“for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”
This line about hearts being hardened comes from the scene immediately following the feeding of the 5,000 hence the reference to the loaves. Jesus had gone off to pray and the disciples were in a boat battling a storm when Jesus came to them walking on the water and calmed the storm. But the astonishing thing about this line is that it is not referring to the crowds or to the authorities or even to Jesus’ enemies. This line was referring to the disciples! They didn’t understand about the loaves because their hearts were hardened.
What makes this even more remarkable is that at this point we are over a third of the way through the Gospel of St. Mark. These men were hand picked by Jesus. They had seen Him heal multitudes, cast out demons, raise Jarius’ daughter from the dead and feed well over 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes. But still their hearts were hardened.
It occurred to me that if Jesus’ Apostles could suffer from hardness of heart then it is certainly was within the realm of possibility that I too could suffer from this malady. I turned to the Scriptures and was surprised to discover over 45 references to it. As I read through these passages I concluded two things. First that it is an all too common condition and second that it is very dangerous condition spiritually speaking. It requires our constant vigilance to avoid. In order to become vigilant we need to better understand what it is, how you get into that condition, and what you can do about it.
Hardness of heart is resistance to God; resistance to His presence, to His truth, to His Spirit. We see a secular version of hardness of heart in our politics today. It doesn’t matter how many facts you give them they are going to love their guy and hate your guy. No matter what the truth, your guy can do no right the their guy can do no wrong. But this mindset is even worse when it is a spiritual condition because the truths that are being resisted are the truths that make the difference between eternal life and eternal death.
And to be clear it truly is a heart problem and not a head problem. I saw a vivid example of this in a video. The video was of a Planned Parent doctor talking about different ways to kill an unborn baby in order to successfully harvest the organs. She was having this discussion while sipping a glass of wine and eating a salad. She’s a doctor so she has to be a brilliant person but it’s not a head problem, it’s a heart problem and the Lord only knows what has happened in her past to her make her heart so hard.
But what about us? What could make our hearts hard? The first and most obvious thing is willful sinfulness or rebellion against God. Hebrews 3. “Take care brothers lest there be in any of you an evil and unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort on another every day…that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (vss 12,13). One of the things that led to Judas’s downfall was that he was stealing from their common purse. He knew it to be a sinful activity and yet he did it anyway and it opened his heart for Satan to enter.
Closely related to rebellion against God is pride. We are aware of the warnings all through the Scriptures against pride and yet we all know that dude. You can’t tell him anything, there is not a topic of which he is not an expert, and anyone who disagrees with him is an idiot. If you don’t know anyone like that then you may want to ask someone who really loves you if it is you.
But there is a more subtle form of pride that also hardens the heart. The person who comes to mind when I think about this kind of pride is the professor on Gilligan’s Island. You may not know that the characters on that show were patterned after the 7 deadly sins. The Skipper is anger, Gilligan is sloth, Ginger is lust. Mary Ann envy etc. Well the professor was pride. But he was a very likeable figure because his pride was subtle. It was in the form of self-reliance. If they needed a tool or a special kind of widget he could take a coconut or a fern and make it happen. He rarely asked for help and he believed that there was nothing that he could not eventually figure out.
Of course there is nothing sinful about being intelligent or handy or even self reliant to a degree. But how often do we try to handle things on our own without first going to God and asking for His wisdom and grace? How often do we treat the Lord as the last resort? A person who is totally self-reliant is rarely one is led by the Spirit because there is too much flesh in the way. Deep down he doesn’t really believe that God’s ways are better than his ways.
Years ago a young man came to me because he was in bad financial shape. As we poured through the details of his life he admitted that he was not tithing and he was working on Sundays even though he was self-employed. I explained the biblical truths of the tithe and keeping the Sabbath and told him that if he wanted the Lord to bless his efforts that he needed to do things the Lord’s way. He ignored my advice and to the best of my knowledge is still struggling. If you asked him to describe himself he would say that he is a hard worker. If you asked me I would say he suffers from pride because his actions say that he knows better than the Lord about how life should be lived.
A third way that our hearts get hardened is when they are broken and bitterness seeps in. You hope and trust and believe and then something happens to break your heart and you decide somewhere deep inside to never hope and trust and believe again. You incorrectly believe that in this way you will never be that deeply hurt again. This pattern happens to us romantically, it happens with people that we thought were our friends, it happens within families. But it can also happen in our spiritual lives. We place our expectations on God and when He fails to meet our expectations we become disappointed with God and if left unchecked it turns into bitterness and hardness of heart. You can see this vein run through the life of King Saul who ends up dying a tragic death. We must act quickly with forgiveness to keep bitterness from taking over and we must remember that it is not our place to put expectations on God.
A fourth way that our hearts are hardened is through stubbornness. And this may be a chicken and egg thing because each causes the other. While my wife says that “Kasch” is German for stubbornness, the Bible has a little different take on it. It also uses the term “stiff necked people” which gives you a wonderful image of what is being talked about. The prophet Jeremiah uses the term “stubborn heart” seven times and reveals it as a very serious condition. It is like an addiction that is impossible to be recovered from under our own power. I will explain later what we can do about it.
A fifth common cause of a hardened heart, which you see particularly throughout Jesus’ ministry, is self-righteousness. His detractors were so caught up in keeping every minutia of the law that they were upset when He healed on the Sabbath. They were so caught up in their piety that they could not see the Messiah when He was standing right in front of them.
A sixth cause of hardness of heart is selfishness. I am a dog lover to the max so please don’t take this wrong. But in 2015 Americans spent $60 billion, with a B, on their pets and yet we have a national problem of kids going to bed hungry. It would be safe to assume that the average American spends far more on their pets than they do giving to the poor. There is something desperately wrong with that picture.
Listen to God’s perspective. This is from Deuteronomy 15. If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. (vss 7,8). This thought is echoes by the Apostle John. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”(I Jn 3:17).
Dave Ramsey speaks of building wealth so that you can live and give like no one else. The Scriptures speaks of tithes and offerings and so it is a good goal to come to a place where you not only give your tithe to your local church but that you are able to give offerings to those in need. I read that if Christians in the US simply met the tithe it would add $150 billion annually to do ministry. With just the tithe we could change the world.
So those are some of the causes of hard heartedness. If you feel that I have gone from preaching to meddling then I may have hit a nerve. What to do about it?
First, simply admit it to the Lord. He typically does not fix what we won’t admit is broken. I think that is why Jesus asked people all the time what they wanted even when it was obvious that they needed healing. We will have the general confession in a few minutes and it would be the perfect time to declare your hard heartedness and ask to be healed.
Second, declare your inability to heal yourself. As I said earlier this is a very dangerous condition spiritually and so we are going to need more than a tonic to fix it. What we need is open heart surgery and you can’t perform open heart surgery on yourself. We need the Great Physician.
Third, stand upon the promises of God. This was God’s promise to Israel through the prophet Ezekiel. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” (36:26-28).
Since the Church is the New Israel and God’s goal is for us to be His people, I see no reason why this promise is not extended to us as well. But note that God says, “I will give you…” because only God can give us a new heart. And yet we are not to sit passively by and wait for a surgical date. It is as we seek Him through prayer and Word and Sacrament that He fulfills His promise to us. Recall in Jesus’ parable of the seeds that the soil was the heart and the seed was the Word of God. It was only the heart that allowed the Word of God to take root that produced fruit. In other words we are not going to get a new heart by watching the Kardashians. Prayer, Word and Sacrament.
Here is the good news. Even after seeing Jesus do all of these miracles, including feeding the 5,000 and walking on water, the disciples still didn’t get it. They still suffered from hardened hearts. I would have given up on them by that point but Jesus did not. He hung in there with them until they did get it, until there hearts of stone were turned into a heart of flesh. He loves us no less than He loved them so we can be assured that He will hang in there with us until we get it too.
I’d be tender, I’d be gentle
And awful sentimental
Regarding love and art
I’d be friends with the sparrows
And the boy that shoots the arrows
If I only had a heart
The Tin Man got one. May God grant us a new one too. Amen.