My last post was a preview of what I really wanted to say. This post serves as the core foundation for what I believe and want to communicate through this blog.
An Ugly Clump of Hardened Clay: A Manifesto.
Several years ago, I went swimming with some friends at a nearby creek. As I was exploring the banks of the creek, I found an interesting clump of mud. I could form it into any shape I wanted, and it would retain that form until I messed with it again. Concluding that it was clay, I decided to take it home. But when I arrived at the house, I was distracted from the clay by something else and forgot about it for a while. By the time I remembered, the clay had hardened into an ugly clump that was essentially useless.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the #1 killer in the US. I believe that the most destructive spiritual disease that attacks the US is also one that attacks the heart. America is filled with religion, and our culture, try as it does, cannot rid itself of its spiritual roots. But too often, even among Christians, hearts remain hardened to God’s shaping. Hebrews 3:15, commands, “To day if you will hear [God’s] voice, harden not your hearts.” I urge you to keep your heart soft to God’s gentle touch. Only then will He shape it into something beautiful.
I would like to expound upon this concept by looking at three different facets of the issue: The Stone, the Specifics, and the Shaping.
If you have you ever been in an argument that you were clearly winning, only to have the other person say, “This conversation is over. I’m not going to listen anymore,” you were probably extremely frustrated. And you should have been! If you are clearly right, the other party shouldn’t simply choose to stop listening. You have valuable wisdom to impart, and they are missing out on so much! ;)
But sometimes we do the same thing to God when He is trying to speak to us. We know what we like, and we don’t want to change. Often, God’s quiet nudges are met with a cold heart that has hardened into an ugly clump of rock-hard clay. Like the stony ground in the parable of the sower, many times God’s Word doesn’t create lasting changes in our lives. (Matthew 13:1-23). Instead, as Jesus (referencing Isaiah) said of those in His time,
“the hearts of this people have grown dull.
Their ears are hard of hearing,
And their eyes they have closed,
Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn,
So that I should heal them.” (Matthew 13:15, NKJV).
This same characteristic was ascribed to those hearing the warnings of the prophet Zechariah. “But they refused to hearken, and pulled away the shoulder, and stopped their ears, that they should not hear. Yea, they made their hearts as an adamant stone, lest they should hear the law, and the words which the Lord of hosts hath sent in his spirit by the former prophets: therefore came a great wrath from the Lord of hosts. Therefore it is come to pass, that as he cried, and they would not hear; so they cried, and I would not hear, saith the Lord of hosts.” (Zechariah 7:11-13).
Perhaps you vehemently disagree, thinking, “That’s not me!” Well, I certainly pray that is the case! But in my experience, many people, even Christians, are perfectly willing to accept change in certain areas of their life, but not in others.
Oh sure, they’ll be the first to admit that they need to work on reading their Bible, praying, or witnessing more. But if God asks them to change something against their preferences, they are reticent to change. When the topic comes up, they immediately jump in with their response, not bothering to wait and see whether or not their view could be based on something other than the leading of God in His Word.
What do we defend? What we vehemently defend speaks volumes to the condition of our hearts and placement of our priorities. Pastor Phillip Telfer writes in his book Media Choices: Convictions or Compromise, “What is it that you would not give up if God clearly asked you to? What are you unwilling to surrender to Him? Whatever it is, it is most likely a spiritual bane in your life. It might be the very thing that stops you in the tracks of Christ, unwilling to follow any further.” (Telfer 22-23).
If there is anything in our life we are unwilling to change, then that object may be an idol that is stealing our love for God. Phillip Telfer explains this, in his case specifically regarding media, by asking, “would you be willing to let go of it if God asked you to? If you are unwilling to surrender even good things to the Lord, they have become bad things because you do not love Him as much as you love whatever it is you are clinging to.” (Telfer 27). As the Apostle John exhorted his readers, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15).
Many times we hear people defend something they are doing by saying, “God knows my heart.” That is 100% true, though it’s hardly a comforting thought! Naturally, our hearts run from God. They want to have their own way, or else. And worst of all, we don’t always realize it, because our hearts deceive us. Jeremiah 17:9 warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” God sees our hearts for what they really are - infected by a sinful nature. Unfortunately, we don’t always see them this way.
God specifically condemned the people living during Hosea’s time because “they set their heart on their iniquity.” (Hosea 4:8). May this wrongful desire never be what we defend!
But unfortunately, we tend to take shortcuts in our mind. Too often, we don’t approach the Bible or a sermon looking for something we need to change, but rather we wait for affirmation of what we already believe. (2 Timothy 4:3). In his classic book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis calls out this attitude in his readers as he finishes a controversial chapter dealing with politics. He writes:
that brings us right up against the real snag in all this drawing up in blueprints for Christian society. Most of us are not really approaching the subject in order to find out what Christianity says: we are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party. We are looking for an ally where we are offered either a Master or - a Judge… And that is why nothing whatever is going to come of such talks unless we go a much longer way round. (Lewis 82).
I certainly am not exempt from this attitude. But all of us need to recognize and reject it. We should not try to fit our ideas into the Bible but rather shape our ideas using it. We should start with what God says, not what our own heart concocts.
At this point, I would like to make a clarification. I am not telling you to merely have an open mind to any idea, for minds that are totally open tend to have a lot of trash fall in them. I am not asking you to open your mind to me, but open your heart to God. Let Him have the key to the door of your heart. Read the Bible without a grain of salt, seeking only to properly interpret and apply it to your life.
Do this frequently. Don’t let your heart become dull. Don’t assume that once it is tender, you don’t have to do anything more. That’s not the case at all. You don’t have to make a conscious choice to harden your heart. Wet clay needs only to be left alone. Without water being regularly added to it, its softness will slowly but inevitably dissipate. Jesus said the people’s hearts had “grown dull.” (Matthew 13:15, NKJV). This is something that can happen slowly merely through neglect. We must constantly allow God to continue to shape us according to His will, never quenching the Living Water of the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19, John 7:38-39).
We have to die to ourselves and our desires every day! (1 Corinthians 15:31). This is not a passive activity!
A few summers ago, there was a young man on our bus route named Josiah* (name changed for obvious reasons). He was having some trouble with his behavior and conflicts with his family, but he went to our church’s summer camp. While there, he underwent serious conviction and eventually said he had been called to preach! We were all very happy for him. The following Sunday, the bus came by his house to pick him up, but, unfortunately, he said he couldn’t make it that week. Unfortunately, he never made it after that, either.
Something happened to Josiah. There were things in his life he wasn’t willing to give up. Today, he regularly has problems with his family, the police, and drugs. Of course, I am certainly not saying that if you miss church one Sunday morning then you will wind up in jail as a drug offender, but we do need to be vigilant because the hardening of our heart is not always a conscious process.
At this point, I want to ask you, is there anything in your life that you aren’t willing to change if God nudges you to? Is there something you want to hold on to, even if God asks you to let go of it?
That is what the next section is about.
In the summer of 2016, I started reading a book series about a group of doomsday preppers. In the story, they work to survive after an EMP wipes out the power grid. I’ve always been interested in survival, so the plot was very intriguing. As I started reading it, I noticed a few cuss words and questionable lines, but I figured it wasn’t “too” bad. I became engrossed in the story and finished the first two books of the 6-part series. Unfortunately, the cussing and the jokes and other degrading content didn’t decrease but rather increased, and it got a little heavy.
Still, I kept reading. “I can’t end the story here; it’s not finished yet!” I thought. Eventually, I had to put it down for a little while to do another task. As I was thinking, I began to realize that I seriously needed to stop reading the series. Maybe it wasn’t really wrong to read it; maybe it really wasn’t a big deal. Plus, I wanted to finish the story…
But it wasn’t helping me. It wasn’t helping me to overcome temptation. It wasn’t inspiring me to live a more Godly life. It was doing quite the opposite!
So, I decided to stop reading the series. I knew that it was something I needed to do. The question, in this case, wasn’t, “Can I keep reading this?” but rather, “Should I keep reading this?” Truly, that’s what we should always ask ourselves - not, “Can I,” but “Should I?” It is a matter of following God’s specific leading in our lives.
That’s my story. I wanted to share that before I asked you to examine your own heart to see if it is healthy or not, which is what I’m about to do.
My pastor frequently states, “Nothing is dynamic until it is specific.” It’s time to stop with the generalities and get into the nitty-gritty.
I would like for you to pause and honestly ask yourself if God is trying to get through to you about one of the following areas:
Notice a theme here? Yes, they all begin with an “M,” but that is not exactly what I am referring to. If you look at them, they are all choices that continue a comfortable, enjoyable life on one hand, versus a possibly sacrificial life on the other hand.
Sure, I will admit that changing our attitude and actions about one or more of these topics is going to require sacrifice. So what? (Romans 12:1).
That is just a sample of the loads of topics God could want us to change. And I’ll be getting deeper into some of these topics in future posts. The main point is that none of us should harden our hearts about any area, in case God wishes for us to reexamine our current views.
At this point, I would like to address the possible accusation of legalism. First of all, it’s not about making rules for every area of your life; it’s about letting God rule every area of our life. Telfer again writes, “Rules are not the ultimate goal, but a changed heart that has the rules written inside.” (Telfer 161).
If you think about it, this is actually the opposite of legalism; the focus is not on outward conformation but rather inward reformation. C.S. Lewis, in his classic work Mere Christianity, writes “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.” (Lewis 77). The rules are not the main thing; our heart is the main thing. We need to have a totally open heart to God. He needs to have the key so He can come in and clean up whenever He needs to.
I think many people stamp out even the possibility of change in certain parts of their life because they see these things as protected areas of Christian liberty, and therefore as unapproachable. They vigorously defend these lifestyle choices like an impregnable stone fortress. The moment a reasonable contention is made contrary to their preexisting stance, they immediately dismiss it.
Then, they call the other person the worst possible name--a “legalist,”--as if name-calling nullifies logic and reason, responds to the other person’s argument, or somehow exempts them from rethinking an issue.
This attitude is an example of hardening one’s heart. We should be willing to sacrifice anything, even our liberty, if it will further the cause of Christ, help our walk with God, or help keep a weak brother in Christ from stumbling.
Look, maybe I am wrong, technically speaking. Maybe, according to the letter of the law, Christians have total liberty in all the areas I just mentioned. Following only the exact words of the Bible, leaving out the implied principles, or simply ignoring the specific leading of the Holy Spirit, they may certainly be free to continue their current trajectory. That is, if you only care about the written-in-stone rules.
But don't you despise legalists who follow the letter of the law but forget the spirit? Isn’t it more about following God than merely legalistically breaking scripture down into formulas? Let's not be, may I say, “legalists” who forget the spirit of the law, choosing only to justify our actions with the letter, and meanwhile ignoring the specific leading of God to reexamine a particular area of our lives. Instead, we should allow God to soften our hearts so that He can shape them to fit His perfect plan.
When we were saved, God changed everything about us. 2 Corinthians 5:17 declares “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” There is no asterisk, footnote, or fine print here; everything is made new! God desires for all of us to turn from our old ways and allow him to soften our hearts.
Now, I would like to clarify something, especially for any Calvinists reading this who may be thinking: “Only God can soften a person’s heart.” I agree. On our own, our hearts are totally against God because of our sick sinful nature and depravity, and God is the one who softens hearts to turn them back to Him. Lamentations 5:21 clearly states, “Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old.”
But there are three things to note here. First, as a Calvinist, I am sure you will agree that God sovereignly uses the events of our lives to grow and mold us into the Image of Christ. I am also sure you will agree that the fact you are reading this right now is not an accident.
Second, don't resist His spirit! 1 Thessalonians 5:19 clearly warns, “Quench not the Spirit.” One thing we should never do is work against God's moving in our life.
Third, look at the last part of Lamentations 5:21 where Jeremiah adds, “Renew our days as of old.” When God first saved us and began working in our lives, we were open and willing to follow. But over time, our gears of change become rusty and stiff. We might slowly drift back and allow the current of the world to carry us farther from the presence of God.
It is not necessarily a conscious choice but rather a failure to proactively seek the Lord’s leading in our life. The Bible says that Rehoboam (Solomon’s son that became a terrible ruler and wicked king) “Did evil, because he prepared not his heart to seek the Lord.” (2 Chronicles 12:14). The concept of seeking the Lord is one I encourage you to study out. Even a quick search for “seek the Lord” in your Bible app can yield eye-opening insight.
We should seek the Lord, asking Him what He wants us to do, step by step, through the day. This is a concept detailed in the book The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence. I highly recommend that you read it.
If we don’t actively seek to follow the God’s leading in His word and Holy Spirit, we can simply “fade” like a flower in a waterless vase or be carried away by the wind of our sin nature. (Isaiah 64:6).
But that’s not the way it has to be! Not at all! If we listen for God’s voice, He will lead us.
See, God is smarter than we are. We could never win a debate against God, although we can choose to stop listening to Him. There is simply no way we could ever know better than He does or devise a superior plan than He has for us. His Master plans far exceed anything our three-pound brains could concoct. In The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life for Today, Catherine Jackson writes, “The will of our God is better than health, friends, money, fame, ease, or prosperity. It brightens our darkest hours and sheds light on the gloomiest paths...it is a privilege to take the first step into the life ‘hid with Christ in God’ - the first step of total consecration.” (Jackson 42).
Missionary Jim Elliot said, “God always gives His best to those who leave the choice with him.” Now, of course, we might be uncomfortable with that idea. What if God’s ‘best’ plan for our life, as it was for Jim Elliot’s, is for us to end our life on a sandbar in an Ecuadorian jungle, impaled by the spear of a savage tribe? That doesn’t sound very enjoyable!
I think Jim Elliot answered this very objection himself in his journal, where he wrote, “I seek not a long life, but a full one, like you Lord Jesus.” After all, what is the point of a long life if you are miserable the entire time because you are not doing what you know God called you to do?
The fact is, God does not need us to accomplish His will. As Mordecai told Esther, "For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father's house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). God doesn’t need us, but He still invites us to be a part of His Masterplan. When we give ourselves to follow God’s leading, we become "labourers together with God.” (1 Corinthians 3:9). What an exciting concept! An all-sufficient God still allows sinful humans to join Him in His work!
But He only accepts volunteers. We have to be willing to follow His command. We have to allow him to renovate our entire life--even the parts we may enjoy.
The key themes I have examined today are summarized by the following passage, written down by the prophet Hosea for the Israelites: “Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the Lord, till he come and rain righteousness upon you. Ye have plowed wickedness, ye have reaped iniquity; ye have eaten the fruit of lies: because thou didst trust in thy way, in the multitude of thy mighty men.” (Hosea 10:12-13).
There is a lot in that passage. I encourage you to go back and read it again. I’ll wait. Once more, slower this time. It talks about sowing and reaping, something we should be careful about when it comes to friendships and entertainment choices. It says to break up the fallow ground. Don’t be like the hard ground in the parable of the sower that did not allow the good seed to grow. Hosea again reminds us to seek the Lord. He also condemns them for trusting in their own way instead of following God. Hosea may have been inspired to write this passage thousands of years ago, but His message is as applicable today as ever!
So what should we do? Fortunately, the answer isn’t one I have concocted within my own 18-year-old adolescent brain. It is one found in the same passage that warns us not to harden our hearts.
The key is to stay accountable. No matter what issue we are struggling with, we should allow those around us to encourage us as we seek to honor the Lord in everything we do. The same passage that exhorts us not have a hard heart also offers us the vaccine against developing one: Accountability. Hebrews 3:12-13 says “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”
I encourage you to find some Godly Christian friends who will motivate you daily to seek the Lord. If you feel called to missions, gather friends who will encourage you to stay focused on that. If you need to show more mercy, confess to your friends that you want them to help you stop gossiping or be less self-righteous. If you have work to do on your mouth, get a friend to help you stay accountable (I have a friend named Logan who decided to stop cursing. So he made a pact with a friend that if either one cussed, the other one would slap them in the face as hard as they could. They each slipped up once--never again!). If you watch movies full of sin and violence, perhaps you should find an adult with higher standards in this area and ask them about films before watching them. If you are tempted to wear immodest clothing, ask a family member of the opposite gender about your outfits before going in public. If you allow witchcraft into your life through media, you should probably find a friend who doesn’t and study the relevant scriptures together. If you are prone to listen to worldly music, you may need to take a break from playing music privately in the car or through headphones. But don’t just stop listening to bad music; ask some Godly leaders or friends for suggestions on uplifting and God-honoring music to replace it. Whatever you do, make sure that you are surrounding yourself with the types of people who will encourage you to seek the Lord.
Many people today, especially millennials, want to “make a difference.” Yet, if we want to change the world, but we are not willing to change ourselves, what grounds to do we have to call others to sacrifice something? We need to drain our own swamp first.
Furthermore, we cannot ask others to change anything significant, when we ourselves seem unchanged by the work of Christ. Imagine if you told someone, “Jesus will make all the difference in your life,” only to hear them respond, “Well, He didn’t make much of a difference in yours.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t a hypothetical. David Kinnaman, the president of Barna Group and author of the book unChristian, says that his team discovered that: “84% of young non-Christians say they know a Christian personally, yet only 15% say the lifestyles of those believers are noticeably different in a good way.” It is pointless and hypocritical to expect the world to give up what they enjoy, if we are not willing and ready to sacrifice things we might enjoy. Mahatma Gandhi put it best by saying, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
The main thing I have been trying to encourage you to do today is found in Hebrews 3:15, where it commands, “To day if you will hear [God’s] voice, harden not your hearts.” In essence, are you willing to let God speak to you about any area of your life, whether it is about you and missions, your mouth, mercy, movies, modesty, magic, music or anything else? Are you holding anything back because you enjoy it? Once again, it's not about making rules for every area of your life, but rather letting God rule every area of your life.
I believe most of us are holding back more than we care to admit. Maybe it is a sin we enjoy too much to give up just yet. Maybe it’s not a sin, just something God wants us to change, even though it may be fine for other Christians to participate. But that doesn’t matter. The key is that we are willing to prepare our hearts to seek for God, and then we follow Him no matter where He leads us, what He calls us to change, or what we like. We should yield ourselves to follow God’s will for us. Our prayer should be the one given by hymn-writer Adelaide Addison Pollard, who wrote the following words:
Have Thine own way, Lord,
Have Thine own way;
Thou art the Potter,
I am the clay.
Mould me and make me
After Thy will,
While I am waiting,
Yielded and still.
Because, if we let God be the potter, He alone will shape our lives into a beautiful vessel, fit for use by a King. (1 Timothy 2:19-21).
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About Nathaniel Hendry
I blog on common social issues from a reasoned, conservative Christian perspective in easy to understand writing. I am committed to academic excellence in writing and supported by solid reasoning and research.
About A Worthy Word
The Worthy Word isn't mine, but God's. I just try to explain the truly Worthy Word and encourage you from it.