We make many assumptions. Too often we assume that as Christians, we don’t experience the same problems unbelievers face. It’s easy to think that once we are redeemed from our sins we don’t have as great a need of God’s grace as others do. We know that those who don’t trust Jesus for forgiveness have been blinded and hardened against the truth (John 12:40, Ephesians 4:18). However, when Jesus stilled the storm in Mark 6, the disciples were surprised at Jesus’ power because “their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:52). This begs the question, “Can Christians have hard hearts as well as unbelievers?” Hebrews 3:14 indicates we certainly have the potential, so I don’t think we can remove ourselves from this dangerous category. Instead we should know what it means to be hard-hearted, what we can do to prevent it, and how we can be restored if we have sinned by having a hard heart.
It should be clarified that having a hard heart as a believer in Jesus is different from that of an unbeliever. Unbelievers experience hard hearts because they have dead hearts; they refuse God because they have no life in their souls: no desire for God’s forgiveness. But a Christian experiences a different kind of hard heart: a temporary unwillingness to submit to God. Here a Christian is like a momentarily stubborn child who is otherwise usually obedient. This is different than the unbeliever’s unwillingness to even give God the time of day.
What Is a Hard Heart?
What then is it for a Christian to have a hard heart? God often called Israel a “stiff-necked” people, which is synonymous for hard-hearted. The clearest explanation of these phrases is found in the illustration of a donkey. A man pulls the reins to lead the donkey to the right, but if the donkey is stubborn, he will stiffen his neck as if to say “I’m not listening to you!” In comparison, God sometimes leads us one way, and we stiffen up. We refuse to follow and become like the stiff-necked donkey.
There are different ways to stubbornly refuse God’s will. Consider Matthew 22:37, where Jesus is responding to a lawyer who just asked, “What is the great commandment in the law?”
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind."
It’s helpful to think in the following categories for our study: The mind deals with mental reasoning, while the heart refers to our emotional side, and the soul to our whole existence. If we are called to love God in each of these areas, the implication is that it is possible to “not love” God in each area. What would you define as the opposite of love? Certainly stubbornness (and its friend, indifference) is as much a valid answer as hate. Stubbornness and indifference against God is not something we immediately overcome at salvation. Yes, we may accept the truths of the gospel as fact; however, we may be lacking when it comes to submitting with all our heart and soul.
So let’s take a moment to break down what it means to obey the greatest commandment and how we can harden our hearts against God within the realm of the heart and soul.
“…with all our heart…”
Perhaps we’ve accepted certain truths from the Bible as facts, but we’ve not come to love them. We know God’s will, but don’t desire to do it. This is one way we harden ourselves against God. Begrudged obedience is not what God desires. Micah 6:8 reminds us that God desires us “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” God does not ask for mere acts of kindness to others. He wants us to delight in doing them.
“…with all our soul…”
What about resisting God in our souls? Perhaps you find the doctrine of God’s sovereignty comforting, at least when you see an answer to prayer. But do you realize that God is sovereign over our suffering as well (Job 2:10, 1 Peter 4:19)?
We would rather not attribute our pain to God. It’s easier to think of Him as a genial father, unwilling to see us in any discomfort. But He is God, above and beyond our wishful thinking. His providence is our greatest comfort in pain, for like David, we should desire to “fall into the hand of the Lord” who often shows great mercy, rather than the hand of fickle man (2 Sam. 24:14). God’s providence is just one area that impacts the way we live our lives. Will we live our lives with a godly perspective, or refuse God’s truth?
Submitting in Suffering
Let’s consider suffering a little longer, before moving on to our second point in diagnosing hard-heartedness. So many people experience trials and as a result turn away from God. I wish I could keep that from happening. It is only when we turn to God that we can best glorify Him, be renewed in our spirits and find restoration. In 2 Chronicles 30, King Hezekiah of Judah sent out an announcement to call the people together for Passover. At this point in history, Northern Israel had already been taken captive by Assyria, and many prophets had warned Judah of God’s impending judgment. Yet Hezekiah shared a word of hope:
“O people of Israel, return to the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, that he may turn again to the remnant of you who have escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria. Do not be like your fathers and your brothers, who were faithless to the Lord God of their fathers, so that he made them a desolation, as you see. Do not now be stiff-necked as your fathers were, but yield yourselves to the Lord and come to his sanctuary, which he has consecrated forever, and serve the Lord your God, that his fierce anger may turn away from you. For if you return to the Lord, your brothers and your children will find compassion with their captors and return to this land. For the Lord your God is gracious and merciful and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.” (2 Chronicles 30:6b–9)
Judah was about to experience this trial as a consequence of their sin. However, not all trials we experience are results of our sin. God uses trials for other purposes (John 9:3), but whatever the purpose, we will miss experiencing God’s comfort and compassion if we turn away from Him. We can magnify the excellence of God as our Father by trusting Him in the pain. We can also magnify Him by “entering into his sanctuary,” or in new covenant language, by seeking His presence through prayer (John 15:26-27, Heb. 4:14-16). I encourage you to be tender towards God, not merely by accepting His Word as fact or striving to obey His commands, but also by turning to Him especially in hard times.
How Can We Prevent It?
After identifying what hard-heartedness is and how it can display itself in the heart and soul, we need to know: what can we do to prevent spiritual hardness, the kind caused by sin?
God clearly answers this question in Hebrews 3:12-13:
"Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called 'today,' that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin."
The fellowship of other believers is essential in fighting hard hearts. Our brothers and sisters in Christ see the effects of sin that we tend to rationalize away. Hebrews 3:13 could be paraphrased, “that none of you may be hardened by the self-deceitfulness of sin.” The disease is hard-heartedness; the cause self-deceit. Recognizing the disease is part of the cure; we need (in the greatest sense of the word) preventative diagnosis of the cause from our fellow Christians.
How Can We Repent?
But what if we’ve already become entrenched against God? What if our hearts are already hard? What can we do once we realize we’ve been harboring stubbornness? The most powerful answer is prayer. Just as God gave us new hearts to love Christ and believe Him for salvation (Ezekiel 36:26-27, 2 Cor. 4:3-6), so God can renew our hearts to submit to Him again. We are surely safe in our Father’s hands, because He is diligently watching over us (1 Peter 1:5). He’s powerful and faithful enough to restore you — if you will just turn to Him.
So come honestly. Seek Him.
"Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth."
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