When I think of hardened hearts, I think first of Pharaoh. Plague after plague, appeal after appeal, but Moses couldn’t convince Pharaoh to let God’s people go. And, if I remember correctly, the biblical text recalls that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart each time, causing him to tighten his grip on the people of Israel. That’s never made sense to me.
In today’s gospel lesson (Mark 6:47-56), Jesus walks out on the water as his disciples were having a hard time crossing the lake on their boat. When they see him, they are frightened, so he climbs into their boat and the wind stops. Mark records for us their reaction, writing, “And they were utterly astonished, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” That suggests that they should have understood who Jesus was after yesterday’s lesson, in which Jesus fed over 5000 people with only a few loaves and fish. They shouldn’t have been all that surprised that Jesus walked out on the water—on top of the water—to see them. But, alas, their hearts were hardened.
There are lots of times when the disciples are portrayed in a way that suggests to us that they are pretty slow on the uptake, evoking within us some disappointment in their ability to perceive what’s really going on, but this isn’t one of them for me. I don’t look down at the disciples here. I pity them. No matter what I had seen the day before, if someone comes out to me in the middle of a stormy lake, physically striding across the waves, I’m going to be astonished. Wouldn’t you? Isn’t their reaction reasonable? What does it really mean, therefore, to have a hardened heart?
There’s another passage of scripture in which the heart of stone within God’s people is said to be removed and replaced with a heart of flesh—the decalcification of their hearts. Maybe hardheartedness has less to do with one’s inability to perceive the truth within a particular situation and more to do with a general state of being. Perhaps what it means to be human in this part of our relationship with God—partially but not fully redeemed—is that our hearts are hard. Even though we get glimpses of the big picture, we can’t put all the pieces together. That might be our fault, but it’s part of who we are and where we are in our journey with God.
One can’t simply decide to shake off one’s hardness of heart. The stories of Pharaoh and the disciples remind us that this level of imperceptibility isn’t a choice. One doesn’t harden one’s own heart—it is just hard. Although one day we will be able to appreciate the big picture and perceive with the softened hearts that God gives us his purposes in this life and in the next, we often can’t figure those things out right now.
My heart is hard. I’m not proud of it. I wish it weren’t so, but it’s part of who I am. How many things do I wish I understood? How often do I long to perceive what God is doing in my life and in the world around me? My response, therefore, is not to grow increasingly frustrated but to trust that which I can’t understand. God’s work in the world continues regardless of my hardheartedness—whether I can comprehend it or not.