Our high school Bible study has been reading through Romans this year. They like choosing difficult books—last year we went through Revelation —and Romans is no exception. Some weeks we struggle to find anything to talk about (we discuss one chapter each time we meet), other weeks we struggle to understand, other weeks I confuse them with my attempts to help them along (I try to avoid teaching and instead guide and facilitate discussion), still other weeks I annoy them when I get really excited about something and pull out the white board (I do like to teach sometimes!). Then there are weeks when they find some answers on their own or have moments of clarity. Those days are wonderful. And on occasion I am able to help them understand or have a moment of clarity, which is particularly gratifying.
Today we discussed Romans chapter 9, which talks about Paul’s grief over the unbelief of Israel and then goes into God having mercy on whom he will have mercy, and hardening some people’s hearts, and the analogy of the potter and his clay. It’s a difficult chapter, one I imagine Calvinists like to go to (wrongly, in my opinion) for their predestination theology.
It troubled some of the youth, as it troubles me, that God might harden some hearts against him. We tried to figure this out, how this could work, why God would do this. I talked a bit about how we live in a very individualistic, personal rights-oriented culture, which is offended by any notion of someone compelling someone else to do something against their will, but that in an ancient group/family-oriented culture what Paul says may not be received negatively in that way.
One youth suggested that maybe if a person rejects God, God responds by hardening that person’s heart. I suggested that God might “give them over” to their hard-hearted desires (as Romans 1 talks about)—if that’s what they want, that’s what they’ll get. Commentaries seem to agree (we don’t always go to commentaries, but sometimes it helps).
We looked at the story of Moses and Pharaoh, which this chapter in Romans may reference. Early in Exodus God tells Moses that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he won’t let the people of Israel go. When the confrontation actually happens, there’s a lack of clarity about whom hardens whose heart. Initially God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, then Pharaoh’s heart is simply hardened, and later it says Pharaoh hardens his own heart. So which is it? Perhaps it’s both.
I suddenly thought of a real-world analogy. I asked the group, what is our first response when we are confronted with a negative truth about ourselves? If Dixie criticizes something about me, what is my initial reaction, even if what she says is true? I may get angry or offended, I may deny the charges, I may get bitter, I may argue, I may try to turn her comment back on her and point out her faults. In a sense, Dixie’s words have the power to prompt a “hardening of my heart,” even if ultimately it is the preexistent state of my heart that is ultimately responsible. Nods of recognition from the youth. In a very bad situation, I say, one where a relationship is already strained or perhaps where no real relationship exists, such a critical comment—such a confrontation with the truth—may actually strain the relationship or potential of relationship beyond possibility, at least for a time.
Similarly, when we are confronted with the truth and power of God when our hearts are already in rebellion against him, that very truth has the power to harden our hearts, even though it is ultimately the prior condition of our hearts is responsible for the hardening.
That was helpful insight.