This weekend, I had the perfect setup for a stereotypical social justice Christian sermon. I was preaching on wrestling with God’s anger. My primary text was Mark 3:1-6 where Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the sabbath. Verse 5 says, “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at the hardness of their hearts.” The lectionary Old Testament passage was Isaiah 58, in which God berates Israel for trying to win his favor by fasting when their lives are unjust. So I was all ready to talk about those religious elitists with hard hearts whom I’ve always heroically stood up against. But then God confronted me with something. It turns out that I’ve got a hard heart too. My audio is here with some additional commentary below. If you want to auto-download these sermons to your phone, sign up for my podcast.
How do we get a hard heart? I think there are two primary emotions behind it: fear and anger. In my sermon, I used Jack Nicholson’s character Melvin Udall from As Good As It Gets as an example of someone who had a hard heart because of fear. Well it’s not fear exactly. Melvin has severe OCD and social anxiety despite the fact that he somehow writes brilliant novels. I think it’s important to be aware of the fact that other people who are crabby with us are often emotionally terrorized and miserable underneath the surface. I know that my own hard-hearted-ness toward other Christians whom I dismissively label as fundamentalists is partly derived in my own spiritual insecurity.
Another way people get hard hearts is when they’ve been hurt or treated unfairly and now they’re angry about it. The example I gave of someone like this was Tom Cruise’s character Frank “T.J.” Mackey in the movie Magnolia. Frank’s father abandoned him and his mother who was dying of cancer when Frank was a teenager. Frank has channeled his rage into a misogynistic “pick-up artist” self-help course in which he teaches men how to get laid without having to commit to a relationship. A lot of times the people who hurt us and make us angry are long gone, and we “retaliate” against their mistreatment by taking it out on other people.
The thing that God helped me recognize this weekend is that having a hard heart doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a jerk to everybody. People with hard hearts can be jovial and playful and gregarious with their friends. To have a hard heart just means that there is somebody in the world whom you don’t treat with dignity because you don’t respect their humanity. Somebody whom you see as an enemy rather than a child of God with a different opinion or a different set of priorities. All of us are hard-hearted toward somebody. And it makes God no less angry than Jesus was angry looking around at the hard hearts of the Pharisees in Mark 3.To be hard-hearted not only means that we disrespect someone else’s humanity. It also has to do with our relationship to God. When you are hard-hearted, you are forgetting about your desperate need for God’s mercy. To be hard-hearted is basically to say I don’t need you God. I can praise you and say all kinds of correct, pious things about you, but I don’t need you. Every single one of those Pharisees who hardened their hearts toward Jesus and the man with the withered hand was in need of some kind of healing themselves. They could have asked Jesus to heal them too, and He would have done it.
God is mad at our hard hearts not only because we treat other people inhumanely but because we’re resisting His healing. Paul says in Ephesians 2:14 that Jesus has torn down the dividing wall between us. Well sometimes He has to use a battering ram to take down the wall in our hearts. But the wrath that tears down our walls is always for the sake of love. God simply wants us to live under His mercy so that we can recognize each other as fellow sinners under mercy and treat each other with the kindness that we have received from God.
Now I’m realizing after some follow-up conversation that there’s a qualifier I need to put on this. I don’t want to say that God is angry at people who have been abused and do not feel like they can forgive their abuser. I’ve had a couple of conversations with people after the sermon. What I said in one conversation is that it’s okay to hate Satan, and what your abuser did to you was done to you by Satan. That’s who that person was in that moment in time. Whether or not there’s another side to them doesn’t matter if what you experienced was the hand of Satan. So if that’s helpful, use it; if not, it’s just theological blather that you can disregard. Bottom line is God wants for all of us to be healed of the poison of hate; Satan wants for us to all be filled with hate and pay forward the hateful things that we have suffered to other people. We all need to open our hearts to God’s healing love, and follow that road wherever it takes us, just trusting that God can make us whole again.