Hearts both tender and hard

The Bible is a faith-producing book. As we read it boldly and regularly it generates a response: a growing confidence in God and, with that, a sense of entrustment. The Bible is also brutally honest. It tells stories of misguided faith and un-faith. For the faithful reader those stories help in navigating a dangerously skeptical world.  Yet for other readers the Bible stirs spiritual indigestion—what the Bible writers refer to as hardened hearts.

So there are two common paths in reading: either we find Scriptures more and more captivating; or we stagger through a page or two and then close the book in order to move on to things more useful to the real world we live in. Our hearts are either increasingly tender to God’s words or hardened by them.

What makes the difference? I can only guess at all that must be involved—heaven alone knows—but I do know that my own reading of the Bible on a given day is either vicarious or detached. That is, I find myself owning what the text reports as connected to my own life narrative; or I treat it as a story that has little more significance to me than the story of Hansel and Gretel. And if I own the narrative it begins to own me.

This morning in my reading I was drawn into the events of the narrative of Exodus. Never mind that I’ve read this section at least a hundred times by now. I was still instantly aligned with Moses in a special way. I just returned from a month in Rwanda a little over a week ago. In my time in Kigali I found my heart aching to see deeper transformation in my own life as I offered myself to others. I felt a keen sense of compassion for the Rwandans that only sharpened my sense of inadequacy. I wondered how God is working and how I might be part of that work.

“Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” [2:23-25] 

“And God knew” caught my attention. This is not a detached and indifferent God but a God who hears and knows the human condition. His commitment to the Patriarchs was to bless the world with the Son who would finally resolve sin. And Rwanda knows about sin—not just the horrors of the recent genocide but the ongoing distortions of empty and hungry hearts. God knows. But how many Rwandans know that God’s great blessing is for them?

And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. [Moses] looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. . . . When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” [3:2-4]

To be honest this is a place in the narrative where my connection is lost. I’ve never seen a burning bush that signaled God’s immediate and overt presence. Yet, as I paused to think, I did have a moment many years ago when God called out to me from the Bible—in the Sermon on the Mount—that was as real to me as any voice speaking out of a fiery bush. But that was many years ago and seemed to be a thousand miles removed from my time in Rwanda. 

What did catch my attention is that God takes initiatives when he hears people cry out to him with real needs. I paused in my reading long enough to say in my heart, “Okay, Father, what about today? Are you still working? How about Rwanda today? How about us here in the States, Lord?”

As I continued reading I followed God’s stages in recruiting Moses to be his earthly representative. Moses was charged with meeting the Pharaoh, with offering miraculous signs, with rescuing Israel. Once again the narrative in the text was a million miles away from my own life narrative—it was becoming story rather than a captivating reality to me. Until I came to the next chapter. 

But Moses said to the LORD, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go , and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” [4:10-12]

That was where Moses and I became one in an instant. I’m deeply aware of two things in life: of the needs and opportunities all around me; and of my inadequacies. And God was speaking as certainly to me as to Moses: “Who designed you? Where is your focus? On your inadequacies; or on me?”

In that moment I became vicariously aligned with Moses through all the stages of confrontation that followed. It’s not that I view myself as dueling with some Pharaoh-like figure, but that I view myself as an instrument made by God for purposes that leave me feeling utterly inadequate yet with a continued calling for me to trust him. It had once again become a faith-producing book.

What I noticed as I continued to read was that the distinction between Moses and Pharaoh in the text was not so much their belief that God exists—Pharaoh was soon asking Moses to pray to the LORD on his behalf!—but in whether they entrusted themselves to God as to the one true God. For Pharaoh the LORD was just a new god who needed to be added to the pantheon of gods he already tried to placate and manipulate. For Moses the LORD is the God who hears, who speaks, and who knows: the only true God.  Moses, despite his doubts, entrusted himself to the LORD in a growing commitment. And by the end of the narrative the LORD had brought judgment on “all the Gods of Egypt” so that there was no doubt about who is really in charge of the universe. [12:12]

Readers will notice that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened—sometimes by God and sometimes by his own doing—so that it might sound as if he was simply a victim of God’s arbitrary rule. But that misses the point of all Genesis and Exodus (and the rest of the Bible) that human conduct, whether good or evil, is always heart-based: our hearts are free either to love God or to hate him. Some hold fast to Adam’s relative autonomy—of trying to negotiate a treaty with God while still holding on to a godlike independence in whatever space that can be carved out for self—while others repent and return to the reality that the LORD alone is God! 

So God started working in Exodus 2 with two men who lacked faith. As the events unfolded Moses responded hesitantly at first, yet with a tender heart; and Pharaoh tried to fend off God’s advances with less and less success. God simply created more and more circumstances that called for responses of faith. Or—to return to our starting point—either to a response of faith or to a response of arrogant opposition.

By the end of chapter 12 I found myself worshipping God. I don’t know how he might use me in my longings for Rwanda (and for the United States and more) to know his love, but I know this much: he made me as I am and I need both to trust him and to entrust my life to him. He can do whatever he wants with me and with others. I trust him wholeheartedly because “he knows” me and all our current realities. Praise God!

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10 Comments

  1. Rob

    Great stuff Ron! I especially like the part about entrusting ourselves to God on the terms He expects. That seems to be a real hurdle for some of the young believers I’m discipling. Curious–on those days when you feel detached from the Bible, what do you do?

  2. Ron

    That’s such an important question. Isn’t the point that it’s up to God to sustain the relational initiative? In other words God is the one who stirs our relationship through his providence, through his Spirit’s presence, and through the ongoing access to his heart as offered by the written word. If my heart is tender I’m able to hear, to see, to respond. If I’m feeling detached [I’m speaking from many episodes of real life experience here!] I simply say, “Lord, I’m feeling pretty detached here . . . can you draw me in a bit? And if there’s anything you want to clean up or clear out in my soul, please bring it to mind!” It’s a prayer that is readily answered if I pause long enough to listen.

  3. Alan Hlavka

    Ron,

    Welcome home. It was especially fun to see the photo of you with the Slovenia team.

    Thanks for the rich edification today.

    Alan

  4. Steve MItchell

    Thank you so much for your posts and this one in particular. I sometimes muse that one day you and Alisha will be given your heart’s desire for Africa.

  5. Ron

    Let me mention, in response to Alan, that he also just received my email update that included some pictures of my recent trip, including a shot of our shared friends in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

    And, in response to Steve, that his daughter Alisha has a compassionate heart for Africa that matches my own.

    Thanks so much for the encouraging words and for our shared pleasure in the LORD!

    [BTW: if anyone would like to be added to my bi-monthly Barnabas ministry e-updates, let me know in a comment and I’ll be sure to include you]

  6. morgan

    “… I did have a moment many years ago when God called out to me from the Bible—in the Sermon on the Mount—that was as real to me as any voice speaking out of a fiery bush. But that was many years ago and seemed to be a thousand miles removed from my time in Rwanda…”.

    /pulls up chair
    //wants to be included in updates

  7. nicole

    What a terrible thing to know that God’s words could stir indigestion in some people, hardening their hearts ! So…God hardens these people’s hearts … meaning their destiny is death ???

  8. Ron

    Let me repeat myself and add a bit more:

    “Readers will notice that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened—sometimes by God and sometimes by his own doing—so that it might sound as if he was simply a victim of God’s arbitrary rule. But that misses the point of all Genesis and Exodus (and the rest of the Bible) that human conduct, whether good or evil, is always heart-based: our hearts are free either to love God or to hate him.”

    The ultimate problem of sin is disaffection. Death is not a product of God’s arbitrary, care-less rule but his act of giving people over to what they want (I’m paraphrasing from Romans 1), namely, independence from the God, the God who is Life in himself. There is no eternal life apart from God. And humans have regularly loved darkness rather than light.

    So “hardening” is the function of increasing a sinfully arrogant heart’s exposure to what it hates.

    Like baking clay in an oven: the clay coesn’t change, but the heat of the oven speeds up the process of bringing out its basic qualities. Pharaoh treated the LORD as his enemy (his hatred towards God) and God allowed that disposition to get harder and harder. But it was a disposition that always belonged to Pharaoh, not something imposed on him by God.

  9. nicole

    What is the reason that the bible stirs indigestion in some people? Why do God ‘sometimes’ hardened Pharoah’s heart? In the times u feel detached…could it be God hardening your heart at that time? When the pottery turns out bad, could it be the Potter’s intention? God created every single being on earth…people born bind or deformed, people in Africa and in many other suffering countries…God put them there? A child born out of wedlock or in that ‘transexual’ body…God put that child there? Freedom of choice … one did not asked to be born, so there was NO free choice to start with.

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