A few years ago, not long after I became a Christian, I met a guy who grew up with Christian parents, going to church, all that. We were talking about how I came to know Jesus, which as I’ve mentioned in the past, involved some freaky supernatural events that made it very obvious that God is real, that he is really God and that Jesus is the only way we can be saved.
And so as I told this guy about all that happened, he said to me, “Man, if something like that happened to me, I’d totally believe.” And you know what’s funny? My first thought was, “No you wouldn’t.”
Now, why would I think that? It’s not because I’m a jerk (I hope). It’s because people can hear about and even experience supernatural events, and still not believe. Remember, Jesus said that an “evil and adulterous generation” demands a sign (Matthew 12:39), so it’s not exactly looked upon warmly to demand or even play the “if only” game surrounding those types of occurrences. And let’s face it, even if most people who want to see a sign actually do see it, they still won’t believe! And why not? Because believing God is a matter of the heart, not what we can see.
The pervasive problem of a hardened heart
I was reminded of this on the weekend as I was reading the early chapters of Exodus in preparation for teaching in children’s ministry. Our focus was on the plagues, the Passover and the parting of the Red Sea, but I kept getting stuck on the issue of the Pharaoh’s hardened heart, and how constantly we’re told his heart was hardened, so he would not let the people go.
As I read these chapters (and read them again this morning as part of my reading plan), this state of a hardened heart is still sticking with me: specifically in that it demonstrates, in a profound way, what sin truly is. Sin is a hard heart against God—it is doing what we want to do instead of what God wants us to do. It’s putting ourselves first instead of God. It’s refusing to honor him as the true God, and instead trying to be gods ourselves.
In Exodus 5-14, Pharaoh refused to acknowledge God and honor him, so God sent the plagues as judgment upon his sin. Yet he continued in his sin of unbelief. It took death touching every home in the nation—the death of every firstborn son—for Pharaoh to finally let God’s people go. And even then, his heart hardened again, and he sent his army in pursuit of his former slaves. But this brought even more sorrow, as God showed Pharaoh, the Egyptians—and the Israelites—once and for all that he is the one true God (see Exodus 14:4), pulverizing the Egyptian army as the Red Sea crashed down around them.
Why I’m terrified every time I read about this
Every time I read this story, every time I teach it, every time I think about it, I’m terrified. Not because I’m disturbed by God’s actions, but because of how persistent a hardened heart will be in refusing to honor God as God. I don’t mean this simply in terms of the overriding cultural realities, but on the individual level. I know of many people who insist on going their own way, doing whatever they want to do. I’m know many people who have dug their heels in and steadfastly refuse to even entertain the possibility that this whole gospel thing I keep talking about might actually be, y’know, for real.
It terrifies me because I used to be one of them.
The hope I have for the hard hearted
But remembering this is what also gives me hope for the hard hearted. Just as the Exodus story reveals God’s judgment of sin, it also shows his mercy toward those who love and trust him, with the promise that any household where the doorposts are painted with the blood of a lamb will be spared. And what’s more, as we read through the rest of the Bible, we see that the power wasn’t in the blood of this sacrifice, but in the promise that it pointed to. That Jesus himself was the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. That through his death, hard hearted people like me are given new life and new desires.
That’s what the story keeps reminding me of, even as the hard heartedness of Pharaoh terrifies me. And it’s the good news of this story that gives me hope. The gospel is enough to overcome the hardest of hearts. It was enough to get me—and if it can get me, it can get anyone.