How Could a Loving God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?

poferamsesSometimes grace finds you in roundabout ways.

Recently, I was discussing the Exodus story with a couple of Ekklesia staff members, and one of them brought up a common question about Pharaoh. In Exodus, God says of Pharaoh, “I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go” (4:21). What is that all about? How could a loving God harden someone’s heart to keep them from belief? Why couldn’t God just let him be?

It’s easy to freak out when we read about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. But if you think about it, this sentiment assumes if God hadn’t hardened Pharaoh’s heart then he would’ve had a heart of gold. In the end we’re all reasonably good people, right? Shouldn’t God at least give Pharaoh a chance?

But later we read that Pharaoh also hardened his heart (8:32). Now we have God and Pharaoh hardening the same heart. How do we reconcile the two? Maybe you don’t need to.

We’re all hardened people like Pharaoh. If given the chance, we would choose to harden our hearts too. What’s surprising is not that God hardens some hearts but that he doesn’t harden all of them. That’s the crazy thing about grace. God chooses to soften a heart that wants to be hard.

“And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.”
—Ezekiel 11:19

Rethinking Apologetics

One of my fellow pastors calls me “Cult-Killing Kyle”—to my nausea-inducing chagrin—because I’m really passionate about apologetics. (But to be clear, not about killing people from cults. That’s bad.) Apologetics is the art and science of defending the Christian faith. The term comes from the word “defense” (in the Greek, apologia) used in 1 Peter 3:15, which says, “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Many Christians try to accomplish this through carefully crafted arguments. Their ultimate goal is tear down an opponent’s objections, hopefully concluding with a conversion. This mindset holds that if people were shown sufficient evidence for Christianity, then they could not help but believe.

No one's going to get this joke at all, but I still think it's funny.

No one’s going to get this joke at all, but I still think it’s funny.

But with the advent of postmodernism, people are no longer concerned with finding the truth but their truth. They see truth to be based on experience not evidence. The good thing is people are more open to hear opposing viewpoints. The problem is you can answer all their objections and they will walk away totally unfazed about their beliefs.

Being a pastor in Eugene, Oregon—a city fueled by the University of Oregon and known as the hippie capital of the Northwest—I get to interact with many who’ve taken postmodernism as far as it can go. One student told me with a straight face that morality does not exist and that Hitler and the Holocaust was a neutral matter. I then asked him, perhaps inappropriately, how he’d feel if his family was brutally murdered in front of him. Same answer. Morally neutral. I slowly walked away a little afraid.

How do you argue with someone like that? Perhaps there isn’t a way.

Through my many failures in apologetics I’ve become a firm believer that you cannot argue someone into heaven. I’m not saying throw out apologetics all together. I’m calling for us to rethink how we go about it. Of course, if someone has burning questions about the faith, they should be answered. But that is not sufficient. If someone is to be convinced of the Gospel, something deeper must be touched. You have to hit the heart.

Unbelief is not an intellectual problem but a heart problem (Psalm 14:1; Matthew 13:15). People don’t have trouble believing Christianity because they haven’t seen the evidence. They may say that, but that’s not what’s going on. They don’t want to believe. They willingly choose something else over God, exchanging the truth for a lie (Romans 1:18-25). Pharaoh had evidence in the form of vicious plagues, but he still hardened his heart (Exodus 8:19). There were some who saw the risen Christ and still didn’t believe it (Matthew 28:17).

When people convert to Christianity, it’s not because they finally saw all the proof. It’s because their heart was changed. Even C.S. Lewis wasn’t converted from his atheism because of rational arguments. He’d heard everything there was to hear in support of Christianity and was not convinced. It wasn’t until he was “surprised by joy”—the joy he realized he was meant to experience—that he reluctantly chose to follow Christ.

This doesn’t mean our faith is based on zero evidence. Christianity has mountains of evidence. Because people choose not to believe in God, they also choose not to see the evidence.

So, how do we share and defend the Gospel in this postmodern age? We must engage a person’s heart. What is their deepest desire? How are they trying to fulfill themselves? What is their deepest hurt? How are they seeking to save themselves?

A few years ago, a couple friends and myself were in a debate with two Mormon missionaries. I’d compiled a literal binder full of stuff to discredit everything, ranging from the Nephites all the way to the magic onesies. It didn’t work. After a few hours of getting nowhere, one of my friends asked them, “If you got hit by a bus today, do you know with absolute certainty if you’d go to heaven?” Both the missionaries hung their heads low, staring at the ground, searching for an answer. After about thirty seconds of silence, one of the men answered with a quivering voice, “I don’t know.” My friend had cut straight to their hearts—in a belief system where salvation is earned through good works, you can never know if you’ve done enough. What a heavy burden to carry.

One of the best ways to speak to another person’s heart is just by sharing yours. You don’t need a Ph.D. in theology. You know how you’ve been transformed. That story will resonate with people because their heart is longing for the same thing.

I once spent forty-five minutes arguing with an atheist on the UO campus, answering all his questions. After every reply instead of relenting, he kept bringing up more arguments. Answering one question would spawn three more. I had a guy with me I was training in ministry who hadn’t gone through any formal theological schooling. The atheist, tired of hearing my voice, turned to my friend and asked him to speak up. He nervously said, “I don’t know much about all this science and creation and stuff. But this is what I do know.” He then shared about his redemption out of a brutal life, about how Christ came crashing into his world and wrecked him. By the end of the story, tears were streaming down the atheist’s face. He longed for the same redemption.

The Apostle Peter is not wrong that you should be ready to defend the truth. Do it with “gentleness and respect,” declaring why you have hope—because Jesus gave you a new heart, a new life. Be honest, be open, and trust the Gospel to do the rest (Romans 1:16).

Theology vs. Experience: Which Should a Christian Focus on?

Worshipper

Is he supplicating or contemplating?

There’s a trend running around the American church that devalues theology’s place in an individual’s life. It holds that a relationship with God will produce all the truth needed. Theology may be for some people, (dusty academics hidden behind mountains of rotting books and pious pastors who have no people skills) but not for them. It says theology only engages the mind but not the heart. Because God is a relational God, He wants us to experience Him—He wants us to drown in His love like it’s a big love-ocean. They say you simply can’t get that kind of passion if you treat Christianity like the SAT’s.

While there may be some legitimate concerns underlying these sentiments, there is a subtle danger here.

They are right that what matters more is heart-transformation, not information infusion. What they don’t realize is that a Christianity entirely based on experience and feelings alone will lead people astray.

It’s a false dichotomy to think the mind and heart are exclusive. God created us to engage Him with our whole being. Focusing on one side can make the other suffer.

Here are a few warnings about focusing solely on spiritual experiences:

1. Spiritual Experiences are not unique to Christianity.

Buddhists fall into trances as they commune with the spirits. Through prayer, Mormons receive the “burning in the bosom,” a gut sensation that’s supposed to confirm the veracity of the Book of Mormon. Hindus and New Age experience tranquility through their yoga and meditation. The pagan Greeks experienced an “ecstasy” that would take over their body and mind, causing them to speak in tongues.

Those spiritual experiences are real, and they are real because the spirits behind them are real—and they’re definitely not of Christ. There is an enemy at work and they would love to distract people with real experiences that confirm lies. This is why John warns, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

He wouldn’t say that unless believers were already falling for it.

2. Experience is very individualistic.

Many times when experience is emphasized, it’s just individualism and consumerism wrapped up in spirituality. It’s all about experiencing God in your own personal way.

The customer is always right.

The problem is everyone experiences things in different ways. If one person experiences God as a mother figure, another hears God’s audible voice in the wind telling them words to write down in a journal, and another sees Jesus in bodily form at the local Denny’s every other Tuesday, how are we to decide whether or not these are accurate representations of God? Based on experience alone, there is no way. They have felt the emotions and cried the tears, so it must be true.

Following such logic, the aim of church then becomes about feeling God, not about gathering to know and praise Him. Inevitably such a perspective transforms from being about God into being about self.

3. Elevating experience can bring about a low view of Scripture.

A failure to anchor experience to the truth of the Word is why we have whole denominations throwing snakes at each other during church. They take one verse out of context and it’s reinforced by the intensity of their experience. Holding a rattlesnake may be one of the biggest adrenaline rushes you can feel, but that doesn’t mean your heart and God’s are hugging.

This goes beyond bizarre religious practices. If how I feel matters more than what is written, then it will affect how I live—how I view things like sin. A dating couple can justify sleeping together and co-habitating because they think they love each other. A person who was abused can justify their hate because they were hurt by an evil man. A husband can justify leaving his wife because he believes another woman is his soulmate.

When how you feel matters more than what is written, anything goes. This is why Jesus called us to “die to ourselves;” there’s something more important than how you feel. If you’re a Christian, it can’t be about you anymore.

A BETTER WAY TO GO

Theology is literally “the study of God.” If you want to have a vibrant relationship with God you must study Him—you must grow in theology—because what you believe about God will influence how you experience Him.

It really doesn’t matter if someone says they don’t “do” theology. Everyone is a theologian. The question is whether or not they are a good one.

A good theologian is not someone who has all the answers. A good theologian seeks to know God as He wants to be known, as revealed through His Word. A good theologian has a heartfelt faith and an intelligent one.

Filter everything through Scripture. God must be worshipped “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). It’s our duty to draw deeper into that truth, and allow it to transform our hearts.

Expectations and Identity

For a change of pace I thought I would ask my lovely wife, Rebecca, to share something on the blog. Being married to me already is not that easy but add on top of that the task of being a pastor’s wife—Rebecca has her work cut out for her. Here she shares how she handles people’s expectations and where she finds her identity.

As someone who doesn’t enjoy a lot of anonymity at church (and when not known by name, referred to as “Kyle’s wife”) I often face the temptation to take on the burden of my own and others’ expectations of who I should be. The pressure and stress this can cause is not from God. Rather, it can lead to pharisaical mask-wearing that steals the joy of a raw and real relationship with God and other Christians.

When we are burdened by our own expectations it is because we are trying to achieve something in our own strength. To discern where our hearts lie in this area we need to ask ourselves continually, who am I trying to reflect?  Am I trying to create an image rather than reflect His image?

This kind of thinking reveals a discontented heart in the way God made us. Not that we don’t work hard to grow and be more like Christ, but the difference lies in the heart and mentality behind what we are trying to achieve. Are we trying to be perfect, philosophical, funny, or look hip, etc. for our glory? Or are we humbly accepting Christ’s forgiveness for our failures and persevering in this life-long process called sanctification?

When we are focused on meeting the expectations of others a few things happen: One, we begin people-pleasing, pure and simple. Instead of living to please God we choose instead to make an idol of man. This does NOT mean we are not accountable to others or that we should not listen to godly counsel. But again, who are we trying to please?

This kind of mentality leads to surface relationships with the people around you. I have never met a person that longed for surface relationships. As people made in God’s image we desire depth, not platitudes. And to do this requires showing people your heart, your hurt, and even (yes) your sin. We are not perfect. We cannot be perfect in this fallen world. Be we can be raw and real, allowing others to see the process of sanctification in our lives.

God’s expectations for our lives, in comparison to all others, are really quite simple.

We are to follow Him.

This means loving Him, worshiping Him, and obeying Him. Living to promote an image that we have created or that we are trying to live up to in the eyes of others is sin. We have been made in His image, for His purposes, for His glory–quirks and all.

When we try to convince ourselves and our peers that we’re always great, we never make mistakes, we don’t have sorrows and difficult seasons in life, we essentially deny God the glory He is due. We forget that His power is made perfect in our weaknesses. Paul, in fact, declares that he will boast all the more in his weaknesses, because it shows how great our God is, that He could redeem and use us sinful, weak people.

Oftentimes our expectations for our lives and others’ expectations are not in line with God’s priorities for our lives according to His Word. We become Perfect Peggy and Susie Smiles-a-lot in the company of others when in reality God would prefer humble, broken, and contrite hearts before Him, because until that day when we see Him face to face sin is a reality. But praise Jesus, we have a gracious Savior. It’s because of Him we can be genuine and have real depth with our God and His people.

Don’t hide. Don’t feel as if you have to put on your good Christian mask as you stroll into church on a Sunday. God cares about our hearts.