One Surefire Way to Harden Your Heart

When the Exodus narrative hits chapter 8, a curious thing happens. Moses takes a back seat. So does Aaron. Instead, the narrator zooms in on two characters: Pharaoh and God.

A Hard Heart

It’s impossible to read these early chapters of Exodus without pondering Pharoah’s heart. God tells Moses he will harden Pharoah’s heart (Ex 4:21, 7:3), and then we see it happen. Over and over and over.

No one wants a hard heart. A hard heart is stiff and rigid, dry and impenetrable. A hard heart is cold. Throughout Scripture, to have a hard heart is to be stubborn, persistent in one’s own way, and resistant to the things of God (Dt 15:7, 2 Chron 36:13, Mark 8:17, Acts 19:9, Heb 3:13).

Who Hardens the Heart?

In Exodus, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 9:12; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27; 11:10; 14:8) almost as often as Pharoah hardens his own (Exodus 8:15; 8:32; 9:34). It’s not one or the other—it’s both.

It’s uncomfortable, but true: God hardens some hearts (Rom 9:18). This is his prerogative, and those whom God hardens wouldn’t choose any differently. God may simply make more available and more abundant the ends they would seek for themselves.

And yet, Pharaoh hardens his own heart as well. What does this look like?

How to Harden Your Heart

As Pharaoh’s heart hardened, one of his behaviors is mentioned more than others—five times to be exact. And though Pharaoh was not regenerate, I suspect we harden our hearts in much the same way.

He did not listen.

Now, one of two things is happening in these passages. Either Pharaoh doesn’t listen as a result of hardening his heart, or Pharaoh hardens his heart as a result of not listening. I’m guessing both are true—a hard heart and a resistant ear form an obstinate, continuous loop. (Check out Exodus 7.13, 7.22, 8.15, 8.19, 9.12.)

Hebrews connects Pharaoh with a relevant warning to the church. In Hebrews 3:7–19, the author quotes the language of hard hearts (Pharaoh) as directed to the Israelites (Psalm 95:1-11) and applies it to us. The chief warning is this: If you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.

So, if we want to avoid a hard heart, we need to listen. Chiefly, we need to listen to God. We need to listen to the Bible, where God speaks. We need to listen to our pastor as he preaches and to our elders as they warn and encourage us and to our friends as they comfort and rebuke us.

The surest way to a hard heart is to stop listening to God.

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Why Most Productivity Advice Doesn’t Help

Turning to the internet for productivity advice might sound like searching for a nutritionist at KFC. But you can find wheat amid the cat-video chaff. Set smart goals. Use good tools. Make realistic to-do lists. And so on.

The Main Problem

Despite all the practical tips, I’ve been disappointed. Most articles, even from wise Christians, don’t address the biggest barrier to my productivity.

That would be me.

That’s right—I’m the biggest obstacle. Even when I’m in a good location with clear goals and a dynamite to-do list, the fact is that sometimes I don’t want to work. I’d much rather read, sleep, or sort my paperclips. Work is hard.

In my flesh, I’m a lazy man. I’m addicted to comfort, ease, and pleasure. No matter what the newest productivity book says, the main reason I don’t accomplish what I should is that I’m a sinner. My heart wants the wrong things.

God’s Standard

Work has been around since the beginning; it was God’s idea well before the fall of man (Gen 2:7–9, 15–17). And God has clear expectations.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Col 3:23–24)

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thess 3:10–12)

To these commands we can add the numerous examples and warnings in Proverbs. There we see the terrible consequences of laziness and the rewards of hard work and planning. (See, for example, Proverbs 6:6–11; 10:4–5; 13:4.)

I wilt under these standards in God’s word. I see my sin in sharp contrast, and I know the way forward is confession and repentance. But what does repentance look like?

Hope for the Lazy

Once I confess my laziness, change isn’t as simple as telling myself to work hard. That’s just a restatement of the law. Knowing God’s standard is essential, but I also need a heart that wants good things, that pumps the right motivation clear down to my toes. The first step, then, is obvious: God, please change my heart!

In part, God transforms us as we understand and believe the truth. Because the gospel of Jesus Christ addresses and transforms all of life, this includes my work. So I return to these gospel principles.

God’s work covers mine. In Christ, God has done the most important work for me—work I could never do myself. He has atoned for my sins and kept the law perfectly to make me righteous. My motivation for work must flow down from this mountain spring.

I belong to God. He has created and redeemed me; I am his and I answer to him. My name is written beautifully in heaven, so I don’t have to scrawl it in the dust of earth. From God, my big-picture tasks are to do good to others and make his name known.

God approves of me. He loves me as his son. This must be my dominant feedback, above the most recent or loudest evaluation from my students, colleagues, deans, or any larger community.

I live for others. Because I have been freed and bought with a price, I can freely live for others. I have this charge from God and the Spirit-given ability to do it. As Matt Perman writes in What’s Best Next, “generosity is to be the guiding principle for our lives.” (p.87)

In other words, love should fuel my work. I must put aside ego, fear, and every selfish motivation. Because I am loved, I can work my tail off to love others. What does this mean?

…take the energy you have for meeting your own needs and use that as the measure of the energy you use in seeking the good of others. Desire and seek the good of others with the same passion, creativity, and perseverance as you seek your own. (What’s Best Next, p.88)

Battle On

I still fight an hourly campaign against laziness. But when God gives me victory, it’s usually because I glimpse my standing as a child of God by grace and my opportunity to do good to others. Then, when I am thinking clearly (i.e., believing truth) about my work, I can turn to advice about productivity with some profit.

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Obeying the Good Law of Our Good God

Every house has its rules, and ours is no different.

For example, our children must brush their teeth twice a day. In earlier years, this rule prompted lots of tears and plenty of resentment. But as my kids have gotten older, they have (hopefully) started to understand our reasoning.

We don’t make our children brush their teeth just because we can. We enforce this rule because we love our children and want good things for them. We aim to teach them how to care for their bodies and how to love other people.

God the Law-giver

Many people think of God’s law as harsh, inflexible, and designed to eliminate all fun. In this understanding, God the law-giver is a cruel dictator and Jesus kindly delivers us from an outdated model of morality.

Perhaps the errors of this thinking are obvious. God is both holy and loving, he is both just and merciful; the nature and goals of the Father are not opposed to those of the Son.

Even when we correct that error, Christians often stumble in the ways we think about God’s commands. We tend to picture the law as a strait-jacket rather than an invitation to blessing.

Consider how James writes about the law.

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:22–25)

God’s law is not only perfect, it is “the law of liberty.” The law frees us, and those who obey will be blessed.

Blessing for Obedience

As part of our reorientation to the law, we must revisit the word “blessing.” God’s promises of blessing in the Old Testament are frequently linked to obedience (Deuteronomy 28:1–14). We commonly think of blessing as either simply God’s approval or as a reward God has arbitrarily tied to following certain laws.

Because God is the Creator as well as the Law-giver, he has constructed the world so that the consequences of obeying him are good for us. It’s not just that God approves of our obedient actions. Rather, it is objectively better for us to obey than to disobey.

God calls us to obey him because it is good for us to submit to the true, good ruler of the world. But in addition, what God commands is actually good for our bodies, minds, and souls. His blessing for obedience is found both in his fatherly smile as well as the natural and supernatural consequences of doing what is good for us.

The Passions of the Flesh

Let’s turn to an example. When we commit the sin of gluttony, we eat to excess in the way that a drunkard drinks alcohol to excess. We seek comfort and a blissful haze through food. Our appetite controls us instead of the other way around.

God commands us not to be gluttons (Proverbs 23:19–21). We are blessed when we obey this part of God’s law not because we are following one of his arbitrary commands. He has our good in mind! God’s blessing for us in resisting gluttony comes in greater health, a better relationship with the created order, a measure of dominion over our appetites, and finding ultimate satisfaction in God instead of food.

Consider this from the other direction. Disobedience is not only offensive to God, it is bad for us. Hear the apostle Peter.

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Peter 2:11)

God doesn’t want us to entertain the passions of the flesh because they wage war against our souls! He’s not trying to kill our joy, he wants us to truly live!

Our Good King

Why should we obey God? He is our king, and we should do what our king commands.

But let’s ask the next question: Why does our king command what he commands? Because he is a good king and wants what is good for us!

The way of obedience is the way of blessing, because that’s how God set up and governs the world. This doesn’t make obedience automatic or easy, but it does shine the spotlight on our hearts as the battlefield. Part of the reason we disobey is because we don’t trust that God wants what is best for us. We believe the old, old lie that we know better than God, that he is withholding what is good.

Friends, Jesus came for this reason! He was crushed for our disobedience and our lie-chasing. And in the new life he gives us, we are free and empowered to think and act in accordance with what is true. Because we are beloved children of God, we are being transformed into people whose hearts align with God’s good intentions for our lives.

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How Fast Does a Christian Grow?

Confession time: In graduate school, my therapist was a vacuum cleaner.

I should explain. While pursuing a degree in mathematics, I spent many days working out theories, formulas, and proofs with pen and paper. I spent hours chasing ideas that turned out to be worthless. I recycled a lot.

I was often discouraged on the ride home from campus. Did I make progress today? Did I do anything of value?

Around the same time, I took on the household chore of vacuuming, and I grew to love it. This task counterbalanced my mathematical research. In the apartment, I could see my progress. The stripes on the carpet couldn’t lie: clean carpet here, dirty carpet there. As I listened to the vacuum turn and click, I knew I was contributing.

Our Ideal of Growth

We’d like our Christian growth to be like vacuuming, wouldn’t we? Give me Five Easy Steps or Fifteen Minutes a Day with guaranteed progress on the other side!

It’s no surprise we want definite, quick results. In the West, we can get most goods and services in a flash. Microwave meals, drive-through car washes, next-day shipping, movies streamed to the living room. If you’re willing to pay, you can make it happen.

And we’d like our spiritual progress to be the same: fast, noticeable, predictable. We don’t like to wait, and we resent not being in control.

The Reality of Christian Growth

For most, growing as a Christian is slow and unpredictable.

If you come to Christ as a teenager or adult, some practices might be obvious (if painful) to change. But Christian maturity is more about the heart than it is about behavior. Our trust, hopes, and desires need to change, and good behavior follows.

But our hearts are complicated and mysterious. Imagine being hired to fix up an old house and prepare it for sale. The broken windows, missing siding, and crumbling sidewalk are easy to spot from the driveway. But you don’t see the water damage, the dangerous stairs, or the fire hazards until you walk around inside. Even then you won’t learn about the electrical, plumbing, or termite problems until you open up the walls. By nature, our hearts have many layers, each one focused on self. And every layer needs to be remade.

God transforms us as we walk with him. But it doesn’t come easily. We can’t simply plug a machine into the wall.

How to Measure Your Growth

The precise how of sanctification is a mystery, and people much smarter than I have written volumes on the topic. We know that our growth, like our conversion, is the gift and work of God. We also know that God works through our work to accomplish this (Phil. 2:12–13).

And though we might want to know the details, we don’t need to know them. God is sovereign and we are not. Because of God’s promise, we can have confidence that he will sanctify us and bring his good work in us to completion (Phil. 1:6).

Our growth is much more like a tree than a bubbling science experiment. If you take measurements of a tree over several days or weeks, you’ll be disappointed. When you don’t see growth, you might doubt the tree is alive.

But if you measure a healthy tree from one year to the next, you’ll see what God is doing. You’ll see more fullness, more height, more fruit. And true Christians are all healthy trees—God’s spirit within us guarantees that (Matt 7:15–20).


This article originally ran here.

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