Recently my church offered a time of prayer for healing. As I waited for my wife, who was praying for someone, an elder approached me and asked if I myself needed prayer.
I thought I didn’t, but my heart knew. Immediately I said yes, and when I was asked what to pray for, the words rushed out: “My hardened heart.”
I realized just how badly my hard heart did need healing prayer. After a wonderful advent season, as 2016 began I had started to feel deluged by political speeches, social media debates, and “awareness” campaigns over injustices about which I can do little, except worry over how little I can do. At such times, my old patterns of cynicism, sarcasm, and apathy tend to start sneaking back into my heart. After all, my flawed logic assumes, if I act superior or uncaring, then all of the bad things can’t bother me.
But this assumption is not true; those things still do bother me. And so my heart unconsciously hardens. I build a wall against the world—a defense against watching humanity make one bad choice after another, with evil flooding in wherever goodness seems weak or absent. At times I‘ve tried to deflect my feelings with humor, but sometimes that can offend people too. So withdrawal and apathy seem to provide better protection from the overwhelming feeling that the world is spinning out of control.
I begin to see myself as a detached, objective observer, sitting above other humans and mocking them as idiotic Neanderthals. However, my passion and emotion always seem to slip out as sarcasm, passive-aggressive put-downs, and biting comments. Though I try to stuff it inside, I seethe until I reach a boiling point. Then, I launch.
Unfortunately, the sinful choice to withdraw and harden my heart has serious side effects. The heart, as strong as we think it is, cannot completely close itself off from others. It cannot create an unbreachable wall. We angrily try to make sure no more pain gets in, but we cannot prevent our own corrosive bitterness and aggression from leaking out.
I’m guessing this is not God’s intended modus operandi for Christ-followers.
After all, when Jesus approached Jerusalem for the final time, scripture says that he “wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes’” (Luke 19:41-42, NIV).
What brought on Jesus’s deep, unexpected emotion?
Simply put, his heart broke for the people.
In Jerusalem at that time, the Jews were hard-pressed on every side – taxed, abused, and marginalized in their own land by Roman occupiers. Seeking freedom from Rome, some Jews—one could even call them terrorists—issued stealth attacks against both the Roman oppressors and their Jewish collaborators. The city was in great turmoil and unrest.
But that wasn’t all. In addition to external oppression from Rome, the Jews also faced internal oppression from their own spiritual leaders, who had created a huge body of religious regulations governing every detail of life. Breaking just one small rule, intentionally or not, could lead to serious consequences and penalties – so everyone lived in constant worry and fear, trying to follow all of the rules. In about forty years, Jerusalem would be razed and its temple destroyed. And within a week, Jesus’s own fellow Jews, who would at first praise him as their king, would turn on him and kill him.
Yet his heart broke for them.
Me? Most of the time, I just want to shake my head in disgust and brush the dust from my shoes as I desperately seek a saner, less stressful life. “The world is going to hell in a hand basket,” I say to myself from my lofty perch. “Screw it. Let them. World, meet sin. Good luck. I will have no part of it.”
But I’m pretty sure my response is not the right one. I don’t need a tough, hard heart. I need a broken one—one that weeps for my city, my country, my world. A hardened heart wants to fight; a broken heart wants to heal. A hardened heart is selfish and stands apart to judge; a broken heart is selfless and jumps in to help.
So how can a hard heart be softened – or, better yet, broken?
Once I understood the process my heart took to become rock-hard, I realized that I cannot soften it through will-power. That’s what prayer is for. Only prayer and repentance can undo the damage.
In the last year, some political and spiritual leaders – even some Christian ones – have implied that praying is basically doing nothing. But these skeptics are blinded to the supernatural power found in prayer.
Prayer acknowledges our helplessness. It is a concession that despite all of our supposed knowledge, we cannot fix our problems but can only present them to a good and holy God and ask for his help.
Prayer includes our confession. It is an admission that we are—I am—responsible for breaking this world, which God created as good, and it forces us to see things through God’s eyes instead of our own.
Prayer restores our unity. It is an affirmation that I am not apart from the world God created; instead I am involved in it, both as part of the problem and as a living reflection of grace. And I definitely can’t reflect grace if my heart is hard.
Every heart must be broken. God can get us there in infinite ways—some very forceful and painful. However, having experienced some of those other ways, I do not recommend them. I think prayer is God’s preferred method.
Because becoming like Jesus requires that our hearts break over the world, seeing it the way he saw Jerusalem.
This is the world he died for.
This is the world he loves.
This is the world he invites me to love as he loves.
And that invitation to love starts with prayer.