It is a passage – and a proposition – that has troubled me as far back as I can remember my early days in Sunday School. I’ve never quite understood it and never has it fit with my understanding of God. I see God as a creator, God as a lover of creation, but it’s there, described on numerous occasions. The most troubling, likely because it’s the one I first remember and the one that’s most often mentioned, refers to Pharoah. In the book of Exodus, over and over God tells Moses “I will harden Pharoah’s heart.” Why? Why would God ever purposefully harden someone’s heart?
And it doesn’t end there. Pharoah, hardened heart and all, in turn hardens the hearts of the Egyptians. This makes for great cinematic drama as the walls of the parted Red Sea come crashing down upon those same Egyptians. I guess a bunch of softy soldiers would have never chased the Israelites, never gotten themselves in the middle of an oddly dry river bed, and thus never provided the opportunity for us to see Charlton Heston and a cast of thousands each and every year during religious holidays, the same drama playing out on our television screens over and over and over again.
And there are more. King Sihon of Heshbon, Zedekiah during his reign over Jerusalem, both Nebuchadnezzar and his son Belshazzar who ruled over Babylon. The Israelites, having escaped the big waterfall and left wandering in the wilderness, were then often warned against having their hearts hardened, though they just as often succumbed. Even Jesus’ disciples, as they watched their teacher walking on the water, couldn’t avoid God the almighty dentist giving them each a whopping shot of Novocaine into their hearts and minds.
And last but not least (or really, perhaps a sign that it is the least), the ostrich is berated in the book of Job for forgetting wisdom and hardening her heart when it comes to caring for her young. I wonder what this poor bird ever did to deserve both flightlessness and chastisement. It’s a mystery. All of it.
It’s also more of a mystery when I realize that a very similar experience seems to have overtaken me lately. Maybe not even lately. Maybe for awhile. And when I think of my own lack of empathy and compassion and caring for my world and those around me, I also quickly realize that I don’t think I’m alone in this behavior. Sadly.
Being “wise to the ways of the world” seems to have taken on a new meaning. Wisdom and knowledge seem to carry with them a need for hardening, a need for fortification and girding against the hard truths of a difficult, difficult world. I can’t help but wonder if there doesn’t exist some strange irony in the fact that as technology and communication and globalization make our world ever smaller, they simultaneously make it more distant than ever.
Chastise me like that old ostrich, but sometimes I think maybe I was more caring with my head in the sand. In my faith tradition, we collected a special “mission offering” twice a year (Easter and Christmas), each in honor of the work done by two outstanding women, Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong. So twice a year we heard stories of other children in other parts of the world who didn’t have as much as we did, didn’t enjoy the privileges we enjoyed in our church or our homes or our schools. And so we were moved to give our allowances, to hold car washes and bake sales, to put our change in small cardboard boxes and walk the aisle and place them at the front of the church on the designated Sunday morning.
Oh sure, we did other things to help people other times, too. There was UNICEF at Halloween, the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon, Thanksgiving food drives, and youth trips to soup kitchens. But the awareness of the needs of others were infrequent. The awareness of the pain and suffering was tempered by time, by infrequency.
Not so today. Turn on any television news program, open any newspaper, read any media outlet print or online, and you can’t help but experience an assault on the senses, an assault on the heart, an unceasing bombardment of disaster, both natural and human-made. Tsunamis, cyclones, earthquakes and tornadoes leaves hundreds of thousands dead or orphaned or homeless. Senseless wars and genocide rage on around the world, leaving lives lost and disrupted. Insatiable greed and a constant quest for power seem to underlie so many of our decisions, individually and collectively. Like the walls of the Red Sea collapsing around us, it feels as if we are drowning in an inescapable barrage of a reality so harsh it is impossible to absorb.
And so for self-preservation I imagine, my heart hardens a little more with each story I read, each sad event I encounter, each angry exchange I witness or engage in, each injustice I see or take part in. It wears on my soul and my heart. I try to counter by seeking hope and peace (the anti-coagulates) in good works and the love of family and friends, in laughter and music and the miracle of baby birds on my porch. I try to maintain some sort of faith in a God that never in a million years hardened anyone’s heart and I pray that in time we will cease doing the same to ourselves.