A Writer’s Honest Prayer

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Almighty God,

In light of your holiness and generosity, I’m aware of my unworthiness and sin. My pride and self-focus are bulging and monstrous; I confess these sins to you.

I confess that I long for the attention and praise of men. I want people to say that I’m important; I dream of the admiration of others.

My self-worth rises and falls too often with page views, comments, and incoming links. I check my blog stats more frequently than I should, more frequently than I would admit.

As I write, I am tempted to draw attention to myself. Instead of using humor and playful word choices to serve readers, I have chosen phrases so others will think I’m clever.

I have not always used my words to glorify you. Instead, I have written to impress other people and make a name for myself.

In these sins of self-exaltation, I have walked in the opposite direction from Jesus. Your son made himself nothing, while I have tried to make something of myself. Though your love frees me to pour out my life and energy for others, I have too often only paid attention to me.

For the sake of your son, please forgive me.

In light of my sin which only you can forgive, I need change only you can bring. Merciful God, please change me. Turn my bent-inwardness around and renovate my heart.

Use my writing for your glory. Help me write in service of your people.

Give me only the opportunities that would point others to you and bless your church. Keep me from projects and outlets that would bring me spiritual harm.

Please give me ideas. Help me think well about you and your world. Tether me to your life-giving word.

When I sit to write, give me words. I depend on you. Give me helpful, persuasive, wise, gracious, godly, timely words.

Empower my friends to speak to me honestly. Rebuke and correct me by your spirit and your people. Strengthen my elders to shepherd me.

Help me remember the gospel. Whether my writing is well-received or ignored, remind me of your unfailing love and the bedrock work of Jesus. Thank you that no amount of writing, good or bad, can make you love me any more or less than you do right now. You are full of grace.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.


Photo Credit: Ursula (2015), public domain

How to Support Sharing in Your Small Group

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One of the biggest barriers to sharing in a small group is, sadly, other people. We’ve all been burned, and we do our best to avoid pain.

Even if you’re convinced that sharing is a good thing and you have a sense of how to do it, hesitation is natural. How will your friends react? What will they say?

Our constant theme should be love—we must do what is actually good for others. We should labor to help our friends love and obey God, pointing them to Jesus all along the way.

A Matter of the Heart

Sin originates in the heart. This biblical truth is foundational for real change.

This implies there is a root in the heart behind every sinful behavior, hesitation, and motivation. Our anxiety about a presentation at work may reveal an obsession with pleasing others. Impatience with our children may point to a stubborn resistance to God’s sovereign control.

Out of the heart the mouth speaks (Matt 15:18). These are among Jesus’s most profound and devastating words.

As with all truth, we must take care in our application. We must not become obsessive hunters, eager to “get to the heart” at all costs, poking and prodding and, eventually, crushing our friends.

We should, however, keep the importance of the heart in the foreground, gently walking with our friends toward deeper waters when they’re reluctant to wade in. Remind them: We have a perfect Lifeguard.

Do’s and Don’t’s

Let’s make this practical. To encourage your friends to share in small group, consider these suggestions.

Don’t violate trust. Keep the confessions and struggles you hear within your group. Your friends won’t share if they fear they will be the subject of gossip.

Do listen carefully. Maintain eye contact; don’t turn away when someone shares something difficult. Use your facial expressions and body language to offer support.

Don’t be afraid of conversation. A well-timed question or comment might be just what your friend needs to continue his story. Try to gently draw one another out, prompting with heart-related inquiries.

Don’t try to fix people. Part of bearing a friend’s burdens is understanding his battles. We minimize a person’s struggles by suggesting a simple remedy.

Don’t make it about you. We all suffer from me-too disease, and we think we can help when we’ve been through something similar. Your suggestion may be helpful, but take care to listen and understand first.

Do speak the gospel. Remind your friend of God’s love, Jesus’s work, and the Spirit’s presence. Don’t offer flimsy, Hallmark hope—we have a better, brighter, sure hope. Don’t let a Christian despair over their sin.

Do offer practical help. The help and power we need to defeat sin comes from God. But sometimes he supplies help for the fight through his people. You might suggest a book, a Bible passage, a quotation, or a phone call. Specific options (while leaving room for the person to decline your offer) are often more helpful than a general offer of aid.

Do pray. Pray during the group meeting. Pray later. Pray frequently. I try to jot down notes during my small group meeting so I can pray through the week.

Do follow up. It means the world to know others are praying. The simple act of sending a text or making a phone call can be a burst of encouragement. Consider asking for an update at the next group meeting so others can be reminded to pray or be encouraged at the way God has worked.


Photo Credit: Thomas Szynkiewicz (2012), Creative Commons License

Me-Too Disease

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Patient: Thanks for seeing me on such short notice.
Doctor: I didn’t really have a choice. You barged in without an appointment.
Patient: It was an emergency.
Doctor: Everyone says that. You know what, it doesn’t matter. What’s bothering you?
Patient: I’m having relationship trouble.
Doctor: You know I’m a physician, right? Couldn’t we talk about this at church on Sunday?
Patient: Sure, but you said to get in touch if I needed anything.
Doctor: It’s really just an expression. *Sigh* Go ahead.
Patient: Like I said, it’s my relationships. Lately, people have been ending conversations with me before we’re done. Abruptly. Maybe I stink.
Doctor: Excuse me?
Patient: I’m wondering if I smell bad. You know, body odor, bad breath, something like that. That seems health-related, right?
Doctor: Are these conversation problems only happening in person?
Patient: No. On the phone, too. In fact, my mom bailed on our weekly talk after just five minutes last night.
Doctor: Well, I think I know your problem, but I need to do a test. Let’s do some role-play conversations.
Patient: Sure, anything.
Doctor: OK, let’s pretend we’re catching up after the weekend. I’ll start. Good morning!
Patient: Hello! How was the weekend?
Doctor: It was good. Nice to be away from work for a bit, you know? My son had his last soccer game on Saturday morning, and—
Patient: Oh yeah? My son played soccer too. He never really liked it. No matter where they put him on the field, he wasn’t interested.
Doctor: Hmm. We’re getting somewhere. Let’s try one more conversation. We’ll talk about our childhood. I’ll begin.
Patient: OK.
Doctor: I grew up in Michigan, outside of Detroit. I’m the youngest of three brothers. My father—
Patient: Oh! I’m the youngest in my family too! I wasn’t even 8 when my siblings started leaving the house. I don’t know my oldest sister well at all.
Doctor: OK, I know your problem.
Patient: Really?
Doctor: Yep. You’ve got Me-Too Disease.
Patient: What?
Doctor: Me-Too Disease. You’ve got an acute version.
Patient: I’ve never heard of it.
Doctor: Most people haven’t. But it’s everywhere.
Patient: How did I get it?
Doctor: It’s genetic.
Patient: Wow. My parents never mentioned it.
Doctor: If you want to know the truth, everyone has it. Some are better at hiding it than others. You—you’re not good at this.
Patient: …
Doctor: Me-Too Disease is a condition of the heart. Your focus on yourself is so dominant that you relate everything you hear, see, or learn to your own situation. This is what you do in conversations. You listen only long enough to find a springboard for a story about yourself. Then you interrupt.
Patient: Wow. I guess I can see that. Is there treatment?
Doctor: Yes. You—
Patient: Let me guess: eat well and exercise, right? That’s what you doctors always say.
Doctor: No, not this time. Although you really should—
Patient: Everybody’s eating kale now. I don’t have to eat kale, do I?
Doctor: No way. No one should eat kale.
Patient: Well, what’s the treatment?
Doctor: Love.
Patient: Excuse me?
Doctor: I know this doesn’t sound very doctor-y, but the treatment is love.
Patient: I don’t understand.
Doctor: Your focus on yourself—it’s deadly. Maybe not for your body, but for your soul. And you’re seeing it in your relationships.
Patient: Oh boy. You’re about to Jesus-juke me aren’t you?
Doctor: You want your doctor to tell you the truth, right?
Patient: You’re right. Go ahead.
Doctor: Your obsession is natural, but it’s all wrong. God made us to worship him, not ourselves. So you’ve got everything backwards. And, to be honest, God hates it.
Patient: Yikes.
Doctor: When I said earlier that the treatment for Me-Too Disease is love, that starts with God. We should love other people and care for them. But that’s impossible without God’s love for us. Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection bring us to God, but they also make it possible to love others. His love transform us to love him and others.
Patient: I’ve heard this a lot at church.
Doctor: There’s more to say, but our time here is up. Especially since, you know, you didn’t make an appointment.
Patient: Got it.
Doctor: Let’s get together for coffee sometime and we can talk more about it, ok?
Patient: Sounds great.
Doctor: Oh, one more thing.
Patient: Yes?
Doctor: I was serious about the kale.


Photo Credit: Vic (2011), Creative Commons License

How to Share in Your Small Group

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As Christians share with each other in a small group, they obey the one another commands in the Bible. Though such sharing is difficult, God honors it by strengthening Christians to fight their sin.

But what does such sharing look like?

The Importance of Prayer

You cannot talk about your struggles against sin without knowing what they are.

Listen to King David.

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23–24)

Praying this way is one of the most important steps we can take to grow as Christians. God loves to answer this prayer.

But we need to pray as Christians. We don’t wallow in our sin; we seek it out to defeat it, knowing its power has been crushed by Jesus at the cross. Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s advice is wise: “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.”

If seeing our sin puts the enemy in our sights, then meditation on the gospel pulls the trigger. Remembering the love of the Father and the work of the Son—this is the way God changes our hearts, giving us proper affections and motivations for obedience.

Categories

When someone wants to pray for your growth as a Christian, categories can be helpful.

  • Works of the flesh and fruit of the Spirit — Use passages like Gal 5:19–21 and Gal 5:22–24 to talk about the sin you hope to kill and the character you want to develop. There are many other such lists in the Bible—read them and learn the biblical vocabulary.
  • Longings in the Psalms — Read the Psalms and note the love the writers expressed for God. I’m humbled to compare my tepid affection with the hearts of these long-ago saints. (Psalm 63 is a great place to start.)
  • Idols — An idol is anything that takes the place of God for us. These can be vices or addictions, but more often idols are blessings to which we ascribe outsized significance. Family, job, money, success, friendship—these can all be idols. The solution is usually not to ditch the idol, but to return it to its proper place and worship God alone. To help you start thinking in these terms, check out this list of idol-revealing prompts by Tim Keller.
  • Spiritual disciplines — The habits we develop to aid Christian growth are called “spiritual disciplines.” In this category you’ll find Bible reading, prayer, fasting, memorizing Scripture, fellowship, weekly worship, etc. While no activity or discipline saves us, a lack of attention to the spiritual disciplines often reveals a heart that is cooling toward God. Take note both of ignoring these practices and adhering to them with a distracted or divided heart.

A Personal Example

How does one share in a small group setting? The basic elements are knowing your sin and asking others to pray and help you fight against it. Lest that sound vague, here is a personal example.

Please pray for me in my fight against gluttony. I eat when I’m not hungry, eat foods that aren’t good for me, and eat too much. Sometimes I eat because I’m bored. Other times I eat for comfort. Ultimately, I want to find my comfort in Christ, not in food. Pray that I would love God more than food and that I would care for the body God has given me.

Sharing doesn’t have to be lengthy and you need not have everything figured out. Don’t worry about sounding spiritual. You only need to know some of your sin and want to put it to death.

Remember, this is good for you. In addition to being a matter of obedience (James 5:16), your friends can help you. God is ready to give you tangible help as your friends pray.

How to Listen

There’s one last piece to this puzzle. How do you handle someone sharing personal prayer requests in your small group? We’ll tackle that next week.


Photo Credit: anonymous (2016), public domain

You Should Share in Your Small Group

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Many Christian small group meetings include sharing and prayer, and most of the responses are predictable. Health, jobs, and family members—these concerns dominate our lists.

There’s nothing wrong with this. We should pray for the physical needs of our friends. These top-level requests consume our thinking throughout the day, and God wants us to “cast our anxieties on him” (1 Peter 5:7).

But a small group prayer list that contains only such requests is incomplete. To build close friendships, you must share the concerns closest to your heart. And that means opening up.

Why We Don’t Share

Sharing from the heart is just plain hard. It’s unnatural, and I suspect we avoid sharing for two main reasons.

Sometimes we are not in touch with our battles against sin. Peter tells us that our lusts “wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). When we don’t fight, the conflict is one-sided, and our enemies are relentless.

Other times, we know our sin but don’t want to talk about it. For assorted reasons, we’re unwilling to let our friends see our areas of greatest need.

As we walk the path toward greater honesty, we need to acknowledge the steep climb. Let’s be patient with each other—we all have room to grow.

Why We Should Share

Most small group ministries are built on the “one another” commands in the Bible. (Here’s a great list.) God’s demands border on impossible without an intimate, commited community.

Consider how refreshing it would be to belong to a small group devoted to obeying God in these ways.

  • Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (James 5:16)
  • Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. (Rom 12:10)
  • Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 6:2)
  • Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (1 Thess 5:11)
  • Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. (Eph 4:25)
  • Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. (1 Pet 4:9)

Each of these commands requires vulnerability. How can I bear my friend’s burdens if he doesn’t tell me what they are? How can we confess our sins to each other if we keep our hearts locked up tight? How will I know how to encourage my friend if I don’t know any of his deep struggles?

We should share because God commands it. But God doesn’t issue commands on a whim. Sharing our struggles is good for us.

The Blessing of Sharing

As you open up to your friends, you might be surprised at the help you receive.

Because prayer is effective, God actually gives me strength in my fight against particular sins as my group prays for me. My friends can ask me questions and provide tangible support. They can preach the gospel to me on a regular basis.

As you share, you encourage others in your group to follow suit. And as others open up, you build a deeper sense of community within the group. Everyone is in a common fight. Your struggles aren’t exactly the same, but everyone has a battle and no one is strong enough to fight on their own.

Jesus Makes It Possible

Sharing like this is scary and counterintuitive. It might feel just the opposite of safe. But the gospel of Jesus changes everything.

Your sin is not a surprise to God. He knows it better than you. And, if you’re a Christian, his commitment to you is so deep and steadfast that no sin of yours can drive him away.

The sin you want to stuff down and hide is the same sin Jesus bore on the cross. He was made sin so that we might be made righteous (2 Cor 5:21).

We can share our sin because it no longer defines us. Our struggles against the flesh are real, but because of Jesus’s work we have real hope, real help, and real possibility of change. We don’t need to fear abandonment or exile—Jesus suffered that in our place and God is just.

What Does This Look Like?

If you’ve never been part of a small group that talked or prayed on this level, you might wonder how this looks in practice. How exactly do you share or confess your sins to your friends?

Check back next week. I’ll try to explain.


Photo Credit: Sydney Missionary Bible College (2005), Creative Commons License

Telemarketers Are People Too

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Imagine you’re sitting down to dinner with your family. As you start the meal, you hear an unexpected knock at your front door.

You don’t recognize the person, but you know this is not a conversation you want to have, not now. The visitor will be selling a product, asking for votes, or collecting donations.

How do you react? Ideally, you’ll treat them with kindness and respect, even as you explain that this is a bad time.

Now replace the knock at the door with a phone call. In a nutshell, this is the telemarketing industry. So why do we treat those at our doors differently than those on our phones?

My Weakness

I shouldn’t speak for everyone. Perhaps you have more patience, grace, and love for telemarketers than I do. (You almost surely do.)

A cable company representative called recently and tried to up-sell me. In the process, the caller put me on hold twice. I got angry, and I spoke in a way I immediately regretted.

Whether from a saleman, a pollster, or someone raising money for charity, I’m not inclined to listen to unsolicited phone calls for very long. I assume I’ve heard everything they have to say, I don’t give them the benefit of the doubt, and I dismiss them quickly. This has been my pattern.

Loving My Neighbor

God convicted me through this phone call. He made each of these people; they are my neighbors. They deserve love and respect.

Though their work interrupts and annoys me, it is legitimate work. I shouldn’t treat them poorly just because I am inconvenienced.

So often I get my standards wrong. If I think someone doesn’t deserve my respect, they don’t get it. But that’s obviously the wrong approach!

The gospel changes everything. God didn’t treat me the way I deserve. In fact, he treated Jesus the way I deserve (with wrath) and he treats me as his son. This is amazing, glorious, life-altering love.

And this love now fuels our behavior. We can treat others better than they deserve because that’s how we’ve been treated. Our standard of love must be Jesus’s standard. He doesn’t just provide an example; he gives me the power to change and to love those who annoy and interrupt me.

Can I Hang Up?

One last thought. Is it ever acceptable to hang up on a telemarketer?

Treating someone with love and respect doesn’t mean we always do what they want. Though we’re called to die to ourselves, this doesn’t mean we’re always pushovers.

We’ve all probably been on the phone in the telemarketer spiral. You say no; they protest, provide a reason, and ask for something slightly different. This pattern continues, and at some point they stopped listening to you. (Has anyone ever changed their mind because of this persistence? I’ve said no five times already, but since you asked a sixth time, sign me up!)

I think it’s fine to hang up the phone in certain situations. The caller is following their company-dictated script. If, after respectfully telling them you’re not interested, they ignore you and press ahead, I think they lose their right to your attention. I usually hang up at this point, trying not to be angry at the person.


Photo Credit: Levente Lenart (2008), public domain

Taking a Biblical Worldview to My Back Yard

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Our theology affects everything, not just the parts of life we call “religious.” We live every second before God, so we should think theologically about every detail, from the majestic to the mundane.

A Familiar Structure

I have an intense, irrational hatred for yard work. I don’t understand or like this about myself, but I’d trade yard work for washing dishes, cleaning the bathroom, or doing laundry any day of the week.

And yet, instead of grumbling about this task, I should think about it biblically. Here’s my attempt to frame this work in the familiar categories of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.

Creation

A healthy lawn and blooming flowers are beautiful. When God sends the rain and the sun and the yard explodes with color, it can be breathtaking.

We have a great lesson in the plant world: God brings life from the dirt. As Adam was created from the dust (Gen 2:7), so the trees, grass, and other plants grow by God’s good pleasure.

And, in his wisdom, God has called me to tend this space. I’m to work and keep what he’s entrusted to me (Gen 2:15), exercising dominion care in this small area. God asks me to labor and work so the land around me proclaims his glory.

Fall

In my flesh, I hate my yard. I am in the midst of a war, and I am losing.

I don’t enjoy cutting my grass, but that’s easy. It’s the weeding, pruning, planting, and tending I dislike. This is often difficult, unpleasant work.

This shouldn’t surprise me. The ground itself is cursed (Gen 3:17–19), and the weeds and thorns appear because of sin. The consequences of our rebellion spring from the ground, causing me pain (Gen 3:17). I sweat and ache as I beat back the thistles.

Redemption

Yes, the ground is cursed. But there’s more to the story. The weeds and thorns have only so much power.

Jesus walked on this ground, and that changed everything. The wind whipped dust against his face and he got mud between his toes. Though he had power over all the land, he died and was buried in the earth. But the ground could not hold him.

The entire creation is damaged and cursed. Jesus came to shatter the curse, to bring restoration and reconciliation and renewal far as the curse is found.

This begins with the people of God, the pinnacle of creation. But Jesus’ resurrection affects everything. The defeated enemy retreats, and the spoils of Christ’s victory will roll downhill and flood all of creation with new life.

Consummation

Under the curse, creation groans (Rom 8:22). It groans not just for redemption but for newness.

I groan. In Christ, I have new life. I have hope and the promise of God himself. But in the body I groan.

I age and ache and slump, but my body only tells part of the story. I grieve at my remaining sin. I see injustice and pain and grief and oppression and hate, not only in myself but in my community and throughout the world. I too long for newness.

And so we have a circle of sorts. I’m driven into my yard by newness—new growth to trim and new weeds to pull. But, if I’m thinking well, I spend more time dwelling on Jesus’ death and resurrection. He’s remaking me from the inside out, and he will fulfill the groan-filled longing of the creation as well.


Photo Credit: Rudy and Peter Skitterians (2014), public domain

Heaven is a Person

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I drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and take a deep breath. My shoulders loosen and I feel just a bit lighter. The salty air and sea gulls usher me into this familiar, wonderful place.

I grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I love the water and the wide-open spaces; I love the farmland and country roads; I love all the sights and tastes and smells.

Heaven is a Place

You probably have your own favorite place like this. Maybe it’s the first house you remember, your college town, or the backyard where you began to raise your family.

As Christians, we read that heaven will be more than cotton-ball clouds, pearly gates, and harps, and it strikes a deep cord within us. Heaven will be tangible, not ethereal. And what’s more, heaven won’t just be our last place, but surely it must be the best place. All our attachment to places on this earth must be shadows of our longings for heaven.

When we learn that heaven is a place, questions are natural. What will it look like? What will we do? What will we eat?

On these matters, God isn’t silent. The last two chapters of Revelation give us some descriptions, and there are heavenly glimpses and images elsewhere in Scripture. But we end up with far more questions than answers, and we wonder: Why doesn’t God give us more information about the place—the city—where we’ll be spending eternity?

It’s Not About the Place

We read this after the very first mention of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3–4)

This is primary—God will dwell with man. He will be our God and we will be his people. In other words: Heaven isn’t about the place, it’s about the Person.

God has given us some information about heaven, but consider how much more he has told us about himself! The Bible is stuffed with truths and stories about God’s character, his demands, and his grace. When we complain that we don’t know much about heaven, we’re missing the point. God has told us gobs about the most important feature of heaven—himself.

The reality of a new earth and a new body is mind-blowing; I don’t want to minimize this. But the most important—indeed, the most glorious, joyous, and rewarding fact about heaven is that God is there. With our new eyes, we will see him face to face. With no more curse, we will enjoy him in new and fulfilling ways we cannot imagine.

Long for heaven. Stretch for it. Gather everyone you can.

Heaven will be breathtaking, because God is there.


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Photo Credit: Dan Fador (2013), public domain

One Surefire Way to Harden Your Heart

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When the Exodus narrative hits chapter 8, a curious thing happens. Moses takes a back seat. So does Aaron. Instead, the narrator zooms in on two characters: Pharaoh and God.

A Hard Heart

It’s impossible to read these early chapters of Exodus without pondering Pharoah’s heart. God tells Moses he will harden Pharoah’s heart (Ex 4:21, 7:3), and then we see it happen. Over and over and over.

No one wants a hard heart. A hard heart is stiff and rigid, dry and impenetrable. A hard heart is cold. Throughout Scripture, to have a hard heart is to be stubborn, persistent in one’s own way, and resistant to the things of God (Dt 15:7, 2 Chron 36:13, Mark 8:17, Acts 19:9, Heb 3:13).

Who Hardens the Heart?

In Exodus, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 9:12; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27; 11:10; 14:8) almost as often as Pharoah hardens his own (Exodus 8:15; 8:32; 9:34). It’s not one or the other—it’s both.

It’s uncomfortable, but true: God hardens some hearts (Rom 9:18). This is his prerogative, and those whom God hardens wouldn’t choose any differently. God may simply make more available and more abundant the ends they would seek for themselves.

And yet, Pharaoh hardens his own heart as well. What does this look like?

How to Harden Your Heart

As Pharaoh’s heart hardened, one of his behaviors is mentioned more than others—five times to be exact. And though Pharaoh was not regenerate, I suspect we harden our hearts in much the same way.

He did not listen.

Now, one of two things is happening in these passages. Either Pharaoh doesn’t listen as a result of hardening his heart, or Pharaoh hardens his heart as a result of not listening. I’m guessing both are true—a hard heart and a resistant ear form an obstinate, continuous loop. (Check out Exodus 7.13, 7.22, 8.15, 8.19, 9.12.)

Hebrews connects Pharaoh with a relevant warning to the church. In Hebrews 3:7–19, the author quotes the language of hard hearts (Pharaoh) as directed to the Israelites (Psalm 95) and applies it to us. The chief warning is this: If you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.

So, if we want to avoid a hard heart, we need to listen. Chiefly, we need to listen to God. We need to listen to the Bible, where God speaks. We need to listen to our pastor as he preaches and to our elders as they warn and encourage us and to our friends as they comfort and rebuke us.

The surest way to a hard heart is to stop listening to God.


Photo Credit: Ralf (2016), public domain

My View From the Back Pew

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I sit in the back pew on Sunday mornings. Some people sit in the back to hide, to slip out the door while the last hymn is ending. Not me. I sit there because I love seeing so many of God’s people as I worship. It’s my weekly picture of heaven.

Every week, I see more sorrow than joy. I see struggles and frustrations, snapshots of pain—spiritual as much as physical.

I’d love to talk to these people on their way out of church. If I could, I’d pull them aside and emphasize this: God is full of grace.

To the mother with the unruly child—I see how much you want your son to sit in worship with you. This morning, he was noisy and distracting, and when you took him to the nursery you looked ashamed and defeated. You’re exhausted, and I’m guessing you think you’re a terrible mother. Please know this: God is full of grace.

To the disheveled man in your mid-thirties—I’m so glad you’re here. You smell like smoke and you’re a bit awkward in conversation, so most people don’t talk to you. You sit by yourself and don’t have a dime for the offering. It looks difficult for you to sing or pray or maybe even believe you should be in this building. But it’s good for you to be here. I wish we all knew our need for Jesus as you do. Continue to seek the Lord; he is full of grace.

To the parents of the absent teenage daughter—you’ve had a terrible time these last few months. Your daughter turned 18, moved in with her boyfriend, and turned away from church. I know you feel powerless and devastated. And now the empty seat next to you is a painful reminder. Please remember: God is full of grace.

To the teenage boy—I know you don’t want to be here. Your parents bring you against your wishes, and you probably can’t wait to be on your own. You used to love this place; I wonder what happened. You don’t sing or even lift your eyes from the floor. Maybe you think Jesus is irrelevant or just a nuisance. I’m praying you realize God is full of grace.

To the early-forties father in the front—You have a beautiful family, and you know it. You soak in the compliments about your children. You’re well-dressed, put together, and respectable. You’ve gone to this church your whole life, and your parents are pillars of the congregation. But while you seem pleasant on the outside, I wonder about your heart. I’ve seen the fear in your young son’s eyes when you correct him. I wonder how much obedience and performance and appearance dominate your thoughts. I wonder if you know that your need for Jesus is the same as mine. I hope you rest in our God who is full of grace.

I’m grateful for everyone in my church. We’re part of the same body. Don’t be scared of your flaws, doubts, and failures. We all have them in abundance. This is why Jesus is so precious.

We all depend on God’s grace. Let’s remind each other how gracious he is.


This post is an imaginative essay. I don’t sit in the back pew myself, and none of the people in the essay are specific individuals in my church. These characters are amalgams of people I have seen and known (and imagined) over time.


Photo Credit: Michael Gaida, public domain