Hardened, Unbelieving Hearts

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© joannawnuk | stockfresh

Ryan Bell received a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University and a Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary. He was a pastor for 19 years, most recently the senior pastor of the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church until March of 2013 when he resigned his position. Beginning in January of 2014, he formally began to live for one year without God. He started a blog on this journey, “A Year Without God.” There is a documentary of this time in the works. And at the end of that year, Bell decided to keep on living without God. During an interview with NPR at the end of 2014, he said: “I think before, I wanted a closer relationship to God, and today I just want a closer relationship with reality.”

As he began his “journey” into atheism, Bell said: “For the next 12 months I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else’s circumstances.” In effect, he would do whatever he could to enter into the world of atheism for a year. At the time, he felt it was important to clarify that he was not an atheist; at least not yet.

In an NPR interview at the end of 2014, Bell said he looked at the majority of the arguments for the existence of God and didn’t find a convincing case. “I don’t think that God exists. I think that makes the most sense of the evidence that I have and my experience.” As I write this, Bell continues on without God and hasn’t shown any signs of turning around. This last quote seems to indicate the central factor in his journey away from God: evaluating the evidence for God from the starting point of his own reason and experience.

Frankly, I think that any attempt to reason your way to a belief in the existence of God or to self-consciously live apart from God will end in a similar place. It doesn’t matter if you do so in the midst of taking a break from God or not. Christianity sees human reason as tainted—fundamentally searching for autonomy from God. That’s the story told by The Fall in Genesis 3: wanting to be wise like God. Wanting knowledge of good and evil independent of God’s counsel. Wanting your reason and experience to be the final arbiter of all things.

Bell had determined to live as if there was no God, and in the process he drifted away from God. Personally, I think his drifting began a long time before he began his year away from God. The desire for independence from God meant that when he cast off his anchors (praying, reading the Bible, etc.), the drifting just accelerated. I say this with no rancor towards the man; I don’t know him, but I do know myself. And I know that if I tried to live my life independent of God—to cast off my own anchors—I would drift too.

The writer of Hebrews knew of this danger and cautioned his readers to be careful: “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it”  (Hebrews 2:1). Again in verse 3:12, he warns that an evil, unbelieving heart will lead you away from God. In Hebrews 3:12 and 13 the warning is twofold: to not lose your faith and to encourage one another so that your heart is not hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:12-13)

The author of Hebrews had just quoted Psalm 95 in verses 3:7-11 and now applies the situation of the wilderness generation of Israel described there to the circumstances of his readers. Verses 3:15-19 directly connected this section of Hebrews to the warning given in Psalm 95. Verse 3:15 repeated the caution of verse 3:7 and Psalm 95, if “you hear God’s voice, don’t harden your hearts” as you did on the day of testing at Meribah.

The Israelites had accused God of abandoning them, of bringing them into the desert to die of thirst. Even though they experienced what God did for them in the past, their reason failed to see how He would provide water for them and their cattle. “Is the Lord among us or not?” So at the command of the Lord, Moses struck the rock at Horeb and water came out (Exodus 17:1-7).

The progression in Hebrews 3:12-13 is from a heart that is evil (sinful) and unbelieving, to one that turns away from God and is ultimately hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. David Allen noted in his commentary on Hebrews that this is not a passive turning away. Rather it was deliberate disobedience. “This is the antithesis of the spirit of those who draw near to God” (Hebrews 10:22). In Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, Paul Tripp said this progression was the result of indwelling sin.

On the cross and in the resurrection, Christ broke the POWER of sin over us (Rom. 6:1-14), but the PRESENCE of sin remains. Sin is being eradicated within us, and this will continue until we are sin-free. But while sin remains, we must remember that sin is deceitful. Sin blinds—and guess who gets blinded first? . . . Since each of us still has sin remaining in us, we will have pockets of spiritual blindness.

To illustrate the importance of the community of believers in dealing with our pockets of spiritual blindness, imagine a circle of people sitting in a room with several posters on each wall. Then one person is asked to describe the poster hanging directly behind them without turning to look at it. They can’t—because the poster is in their blind spot. But any of the other individuals can help them, because the poster is not in their blind spot. That is why the writer of Hebrews encourages us to watch out for and encourage one another. We all have spiritual blind spots that we can’t see into. And sin is likely to approach us within our blind spot. Remember it is deceptive.

Along with David Allen, I agree that it would be reading too much into the words “evil, unbelieving heart, leading you away from the living God” to see this as having the sense of apostasy. Once I taught a course on biblical counseling at a small Christian institute. Theologically, both myself and several other staff members were theologically Reformed. At the annual board meeting for the institute, the board voted to not renew the contracts for all Reformed-leaning faculty. Reportedly, one board member said: “We have purged the evil from among us.” Christians are sometimes too quick to see individuals with theological beliefs at variance from theirs as “unbiblical” or “apostate.” As David Allen commented on the passage:

The context does not define what the author intended here. “Taking the Greek term apostēnai as it is used here and burdening it with the theological baggage of apostasy is premature. . . . It is better to interpret it broadly as distrust, disobedience, or disloyalty, and not attempt to define the exact scope of the warning.

So instead of entering into an Arminian (he lost his salvation), Calvinist (he never really was converted) debate over Ryan Bell and his current state of professed atheism, I think I’d rather pray to the God he doesn’t believe in to make Himself known. For those who do believe in God, there is still hope for Bell and others who demonstrate distrust for God in their life. The author of Hebrews declares:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13)


What’s Your Treasure?

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© Iryna Denysova | 123rf.com

There is a great scene in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies where Thorin Oakenshield realizes that the golden treasure of Smaug had captured his heart. He forgot the simple truth of Matthew 6:19-24, that whatever he treasured controlled his heart; and whatever controlled his heart would control his behavior. “A treasure such as this cannot be counted in lives lost. It is worth all the blood we can spend.” He finally realized that he’d been blinded by his greed for Smaug’s earthly treasure and had turned against everything he valued. “You sit here in these vast halls with a crown upon your head, and yet you are lesser now than you have ever been.” Tossing aside his crown, which was a symbol of what ruled his heart, he joined in the battle against the Orcs, helping to turn a defeat into victory.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matthew 6:19-24)

Both within The Hobbit and the Matthew passage, the metaphor of treasure is used to illustrate the consequences of allowing earthly treasure to rule our heart. Jesus cautioned his listeners to not hoard (lay up) treasures on earth. Rather they should strive to do the things that result in (lay up) treasures in heaven. Hoarding earthly treasure will not protect it from being corrupted and consumed. Investing in heavenly treasure provides a storehouse of wealth beyond the reach of earthly corruption. Paul Tripp, in Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, said:

There are only two kinds of treasures, earthly and heavenly, and whatever treasures we choose will become our rulers. They exercise control over us, for if something is your treasure, you will live to gain, maintain and enjoy it. Sadly, we often fail to see this in ourselves, though we can see it in others. One of the most tragic things that could happen to a human being is to invest his life in pursuit of the wrong treasure.

There is a parallel here between the “heart” in verse 21, and the “eyes” of verses 22 and 23. In his commentary on Matthew, Craig Blomberg commented that just as the heart represents the center of our psychic life, the eyes enable us to see the world around us. “Good and bad eyes probably parallel a good and bad heart and thus refer, respectively, to storing up treasures in heaven versus storing them up on earth.” So if that which should lead to good (the light in you) actually causes evil (darkness), “the person is truly perverse.”

So there is an association here to the blindness and heart issues discussed in Luke 6:39-45 and Ezekiel 14:1-11 (See “Diagnosing Spiritual Heart Problems” and “Spiritual Heart Problems” respectively). There cannot be a bad tree that bears good fruit or a good tree that bears bad fruit. The idol in our heart has a stumbling block that will trip us up, even as we come to seek the Lord. “The things we set our hearts on never remain under our control. Instead, they capture, control, and enslave us.”

There are only two options open.  Each person must choose between the competing treasures of heaven and earth, God and money. Using the institution of slavery to illustrate his point, Jesus stated that service to God was antithetical to hoarding earthly treasure. In other words, there is a binary relationship between God and wealth. If you are ruled by one, you will be devoted to it and love it. You will also hate and despise the other. “You cannot serve both God and money.”

Although the immediate context of the passage addresses material wealth, the lessons learned here apply to all other areas of our lives. Earthly treasure will not last, while heavenly treasure will. Whatever you treasure controls your heart. You can’t serve God and anything else at the same time. And whatever controls your heart, controls your behavior.


Diagnosing Spiritual Heart Problems

© madelaide | stockfresh.com

© madelaide | stockfresh.com

While classically known in biblical passages like Luke 6:39, the “blind leading the blind” metaphor is also found outside of Scripture. In Horace, it exists as “the blind leader of the blind.” It is also found in the Katha Upanishad, an important Hindu religious text: “Abiding in the midst of ignorance, thinking themselves wise and learned, fools go aimlessly hither and thither, like blind led by the blind.”

In Luke 6:39, Jesus asks two rhetorical questions: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?” The answer to the first rhetorical question is obviously “No.” The second question directs attention to the consequences of the blind leading the blind: will they not both fall into a pit? Yes, they will.

Then Jesus declares that a disciple is not above his teacher. When he is fully trained he will be like his teacher. There is a dual meaning to the Greek word translated as “lead” in verse 43. It can refer to guiding someone in reaching a destination or to guide someone in acquiring knowledge. So the two seemingly unconnected statements in verses 39 and 40 are joined to say: Just as a physically blind man cannot lead a person to a destination he cannot see, a blind leader cannot impart knowledge he does not have to a disciple.

In order to reinforce this teaching, Jesus moved on to the hyperbolic contrast of the log and the speck in verses 41 and 42. So how can you help someone remove a “speck” from his eye, when you have a “log” in your own? The presence of the log in you eye blinds you and prevents you from effectively helping another person remove the speck from their eye. As Robert Stein said in his commentary, “Luke understood the parable as referring to the danger of being blind to one’s own faults and at the same time judging others. If a disciple has not learned enough to see his or her own faults and yet judges others, how can such a person truly teach or correct others?”

Now, to drive home what he is saying, Jesus makes another metaphorical comparison, saying that people are like trees. “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit.” The conjunction “for” connects the next three verses, Luke 6:43 to 45, with the previous verses, 39 to 42. Paul Tripp said In Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands that within these verses, Jesus is answering the age-old question of human motivation—why we do the things we do. Just as there is an organic relationship between the roots of a tree and its fruit, there is a connection between a person’s heart and their behavior—what they do and say.

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks (Luke 6:43-45).

The roots of the tree correspond to the heart, while its fruit equals our behavior. “We speak and act the way we do because of what is in our hearts.” And if our heart is the source of our sinful behavior, then lasting personal change must always occurs through the heart. Paul Tripp illustrated this principle with a parable of his own.

He has an apple tree in his back yard that year in and year out produces dry, wrinkled, brown, pulpy apples. After several seasons, his wife suggests that they should cut down the tree if they can’t get good fruit from it. Paul gets an idea of what to do. He returns home with branch cutters, a heavy-duty staple gun, a ladder, and two bushels of apples. He then cuts off all the pulpy, wrinkled, brown apples and staples the shiny red apples to every branch of the tree. “From a distance, our tree looks like it is full of a beautiful harvest. . . . For a while, it may seem like the real thing, but it will prove temporary and cosmetic.”

If a tree produces bad apples year after year, there is something drastically wrong with its system, down to its very roots. I won’t solve the problem by stapling new apples onto the branches. They will also rot because they are not attached to a life-giving root system. And next spring, I will get the same problem again. I will not see a new crop of healthy apples because my solution has not gone to the heart of the problem. If the tree’s roots remain unchanged, it will never produce good apples.

Luke doesn’t say here what makes a heart “good.” But Stein in his commentary pointed back to passages like Luke 3:7-9, which calls people to repent and bear good fruit. Just before the passage discussed here, Jesus described what this “good fruit” might look like: love your enemies; bless those who curse you; give to everyone in need. “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27-36).

From this illustration of how a tree and its fruit represents the connection between our hearts and what we do and say, Paul Tripp drew three principles:

  • There is an undeniable root and fruit connection between our heart and our behavior. People and situations do not determine our behavior; they provide the occasion where our behavior reveals our hearts.
  • Lasting change always takes place through the pathway of the heart. Fruit change is the results of root change. Any agenda for change must focus on the thoughts and desires of the heart.
  • The heart is the target in personal growth and counseling.

Tied now to the Ezekiel 14:1-11 passage discussed in “Spiritual Heart Problems,” we have a greater understanding of the blinding, distorting action of the stumbling block and the heart idol. The elders who came to Ezekiel were truly blind to the idols in their own hearts. And they would not have been able to understand anything the Lord said to them through Ezekiel as long as the “log” of their sin was lodged in their hearts.

A new heart (Ezekiel 36:25-26) was needed. There must be a radical change at the root level. A good tree bears good fruit. A bad tree, ruled by its heart idols, its gillûlîm, will produce bad fruit. You’ll know what is going on in your heart or that of another person by the fruit of their behavior. How can you tell whether or not it is stapled fruit? Watch the tree. Stapled fruit doesn’t last. It gets brown, pulpy and wrinkled and then falls off the tree.


Spiritual Heart Problems

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© hriana | 123RF.com

One of the biblical passages I often review and discuss with people when I counsel them is Ezekiel 14:1-11. There is a richness here that applies as much to modern believers as it did to those in Babylon at the time of the exile. But I think we should look at some of the background first to get a clear understanding of what is being said.

In 597 BC, Nebuchadnezzar besieged and conquered Jerusalem for the first time (2 Kings 24:10-17). As was their custom, the Babylonians deported the upper classes and leaders of the lands they conquered. They took the government officials, the fighting men, priests, craftsmen—10,000 individuals in all. Ezekiel, from a priestly family, was one of the deported exiles.

Nebuchadnezzar made Zedekiah, the uncle of the deposed king Jehoiachin, king of Judah in his place. But Zedekiah rebelled against Nebuchanezzar, leading to a second siege that ended in January of 588 BC with the sacking of the capital city. Zedekiah had been influenced by a fanatical faction who believed (wrongly) that the Lord would protect Jerusalem and the temple within it, just as He had when the Assyrians besieged Jerusalem in the time of Hezekiah (2 Kings 19:32-37). As a punishment for his rebellion, Zedekiah was made to witness the killing of his sons as the last thing he saw before he was blinded and then taken in chains to Babylon (2 Kings 24:18-25:7).

In chapter 13, Ezekiel had just thoroughly condemned false prophets who claimed to be speaking for the Lord, but had instead seen false visions and spoke lies. They gave false assurances to those who inquired of them, prophesying out of their own hearts. They misled the people, saying there would be peace, when there was no peace to be had. So you have this one group of prophets assuring the exiles and the elders there will be peace; and you have Ezekiel condemning them as false prophets. How are you to decide what the truth is? The exiled elders decided to come to Ezekiel and hear what he said the Lord wanted them to know.

But when the elders came to inquire of the Lord through Ezekiel, the Lord said to Ezekiel in 14:3 that they “have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces.” Will the Lord let them be consulted by them? “Of course not!” is the implied answer. So Ezekiel is to say to these elders that whenever one of God’s people takes up an idol into his heart and trips over the stumbling block that sin places in his life, the Lord’s response will be to address their idolatries. This is so that the Lord may lay hold of the hearts of his people, who are estranged from Him because of their idols.

The word translated as “idol” in Ezekiel 14:3 (gillûl) is one of the ten words that are translated as “idol” in the OT. It literally means log, block, shapeless thing; and can even be a reference to dung droppings. So when an idol is referred to as gillûl, it isn’t complimentary or neutral. Ezekiel was particularly fond of calling idols gillûlîm, and used it thirty-eight of the forty-seven times the word is found in the OT.

As Paul Tripp said in Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: “An idol of the heart is anything that rules me other than God.” Tripp went on to add: “whatever rules our hearts will exercise inescapable influence over our lives and behavior.” We too have “heart idols.” Those shapeless, sinful blocks of dung are within our hearts as well as the hearts of the elders. John Calvin commented that the human heart was a “perpetual forge of idols.” So the message the Lord has for these elders (and us) is “Repent! Turn from your detestable heart idols!” (14:6) His purpose is for His people to return to Him: “that they may be my people and I may be their God” (14:11).

The Hebrew word for “stumbling block” means something that trips you up; a hindrance. In Jeremiah 6:21, the Lord said He would put stumbling blocks before the people, causing them to stumble, because they refused to listen to Him. In Ezekiel 7, He said the land of Israel would be punished for all its abominations. Those who have silver and gold would not be able to deliver themselves in that day of wrath, because their wealth was “the stumbling block of their iniquity.” The stumbling block is then associated with the idol; it trips you up or hinders you in some way. You could say it is the “fruit” to the “root” of the heart idol.

Iain Duguid, in his commentary Ezekiel: The NIV Application Commentary, said we don’t want to give up our cherished sins. “Ezekiel tells us that such an approach to God is not an option.” We cannot serve the true God and at the same time “keep one foot in the camp of idolatry at the same time.”

Outwardly, our appearance may “fit”: We go to church regularly and appear to be decent, religious people. Yet when it comes to the tough decisions in life, there are other standards operating than God’s Word, which demonstrates the existence in our hearts of other gods than the true God. We have deep-seated idolatries in our hearts that drive our various behavior patterns.

There is one final thing to note in Ezekiel 14:3. The stumbling block is before their faces—it is right in front of them. But it isn’t recognized as a hindrance. So there is also a blinding, distorting aspect to the stumbling block. In Ezekiel 7, the stumbling block of wealth was actually thought to be a way to deliver them from the day of wrath—and not a manifestation of the root idol. Paul Tripp had a great illustration of this:

Imagine that someone places his hand up to his face so that he is looking through his fingers. What will happen to his vision? It will be seriously obstructed, and the only way to clear it is to remove his hand. In a similar way, an idol in the heart creates a stumbling block before the face. Until the idol is removed, it will distort and obscure everything in the person’s life.

And we could add, a stumbling block distorts any word that the elders (or anyone else) would seek to hear from God. So the first thing God needs to do when we come to inquire of Him is to confront the heart idols we have and remove their stumbling blocks from before our faces. What appears at first to be God’s judgment is actually His preparing us to clearly hear what He has to say. The stumbling blocks of our idols distort God’s word. They will trip us up even as we try to sincerely listen to and follow the Lord.

The solution to this problem is a spiritual heart transplant—the promise of a new heart. First the Lord God will cleanse us from our idols (gillûlîm). Then He will give us a new heart and a new spirit, removing the heart of stone and giving us a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:25-26). Jeremiah, a contemporary of Ezekiel, said the Lord would accomplish this by putting His law within us: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).