Diagnosing the Four Steps To a Hard Heart

Diagnosing the Four Steps To a Hard Heart

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Did you know it’s possible to know God but still have a hard heart? Though we have many means of grace, like prayer, the Bible, our local churches, and each other, Christians are not impervious to the infiltration of sin or its dastardly effects. It only takes a little evil to create havoc in our souls. Knowing and experiencing God does not prevent us from moving down the path to hard-heartedness, making it critical to understand how to diagnose the sequence that leads to a hard heart.

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Can God?

How has your week been? Has the resurrected Lord stabilized your thoughts as you have reflected on our victory through Him? How has the residual effect of Christ’s coming out of the tomb affected your life this week? The resurrection was a singular event intended to have continuous power. It’s like a recyclable gift you can use over and over again. It never loses its influence or impact in the Christian’s life. It never diminishes from what it can do for us, even if we have been Christians for decades.

The conquering power of the Lord that secures our victory should sustain all of His children through every day and every event of our lives. There is no diminishing of the joy, hope, and power we experienced when we first heard about Christ’s salvation, as it buoys us through all trials or challenges (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). However, we live in the real world, which is a fallen one. The temptation to give up and even question God’s active goodness on our behalf happens, especially during seasons of disappointment. Listen to how the Hebrews questioned God during their wilderness wandering.

He made streams come out of the rock and caused waters to flow down like rivers. Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” (Psalm 78:16-19).

In Exodus 17:1-7, just three itty bitty chapters from God’s great victory of leading the children of Israel through the Red Sea, His children were bitterly complaining about their new and disappointing circumstances. They were thirsty and wanted water. Imagine that! I can’t believe those people! They experienced God in all His profoundness. They saw Him do the spectacular, which was beyond anyone’s comprehension. They were the choicest recipients of His miracle working power. Almighty God poured unmitigated blessings on them.

God Can

What they did would be analogous to us leaving our local church meetings on Easter Sunday and begin complaining and grumbling before exiting the parking lot. A critical spirit is the perfect illustration of what the small-minded Israelites were doing. Though the miracle of the resurrection should be enough to equip any Christian through any trial that may come upon them, it can become just another lifeless past event with no current sustaining power. Present testing should be the motivation to reflect on God’s past faithfulness to stabilize us through our trials. The backward reflection on God’s past demonstration is the antidote to trust Him through present difficulties.

The children of Israel were complaining and whining right after seeing one of the most miraculous events in the Bible. How many days after Sunday’s worship service do you feel more like Pharaoh and his army crushed by the encompassing waters of the Red Sea rather than the Israelites who walked through it? The question the Israelites needed to wrestle with was whether God’s provision through the exodus was enough for them to rest in His ongoing care. We have a similar question we need to wrestle with too. Is the Lord’s one-time gospel work that earned our salvation enough to satisfy us while giving us hope and direction when our circumstances are not as expected?

The Israelites went off the rails quickly. Their problems became greater than God’s victory. Being problem-centered rather than God-centered led to grumbling and complaining, which is a bold accusation against the active goodness of God in their lives. They should have reflected on God’s past care and moved forward in faith, knowing God would come through for them again, again, and again. What more could the Lord have done for them than to show His faithfulness to them? He already divided the sea so they could be born again. How much are we like those unbelieving believers?

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Be Warned

The critical moments in our lives are when we perceive insurmountable odds and unremitting difficulties. These are the times when we should focus our hearts on God’s past ability to triumph despite the odds that appear to be against us. Humanity was born to worship, which should come with a large caution flag: we can quickly shift from worshiping our Deliverer to worshiping our self-reliant means to extricate ourselves from our troubles. Because the Israelites were not getting what they wanted, they chose to walk away from the Lord. Their hearts hardened because of unmet expectations. If we walk away from the Lord, what hope do we have? Our real hope is in Jesus and Him alone. There is a warning for us through the story of the Israelites not to let discouraging circumstances harden our hearts.

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years” (Hebrews 3:7-10).

If God saved His people through the exodus, and despite this, their hearts became hard when life became hard, be warned: we can harden our hearts like them if we don’t heed the caution. We are no different from the Israelites in the wilderness. What they fell prey to is our temptation as well. We will easily and quickly develop a hard heart if we don’t remind ourselves of the gospel—the exodus Christ provided for us through His death, resurrection, and ascension. A hard heart is the Hebrew writer’s main point in this section to his believing audience. He knew a true believer could drift from the gospel to the point where his salvation did not impact his sanctification.

Functional Atheism

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end (Hebrews 3:12-14).

These strong warnings in Hebrews are not saying we can lose our salvation or that God never saved us; they are saying that we can lose the resurrection power that our salvation offers us. God can save us, and we can be on our way to heaven but lost in the temporal circumstances of our lives. We can have eternal life but lose our way in the here and now to where the reality of our problems overwhelms our salvation. There is only one answer to this kind of problem. It’s the gospel, powerfully displayed through the resurrection of Christ. If the gospel is insufficient for our present trials, we will be susceptible to a hard heart.

Just like the Israelites in the Old Testament who lost sight of God’s power displayed at the Red Sea, we can lose sight of the empty tomb to the point where our disappointment becomes an accusation toward God. The core issue in this passage is an ongoing, undiagnosed, untreated heart condition. The warning is to assess ourselves soberly so we don’t have an evil and unbelieving heart. The hardening of the believer’s heart will result in functional atheism or what I call an unbelieving believer (Mark 9:24). The Christian living in functional atheism is looking for deliverance from present circumstances rather than trusting in God’s prior deliverance through the gospel. The Lord will not give us complete victory in our current circumstances. His desire is not so much about giving us everything we want but for us to trust Him at all times.

Hardening Process

The Israelites forgot about God’s past power while demanding He meets their present disappointment according to their expectations. Do not be naive. Unbiblical expectations can happen to any of us. The Hebrew writer warned the readers by reminding them of what happened to their ancestors. Since the Hebrew letter’s writing, millions of Christians have drifted from their faith. They hardened their hearts. They enthusiastically went into their new salvation, and life slapped them in the face. Someone hurt their feelings; they had crushed dreams and dashed hopes.

The disappointment began to make its appeal in their hearts. The hardening process was so imperceptible that they did not discern it until they became case-hardened. You do not want this to happen to you. But it can. None of us are bulletproof. No matter how we may want to think about ourselves, we’re just one disappointment from walking away from the Lord. Developing a hard heart happens in four contiguous steps: evil, unbelief, drifting, and hardness. Let’s take a quick look at all four of these steps.

  1. Evil: God allows evil into your life. From a biblical perspective, that is normal and expected (Genesis 50:20). We live in a sinful world. Fallen people are all around us, and so are we. Evil was also a promise from the Lord (Genesis 3:18). The real problem is not so much the evil but a lack of understanding of the purposes of the evil in our lives.
  2. Unbelief: The regression to a hard heart begins when the person who experiences evil questions God’s active goodness in his life. Two of the most common ways this “kind of unbelief” happens are through grumbling and complaining. Both of these are manifestations of anger. The complainer is missing the Lord in his mess while demanding God meet his expectations according to his desires. This first false step opens him up to more sin. The genuinely believing heart begins a slow and almost unseeable process of no longer believing in God. His friends, including Christians, often do not discern his unbelief—not until it’s too late.
  3. Drifting: If the grumbling persists, the person will begin to take steps away from God. The Bible will become cold to him. He will start to move away from the people of God. His prayer closet will become silent.
  4. Hardness: Grumbling and complaining are two ways of pointing the finger at God while expressing disappointment in Him for not coming through for you. It says, “I’m right in this matter, and You are wrong, and You need to subscribe to my solutions.” Over time this will become a habit, and the conscience will harden to the point where the person can no longer perceive what he is doing to himself. There will be an insensitivity to and detachment from the Spirit’s voice, as well as the voices of his friends.

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Ounce of Prevention

First preventative: Don’t be naive. The Hebrew writer is also giving us a strong warning. The Lord thought enough about this to put it in His forever Word. Hardness can happen to me. It can happen to you. Your first call to action regarding this caution is to humbly ask the Lord if any wicked way is working in your heart (Psalm 139:23). If you have not already perceived your vulnerability to a hard heart as you reflect on these things, maybe the hardening process has already begun. If your first thoughts have been about someone else, be warned: the process may have already started in your heart.

Second preventative: You are vulnerable. Just as our bodies are susceptible to different germ intruders, your soul is always in the crosshairs of Satan (1 Peter 5:8). He would find no greater pleasure than to take you down, and it’s easier than most of us imagine. Preach the gospel to yourself every day, throughout your day. The gospel is the antidote for a hard heart. If you’re not daily marinating your mind in the victory the Lord wrought for you, His victory will become powerless in your present circumstances.

Third preventative: Love your friends. Your friends are just like you. We’re all naive and vulnerable. We’re no match for the devil and his schemes. If our hearts are not riveted to God’s provision—as experienced by the gospel—we’re easy-picking for the evil one. You must, moment by moment, fortify your heart with gospel goodness. And as you do, you must have a courageous and grace-filled boldness to speak to your fellow brothers and sisters who are also easily tempted to jump on the path to a hard heart.

Call to Action

The Hebrew writer was warning his friends. He knew the dangers. The Old Testament is a clear testimony of people who did not know how to steward their disappointments. In three short chapters from their Red Sea experience, they were already accusing God, ready to return to their former lifestyles. You must be appropriately heeding the warning about the dangers of a hard heart. Perhaps these questions will help you assess your heart and make any necessary recalibrations.

  1. How has the residual effect of Christ’s coming out of the tomb affected your life this week?
  2. How are you situating your thoughts in your victory in the resurrected Jesus?
  3. Are you actively engaging your friends in a comparable way the Hebrew writer was engaging that community?
  4. Who engages you this way? Do you have that kind of friend? If not, how will you build this kind of intrusive relationship?
  5. What changes do you need to make to your life or community as a preventative measure to keep from a hard heart?

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