To Soften the Heart (Mon. Dec. 21)

The word for today is “harden.”  In Hebrews 3:5-11, 17-19, we read of the apostle’s urgent plea that we should “hold fast our confidence” (3:6 and 3:14) and not “harden our hearts.” We should not falter lest we should forfeit our heavenly calling (vs. 3:10).

The apostle quotes the psalmist who recounts the rebellion of the Children of Israel in the wilderness (Psalm 95:8-11).  The psalm referred to the incident of “rebellion” when the Israelites “provoked” the Lord (Strong’s #4894, 191) and “tested” Him. They “challenged him to prove Himself” (Strong’s #3986, 196).  Because of the people’s contempt and Moses’ disobedience, God vowed that Moses would not bring the people into the Promised Land (Numbers 20:12).

Entering into God’s Rest

The psalmist puts God’s judgment into poetry: “The Lord swore… they shall not enter my rest.”  The word “abode” is the basis of the term “rest” in our reading (Strong’s 2663, 132).   “Rest,” therefore, connotes a sense of being at home where one can repose in safety.  The term refers to the Sabbath “rest” and the Israelites “rest” in the Promised Land from the struggles of the desert (Joshua 23:1)  (See the OSB fn. on Hebrews 3:7-11).

Using this metaphor, the apostle urges us to “labor” to enter into God’s “rest.”  As God labored to create the world and rested on the Sabbath day, so also the faithful should be “diligent,” that is, “make haste” (Strong’s #4704, 232) to come into the same kind of rest.  We should make every effort to come into that abode where we can cease from our labors.

What labors?  We may think of the labors of the “Blessed” who die in the Lord” and now “rest from their labors…” (Revelation 14:13-14).  Their works of love, mercy, and devotion are now complete, and they have blessed repose.  Or we may think of the “rest” from earthly cares and trials and temptations.

Partakers in the Heavenly Calling

What does it mean to enter into God’s rest?  Our reading says that it is to be a “partaker in the “heavenly calling” (vs. 3:1).  It is to being invited to “share in” the blessings that come from heaven and bring us to heaven (vs. 3:1).  Likewise, whomever God calls are  “partakers of Christ” and share in His life and His benefits (vs.3: 14).

We forfeit all of these blessings if we do not hold fast to our confession (vs. 4:14). That means we must not deny the “acknowledgment” or “profession” of our faith (Strong’s #3671, 179).  Likewise, we should “hold fast our confidence” (vs. 6).  We must sustain our boldness to speak out without hesitation (Strong’s #3954, 194).  And finally, we should “rejoice in our hope to the end” (vs. 6).  In keeping with the thought of the forthright witness to our faith, the word “rejoice” is better translated as “glorying” or even “boasting” of our hope.

Above all, we must beware of the hardening of our hearts (vs. 3:15).  In Greek, the word “harden” refers to “making stubborn” or “unbending (Strong’s #4645,  229). A hardened heart refuses to respond to the Spirit and closes itself off to the truth.  It shields itself against the Gospel, lest the mercy and goodness of God penetrate the soul.

The source of the hardness of heart can be extreme adversity such as the hunger and thirst of the Children of Israel in the desert.  It can come from the disappointment that turns to despair or an unwillingness to believe in what cannot be seen.  Its origin can be a spirit of pride, anger, revenge, resentment or hurt.

Does God cause hardness of heart as He did when the Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go free (Exodus 9:12)?  Does He have “mercy on those He has mercy and whom He wills He hardens” (Romans (9:25)?  The answer lies in the mystery of God’s will (Romans 9:20). Yet God is ever ready to hear our prayers.  If we find our hearts turning stony and cold, we must pray to God to fulfill His promise, “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).

For Reflection

Here is a story from the desert fathers.  Abba John once asked Abba Poemen about gaining the purity of heart.  But neither man knew the other’s language. At once, however, Abba Poemen began to speak in a tongue (by the Spirit) that Abba John could comprehend.  He said that a stone is hard and water is soft.  But if a water jar is hung above a stone and the water falls down drop-by-drop and drip-by-drip, it will wear away the hardest stone. So with the Word of God.  It is soft, and our hearts are hard.  But whoever hears the Word of God often opens His heart to Him.

Softening Our Souls

As our Nativity Fast comes to a close, we hear the Gospel that the Son of God left His heavenly throne to be born a tender child.  Our reading says, “Today if you will hear His voice, do not harden your heart…”  (vs. 7).  Now for a few days, the voice of our Heavenly Father can be heard–heard in the preaching of the Gospel, in church services, heard in hymns and songs, heard in the bright decorations that adorn our homes, heard in the cards we send to each other, heard in the bustle of preparations for Christmas in the day, and heard in the silence of the winter night.  In many ways, the sound of the glorious message of the Nativity of Christ falls on our hearts, drop-by-drop and drip-by-drip.  And it softens our souls.  Eventually, our hearts become as warm, gentle, kind, loving, and merciful as God is. May that happen to us during this holy season.





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