Recently my pastor spoke on the parable of the four soils (or what others may more familiarly recognize as the parable of the sower), found in three Gospels: Matthew 13, Mark 4 and Luke 8. The four types of soil that receive the seed, (1) a trampled down path, (2) stony places, (3) among thorns, and (4) good soil each speak to a pre-condition of the heart of the hearer and its openness to receive and be impacted by God’s Word. Jesus actually told his disciples this was the most important parable and the one that would unlock their spiritual understanding of all other parables.
It’s interesting, because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the spiritual heart of mankind and such complex conditions spoken of in Scripture as hardness of heart, and offenses of the heart and how these contrast with love and compassion. We all know that similar experiences impact people differently. One person will face a difficult circumstance and it will soften them and help them conform to God’s will. Another will face the same circumstance and it will harden them with bitterness and anger. One becomes either more appreciative of God or more hostile to Him. One either draws closer to God or becomes more distant.
In the Book of Exodus, as Moses engaged Pharaoh on several occasions with challenges to let God’s people go, the Word states over and over again that “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” so that He might “lay My hand on Egypt and bring My armies and My people, the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments.” Likewise, on the way to the Promised Land, when Moses asked Sihon King of Heshbon to let the Israelites pass through his land, we are told “the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that He might deliver him into your hand, as it is this day.” And in the Book of Samuel we read how, when King Saul rebelled from God and disobeyed Him, the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a distressing spirit from the Lord troubled him and David was hand-picked and anointed by God to replace him. Saul subsequently spent years chasing and trying to kill the young man and was punished for his evil acts. And we also learn of King Nebuchadnezzar who God chose to chastise the Kingdom of Judah by conquering it. The King brought Daniel and many other young, bright Jewish men to Babylon to serve him. His hardened heart led him to threaten and even carry out executions of people who refused to worship an idol of himself. But when Nebuchadnezzar became so prideful as to claim all credit for the power and wealth God had allowed him to accumulate, God humbled the king with temporary insanity that took his kingdom from him for seven years, while he lived with the beasts of the field, even eating grass like oxen.
To us it sounds cruel that God might harden a heart or send an evil spirit, then punish the recipient for their subsequent actions. But even Old Covenant relationships and justice are best understood in the light of New Covenant revelation. For Jesus spoke much on the subject of the heart of mankind and his tendency to be too easily offended.
Hardness of heart is a voluntary state of mind. It is a state of choice – a will committed to some form of selfishness. The term hardness is appropriately used, because when the heart is in this state, it is stubborn, and will not yield to the truth, and prevents the intelligence and sensibility from perceiving, and being duly impressed by the truth.
John 6 reveals how even many of Christ’s followers were offended by His teachings. To some, especially the religious leaders, His teachings were too difficult to grasp, too harsh, and too disagreeable with their traditions. These were only following their own belief of who the Messiah should be and what they thought He should do and say.
Jesus knew that this was a major topic of discussion among His closest followers and He brought their concerns to the forefront. “Does this offend you?” He asked. He made it clear that it didn’t matter to Him what outsiders were saying about Him. He wanted to know if they were personally offended by the message. Even some of His hometown buddies and members of His own family suggested He tone things down. But Jesus would not soften His words nor make His message more palatable to His followers, and many walked away.
Finally Jesus turned to the twelve whom he had selected and asked if they would also leave. Judas Iscariot said nothing – though it later became clear that he was one who rejected His master’s teachings. But Peter, who represented the other eleven said that there was no one else to follow, because only Jesus had the words of eternal life. Peter grasped at least part of what Jesus was teaching. Two divergent reactions to the same challenge from God. One reaction was hardness of heart and taking offense to Jesus’ teachings. The other reaction was of acceptance and submission to the Son of God.
Is it possible to be predisposed to a hardened heart?
In a sermon entitled “The Lesson of the Almond Tree,” (April 7, 1881) Charles Spurgeon reminded his congregation that “The same sun which melts wax, hardens clay, and the same Gospel which melts some persons to repentance, hardens others in their sins.” Back to Pharaoh and the kings Sihon, Saul and Nebuchadnezzar – these men were rebellious in their spirit and therefore their reactions to God’s commands reflected a hardened heart. Each in his own way, for whatever reason, was predisposed toward being offended, or fearful, or prideful or selfish, rather than toward being trusting and compassionate. The effect was to open the door to evil spirits to guide their thoughts, attitudes and actions. Did the Lord cause their hearts to be hardened? Was Saul’s evil spirit actually sent to him by the Lord? Only in the sense that Rev. Spurgeon speaks of above. Each man was offended by a word delivered by a servant of God and their predisposition toward a hardened heart led each one to turn their backs on Him.
But what of the “targets” of these four hard-hearted rulers? Were the lives of Moses, David and Daniel so free of hardship that they didn’t face the same temptation to form a hardened heart? Moses’ first forty years were spent in the same court as the Pharaohs and the next forty as a lowly sheep herder. David was undervalued by his own father who not only failed to recognize that his youngest son would amount to much, relegating him to watching the sheep, but when the Prophet Samuel came along to anoint one of Jesse’s boys to be king of the nation, he didn’t even consider the kid in the field. A few years later, David’s adopted father (Saul) did everything in his power to keep the young man from becoming the person God created him to be. Daniel and all the other young men forced into service in Babylon, had everything of their past stolen from them: their families, their traditions, even their Jewish names. Yet each of these men were predisposed to trust in God and toward love and compassion for the people they came into contact with – even those who treated them harshly.
A hardened heart – why?
In the context of feelings and attitudes, the dictionary defines hardened as cold, insensitive, pitiless, unfeeling, unlikely to change, rigid or unyielding. I believe a “hardened heart” is actually a defense mechanism that a person turns on to shut out unwanted external influences, or turns off to permit these same things to impact their minds, emotions and attitudes. I believe God gave us this defense mechanism for a purpose. You can and should become “hardened” (maybe “steeled” is a better word) against the influences of the world, the flesh and the devil. You have the power to determine what your heart accepts or rejects. There’s even a Messianic scripture from Isaiah 50 that says: “I gave My back to those who strike Me, And My cheeks to those who pluck out the beard; I did not cover My face from humiliation and spitting. For the Lord God helps Me. Therefore, I am not disgraced. Therefore, I have set My face like flint, And I know that I will not be ashamed. He who vindicates Me is near; Who will contend with Me? Let us stand up to each other. Who has a case against Me? Let him draw near to Me.” But, like every good characteristic (including defense mechanisms) that God instilled in the human frame, the devil has developed an evil counterfeit to this as well.
So I began noticing several instances in the Gospels where Jesus pointed out the characteristics of a hard heart, even among His disciples, and each involved either the inability to perceive or see or hear as God does, or to understand or to remember what God had already done in the past for them and for others. For example, in Mark 6, a few hours after Jesus multiplied the loaves to miraculously feed thousands, the apostles found themselves in the midst of a violent storm as they crossed the Sea of Galilee, and they feared for their lives. It then says that they were “amazed beyond measure” when Jesus walked upon the waters to them, got into the boat and calmed the seas. The story concludes with the words, “For they considered not the miracle of the loaves, for their heart was hardened.” They had already forgotten the wonderful miracle which was performed before their eyes just a few hours before. They should have remembered that Christ would, of course, have power to walk on the water if He possessed sufficient creative power to feed five thousand. Instead of being surprised at the event, they should have looked upon it as a thing to be expected.
Two chapters later we read about their misunderstanding of Jesus’ warning “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees,” supposing that He alluded to the fact that they had come on the journey without bread. His real intent was to put them on their guard against the Pharisees’ doctrines which were liable to prejudice their minds against the truth of His teachings. Jesus inferred that their missing His point by a mile was proof that their hearts were hard.
Then in Mark 16, after His crucifixion and resurrection, when Jesus appeared to the eleven as they sat eating dinner, He scolded them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, “because they believed not them which had seen Him after He was risen.” The minds of the disciples were such that they could even doubt the testimony of those who had actually seen their risen Lord.
Hardness of heart and spiritual blindness
It wasn’t sin that caused the disciples’ hearts to be hard – it was their focus on things other than the miracles and signs they’d been witness to and the words Jesus had spoken. They were occupied with trying to save their lives in the midst of the storm or with thinking only about what was naturally possible, ignoring the possibility of supernatural intervention. Rather than looking outward toward how God wanted to use them to reach others, they were looking inward. Every time hard-heartedness surfaces, so does fear, pride, self-preservation and other selfish interests.
Even the great evangelist-to-the-Gentile’s heart was hard and Paul was under the delusion that he was doing God a service when he hunted the followers of Christ and delivered them over to judgment and death. Likewise persecutors in every age have thought that they were doing God service. Their hearts were so hard that they really believed that they were called and taught of God to do their work of death and blood upon those they regarded as heretics.
Time and again we see the blinding effect of hardness of heart on the intelligence. Persons whose hearts are hard, will often embrace the grossest errors, and be very zealous in defending them. No scientific or religious error has ever been proclaimed which has not found some zealous and even self-denying advocates. Such was the state of the hearts of the Jews generally. No evidence which Christ could give them could convince them Jesus was the Messiah. They failed to see the providence of God in anything Jesus did; even the miracles didn’t produce much impression on their minds because their hearts were hard. They placed their traditions above compassion for those who were in need of Christ’s healing power. The man born blind, the man with the deformed arm, none of the evidences of miracles made much of an impression upon them. These “signs” did not fasten conviction on their unbelieving minds nor break down their stubborn wills.
When Jesus was standing before the judgment seat of Pilate, the murderers of Christ cried out with one accord, “His blood be on us and on our children.” They were so certain that Christ was an impostor that they were ready to take the responsibility of his murder on their own shoulders and that of their descendants for generations to come. What greater proof is there of their deep self-deception? They ignored all the evidence and signs of the truths He was speaking, and they pursued their course of wickedness, buried in the darkness of ignorance and self-delusion.
That’s true of careless sinners everywhere. Hardness of heart influences a person’s intellect and sensibility; for if his heart was not hard, he would be full of agony over his sorry state, instead of coldness and indifference with respect to spiritual truth. Persons in a hard-hearted state will justify the most palpable wrong doing; they will have some excuse for their misdeeds; they will rationalize the need to perform the evil deed. Some will even imagine that they are doing God service, when in fact they are committing the most flagrant acts of wickedness. That’s why Pharaoh’s heart could be hardened again and again, even in the face of ten supernatural events that significantly impacted his people.
Even people within the church often form hard hearts. Under the influence of selfish motives, controversies develop and fester to the hurt of the Body. Each person sees the facts in a different light and each thinks the other to be at fault. Nothing seems to convince either of the parties of his fault or responsibility.
The Key to avoiding a hardened heart – seeing as God sees
In the Charles Spurgeon sermon cited above, the great preacher’s lead scripture was Jeremiah 1:11, 12, “Moreover the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Jeremiah, what do you see? And I said, I see a branch of an almond tree. Then said the Lord unto me, you have seen well: for I am ready to perform My word.” And he began with these words: “Observe, before Jeremiah becomes a speaker for God, he must be a seer. The name for a Prophet in the olden time, was a ‘seer’—a man who could see—one who could see with his mind’s eye, one who could also see with spiritual insight, so as vividly to realize the Truth of God which he had to deliver in the name of the Lord. Learn that simple lesson well, O you who try to speak for God! You must be seers before you can be speakers.”
The Key to avoiding a hardened heart is seeing every person you come in contact with as God sees them. It’s human nature to regard others from a worldly point of view. Only with God’s help can we train our hearts to alter that. Only a softened heart sees others and themselves as God sees them. Only when earnest, effectual prayer has been offered for brethren and sinners alike, and the Holy Spirit has been allowed to intercede to soften their hearts, is the difficulty between adversaries resolved. When the heart is melted, each sees the subject in dispute in the same light as the other. It’s not uncommon for each to admit blame and confess more than he or she has been charged with.
Only God can melt a hardened heart. Only God can give spiritual sight to the blind. It may take a “breaking” – such as when Nebuchadnezzar, the greatest king of ancient Babylon, had to be thrown off his throne for a time and cast out to live among the livestock and wild beasts. Or when the deeply religious, but murderous Saul of Tarsus was thrown off his donkey to the ground and blinded, so he could hear and receive the message of His Savior.
When the heart is softened by the love of Christ, everything appears differently. Our views on every subject are changed greatly. This change extends to almost every duty, relation, and act of life. When the heart is softened the intellect is placed in an attitude of attention. A truth which has been heard a hundred times without any conscious effect, all of a sudden infects the whole soul.
I was listening to a minister the other day who made a profound statement that is worthy of adopting into each and every Christian’s life: “When I face a difficult person, I constantly remind myself, he’s my friend – he just doesn’t know it yet. I make a special effort through my actions and words to communicate to him that he’s my friend. I’m giving him permission to become the person I see.”