Some verses are just begging to be cross-stitched onto a pillow with baby lambs and rainbows. “The Lord is my shepherd…” “Trust in the Lord with all your heart…” But let’s be honest, Romans 9:16 – 20 will never make it onto your grandmother’s couch:
It is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it. For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, “I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen. Well then, you might say, “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?” No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” (NLT)
This passage seems to fly in the face of all of my previous posts, which promote the activity of a loving God that desires genuine relationships with free creatures. Despite the many passages that support my point of view, this one seems to obliterate it. Maybe I should just pretend it’s not there . . .
Okay, fine. It’s there. And while we’re at it, check out Mark 4:11 – 12:
Jesus replied, “You (his disciples) are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of God. But I use parables for everything I say to outsiders, so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled: ‘When they see what I do, they will learn nothing.
When they hear what I say, they will not understand.
Otherwise, they will turn to me and be forgiven.’” (NLT)
Wait, doesn’t Jesus want people to be forgiven? Hasn’t he heard of the seeker sensitive movement? I thought Jesus used parables to make things easier for people, not harder.
What does it mean to harden hearts? In Hebrew, the word for heart, can also be translated as mind or will, having to do with motivations and desires. The verb “harden,” is often translated “to make stubborn.” So we’re basically saying that when God hardens hearts he is basically making people stubborn, shutting up their ears and stirring up negative, rebellious emotions and reactions.
What it can’t mean:
If we trust the witness of Scripture, we must accept that God is absolutely righteous, faithful and just. He is not turbulent and finicky like the gods of the ancient world. If we say that God can be whatever he wants to be, we do not understand the nature of holiness. God’s spirit is not fractured like man. He cannot say one thing and do another. When the author of Hebrews says that it is impossible for God to lie, he is not being disrespectful. He is stating a natural fact.
Therefore God cannot be unjust. Zeus can, but God can’t. Despite how it may sound in Romans 9 and Mark 4, God’s actions must be absolutely fair and right. Paul uses the same tone that a parent might use with a confused or rebellious child. Sometimes “because I said so” is the right answer, and it doesn’t mean that the parent is being inconsistent or unloving.
Just because we are the clay doesn’t mean that our Potter can crush us, mold us and manipulate us at will. Why? Because God claims to be benevolent, and he cannot lie.
We can’t say that God hides secrets and manipulates hearts because he wants certain people to be damned. No. God is not willing for any to perish. He urges his people to come and reason with him about their sins, to embrace his plan of redemption. He complains that they perish for lack of knowledge. Why say these things if he wants to see them burn?
What it might mean:
So how can I make these claims despite the clear evidence of Romans 9 or Mark 4?
First of all, just because God hardens hearts doesn’t mean that he turns people into puppets. Paul told fathers not to exasperate their children. If you’re married with kids, you know exactly what he’s talking about. Laurie and I know each other’s buttons. And we understand our kids. If we want to harden each other’s hearts, all we have to do is push the right buttons.
In the same way, we know that Pharaoh was already pre-disposed to resist any act of God in Egypt. We read about Pharaoh hardening his own heart against God when Moses came and started sending plagues and telling him to release his slave force. However, on the last three plagues, it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Let’s say that God just sent one of his servants into the throne room with a comment like, “Are you going to let this foreign shepherd get the best of you?” Couldn’t God make Pharaoh more stubborn without manipulating his soul in the slightest?
Think about the Jews of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were the teachers of Israel. Here comes Jesus, a charismatic prophet with miraculous power, teaching the people unorthodox theologies. Would Jesus really need to do a miracle in their hearts to make them reject everything he said or did? Couldn’t we say that just sending a prophet to an arrogant ruling class automatically qualifies as “hardening their hearts”?
Second, it’s important to notice the circumstances for these two specific periods of history:
The Passover, Exodus and events of Sinai essentially formed the defined the nation of Israel. What if things got a little rough for Pharaoh and he pulled the plug? Okay, that’s fine. Israel still gets to leave. But we lose the Passover, which is a huge teaser trailer for Christ. We lose the parting of the Red Sea, another sneak peak. And the nations that Israel will face in the wilderness and Canaan will have heard no rumors of this unique God and his treasured nation, setting up the Conquest. It’s not that God wanted to be famous in the earth to stroke his ego (Jesus claimed to be humble in heart), it’s that he wanted to be known. That’s different.
What about the Jews of the first century? Jesus compared the legalistic teachers of his time to blind men. This was an era of ignorance and arrogance. To throw Jesus in the mix is to harden hearts without even trying. Everything he did and said made them harder, until they finally nailed him to a cross.
What if they didn’t? What if Jesus spoke plainly and somehow their hearts were moved to repentance? God promises that if his people would soften their hearts and repent, he would save them. He cannot lie. So why not save them?
If you keep reading on in Romans, Paul explains that the hardening of the Jews led to the inclusion of the Gentiles. The people invited to the wedding refused to come, so the wedding party took in the vagrants and hobos from the streets. Paul goes on to say that, after the gospel is spread to all the Gentiles the Jews will grow jealous and return. Ultimately, the hardening of Jews in the first century leads to the salvation of the world.
God must be true to himself. He is just. He is love. He is good. But he hardened Pharaoh’s heart, pushing his buttons, so that he might set apart a nation to himself, a nation that he promised Abraham would be a blessing to all the other nations of the earth. Then he hardened the hearts of the first century Jews, pushing their buttons, so that they would nail Jesus to a cross, opening the door to the rest of the world.
This is not a habit. These are critical moments in history where God pushes buttons in certain arrogant men in order to initiate two spiritual kingdoms on the earth—the theocracy of Israel and the reign of Christ in his Church.
As a Gentile, I’m glad he did.