To better understand the causes and solutions for a hardened heart, it’s important to understand the broad biblical meaning of the word “heart.” The Bible considers the heart to be the hub of human personality, producing the things we would ordinarily ascribe to the “mind.” For example, Scripture informs us that grief (John 14:1); desires (Matthew 5:28); joy (Ephesians 5:19); understanding (Isaiah 6:10; Matthew 13:15); thoughts and reasoning (Genesis 6:5; Hebrews 4:12; Mark 2:8); and, most importantly, faith and belief (Hebrews 3:12; Romans 10:10; Mark 11:23) are all products of the heart. Also, Jesus tells us that the heart is a repository for good and evil and that what comes out of our mouth – good or bad – begins in the heart (Luke 6:43–45).
Considering this, it’s easy to see how a hardened heart can dull a person’s ability to perceive and understand. Anyone’s heart can harden, even faithful Christians’. In fact, in Mark 8:17–19 we see Jesus’ own disciples suffering from this malady. The disciples were concerned with their meager bread supply, and it was clear that each of them had forgotten how Jesus had just fed thousands with only a few loaves. Questioning them as to the hardness of their hearts, Christ spells out for us the characteristics of this spiritual heart condition as an inability to see, understand, hear, and remember. Regarding this last criterion, too often we forget how God has blessed us and what He has done for us. Similar to the disciples in this instance or the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, when a new calamity arises in our lives, our hearts often fill with fear and concern. Sadly, this simply reveals to God the little faith we have in His promise to take care of us (Matthew 6:32–33; Philippians 4:19). We need to remember not only the many times God has graciously provided for us in our time of need, but also what He has told us: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6; Hebrews 13:5).
Sin causes hearts to grow hard, especially continual and unrepentant sin. Now we know that “if we confess our sins, [Jesus] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins” (1 John 1:9). However, if we don’t confess our sins, they have a cumulative and desensitizing effect on the conscience, making it difficult to even distinguish right from wrong. And this sinful and hardened heart is tantamount to the “seared conscience” Paul speaks of in 1Timothy 4:1–2. Scripture makes it clear that if we relentlessly continue to engage in sin, there will come a time when God will give us over to our “debased mind” and let us have it our way. The apostle Paul writes about God’s wrath of abandonment in his letter to the Romans where we see that godless and wicked “men who suppress the truth” are eventually given over to the sinful desires of their hardened hearts (Romans 1:18–24).
Pride will also cause our hearts to harden. The “pride of your heart has deceived you . . . you who say to yourself, ‘who can bring me down to the ground’ . . . I will bring you down declares the LORD” (Obadiah 3). Also, the root of Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness was his pride and arrogance. Even in the face of tremendous proofs and witnessing God’s powerful hand at work, Pharaoh’s hardened heart caused him to deny the sovereignty of the one, true God. And when King Nebuchadnezzar’s “heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory . . . until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone He wishes” (Daniel 5:20–21). Accordingly, when we’re inclined to do it our way, thinking we can “go it on our own,” it would be wise to recall what King Solomon taught us in Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.”
So, what then is the antidote for a heart condition such as this? First and foremost, we have to recognize the effect that this spiritual disease has on us. And God will help us to see our heart’s condition when we ask Him: “Search me O God, and know my heart…see if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23–24). God can heal any heart once we recognize our disobedience and repent of our sins. But true repentance is more than simply a resolute feeling of steadfast determination. Repentance manifests itself in a changed life.
After repenting of our sins, hard hearts begin to be cured when we study God’s Word. “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart. . . . I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:9–11). The Bible is our manual for living as it is “God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). If we are to live life to the fullest as God intended, we need to study and obey God’s written Word, which not only keeps a heart soft and pure but allows us to be “blessed” in whatever we do (Joshua 1:8; James 1:25).
Hearts can also become hardened when we suffer setbacks and disappointments in life. No one is immune to trials here on earth. Yet, just as steel is forged by a blacksmith’s hammer, so, too, can our faith be strengthened by the trials we encounter in the valleys of life. As Paul encouraged the Romans: “But we also rejoice in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us” (Romans 5:3–5).