Life can be hard. One minute it seems things are going well, and just as we begin to take a little pride in the loveliness of our own lives, we can suffer all forms of attacks and disappointments that breed everything from discouragement and discontentment to paralyzing grief and unhappiness. It happens to us all – in one way or another – at various times in our lives. But it is what we do in these moments of brokenness that will determine how effectively God will be able to use us to encourage others in our daily walk, and ultimately lead others to look to Christ – or perhaps to cause some unbelievers to even consider the possibility that Jesus could be the real answer for what they face in their own lives. As I started feeling led to write this – let me say upfront that there was a voice screaming at me inside my head – almost mocking me saying, “Who are you to write anything of this nature?” I am flawed. I fail daily. I am a product of God’s extraordinary grace, so please know that I realize more than anyone that I am the least of these. In the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 3:13, “I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” My heart’s desire is to just plant a seed of thought and encourage others who might be struggling.
I have experienced many trials during my 42 years (it sure seems like only 29) here on planet Earth – many of my own making – pits of sin and bad choices that I more than willingly jumped into on my own for no other reason than because I wanted to. My desires were not in line with what Christ would have me do. He warned me as a loving Father would, sent others to encourage me in my relationship with Him and discourage me from whatever stupid thing I was about to do. Even with such encouragement from those who wanted God’s best for me, in my stubbornness, I proceeded on to whatever self-destructive thing I wanted to do. Did I suffer the consequences? Boy did I ever. Over and over again in my walk with the Lord, God has repeatedly allowed me to suffer the consequences of choices I had made out of stubbornness. And when I had had enough and could hardly bear to lift my head to ask for help, much less forgiveness, Christ was there. Faithful to who He is, and in His tender mercy lifted me out of the muck of my own selfish choices, cleaned me up and set my feet back on the right path.
Looking back on some of these experiences, I always ask myself, why? Why did I choose some of those things, why would I willingly take a path that I knew deep in my heart were not God’s plan or path for me? At the time, it didn’t feel like I was being disobedient to what God wanted for me (okay….sometimes, it did). But truly, more often times than not, these field trips to emotional desolation were a gradual progression that could be likened to a Sunday drive where I became distracted by all the pretty sights and fun things the world had to offer until suddenly I woke up and realized I was terribly off course.
After many conversations with God, some good quiet times, Sunday messages in church and talks with precious friends who have loved me through the good, bad and the ugly, I realized that the heart of my problem was just that: my heart. I had a hardened heart. Now to those of you who know me well, you might laugh a little at that statement, because I am a very compassionate person – sometimes to a fault. I love people. When others hurt, I hurt too. My spiritual nature is one of mercy – I am not sure if it is because God has wired me that way, or because I am fiercely aware of the degree of mercy that God continually shows me and how much mercy I require on a daily basis. Regardless, I realized that I had a hardened heart.
When I think about some of my experiences, I felt a little justified in my hardness of heart, maybe even prideful of my pain in some regards. I have experienced a tremendous amount of loss and emotional devastation, especially in the past few years. Who wouldn’t have a hardened heart when their marriage fails after 20 years? Who wouldn’t have a hardened heart over the loss of your sense of family and belonging – certain friendships – life as I knew it? It is easy to fall into the trap of just treating the symptoms of your pain with everything the world can offer – busyness, work, being a mother, hobbies, friends, material things. That’s what the enemy wants us to do because he doesn’t want us to be whole. In my ongoing quest for emotional healing and a desire to experience true joy and happiness in my life, I realized that if I wanted to be healed and moved forward, I had to get to the root of what was causing my sickness, and that was a hardened heart. Scripture is clear when it says, “Do not harden your hearts.” (Hebrews 3:8, Psalms 95:8). I found it interesting that in both of these verses; God follows that instruction with, “as you did in the rebellion” or “as you did in the wilderness”. How telling is that? It would appear that a hardness of heart, often times results from a season of rebellion or time spent in the wilderness away from the safe haven of right relationship with God. Can our hearts be hardened because of things that God allows to happen in our lives that are out of our control? Absolutely. But I am sure of this: God allows those things to draw us closer to himself and in order that we might be able to honor Him through those experiences. His desire is never that we would suffer from a hardened heart.
There are many things that can cause our hearts to become hardened: grief, anger, disappointments, selfish desires, pride, unforgiveness and unconfessed sin can all put us in a place where we are walking through life with a hardness of heart towards God and towards others. I don’t think any of us WANTS to have a hardened heart, but I do think it is very possible to find ourselves in a place where we are aware of our malady and we do nothing about it because it feels too difficult to overcome it. Perhaps we don’t want to acknowledge the “whys” behind our hardened heart; maybe we are reluctant to face the truth about how we got here and how to go about fixing it. I know for myself, the fear of the inability to follow through with what God was asking me to do was huge. I just didn’t think I had it in me to walk in that obedience and I didn’t want to fail God – again. Romans 5:35 tells us “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame because God’s love has been poured in to our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” To me, that is a pretty clear explanation of the why behind our trials and sufferings. Even when we don’t understand God’s reasons, our trials are to produce endurance and character and HOPE for ourselves and for others to see the Holy Spirit in us.
Scripture tells us in Proverbs 4:23, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” One of my most important roles in life is being a mother. I love my children fiercely and my deepest desire is to be a good mother to them. I have realized that I can never be the woman, mother, sister, daughter, teacher and friend that God desires if my heart is hardened. The Lord knows how difficult life can be and the propensity our hearts have to become hardened because of some of the pain we must endure, so he tells us to guard our hearts – to be careful that they don’t become hardened. How can prevent falling into the trap of having a hardened heart in order that we might live in freedom and love others to the best of our ability? First, I think we must consider all that God has done for us and everything he endured in order that we might have abundant life. If He never became hardened, then that is the example we are to follow.
Sometimes we may not even realize that we are dealing with a hardened heart. It took me a lot of time to realize that this was the root cause of a lot of my pain. Psalm 139:23-24 says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” I believe that if we approach God from a place of sincere desire to please Him, He will reveal to us the places where we need to allow Him to do some work. He is also so kind to provide us with a promise of blessing when we allow him access to our broken places. Ezekiel 36: 26-27 is proof of this. “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.” Freedom, healing and hope are available to all of us. All we have to do is ask and allow God to grant us a willing spirit to sustain us as He does what only He can do: tender our hearts to become more like His own.