Written by Lori Neely, Administrative Assistant to the President, NTS, Kansas City, Missouri, USA
It was 1980 – the end of my freshman year at college. I sat down minutes before class started.
Dr. Marks walked in and made an exciting announcement – that is for a science professor: A volcano had erupted in the middle of Washington State.
Mount Saint Helens (MSH) had blown up. What? I was as excited as Dr. Marks!
Immediately Terri, a friend of mine sitting just a seat down the aisle, was in tears – she began to wail in class!
When the volcano erupted, a good chunk of the top of MSH’s blew off. Lava flowed for seventeen miles. Volcanic ash filled the air. Fifty-seven people were killed. Thousands and thousands of animals died. Infrastructure evaporated – hundreds of miles of highway and miles of railroads were wiped out. Hundreds of homes disappeared.
Teri told me later, that MSH was located near her home, and that she had spent a lot of time on MSH in summer camps – both as a camper and as a worker. Camps that were no more. Terri grieved the loss of the camp, the loss of one of her favorite places of spiritual growth and renewal. She also didn’t know about the fate of some of her close friends who lived at the camp. This was devastating news! I started to get…and share in…Teri’s grief.
It was a devastating loss! Terri’s favorite camp was covered with lava, hardening to stone.
The lava had ruined everything. The lava hardened anything for miles.
Things that harden…
Just as lava can harden anything to rock, the heart can also harden. When parts of a physical heart harden, it’s called calcification. Once a section of the arteries in a heart calcify, then the soft supple tissue becomes hard and brittle.
Small spots of calcification can be tolerated, but they also can continue to grow. The parts of the calcified heart never soften – they stay hard and brittle. This heart (referring to slide 7) has some real issues, and wouldn’t work very efficiently.
Physical hearts can calcify…our spiritual hearts also can calcify.
The Bible talks about the heart calcifying – well, the Bible uses terms that talk about the heart hardening to stone.
Job says that the crocodile’s heart is hard as stone (Job 41:24) – interesting. I love animals. God is the one who is saying here that the crocodile has a heart of stone…
Exodus has several verses, talking about Pharaoh’s hard heart, about him not letting the people of God go.
God Knows Human Hearts
Both the Old and New Testaments emphasize that God knows human’s hearts through and through. The heart is the place of decision for or against God. The heart is where decisions are made that lead to religious and moral choices. Psalms 44 and Romans 8 speak of God searching the human heart.
Matthew tells us how Jesus could see the heart: evil is kept harbored in the heart (Matt. 9:4); bad fruit is the product of an evil heart (12:34); adultery is committed in the heart before the overt deed (5:28); a whole inventory of wicked words, thoughts and acts has its origin in the heart (15:18–19, cf. 24:48); what we truly treasure is what we keep in our hearts (6:21); we are to love the Lord God with all of our hearts and with all our soul and with all our mind; the “pure in heart” are those who are especially blessed (5:8).
What about us? Can we be described as the “pure in heart?”
Or, are our hearts, like Terri’s Bible camp, covered over and hardened like stone? Do our hearts have points of calcification in them?
Let me tell you about my friend, Leo. Leo brought his family to church every Sunday, but then he avoided worship. Leo claimed that he had heard all of the messages, and knew everything the preacher was going to say. At one point, he had listened to the Word of God. His heart slowly grew to be hardened to God, to God’s word, and to God’s people. Really, Leo needed the transforming Word of God and the Body of Christ, but he avoided both.
My point, here, is that MSH doesn’t need to erupt to pour lava on our hearts. In fact, sadly, it’s all too easy for our hearts to have points of calcification…and it’s easy to feed these small points of calcification and for these small areas to grow bigger!
The People of Ezekiel’s Day
Let’s go to the Book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a prophet who lived six hundred years before Christ. The Bible says that the people of Ezekiel’s day were hard-hearted; what made them hard hearted? The fact is that they were not open to the message of God’s prophets. Ezekiel preached judgment and a harsh sentence on the Israelites. The Israelites’ had already lost their nation, their land. Now, if the Israelite’s didn’t repent, they would lose their beloved. These folks had a chance to repent and change their future! However, they chose not to listen to the Prophets; they chose to continue in their sinful ways! These people’s hearts were as hard as they come! Under God’s authority, it was because of this hard-heartedness that the people were first exiled into Babylon, and then their most cherished city, Jerusalem, was demolished, along with the special place of worship, the temple. Did the people become hard-hearted overnight? No…they made a few bad decisions…and then they made more and more.
Over time the things important to them were no longer Godly…but worldly. The people in Ezekiel’s day decided that they knew better than God. God told them not to worship other God’s. What did they do? They disregarded God’s word…and adopted the religious ways of the culture around them, and they were excited about these “other” religious festivals…in fact, the Bible says that entire families became involved in preparing for these festivals…they just seemed to really enjoy religious festivals.
They put a lot of energy into worshiping what they should not be worshiping. Frankly – God is a jealous God. The Israelites were unlike those around them. They are and were people of one God. They knew the first commandment God gave to them: thou shalt have no other God’s before me. There were consequences for the people of Ezekiel’s day. It seems to me that God continually seeks His people and gives them multiple times to see the errors of their ways before he imposes drastic consequences.
However, in the Book of Ezekiel, we find a time when God said enough is enough. Because the people would not listen to the prophets, because the people would not see the error in their own ways – God gave them huge consequences for their actions.
But even though the people were exiled – and even though Jerusalem and the temple were turned to rubble. … God offered them hope for their future. Let’s look at what was that glimmer of hope offered in a truly dark situation Ezekiel 11:19-20.
19 I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. 20 Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God.
Yahweh promises them a renewed relationship – but first, he has to do some “open heart” surgery that would give his people a new spirit, a soft and undivided heart. God had to figure out a way to soften the people’s hearts!
I. The first way to soften a hard heart is initiated by God: God promised to give his people an undivided heart – a heart focused to worship only the Lord our God.
When we become Christians, our hearts of stone are replaced with hearts of flesh that begin to respond to God’s Word. But sadly, before long, disobedience may creep in and our hearts become divided between pleasing God and pleasing self. Who do we want to please – God or self???
This divided heart needs to be re-focused. The change happens because God initiates a way for the change. How does God do this? Just like a surgeon has to work on an artery that has calcification – God has to perform a divine operation.
We come to God asking him to give to us at the same time we give to him. We surrender our will to His divine will. We empty our hearts of self, but this is only possible when there is a true loathing of personal sin as we deeply long to please God. See how Charles Wesley puts it:
Let earth no more my heart divide,
With Christ may I be crucified,
To thee with my whole soul aspire;
Dead to the world and all its toys,
Its idle pomp, and fading joys,
Be thou alone my one desire.
My will be swallowed up in thee;
Light in my light still may I see,
Beholding thee with open face;
Called the full power of faith to prove,
Let all my hallowed heart in love,
And all my ransomed life be praise.
II. God initiates the first step in heart softening by offering a single focused, undivided heart. The second step to softening our hearts is God’s promise of a new spirit.
a new spirit – 19 I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. (vs 19)
God’s new rūaḥ – spirit, or wind, gives the heart the desire and the ability to hold on steadfastly in willing obedience.” This is stick-to-it-ness – keep holding on – don’t give up – do the right thing! These are things God’s spirit helps us with. When Jesus came, he gave us the Holy Spirit…who is our counselor, our helper.
You may know that I have a grandson who is two. A while back, Luke saw a water fountain and walked up to it. I showed him where to push, and then demonstrated how to take a drink out of it. He was so excited – to push – to see the water – to drink the water! Wow! Look at this great way of drinking water! It was an “aha” moment for him! He’s like a little sponge ready to take in the next thing. He is living life with an open heart and an open mind. Two year old’s have an advantage there. My grandson Luke was open to this new idea. However, for most adults, the question is are we open to the Spirit’s leading in our lives…leadings that can lead to special “aha” moments…even special little serendipitous moments???
The gift of the Holy Spirit…and our acceptance of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives…is one of the most precious, gracious gifts we could ever want. The Spirit helps us be steadfast and obedient. The Holy Spirit works on those rough edges that each of us has…one step at a time, one day at a time.
A women wanted to landscape her yard, and decided one of her purchases would be an expensive tree. She planted it in a location protected from the winds so it would grow stronger. But a few years later the tree died. When she inquired why, an arborist told her that particular tree needed to be in the winds because it was the winds that made the tree stronger. Our trials, or winds, also make us stronger, too.
You are like that expensive tree. It is through the storms of life – and sometimes it is through some real tragedies – that we are changed – for better or worse. As Tom Nees has said, “We can hunker down in fear or we can vow to change the world for the better.” Trials and tribulations are the crucible of these learning experiences, refining our character, ushering us into a way of right living, keeping our hearts soft.
God promises to give us a new Spirit – the life-giving breath, a vital life into a very dead-like society. It’s like we are standing outside in our current drought and all of a sudden this amazingly cool breeze and soft, gentle rain comes along and refreshes your entire being! That is what Ezekial meant by putting a new spirit within me
III. We are using Ezekiel 11 as our guide to learn how to soften our hearts. God promised an undivided heart. God promised a new spirit. Our final point is that God has promised to change our calcified hearts –into transformed hearts of flesh.
So what is our goal? To not have a hard heart, but to have a soft heart? How about we seek after God’s own heart like David did?
God’s heart beats with a depth of compassion that is beyond human understanding. He is a loving and gracious God.
The heart of God is open to us. His pleadings and promises can leave no doubt that there is mercy with him for those with hard hearts.
God does not do bypass operations; his surgery is much more radical.
According to the Bible, he takes away the stony heart—the one that is blocked, hard and unresponsive to God—and gives a new one!
God will give us a heart of flesh – a soft heart – when we trust in the Lord Jesus.
Some of us have had some very difficult life circumstances. These are what I call MSH events — when devastating events happen to us…events that pour hot lava on our worlds, devastating them and then encrusting our hearts with hardened rock. These happenings can make it easy for our soft hearts to harden. For some of us, hot lava has been poured over our entire soul. We work diligently to try to figure out how to live as soft hearted but struggle. But we can overcome with God’s help!
Geologists tell us that the hardest rock is igneous, one which is formed from the lava of volcanos. This kind of rock stays hard forever…The Israelites hearts had been hard for a very long time, and it was going to take something jarring (like an exile) to pull them from their extremely hard-hearted ways. God knew the only way to change them was to pull them from their comfortable surroundings and allow them to be exiled.
For others of us, we have been working for a while at softening our hearts, working through some of those points of calcification. God has already done some major arterial surgery within us…blasting away the calcification.
None of us are ever done with the “work” involved here. We have to be careful to not let the hardening of our spiritual arteries continue, and we need to pray for God’s transforming power to continue to work on these spots in us.
To truly have a transformed heart, it still needs to be grafted into the community of Christ. Jesus said that he was the vine and we are the branches. This gift of life on God’s vine is an important gift. If you have never accepted this gift, take this opportunity and do it today! God offers us a relationship we can respond to. This is the end result of a softened heart – a renewed relationship with the Father – a reconnection into the community of faith – such an amazing gift!
Because God is God, and God is a God of hope, we can read in the book of Ezekiel that there is hope even in the darkest, hardest times. God promises hope through a renewed relationship with His people. God first promised an undivided heart. God promised a new spirit. God has promised to change our calcified hearts – whether we have large or small spots of calcification – into transformed hearts of flesh. The result is a renewed relationship with the Maker of the Universe!
I want to close with a story of a friend who had a hardened heart. Let’s call him Frank. Several years ago he served as a pastor and got caught up in the power of his position. Over time, he ended up getting a big head…and felt like he was above the law…and ended up crossing lines that should not have been crossed. Like the people in Ezekiel’s day, he started off making one bad decision…and then just kept making them. He ended up having an affair, all the while ministering as a pastor of a large church, while serving on prestigious boards of highly praised community organizations. You see, he got caught up in the power and thought he was above what he knew was the right thing to do. Frank’s heart became hard to the blatant sin of the situation. His heart became very divided!
After a while the affair was discovered. The consequences of the sin destroyed his position of leadership and stripped him of his dignity. He resigned from this church, turned in his ministerial credentials, and had to start over in a totally different career path. He was exiled out of the power he had accrued in his pastoral community. He was shamed, and felt ashamed of his actions. Just like the Israelites, Frank faced the jarring consequences of his actions.
Not too long after that, Frank realized the division of his heart and regained his focus on Christ, and began pursuing the heart of God. His heart was no longer divided. He was allowing the Spirit to lead him by being obedient and steadfast. He learned to live (again) as a follower of Jesus – this time in word and in deed. His hardened heart grew soft and has been transformed. He refocused his attention and turned back to God; he has allowed the Spirit to work in him. It’s been a decade now…and there is a notable softness to his heart today.
I love this story of transformation! I love that I know a real person that has totally blown apart his life by sin and destruction…but because he repented – changed his ways – and began living a righteous life, now, once again, I can say that he has rebuilt integrity and character. He still is full of regret and so disappointed in himself. But people can become whole again through the transforming process of God softening their calcified hearts! Tragedy in our lives can turn to transformation! His trials were the crucible to refine his character…
For every Frank…I can think of several individuals who are – what my friend, Janet Benefiel, calls her “lost boys.” (okay, we can’t leave out the gals here). “Lost Boys” are those that Janet has on a special prayer list. People who have moved outside of the will of God and continue to choose to stay there. These are folks who continue to yield to the ramifications of their sinful actions…and they kind of spin their wheels in life. They are going nowhere…
Earlier I mentioned my friend, Leo, who avoided worship. God bless his soul. Leo has had “hard hearted” issues that have totally effected his life. He had closed off himself so much that at one point he bought a sail boat – he was so undisciplined in the way he lived life that he just tried to run away from all of his problems on the open sea! Though at first it may sound like an adventure, it really wasn’t. He lived his life for years running away from authorities and hiding from his family and community. As far as I know, he never allowed his hard heart to be soften by the spirit of God…and his family and friends all knew it. He would fit on Janet’s lost boy list…
The medical world has not figured out how to “decalcify” our hearts…but God has, does, and will. If we respond to God…God can get us off of the “lost boys” list…
Today we can look at photos of the area around MSHs. Terri’s Bible camp is still gone, but something new has grown. The area has been transformed in the thirty some odd years since that devastation.
The area is now growing vegetation and has reopened to the public for hiking, so that people can see MSH’s renewed beauty.
As we, the church, pray together now, I would like you to consider some of the specific areas of calcification that you might know you need to address. You are also invited to name off names of your own list of “lost boys” (or girls). If you would like, you are welcome to come up here and pray.
Let’s bow our heads and begin our time of prayer together.
Father, each of us is on our own journey with you. Each of us faces our own unique temptations that want to pull us from being pure in heart. We ask you to look into each of our hearts. Help us see what may be areas of calcification in our life that we ourselves are blinded to. Transform us. May we be tender hearted. May we seek right relationship with you, a truly life-giving relationship, with all of our hearts. May we be undivided in the focus of our lives. May we have open hearts willing to listen to your Spirit’s guiding. Amen.