Some of my favorite memories of my Dad are from when I was almost six years old. I remember that during a time when our family was hosting a fellowship in our home, which always opened with prayer, I always wanted to pray cuddled up in my dad’s lap (when I could be convinced to sit still, anyway).
To this day, when I think back on those vivid memories, what strikes me the most is the reason I wanted to sit in my dad’s lap: his tenderness. The tenderness with which he held me was a rare treat, considering he worked long hours to support our family, and I was usually off chasing the cat or playing with my brother in the evenings after my dad came home. But even at five years old, I knew how deep and important my father’s tenderness was—and I craved it. I think that’s why I never had much trouble imagining God as a tenderhearted Father; I had a good example in my own life.
If you get out and about long enough, though, you’ll learn one lesson pretty quickly: tenderness isn’t something the world encourages in its inhabitants.
Even if it’s not something we’ve experienced for ourselves, most people don’t have to go any further than immediate family or a close circle of friends to find someone who’s been told they’re “too nice,” “too cheerful,” “too forgiving,” or “too optimistic.” It’s a backwards quality of the fallen world we live in that these traits, which are lauded positively in the Bible (Eph. 4:32; Prov. 17:22), are often wielded as weapons against those with an approach to life arbitrary from the masses. In a world where being cynical, cold, self-serving—or hardhearted—are supposed “qualities” we’re told to aspire toward, being “too good” puts you on the freakish fringe of the hopelessly endangered. Like animals in a zoo, we’re carefully watched through the bars as the world waits to see how our tender hearts will be shredded.
“Just you wait,” they say, “something will happen to turn you cold.”
That’s certainly possible. It’s what happened to the Israelites in the desert, even before they wandered for 40 years. It happened to several of the kings of Israel, too, drifting in a kind of spiritual wilderness of their own making. But hardheartedness isn’t something God wants for us. It isn’t a fate He’s marked out for us as part of our life here on earth, or in the future everlasting. That means it’s possible to stay tenderhearted, even in a world on fire.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that, contrary to popular opinion, it’s necessary in order for us to thrive.
The Physical Side-Effects of Hardheartedness
If you look up hardheartedness in a Thesaurus, you will have no want of synonyms. Words like “apathy,” “brutishness,” “callousness” and “ruthlessness” all stand out on the page. Incidentally, synonymous with “hardhearted” in at least one thesaurus is the word “satanic.” While that may be a stretch in some regards, in others, it’s not a far cry from the truth. Satan certainly wants us to harden our hearts—not just for the spiritual ramifications that weigh us down and benefit him, but for the physical consequences as well.
Have you ever wrestled with something so much that you felt physically ill? You couldn’t sleep, your appetite dropped, or you experienced bizarre symptoms that crept out of nowhere—chills, stomach cramps, headaches, a laundry-list of symptoms attributable to seemingly nothing. Often when we hold onto grudges, bitterness, and unforgiveness, these things manifest themselves in distracting, disturbing, physical ways. In contrast, those who work in deliverance ministry—helping others to find freedom from spiritual oppression through forgiveness, deliverance from demons, etc.—have seen cases of people who had physical maladies rectify themselves after the individual let go of a grudge, forgave a hurt heaped on them years ago, or otherwise released their bitterness.
Hardheartedness isn’t something that’ll show up as a dark spot on an MRI, but there’s no mistaking its physical manifestations in this world. And as is the case perhaps more often than we truly fathom, the physical and spiritual are deeply bound up in one another.
The Spiritual Side-Effects of Hardheartedness
Ephesians 4:32 is a verse that’s always stood out to me, but never so much as when I started to consider the benefits of being tenderhearted. The world is quick to tell us how we’ll be trampled for our tenderness, but our focus should, as always, be on what God says will result from our behavior.
Ephesians 4:32 (REV)
And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God also forgave you, the ones in Christ.
What strikes me about this verse now is that three things follow in rapid succession, joined together by a common thread: be kind; be tenderhearted; forgive. Certainly not words God chose idly—He never does. So, there’s a correlation between the concepts of kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness; and these attributes portray just one angle of how God behaves toward us.
Kindness and tenderheartedness are easy to join together. We rarely think of kindness being done in a cruel way (usually that would be a selfish or evil act masquerading as kindness, to the benefit of the doer rather than the receiver). But regarding tenderheartedness and forgiveness—how do those two go together?
While I was pondering this verse, the image came to me of a city behind a wall. As a fantasy fiction writer, I have a deep, deep love of castles. One of my favorite things about castle architecture is the curtain wall—the outer ring of stone, usually fairly high and topped with walkways, joining turret to turret on the corners of the wall. These curtain walls were the first line of defense, where archers could perch, guards could look out, and vats of hot liquid could be mounted and tipped over onto unsuspecting enemies below. More than anything, the wall was meant to fortify the castle from attack; it was the best means our ancestors had for keeping things out that they didn’t want in their castle.
Think about a hardened heart as a castle behind a wall. Nothing gets in! One becomes fortified, untouchable, their inner gates barred to all. But also, nothing gets out, in the sense that anger, shame, grudges, feelings of unforgiveness, fear, and doubt all stay bottled up inside of us. The only way they see escape is when we lash out at others from the deep places of our own hurt. In that regard, the hard heart isn’t armored, no matter what we think. In fact, it’s more like a cage—one we don’t even realize we’re trapped inside of, because we chose to walk into it and shut the door behind us.
This isolation of our hearts, this entrapment behind the wall, can be like an enemy siege on a stronghold; one of the tactics often used when a king and his people retreated behind their castle walls was to simply wait, or “to starve them out,” with the understanding that eventually the people inside the wall would either surrender, or die of disease, starvation, or madness.
Similarly, the Devil wants us trapped behind the hard walls of our own hearts. He would love nothing more than for us to stay put, festering in our own suffering, until we surrender or waste away.
In contrast, when a heart is tender, things can get inside. This can be dangerous, yes—sometimes it hurts. But a tender heart is like an open city gate, allowing things to enter and exit. Good can come inside, and bad can be driven out—hurt, fear, and unforgiveness don’t stay trapped, all bottled up, calcifying our hearts and spirits. We stay malleable to God’s leading and open to His people—how we can serve and help them—just like Jesus did.
No matter what terrible things were said about Jesus—even when he was tempted by the Devil, driven out of places, mocked, and threatened—he never hardened his heart. He kept himself tender toward his disciples, toward his Father’s people…even to the extent that in his final hours, hanging in agony on a cross, he quoted Scripture to guide those listening to an understanding of the truth.
Most of us, thankfully, will never face the straits that Jesus did. But when the world threatens to crucify us on a cross of pain and persecution, we’re still faced with the same choices Jesus faced in his most difficult times. When we’re tempted, how will we react? When we’re mocked and driven out, will we harden our hearts and turn our backs on people, or will we maintain a godly tenderness that keeps us accessible to a world that so desperately needs what we have to offer?
How We Stay Tender
So, now that we’ve established why tenderheartedness really is more beneficial than callousness, the question becomes…how do we achieve it? How do we stay tender when the world wants to harden us from the inside out?
One of the most important steps is to decide who we’re going to listen to. Someday, someone’s going to tell you you’re just too (fill in the blank) for your own good. In times like that, it’s unspeakably valuable to have Scripture to fall back on—words of truth and life that remind you that despite the standard the world says is 100% guaranteed to keep you out of the coals, God’s truth encompasses a spiritual reality of a warzone we can’t always see. His knowledge far surpasses ours or theirs, and His voice should be the one we listen for when we’re deciding whether to harden or soften ourselves.
It’s also helpful to understand the difference between toughness and hardness. Pain, heartache, and mental, emotional, and spiritual injuries are unavoidable in this life. We do have to have a certain amount of toughness that keeps us from being broken, bloodied, and taken advantage of. But toughness isn’t the same as hardness, in the sense that hardness is completely unyielding whereas toughness has some give to it. It’s like the difference between chewing a well-done steak and a brick. There’s still some yield to the steak, but your teeth are most likely going to break before a brick does. Cultivating a firmness of spirit and mind by setting boundaries, relying on the Lord’s strength over our own, and equipping ourselves with the Armor of God (Eph. 6:11-17) can all help us to be spiritually, mentally, and emotionally strong without becoming inaccessible to God and everyone.
Finally, one of the most difficult steps of all is to embrace the fact that tenderness isn’t a detriment. Circling back around to what the world tells us, we’re constantly bombarded with cries for us to harden ourselves. Women must be stalwart and unaffected; men shouldn’t cry. But that’s not how we were created. Man was made in the image of a living God who harbors such tenderness for us that He sacrificed His Son, the most beloved of His creation, to redeem us. In the image of our Heavenly Father’s incomprehensible love, we all strive to feel things. We spend our whole lives fighting a calloused void of indifference that the Devil would gladly damn us to. Some use vices like drugs, alcohol, and sex to fill the hole of unfeeling; they shut themselves off or escape from reality to a place where they feel free to feel—or not to feel at all.
But God built us to always feel freely, as He does. Nowhere does Scripture tell us that to be tender or kind, walking in the love of Christ without bitterness, is a flaw. The opinion of a fallen world is that we must be hardhearted to get ahead; but God’s way is a gentler one—one of great risk to ourselves, but even greater reward. And when we actively work to tear down the walls around our hearts, to keep ourselves tender and available to receive and disperse the love of God to others, it’s amazing the kind of true strength that we find. A strength that a hardhearted world can’t fathom, but desperately needs; a strength that comes from the Creator, who loves us all with a powerful, tender, fatherly love.