In the 1950s, psychologist began to study a disease that had a rather peculiar effect on the sufferer, and, to make the matter even more bizarre, it was almost exclusively found in the medical field. Nurses, doctors, and first responders all across the nation seemed to be becoming increasingly cynical. They were losing their sense of empathy for others not only in their professional lives but in their personal ones as well. For a field that works almost exclusively with incredibly vulnerable people, this proved to be a massive problem.
This disease became known as compassion fatigue. Caused by an overexposure to trauma, the men and women who had the disorder became used to experiencing constant crisis and stopped being able to empathize with those going through it. Through debriefings, counseling, and mental health checks, the effects of compassion fatigue can be diminished, but helping fields such as medicine, mental health, and social work still have incredibly high burnout rates, as people can not cope with what they constantly experience. They forced to either take on all of the pain or harden their hearts to the suffering around them.
We see an example of hardened hearts of a different kind in the religious leaders of Christ’s day. These were the men who honestly should have been the most caring, compassionate, and loving people in the community, providing for widows, orphans, and the needy as they were commanded, but, instead, they used their position to glorify themselves. That is why Christ condemned them so harshly saying, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?” (Matthew 12:34 NIV). They had been entrusted with the care of the flock, but instead of tending to and feeding them, they burdened them with rules that they themselves did not even keep. They set themselves up as gods, determining what was right and what was wrong and, as a result, God gave them over to their wickedness. He let their hearts become hardened as they insisted, and they did not accept Christ when He came.
They had been entrusted with the care of the flock, but instead of tending to them, they burdened them with rules that they themselves did not keep. They set themselves up as gods, determining what was right and what was wrong and, as a result, God gave them over to their wickedness. He let their hearts become hardened as they insisted, and they did not accept Christ when He came.
Jesus actually preached the Parable of the Sower on the same day that He spoke His earlier condemnation of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. (Matthew 13:1) It is even likely that the some of the Pharisees that He had spoken to earlier were still in this crowd when He gave spoke it. Before explaining the meaning of the parable to His disciples, He first told them that,
“This people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.”
(Matthew 13:15 NIV)
The hearts of the religious leaders had all been hardened and calloused. Like the soil that has been packed down on the trail, they could not take in the seed, and so the devil came and swallowed it up. It was not a matter of them doubting Christ, it was a matter of rejecting Him. He did not fit their picture of what the Messiah should look like, and so, they made all sorts of excuses for why He could not be it. Their hard hearts first rejected Him, and then, they rationalized it.
We too can experience this same hardness of heart in those we are trying to witness to and in ourselves. Just like the packed soil of the path did not become so overnight, neither do people’s hearts harden quickly. It takes immense, continual pressure over the course of years to harden the soil to that extent, where nothing can grow in it and no life is to be found within its boundaries. That is why compassion fatigue is such a good parallel for this. They are trampled under foot by the tragedies of life a countless number of times, and so, they refuse to open their hearts to anything. Hardened people are hurting people. But God has a solution.
I once heard a sermon opener years ago that has always kind of stuck with me. I am not entirely certain why, as it wasn’t anything really all that entertaining, but I guess God made it stick in my mind so I could share it. It spoke of a farmer who was offered a strip of land for pennies on the dollar on which He could farm. The only issue was that the strip of land consisted of entirely of a gravel road that was no longer in use. The farmer went ahead and purchased it anyways because it was such a great deal. He then set to work on it. He tilled and plowed the land over and over again until the earth became soft, then he planted and reaped a fantastic harvest out of this small strip of land.
While I know that isn’t necessarily the most stupendous story ever told, it still holds the truth to the cure for a hardened heart. The land needs to be plowed. The soil needs to be churned up and completely tossed on its head until it can accept the seed. That is the only way for it to penetrate the path, to take upend it. To take it to its wits end where it has nothing else to cling to but Christ alone.
We see an example of this in a story of a religious leader in Mark chapter 5. His name is Jarius, and while we know nothing about his past or what type of person he was, we do know that he was faced with a hopeless, helpless situation that took him to the end of himself. His daughter was sick and nearly dead. One can imagine that he went everywhere he possibly could for help, but none was to be found. The only fact in his life was that his daughter was dying and nothing could be done to save her.
By this point in His ministry, Jesus was attracting a considerable amount of scrutiny from the religious leaders, and it is hard to imagine that Jarius would not have been aware of this, considering Jesus had been in his general area long enough for Jarius to know where to find Him. Jarius would have known that going to Jesus for help would destroy his career, his reputation, and his prestige. That is probably why He did not go to Christ until she was literally minutes from death. Going to Christ was his last resort, so God took him to his worst case scenario.
God uses our utter desperation and hopelessness to form tender hearts. To churn the soil upside down, so that we might finally turn to Jesus. Once we reach the point where the candle of hope is burning so dim we can barely see it, and, then, it is snuffed out, we are forced to turn towards the Eternal Blazing Fire to save us. So God allowed the girl to fall into her sleep so that Jarius might then turn towards Jesus fully and see His infinite power.
So when we encounter hard hearts, that is how we need to pray. Not necessarily that God would bring horrible tragedy to their lives, but that God would plow the soil in whatever way He sees fit so that they might be open to the seed of the gospel. We also need to ask that God would continue to till the land in our own lives so that we might become more fruitful and trust in Him even more. We can trust that He will always work in our lives for the best, for He will not give him who asks for fish a snake or him who asks for bread a stone. (Matthew 7:9-10)
With the growing love of Christ,
“As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.“
Matthew 13:4 NIV
“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people”
Ephesians 1:18 NIV