Harden Not Your Hearts
Harden Not Your Hearts

Harden Not Your Hearts

First Sunday of Advent. Fr Matthew Jarvis reassures us of the possibility of repentance.

There are difficult words in our first reading from Isaiah, when he complains: ‘Why, Lord, leave us to stray from your ways and harden our hearts against fearing you?’ God seems to have hardened our hearts, and even abandoned his people to evil: ‘For you hid your face from us and gave us up to the power of our sins.’ How is that possible? Is God not our Father, our Redeemer?

This is a classic problem. The great Christian educator Origen, in the 3rd century, pointed out that many faithful people are perturbed by Biblical passages about God ‘hardening hearts’, because they think this means we are not truly free. In a world of pagan gods and Gnostic heresies, where the notion of Fate was widespread, Origen sought to reassure Christians that God has truly liberated us from any fatalism. So how can Isaiah say that God hardens hearts?

To understand this we need to go back to the Exodus, the foundational reference being to Pharaoh’s hardened heart when he refused to let the Hebrew slaves go free. What does the text actually say? Interestingly, sometimes it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 9:12; 10:20,27; 11:10; 14:4), while other times it says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exodus 8:15,32), or simply that his heart was hardened (Exodus 7:22; 8:19; 9:7). So, was Pharaoh free not to harden his heart, if God was hardening it anyway?

Not at all. The varieties of expression in Exodus seem to be inviting us to go deeper with this problem, to investigate how the freedom of Pharaoh has an interplay with God’s freedom. This is a vast topic, but a simple way to get some handle on it is to realise that there are two different ways that Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. When Pharaoh hardens his own heart, this is a Biblical way of saying he freely set his will on something evil and refused to change back to the good. He refused to have compassion on the Hebrew slaves and was determined to maintain his own power and glory. Notice that hardening his heart blinds him to reality: he is blind both to the suffering of the slaves and also to the miracles that God is working in his land.

Something very different is meant when we read that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Here we don’t mean that God turned Pharaoh’s will towards something evil. Instead, we mean that God allows Pharaoh’s evil to get stuck in its own rut. Effectively, God says to Pharaoh: ‘So you are determined to want this evil thing? Fine, have it your way.’ And since evil is inherently self-defeating – remember, a kingdom divided against itself will fall (Mt 12:25) – God will win glory over Pharaoh by the sheer logic of Pharaoh’s own stubborn wickedness.

We know that God is continually calling all sinners to repentance and he wants none to perish: ‘O that today you would listen to his voice; harden not your hearts’, as we say daily in the Invitatory Psalm. But in his providence, God can allow a sinner to be temporarily fixed in his or her evil designs in order later to manifest God’s greater glory and love for all. Thus Pharaoh’s stubbornness leads to greater miracles and the crossing of the Red Sea, a prefiguration of our Baptism. Another case would be Pilate’s refusal to release Jesus, leading to the Crucifixion, in which we see the ultimate revelation of God’s sacrificial love for humanity.

So, as Advent begins, let’s hold fast to our total freedom in Christ. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free’ (Gal 5:1). We must use this freedom well. We are waiting, ‘waiting for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed’ in his final glory. We do not know when, and so we must ‘stay awake!’

This is by no means a passive inertia. We are to be active in our waiting, like servants ‘each with his own task’. At the very least, this means we must be active in wanting our Lord to return, and calling upon him in our hearts. Isaiah speaks for all the people when he says apologetically to God: ‘No one invoked your name or roused himself to catch hold of you.’ God will do all the necessary work of salvation in us, but we must want him, desire him, and invite him in. God is constantly softening our hearts – if only we would let him!

Readings: Isaiah 63:16-17,64:1,3-8 | 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 | Mark 13:33-37

Image: Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh: An Allegory of the Dinteville Family, from Wikimedia Commons

Fr Matthew Jarvis is Assistant Chaplain at St Albert's, Edinburgh.

Comments (1)

  • Alejandro Clausse

    As Matthew says, the interplay between God’s action and our free will is a classic and not so easy topic. It is actually “the” great antinomy that underlies in many theology’s controversies of all ages: the Origenist crisis, the Reformation’s total depravity claim, the Calvinist predestination, the Augustine-Pelagius debate, among others. Arguably, the most famous one is the debate between Jesuit Molinists and Dominicans in 1581. It is worth noting that officially the Catholic Church has still not given a final word closing the matter, but She has only limited the extreme positions (e.g., Pelagianism). To my knowledge, this is still an open theme, like any dogma worth of the name; because, as Timothy Radcliffe wonderfully said in his talk “Free and Tolerant Because I am Catholic”, true dogmas are always open (
    Matthew’s presents here one of the explanations that theologians have worked out for us, especially in the Dominican orbit. I like it, of course, but I would like to say that it still leaves unresolved paradoxes that make it difficult to digest, at least for me. This interpretation, for example, can lead us to an image of God “using” hard-hearted people for the greater good. But then, this contradicts the teaching of God’s unconditional love for all, for it will be for all except the hard-hearted ones. The latter indeed might have support in some of Jesus’s phrases towards the priests of Israel and his absolute condemnation of the sins against the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, since unrepented sinners are the poorest of the poorest (because they lack the most fundamental thing of all), and Jesus clearly states that He came especially for the sinners, one remains uncomfortable with the explanation.
    Ultimately, it seems that the matter revolves around the problem of free will and desires: it seems that we have free will to seek the fulfilment of our desires, but it is also apparent that we do not have free will to produce our desires, because we cannot desire pure evil. Actually, I think that the theology of desire is a very interesting theme to focus academic efforts. Of course, many have already done excellent works on this matter, but I believe that there is much space undiscovered yet.
    At any rate, I would like to thank very much Fr. Mathew for his very interesting and moving homily.


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