have no feeling of His presence. And God is also at work in our hearts even when we have done none of those things.

Because the Son of God became a man, deity now dwells in our humanity. We have Jesus Christ in our hearts. We have God within us. We are His temple. We have the eternal and infinite God of the universe living inside us. And so is it any wonder that we should be filled with the power and love of God when we receive the sacraments, when we open the door to Him, when we love Him? Who am I? I am an Orthodox Christian, and I have the Son of God living in my heart.

To Him Who dwells within us be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.


  1. Not enough about justice. The prophets point this out all the time. Justice is worship manifest in real life. God in your heart would manifest justice in your being, and if you try and separate justice from worship by way of creeds and dogma, you flirt with idolatry . How can we truly know what’s in the heart of anyone? There is no window that we can see Jesus looking out through. Justice is our gift from God. Justice is not modeled in nature or many times in our society. Justice for all comes from God in our heart, to be done on earth as it is in heaven .

  2. Do Orthodox Christians have Jesus in their hearts?

    The Apostle Paul thought so.

    Eph. 3:17 that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith;

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