Do not harden your heart

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From “How to become a Christian”: Chapter 14 – Step one in detail – repent

We all need to beware of hardening our hearts. I have seen it in some surprising people. The best protection against it is to deliberately soften your heart towards God and to want to hear His voice.  Make it your aim to listen to and obey your conscience whenever God speaks to you through it.  If you do these things His voice will grow clearer and louder, like a radio being tuned in better and turned up in volume.  Note what apostle Paul says:

Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? 5But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.

Romans 2:4-5 (NIV)

To illustrate this further, look at the famous “parable of the sower” which Jesus told.  That’s what people often call it, but it would be more accurate to call it the parable of the soils, because that is what it is really about:

1That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.

7Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9He who has ears, let him hear.” 10The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

11He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see;  though hearing, they do not hear or understand. 14In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:  ” ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;  you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.

15For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.  Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ 16But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.

18“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. 22The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. 23But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”  

Matthew 13:1-23 (NIV)

In the parable that Jesus tells, the seed represents God’s Word and the four types of soil represent four types of person, or rather four types of heart attitude:

a)         The Path
This is the person whose heart is so hard, unrepentant and indifferent that the ‘seed’ of God’s  Word can not even germinate.  The birds just eat it up and it has no effect.  It is as if God’s Word just bounces off them.

b)         Rocky Ground
This person is not quite so hard or indifferent as the person whose heart is like the path.  Here, although his heart is stony, there is at least a thin layer of poor quality soil.  So the seed of God’s Word can germinate, but it cannot grow for long, because it cannot take root.

c)         Soil full of weeds
This weed-infested soil represents people who receive God’s Word and it begins to germinate and grow but, in the end, it is choked and crowded out by other competing interests or priorities.  It could be career, worldly friends, a carnal relationship with an unbeliever, or the pursuit of money.  It could be anything that captivates and distracts you.

d)         The Good Soil
This is the humble person whose heart is soft, teachable and willing to repent.  The seed therefore germinates, and grows to a full sized plant.  This person continues as a Christian and bears much fruit in their life over the years.

How this applies to you – make the effort to dig, weed and soften the “soil” of your heart

The kind of heart you have developed over your life so far is largely what determines how you respond to God’s Word when you hear it.  The point of the parable is that it is up to you to work on the ‘soil’ of your own heart.  You must dig it and soften it to enable yourself to hear and act on God’s Word.  The responsibility for the state of your heart is yours.  It is not something beyond your control.  It may be a painful and difficult process to change it, but it is worth the effort.

If your heart is hard and stony like the path or the rocky ground, then God’s Word, (represented by the seed) will not be able to get through to you in order to germinate.  The “birds” will eat it before it has any effect on you. Or, even if God’s Word begins to affect you, like the seed that germinates in the rocky ground, it cannot put down any deep roots in your life, because your heart is too hard.

If you are like that, make a decision now to persistently and deliberately do everything you can to soften your heart.  You can do that by taking every opportunity to repent, to obey God, to humble yourself, and to read the Bible.  As you do those things diligently it is just like a gardener digging into rocky ground, taking out stones and putting in compost and manure to improve it.  As he does that, and keeps on doing it, the soil will steadily improve.  Our hearts are just the same.  It is our responsibility to soften it and not to let it remain hard or stony.

If the problem is weeds, the gardener tackles it by removing and preventing them so that his soil has fewer of them.  You can do the same by removing things from your life which you know are likely to distract you or lead you into temptation or bad company.  You might not have realised that God expects you to do anything about those things, but He does. 

If not, why bother to tell the parable?  There is no point telling us that the condition of the ‘soil’ of our hearts is what determines whether we succeed in the Christian life unless there is some way of improving that soil.  There clearly is.  Look at King David’s experience of how it felt to openly confess his sins to God and get them dealt with, as compared to how it felt if he kept them hidden:

3When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away
Through my groaning all day long.
4For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. Selah.
5Iacknowledged my sin to You,
And my iniquity I did not hide;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”;
And You forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah.
6Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found;
Surely in a flood of great waters they will not reach him.

Psalm 32:3-6 (NASB)

Note though that we need to repent while we have the chance to do so because the time for doing so can be lost.  Therefore, the right time to repent is always now.  Never postpone it:

6Seek the LORD while He may be found;
Call upon Him while He is near.
7Let the wicked forsake his way
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
And let him return to the LORD,
And He will have compassion on him,
And to our God,
For He will abundantly pardon.

Isaiah 55:6-7 (NASB)

“Harvest is past, summer is ended,
And we are not saved.”

Jeremiah 8:20 (NASB)

Therefore focus on softening your heart.  Work at learning how to humble yourself and to confess your sins.  Keep away from temptations, bad influences or immoral TV programs. Reset your computer to block all pornographic content, as you would set it for a child. That will keep temptation away and prevent any problems developing. Continually repent and confess your sins, instead of hiding or denying them.  Regularly ask God to help you to soften your heart and to make you more conscious of your sin and of His coming judgment. 

Ask Him to increase your ability to hear Him speaking to you through your conscience.  He will quickly respond to prayers like that and your heart will change.  As it does, you will succeed more and more in becoming a genuine Christian and a real disciple.

13 He who conceals his sins does not prosper,
but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.
14 Blessed is the man who always fears the LORD,
but he who hardens his heart falls into trouble. 

Proverbs 28:13-14 (NIV)

Also, learn to ask God to give you a correct and realistic view of yourself, your smallness and how brief your life is.  Realising that will help you repent and will also reduce your pride and self-sufficiency. Consider the following passages:

4“Show me, O LORD,
my life’s end and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting is my life.
5You have made my days a mere handbreadth;  
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Each man’s life is but a breath……
6Man is a mere phantom as he goes
to and fro He bustles about,
but only in vain;
he heaps up wealth,
not knowing who will get it.

Psalm 39:4-6 (NIV)

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart     
O God, thou wilt not despise.

Psalm 51:17 (RSV)

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.

Jeremiah 29:13 (NIV)

No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.  

1 Corinthians 10:13 (NIV)

The point of this last verse is that it is possible to avoid particular sins if we want to.  Though we will face temptation, God has promised that He will help us to find a way out, or way of escape, if we want Him to.  The snag is that often we do not actually want to avoid the sin. 

The truth is we like our sins. Therefore we prefer to yield to the temptation.  If we change our attitude and seek God’s help, we can really start to win victories over sins and habits.  We won’t become perfect, but we can make progress.  But, we have to want it, and that is far from automatic.

A person can easily “play at” Christianity, attending church and saying all the right sounding phrases, but not genuinely wanting to repent.  Many people have a curiosity about the gospel.  God may be drawing them to Himself but, because their hearts are hard and cold, they do not respond to God.  A good example of that attitude is the Roman governor, Felix.  He liked to talk to apostle Paul, when Paul was in prison:

22Then Felix, who was well acquainted with the Way, adjourned the proceedings. “When Lysias the commander comes,” he said, “I will decide your case.” 23He ordered the centurion to keep Paul under guard but to give him some freedom and permit his friends to take care of his needs. 24Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was a Jewess. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus.

25As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” 26At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him.  27When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favour to the Jews, he left Paul in prison.      

Acts 24:22-27 (NIV)

Felix had a growing understanding. And he had an outstanding teacher in Paul.  He also felt conviction and knew he was hearing the truth.  But, he still held back.  There is no evidence that he ever repented or became a Christian, despite two years contact with the apostle Paul.  What a waste of a chance to really learn about God’s Word and to grow as a Christian! Felix apparently threw it all away by choosing not to repent. 

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