The setting is the plains of Moab within easy eyesight of the Promised Land. And the people are tired of wandering. Moses has been their leader for over forty years, but he won’t be crossing the river. All present are second-generation pilgrims, and they are just about to claim their prize. Before they move any farther, though, Moses preaches a series of sermons to prepare his people for the future. As he wraps up his final sermon, he makes one of his most important points: The greatest danger his people will face is the stubbornness of their own hearts. He warns them of the poison of the bitter fruit that grows from within:
Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, “I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.“ (Deuteronomy 29:18-19)
Heart. The physical heart is the organ that pumps blood. Lots of it. About 5,000 to 6,000 quarts of blood a day. Every day of your life. Your heart will pump about six gallons of blood while you read this brief essay. If your physical heart grows stubborn, if it ceases to pump life-giving blood, you will die.
Spiritually, your heart is the center of your person. Your heart is the control center of your life. Your spiritual heart directs your spiritual life. You are called to love God with all of your heart(Deuteronomy 6:4-5) and to serve God from your heart (Deuteronomy 11:13). In order to do either, you need God to give you a new heart. You need him to replace your heart of stone with a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 11:19).
But if your new heart grows obstinate, if you say, I shall be safe though I walk in the stubbornness of my own heart,spiritual destruction is around the corner. If your heart grows cold or, worse, if it grows stubborn your life before God is lost.
What, then, are the indicators of a stubborn heart? And how do I know if my heart is growing obdurate, hard, and intractable? What are the marks of a stubborn heart?
First, a stubborn heart is casual about sin. The stubborn heart says, This sin is only a little one. At least I’m not ____. [And I fill in the blank with some sin that I don’t struggle with and congratulate myself that I’m not doing that. I say to myself, I waste time on video games, at least I don’t ____.] Truth be told, there are no little sins. The Puritan Philip Henry was right when he said, Sins are like circles in the water when a stone is thrown into it; one produces another. When anger was in Cain’s heart, murder was not far off.
Second, a stubborn heart thinks sinners can separate themselves from the sins they commit. A stubborn heart says,This sin is not really me; this sin is just something I do. This is the transaction in the heart of a Christian leader who embezzles money from his mission while soliciting donations or, of a pastor who cheats on his wife while preaching against infidelity. This is not me… it is just something I do. But is sin really just what you do and not an indication of what you have become? Thomas Guthrie, a Scottish pastor from the nineteenth century, called sin a painted temptress that steals our virtue, a murderess that destroys our life. He was right. Read the tantalizing tale in Proverbs 7 that shows how the stubbornness of a young man’s heart leads him to succumb to the temptations of sex outside the covenant of marriage. He thinks he is in for a great night of perfumed passion; he does not know that it will cost him his life (verse 23).
Third, a stubborn heart convinces itself, This sin is a passing phase. I’m working on it, and I’ll work through it. I remember talking with a man in Christian leadership who had developed and tolerated the sin of enjoying pornography. Lots of pornography. He was married and had children. He confessed to me his sin, but then he said, almost casually, Since it took me a long time to get to this place of being addicted to pornography, I have to assume it will take a long time to break this addiction. His plan for a gradual repentance, for a sustained enjoyment of the pleasures of sin in the meantime (Hebrews 11:25), is the sin of stubborn defiance. It says, I can enjoy this sin until I get sick of it. Then I will repent. God says, Fool! This night your soul is required of you! (Luke 12:20).
Fourth, a stubborn heart sees sin as a reward for obedience. There is a frightening, unconscious calculus that takes place in a calcifying heart: I’m a good person, I deserve a break from time to time, and a bottle of wine helps me to relax. Or I am a faithful giver, I tithe even more than 10 percent, so what is a little gossip here or there? And even, I do a lot of good, I give a lot of my time to help disciple people in my church, and I’ve been wronged by the very people I’ve cared for. So a little bitterness is my prerogative. John Owen, perhaps the greatest of the writing Puritans, said,One sin willingly lived in is as able to destroy a man’s soul as a thousand… Where God is not loved above all, He is not loved at all.
Is your heart stubborn? I know mine is, and I need your help. John Trapp (yes, another Puritan) said, If the best man’s faults were written on his forehead, it would make him pull his hat over his eyes. If the sins of my heart were on public display, well, you would spit in my face. And that is precisely why I need you. Not to spit in my face, but to point my face toward the Redeemer who both forgives my dark heart and changes it into his wonderful likeness. The writer to the Hebrews, who was not a Puritan, puts it nicely:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:12-13)
As people committed to God and to one another, let’s take care of one another’s hearts. Let us guard one another from the poison of bitter fruit, from the stubbornness of heart that would allow us to coddle our sins and say, I shall be safe nevertheless.