Pardon the long introduction, but I think it’s necessary.
The long intro from Exodus
The story of Pharaoh and Moses in Exodus is a familiar one to many, even many who aren’t in churches. Thanks to Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner, we watch a cruel Pharaoh hell-bent on the destruction of the slave race of Egypt, and a scandal that erupts because Moses is part of the heritage of that people.
The real story is in Exodus, starting in chapter 7. In the course of that story, a number of plagues are imposed on Egypt by God. There’s really no getting around it, God killed things. Destroyed food and water sources. People died and he did it. In the course of these calamities, ten in all, the thing that keeps happening is Pharaoh “hardening his heart.” The Nile is blood, Pharaoh’s heart is hard. Frogs crawl up, are killed, create a stink. Pharaoh remains stubborn. Gnats and flies, his heart remains hard. It’s like he doesn’t get that things are supernaturally bizarre because he refuses to allow the people of God to go free from his kingdom. One of the instances is different, though. When there is a plague of boils on the skin, the statement isn’t that Pharaoh’s heart is hardened or that he is stubborn. The exact wording in the New Living Translation is, “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”
This statement has seemed odd to me for some time. God hardened his heart? Why would God do that? Doesn’t God want the best for everyone? Wouldn’t it have gotten things moving if he had backed off? Was Pharaoh getting it? It happened again when the locust decimated an already damaged kingdom and darkness fell for days. Then, the death stroke, literally: the death of the firstborn and the first Passover.
Something else happened when God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. In the previous plagues, Pharaoh issued some pat response, if he responded at all. He showed some signs of a changing heart when he allowed Moses to go and sacrifice to the one true God after the fourth plague, flies. Even that was just because he wanted the problem to go away. Two plagues later, we have two new things happening. The sixth plague, boils, is where God hardens Pharaoh’s heart when the plague goes away.
The seventh plague is where many things change. First, God tells Pharaoh (through Moses) that Pharaoh is being spared “to show (Pharaoh) God’s power, and to spread (God’s) fame throughout the earth.” (Exodus 9:16, NLT) Take a pause there. Not just to let God’s people go, as the songs say. To show Pharaoh God’s power. Pharaoh himself. Pharaoh as a person. I don’t think it’s by accident that this is also the occasion, during the seventh (but unfortunately not the last) plague, Pharaoh has a personal breakthrough: he confesses his own sin when the hail starts to fall.
I don’t want to make this all about Pharaoh and Moses, so I’ll end that part of the story there. That sets a good framework for my line of thought in the next part.
The next part: Pharaoh and Moses in my life, and I’m not sure which one I was
Here’s how this relates to this story: the hardening of hearts is something I can say with honesty I have experienced.
One of them, I believe, was my own. This relates directly to the origin of this blog, that my wife and I were members of a church and left that church on the tail-end of a year of quiet but very real conflict. (Quiet because we did not attempt to tell a bunch of people what happened, as we had no desire to “bring anyone down” or cause a rift in the church.) I’m not sure that page will remain unedited (even as I read it now, I see my own belligerence written all over it), but the gist of the story is that we wanted to make the church great, and we cleared the rest of our lives in order to do it. The pastor of the church seemed to be against us at every turn. That’s about as much detail as I care to give in that story.
I was angry at the time. Seen through my human eyes, it looked like I was being left out, blocked, unappreciated. I think I probably felt a lot of those emotions. We tried something and were cut out of the loop, we tried something else and were ignored. If it were just people in the picture, that’s all it may be. This picture is wider, painted with more vivid colors. This picture includes God, and I’m not sure I let him be involved when it happens.
This is the reason I say the first hard heart was my own. I was dead-set on making that church great, full speed ahead. The nouns are important in that sentence. I. That church. I don’t know where the pastor was (and I didn’t ask, I just jumped right in) but I had a picture in my mind of what I wanted to happen.
The other hard heart was the pastor. How it happened, I don’t exactly know. The details aren’t important, but the results were him no longer wanting to work with me, no longer speaking to me. I was fine with that, because I didn’t want to talk to him either. Maybe it was a personality conflict or a need for control. Whatever the reasons, we went in the course of a couple months from going to movies together and buying one another’s lunch to being barely church-cordial to one another. After a while, when I offered to help with things, he wouldn’t bother to return the message.
Enough of that hurt. The human side of the story is getting me distracted.
The shaping of clay and the breaking of rocks
I said that the nouns were important before because they were. I. The church. Those were the things I was trying to make great. Then I see the Exodus story: that God wished to make himself great. That he wished to show himself to Pharaoh. Remember that didn’t happen until the seventh plague?
I’ve come to understand that God is concerned with people in a deep and powerful way. Not just Christians, though we’d like to think so. All people. Even Pharaoh.
The truth is this: “the Lord corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights.” (Proverbs 3:12) In a previous iteration of me, I understood that to mean God sort of tapping us on the shoulder, whispering in our ears when we screw up. He does that. Then are the rest of us: the ones that are too in love with the sound of our own voice. We speak to ourselves too loudly for God to be heard. In those cases, and this was mine, he cannot merely shape us. Our hearts are like stones, and they must be broken.
I want to be clear here: I believe God does it. Some may want to believe that God only allows good things to happen to us, and the devil causes only bad things. Like, maybe God “allows” bad things, but I think that’s utter nonsense. God takes the initiative to harden Pharaoh’s heart several times, and let’s not take things away from God. Romans 8:28 says “God causes everything to work together for the good of those that love him (NLT)” and I don’t think those are just good things. Let God keep his power. Don’t make him a kindly grandpa, let him remain a God of boundless power and wisdom.
The hardening of hearts and the breaking of stones isn’t the end of the story. It’s always for the same purpose: so that we can be formed by our loving Father.