Have you ever met someone who was just plain stubborn? You might know people within your circle of friends who insist on having their way. They are hardheaded and obstinate about what they want. A moment of reflection may cause you to feel uncomfortable at the thought (you know, personally). God calls it a heart problem. This problem of self-centeredness has existed from the beginning of time, documented in the lives of people we read about in Scripture as well as people we live with today.
Pharaoh is probably the best illustration in the Bible of a person with a hard heart. He was exposed to the truth over and over again, yet refused to respond accordingly. Notice God said, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” God engineered the situation we read about in Exodus. In doing so, God displays His power and provides a blueprint for what happens when a person refuses to accept and bend the will to the truth.
Pharaoh was presented with overwhelming evidence. Plague after plague, sign after sign, miracle after miracle, but still he refused to accept God’s warnings and let the Israelites go. God repeatedly presented Pharaoh with the truth of who He was, yet Pharaoh wouldn’t bow. Even when faced with undeniable evidence that he was wrong, Pharaoh wouldn’t give in. He refused to acknowledge that another kingdom was greater than his. His pride, stubbornness, and hard-heartedness caused him great grief and distress. His overexposure and under response to truth proved to be extremely costly for him, his family, and his kingdom.
All of us have experienced the stubborn desire to have things the way we want them, even when “our way” isn’t God’s way. That’s what Pharaoh was doing. If we are wise, we will learn from his experience. Every time we say no to God, we live in rebellion, stubbornly asserting our selfish will over His will for our lives. Just as Pharaoh stubbornly clenched his fist and said no repeatedly to God, we too cannot do that for long without developing a hard heart that will lead to destruction. We stand in danger of following in the footsteps of Pharaoh if we refuse to submit to God’s standard. The more we can be fooled into believing we’re right and God is wrong the more we are in danger of developing a hard heart.
While we must be careful, we need not despair. One of the primary reasons I believe God initiated this entire sequence of events was to provide us with a lesson plan for not following the way of Pharaoh. God wouldn’t leave us without a way to experience victory over our tendencies to assert our rights over His truth. We can rejoice in the graciousness of God as we study the lesson He gave us and apply its truth to our lives.
Let’s be honest. We all want things the way we want them. We all want what we want when we want it. I’m more comfortable when things are the way I like them. All people are. The tension comes into play when what we want is not what God wants, when the two conflict. Refusal to act on the truth time and time again will corrode the heart of man until nothing can melt the hardness.
Paul wrote, “Although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21). It’s dangerous to say no to the truth because there will come a time when God allows us to have our own way: “Since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, He gave them over to a depraved mind” (1:28). Paul clearly portrays the inevitable downward spiral into sin when a hard heart develops. God does not cause this steady progression towards evil. Rather, when we reject Him, God allows us to live as we choose. He gives us over or permits us to experience the natural consequences of our sin.
We can count on this: frequently saying no to God will eventually result in God letting us have our own way. Sounds pretty good? Don’t bet on it. How many children have cheered their independence from mom and dad only to weep in the dark of the night because they discovered having their own way was not always as appealing as it seemed?
To avoid the pitfalls that are sure to occur in our paths, we must understand the danger signs of a hard heart. Otherwise, we can and will rationalize ourselves into disaster! The saga of Pharaoh supplies us with six signs to use as a checklist for a hard heart.
The first sign (and one we all struggle with) is stubbornness. Pharaoh was eaten up with a stubborn spirit when confronted with God’s truth. All of us have been here. It’s the way we react when we know we shouldn’t do something. We respond, “I know I shouldn’t, but I’m going to do it anyway.” When we are confronted with truth repeatedly and ignore it, our lack of response to God demonstrates a hard heart that no doctor can fix.
The second sign of a hard heart is a lack of concern for spiritual things. This is made evident when God’s work becomes second to our own. Insensitivity to God’s work is a sure sign we are developing a hard heart. A lack of concern for spiritual things means we are more concerned with our business than with God’s. The selfishness of that attitude is evidenced when God gets in the way of our plans, yet we choose to do things the way it works best for us anyway.
The third sign of a hard heart is ignoring the testimony of other people. Similarly, if we ignore undeniable evidence over and over again, there is no doubt we are developing a hard heart. Whether the evidence comes from a person or event, ignoring it can result in tragic consequences.
The fourth sign of a hard heart is recognizing sin, but refusing to deal with it. We know cheating is wrong, but we do it anyway. We know lying is wrong, but we do it anyway. We understand there is a speed limit for a good reason, but speeding is just something we do. We may feel bad for a time (feeling bad relieves some of the guilt), but that’s as far as it goes. If we are honest, some of us have no intention of doing anything about our sin.
The fifth sign of a hard heart is pride. The prideful person says, “I know better than anyone else.” Men suffer from this disease quite often. We pretend to be experts about everything. No matter what anyone else says, our way is the right way. Often, it is hard for us to take instruction from anyone. Even when we know we are wrong, we argue instead of facing up to it. And the tragedy is everybody knows our problem is pride. The root of Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness was pride. He considered himself a god. He wasn’t about to let some other God get the best of him.
The sixth sign of a hard heart is acknowledging sin, but attempting to make a deal with God. Instead of turning from sin, we rationalize it and try to make deals with God, so we can continue sinning and not be plagued by our consciences. Think about the college student who is scared he has gotten his date pregnant. I can just imagine listening in and hearing him try to make a deal with God: “God, if You’ll just fix it where she’s not pregnant, I’ll go to church on Sunday and I’ll even volunteer to help out in the nursery. After all, it takes two to make a baby!” Do you think God is impressed one bit with his excuses? A woman who plays the same game, blaming her plight on the man she chose to be with, is just as guilty of the attempt to bargain with God. While we may attempt to make deals with God, our efforts lead to more problems, and the gap between God’s truth and our desires get wider and wider as our hearts harden.
The signs for developing a hard heart are made unmistakenably clear to us in Scripture. We don’t have to wonder and assume things because God has already given us a description of the problem and what we must do to fix it. We can promise, bargain, and rationalize all we want, but unless we come to an accurate understanding of God and His will for us, we will fail miserably in our efforts to succeed. It’s not so much our behavior that needs to change (although it certainly needs to change!) as it is our hearts that need restoring. Once that happens, our behavior will change, and we will know what is right and wrong. We sometimes focus too much on changing behaviors when we should be focused on doing what will result in changed hearts.
As we grow as Christians, sin should bother us more, not less. Yet every day we spend hours being entertained by the very sin Christ died for! We rent it at Red Box, view it online, watch it on television, and read it in books. “But I never thought if it that way,” you say. Over time, we have changed the rules and our hearts have come to accept things we wouldn’t have dreamed of accepting a few years ago. Do you remember when bad language really bothered you? Perhaps now it hardly affects you.
We must be sure of two things when we contemplate the problems of a hard heart: (1) the warning signs or red flags God has given us through Scripture, and (2) how to avoid taking the same road Pharaoh did. Our response to truth determines whether our hearts will be hardened or remain pliable and ready to have God make them after His own. Applying the truth we’ve obtained through study is the key to victory in any situation. Unless we allow God to apply the truth to our lives, we will continue to go our own way and that’s a sure sign of a hard heart.
There’s only one absolute answer to the problem of a hard heart. Nothing short of honest repentance will bring about the change needed. I don’t mean rededicating our lives. I’m talking about allowing God to change our hearts to the point where our no becomes a yes to His truth. True repentance manifests itself in a changed life.
God’s priority for us is that we take Him seriously when He says, “Go into the world and change it!” When we lead people to trust Christ as Savior, we change the world. Recognizing this puts our response to truth in a totally different perspective. We’re not in this world just for our pleasure or well-being. God put us here for a purpose and it was not to spend our days fulfilling selfish needs at the expense of those He would have us bring to know Him personally.
We have to understand the big picture to understand why developing a hard heart will bring about disaster. Putting all things into perspective, if we continue to insist on our way, there will come a time when God’s truth no longer matters to us at all. When Paul wrote, “God gave them over to a debased mind,” he was making sure we understood what would happen to us if we continued to insist on our way long enough: God will back off and let us have what we think we want. Sounds great until the reality of our depravity destroy our life!
Humbling ourselves before God is a proven cure for the hard heart. Christ can transform a hard heart into one that responds cheerfully and obediently to Him.
* Read more in my book: Back to the Basics: A Guide for Christian Living.