One of the startling moments in Christ’s ministry came as he answered a tough question on divorce and remarriage. Jesus told his followers that marriage is meant to be a lifelong commitment that precludes divorce (see Matthew 19); and they then asked him about the option for divorce that Moses had provided in the Old Testament. His answer: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives . . .”
In effect Jesus was saying that God’s real desires could sometimes differ from what he allows us to do. So my point in starting here is not to poke around in the thorny bush of divorce and remarriage but to ask what we should make of God’s apparent accommodation to human stubbornness—to our “hardness of heart.” The question is this: if God really does offer us some room for moral accommodation can we or should we take advantage of the space it offers us?
It’s an important question. One strong impression that comes with bold Bible reading is a sense of how far our Western and modern (and even post-modern) Christian patterns of life may differ from biblical ideals. I think, for instance, of biblical calls for holiness—including sexual and ethical purity—in a culture that winks at boundaries. Of calls to hold human life as sacred. Of calls for social and economic justice. For meaningful and constructive conversations in place of degrading entertainments and divisive gossip. For mercy and care as opposed to relational and physical violence or the quieter abuse of selfish disinterest towards others. For men to be godly leaders. For marriages to display a trajectory towards increasing oneness rather than towards negotiated detachment and emotional separation. For shepherds to lead churches selflessly and sacrificially. For lives to be lived in the world but not of the world—offering a distinction between Christ and the brokenness of our fallen culture.
The points of tension are innumerable and I suspect my little list will have hit hot buttons for some—which only illustrates the point. And as Christ indicated above, there is a biblical diagnosis for these issues: our hearts are still hard towards God. Mine included.
What, then, should be our response? Should we take advantage of God’s grace in Christ—knowing that whenever our sin increases, grace increases even more? Paul rejected that option in his writing to the Romans. Grace will always match our needs, but transformed hearts refuse to abuse that privilege.
Or should we repent and determine to shift our hearts in a new direction? The solution of working to be godly—as if we could stomp out the raging forest fire of sin with our tennis shoes—is nonsense because a hardened heart doesn’t even realize that it’s hard! It would be like telling a tone-deaf person to sing a complex melody in perfect form.
Our hearts, after all, are defined by desires. Or, to put it differently, the heart is the response-center of the soul, made by God in order to respond to him in love. Every moment of life is meant to be lived in the purview of God’s love. Yet that bond was violated by Adam; and since then all of us have embraced that violation because in Adam all of us are now birthed without the presence of the Spirit. In his dismissal of God the Spirit’s ministry to his offspring also ended. And it was the Spirit who had once poured out God’s life and love into his heart.
So we now—if we either lack the Spirit’s life or are newly born in Christ but still oriented to old desires—find ourselves responding to other invitations to love. And these invitations, if not of Christ, are all illicit and corruptive. Jesus was saying as much when he declared, “apart from me you can do nothing”. We were made to abide in him, in his love and in his word. So a heart is measured, ultimately, by its orientation to Christ and to the Father through him. If a person finds Christ unattractive he or she is simply showing off their hard hearted status: of a stone-like disposition towards the creator and lover of their soul.
I know I’m being repetitive here in my review of a Spirit-centered and heart-based spiritual anthropology; it’s a familiar refrain from earlier Spreading Goodness entries.
I need to review the point in order to shift gears and to move to a point of specific application in the question of how we can still be hard hearted while believing in Christ. And here it is: we are being hard hearted when we refuse to read the Bible relationally, daily, and boldly.This has to be said in the face of vast indifference to relational Bible reading found in the church today. God exists in eternal, triune communion and his Son has been called the eternal “Word”—God loves us and shares himself with us through his word. The battle of light and dark, of life and death, pivots on God’s word versus the Serpent’s word.
So the gravest question of life is this: whose voice are we responding to in a given moment? There is no “neutral” realm of life-conversation—Paul made that clear in Ephesians 2:1-3 where he wrote of our former life as being under the rule of Satan, God’s enemy. Paul, thank God, was at least willing to confront the issue. Today it isn’t even raised in most churches. Paul, for instance, called the Corinthians spiritual babies—utterly immature. They were still nursing on milk rather than eating spiritual meat.
Yet we Christians still tend to nibble at the Bible if we taste it at all. Christians will watch two or more hours of television in a day; or invest as many hours on the internet and then consider ten minutes in the Scriptures, if that, to be more than enough to satisfy any spiritual obligations.
Let me be blunt: that approach is hard hearted. God offers us his heart in the Scriptures yet hardened hearts could care less: God isn’t very compelling compared to _______. But think about it. To ignore the Scriptures—the most tangible self-expression God offers us today—is like telling a spouse, “ten minutes of you is all I need in a given day, thank you.” Try that and see how far your relationship goes ahead.
Jesus was making this point in John 8:31-59 as he confronted the “believers” who were not ready to listen to his word: “If you abide in my word you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” To listen to him is to be set free from the world and its values. To listen to him is to be captured by the Father’s love that the Son reflects and reveals. To resist him is to be given over to the desires of the devil. Jesus made it clear enough in this text—along with his disclosure of his union with the Father—that it almost cost him his life before his time.
Now let’s turn to the applied solution: what can we do if we have hard hearts and have an itch to be open hearted? As one who is also hard hearted too much of the time here’s my best advice: pray the prayer of Psalm 139: 23-24 at least once a day and then start to respond to God’s nudges to read his word and to respond to what it tells us.
Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!
Here’s the point: the heart is so self-deceptive that only God can reset it. And he is more than prepared to step in once the invitation is offered. In fact, he will have been at work beforehand if we offer any invitation in the first place! That’s because our hearts were made by him and for him. And only his presence stirs the heart in the right—the God-oriented—way.
So while Jesus spoke to his audience about hardness of heart in the times of Moses, with a suggestion that their current questioning was still aligned with that hardness, I think we can presume that Jesus was not expecting them to stay there. The whole point of his teaching was to move them forward into love and greater faith. It’s a calling we need to receive as well.