“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them,”
(Matthew 13:14-15; quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10)
One of the most frustrating problems that evangelists and others who strive to encourage their brethren and those not in the fold to obey God is when preaching seems ineffective. You keep trying to encourage an unbeliever to come to worship or to think about God yet he never does. You know that the Christian who is young in the faith is acting irresponsibly and not according to the Gospel and yet he dismisses your encouragement. You know that a “strong” brother has some sin or poor attitude in his life and you preach on it; he certainly “amens” your lesson and congratulates you on it, perhaps even saying “preach it, brother!” or some such phrase, yet his attitude does not change. All of these reactions are due to the type of attitude condemned by both Isaiah and Jesus as seen in the Scripture above. These people suffer from dulled hearts, and this attitude is perhaps one of the hardest to overcome and most insipid in the Lord’s Body today. They hear your words but do not understand (or, perhaps, want to understand) that you are speaking to them; they see what you relate to them, but they do not want to perceive its relation to themselves. Let us now examine how this attitude manifests itself with persons of various spiritual levels.
The dull heart is often seen in unbelievers and members of denominations. Such persons often have either no interest in spiritual things or are content with the “spiritual pellets” they receive from their sporadic or even habitual attendance at denominational services. Many expect God to just “accept them as they are,” or believe in some god who will save everyone because he “loves” them. Many people are lulled into complacency by what they hear from their “pastor” and think that they are just fine the way they are. The idea that they would need to change their habits and put away any and all sin in their life is very uncomfortable for such persons, and it is always easier to either ignore the message or to rationalize one’s beliefs and actions. The philosophy of relativism has done much to further this pattern of thinking, for anyone when confronted with the Gospel truth that they are perishing will simply say that “well, what’s right for you is not necessarily what’s right for me,” and they will continue on in their sins freely. Jesus has spoken regarding those people who refuse to hear the Gospel or who attempt in any way to bring you down and to hinder your light and what you should do in Matthew 7:6 and Matthew 10:14:
“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.”
And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.
We must constantly remember that most people will not obey the Gospel and will not want to depart from the pleasures of sin (Matthew 7:13-14); all we can do is spread the Word and pray for increase. If we have preached the Gospel to dying souls and they refuse their salvation, then they will be judged for their decisions and we are held blameless.
We also see this attitude appear some times in Christians who are young and/or weak in the faith. For many Christians, especially those in their teenage years and their early twenties, it is difficult to avoid the constant temptations of sin, especially when the conscience has not yet been fully trained to reject any temptation for sin. Paul recognizes in 1 Corinthians 8:7 that it is easy for a younger and/or weaker Christian to stain him or herself with sin since their conscience is not yet properly trained. In these situations we must work diligently to encourage these younger and/or weaker Christians to do the right thing: sometimes we might have to go to them directly or find someone to whom the person will listen to more easily to encourage them about these things. If we know that perhaps they are being influenced by friends in the world, we may want to encourage them to hang out with more godly people. Perhaps they will still not listen and continue in their practices; this is lamentable, indeed, and we must still attempt to encourage them to obey God, but we also need to remember that Jesus has told us that some of our sown seed will be choked out by thorns, as Jesus explains in Matthew 13:22:
“And he that was sown among the thorns, this is he that heareth the word; and the care of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful.”
It is unfortunate that we will lose some to the world, but as long as we have done everything we can to encourage them, we shall be held blameless in this matter.
Perhaps the most lamentable and least excusable examples of this attitude of dull hearts is found in those Christians who are generally considered “mature” and “strong.” Some times these Christians have been deceived by Satan and have deceived themselves and teach falsely regarding the Gospel; many, however, develop a feeling of complacency and find preaching and exhortation no longer applicable to them. These Christians are comparable to the nation of Israel throughout its history: they would act piously and believe themselves to be spiritually correct and yet they killed the prophets and even the Christ Himself in their ignorance and complacency. All of us have been commanded the following in Hebrews 3:12-13:
Take heed, brethren, lest haply there shall be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God: but exhort one another day by day, so long as it is called To-day; lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Satan tempts all Christians and all Christians at some point do fall for some temptation; the difference is that some have humble, soft hearts and will recognize their shortcomings and constantly strive to better themselves while others will become swelled with complacency and/or pride and will not consider himself in sin or in the wrong. Preaching about his error will not move him to repentance, and it is not because he disagrees with you: he simply does not apply the lesson to himself. He is “above” criticism, rebuke, or error; he would never actually say such things but his actions demonstrate them.
What can we do with such persons? We must try diligently to encourage them to examine themselves honestly and objectively, as we are commanded in 2 Corinthians 13:5:
Try your own selves, whether ye are in the faith; prove your own selves. Or know ye not as to your own selves, that Jesus Christ is in you? unless indeed ye be reprobate.
If they cannot or will not examine themselves and their relationship to God honestly and objectively they will probably never change. We must constantly pray for them and encourage them to do what is right.
The sad irony of this message is that there may be people who are reading this right now who may not consider their actions sin despite what the Bible says or who perhaps may completely agree with the sentiments expressed but do not find it applicable to themselves. These are the people who truly need to read, understand, and apply this article to their lives, yet they will walk away still in their sins or still in their complacency. If you are reading this, I charge you with the following: do you believe that this message applies to you? If you don’t, to whom is it addressed? Do you have need for growth in Christ? Are you growing in Christ? If you think that this message does not apply to you then you are guilty of everything expressed in this article. If you think it’s addressed to non-believers or to Christians younger and/or weaker than yourself, you’re certainly right, but it also assuredly is addressed to you. If you think that God will overlook the things you do not want to give up that He calls sin, well, think again (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). And finally, if you think that you do not need to grow anymore as a Christian, then you’ve already fallen.
I pray that to many of you the last paragraph seemed strange, and that you automatically knew that the message applied to you, and that you do need to grow as a Christian and that you know– and act accordingly– that God will not tolerate any sin. Your heart is soft and open, receptive to God’s message, and you will not lose your reward if you endure. Whatever you do, keep that soft and open heart so that you are never hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Many will find this article to be very pessimistic and cynical since the declaration has been made that most people have this type of attitude and that little can change it. The charge, I fear, is in many ways true, since the problem under discussion is a problem of attitude, and I dare say that one of the hardest things to encourage a person to do is to encourage them to change an attitude. Humans have a nasty tendency to hate being wrong and will always attempt to justify or rationalize their error; this hardening of the heart is something that can be undone only by the heart’s owner. Many in the Lord’s Body will never think that they themselves have this problem, and will not repent. If we have read our Bibles, should we be surprised? Hundreds of thousands of Jews in Galilee and Judea witnessed the ministry of Jesus Christ and immediately after His crucifixion only perhaps two hundred persons actually believed in Him. We have the specific situation of John 6: Jesus feeds 5,000 people, yet after He preached the Gospel truth about Himself and the Father, only twelve remained. Why would these Jews not believe in Him? He preached to them things that they did not want to hear. They would have to change their lifestyle and repent; they would not understand. They would have to lose their position of exaltedness because of their religious standing; they would not perceive. Many feared that the Romans would take over their land and strip them of all power; therefore, their heart grew dull. As it was then, so it is now. People will hear the message, but since it would cause them to change their lives, they will not understand. People will perhaps see that the Christian needs to live by God’s standards and that the Christian needs to constantly grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus, but they will not perceive its relevance to themselves.
The conclusion, then? Be considered as one of the disciples, of whom Jesus said in Matthew 13:16-17:
But blessed are your eyes, for they see; and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, that many prophets and righteous men desired to see the things which ye see, and saw them not; and to hear the things which ye hear, and heard them not.”
Ethan R. Longhenry