Darkened Understanding

“…you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.”

Ephesians 4:17-19

In the passage above, Paul reveals the connection between insightful thinking, a tender heart, and actions that line up with God’s way of living. He starts by exhorting the Christians in Ephesus to no longer live as the Gentiles do, and he specifically identifies the problem: “the futility of their thinking.” He rewords this same problem a couple more times saying the Gentiles are “darkened in their understanding.” He exposes their “ignorance.”

All of this is a problem in the mind. Their thinking was skewed. They lacked insight and wisdom in the way they thought about things. Their minds were cut off from God’s revelation and truth. What is most interesting is Paul’s diagnosis. How did their minds and their thinking get so warped? How could they become so blind to the truth? Paul says that this happened because of the “hardening of their hearts.”

I find this fascinating!

The reason their thinking was so warped and their ability to embrace truth so damaged was because of a condition in their heart. They had “lost all sensitivity.” What does that mean? It means that, over time, if we don’t actively try to keep a tender heart, our heart will become hardened. If we aren’t actively forgiving those who hurt us, if we aren’t actively being sensitive to the contamination of sin and impurity, we will eventually become desensitized. Bitterness will become normal. We will stop feeling the pangs of conviction when we sin. Instead of feeling the natural guilt that comes from lust and perversion, we’ll feel nothing at all but justification for our actions.

When hearts become hardened to sin, our actions become unrestrained. Selfishness, indulgence, pleasure, and ego become king. Greed becomes normal, along with lust and jealousy, fear and hatred. And it’s not difficult to see how this works its way backward toward darkened understanding and futility in thinking.

When sin abounds in our life, our heart loses its sensitivity to conviction, its sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. And when our heart loses sensitivity over time, it becomes hardened, calloused, desensitized. Inevitably, the hardness of our heart prevents our mind from receiving truth, illumination, and revelation. We are cut off from the profound insights that the Lord wants to plant in our minds, and our thinking becomes darkened and futile.

So often we compartmentalize the wholeness of our being and we miss the deep connections between our actions, our heart, and our mind. Paul makes these connections clear to the Ephesians and to us. We all want to have profound, insightful thoughts, but most people don’t see the connection between how they’re living and how they’re thinking. We want to have illuminating thoughts without obedience. We want insight without self-discipline. But they are connected.

The more willing we are to surrender our actions to the Lord, the more willing we are to be obedient in our self-denial, then the more tender our heart remains. We want a heart that is sensitive to the gentle nudges of the Holy Spirit. We want a heart that is quick to embrace conviction of sin and quick to repent. This then keeps the door open and receptive for when God wants to download His thoughts into ours. This then keeps us ready to receive profound, illuminating thoughts that are thick with wisdom and insight.

Our actions change the condition of our hearts. Our hearts then change the receptivity of our minds.

Parables

This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see;
    though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
    you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For 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.’ [Isaiah 6:9-10]

Matthew 13:13-15

Doubt and unbelief are never an intellectual issue. Some of the most intelligent people on the planet, even some of the most well-respected scientists, have been followers of Jesus (for modern examples see John Polkinghorne and Francis Collins). Jesus makes clear, right after he tells the Parable of the Sower, that lack of understanding and lack of belief happen in the heart.

Notice the progression mentioned in Jesus’s quote from Isaiah. First, the heart becomes calloused. While the heart is not yet completely hardened, it is on its way. Usually this happens not because of an intellectual question about God but because of a wound of the heart. Someone hurts us or God doesn’t meet an expectation we had. A person stops trusting God because they had the wrong definition of trust in the first place.

Too often our hearts become calloused because we think trust is built by “someone doing what I expect they will do.” Meaning, to build trust we want a person to be predictable. We want the person to do what we would have done in particular situations. In other words, the more you are like me, the more you respond the way I would have responded, the more I trust you. This faulty understanding of trust means that any time another person does something I can’t anticipate, mistrust starts to grow.

You can see how destructive this understanding of trust would be to our relationship with God. When we expect Him to be just like us, and then He isn’t, we begin to lose trust in Him. When He doesn’t respond in a predictable way, a way that we wanted Him to, we begin to live in mistrust. God is completely perfect and good. He is worthy of absolute trust. But we’ve already started with the wrong understanding of trust.

Healthy trust is built on someone consistently telling us the truth not on someone being and acting predictably like us. God is wholly other than us. He will act in ways that surprise us and maybe even confuse us. But this is no reason not to trust God. Jesus is the Truth. He cannot be other than truthful with us. He is worthy of our trust.

Our wound of the heart, our mistrust, then leads to the next progression. We stop hearing. This is a more passive reality. Hearing God (and people for that matter) depends on listening and trust. When we have a wound in our heart, we stop trusting and we stop listening. Hearing God’s voice gets more and more difficult. Weeds of doubt and confusion start forming in our hearts. We are not actively plugging our ears, but hearing gets difficult until we repent of our distrust and get healing for the wound in our heart.

Eventually, after struggling to hear from God for a while, we shift into rebellion. That’s the next step in this progression of doubt and unbelief. While our struggle to hear was not intentional, the next step is intentional. We close our eyes. Closing our eyes is something we actively do. It’s not just that we struggle to see, it’s that we are now actively closing our eyes to the truth of God. We resist. We reject. We live in cynicism and skepticism. We choose unbelief. We close our eyes and proclaim that the room is dark.

This whole progression started with the heart, not the head. This is why Jesus spoke in parables. Parables aren’t meant to confuse the mind; they are meant to expose the condition of the heart. Those who have soft hearts, open hearts, are willing to trust the Lord. They will receive the seed of Kingdom truth planted in them. They will either understand the parable or it will lead to a curiosity that invites them into exploration. Lack of understanding for a person with a softened heart is an invitation into deeper intimacy as curiosity leads them to seek the Lord even more.

Calloused hearts, hardened hearts, will not understand the parables. Instead, they will likely be offended by them. It will not provoke curiosity but suspicion, mocking, and accusation. Lack of understanding for a person with a hard heart becomes mounting evidence that they were right to doubt. Lack of understanding exacerbates mistrust in the Lord. Cynicism abounds.

Jesus spoke in parables because they expose what is underneath our intellectual prowess and our religious actions. They expose the condition of our heart.

Ignorance and Unbelief

Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

1 Timothy 1:13-14

The apostle Paul gives us a short, two-sentence description of his own testimony. He was once a bunch of things that were outside of God’s design for his life, but then he was shown mercy. God interrupted his life with mercy, grace, faith and love; Paul has never been the same. This is true for so many of us who follow Jesus.

Notice that he lists two things that kept him from fully embracing the gospel of Jesus in his former life: 1) ignorance, and 2) unbelief. These two have the same effect but are very different in terms of what is happening in our hearts.

The first, ignorance, in the Greek is the word “to know” with a negative prefix attached to it. So it literally just means “not knowing.” Sometimes we don’t believe something because we’ve never been taught it. We’ve never had someone take the time to explain it to us. We didn’t lack faith, we just lacked understanding. This is why teaching about the Kingdom of God in all its facets is so important. A huge portion of Jesus’s own ministry was teaching. He knew He had to help people embrace the truth with their minds so that they could embrace the truth with their lives. Hosea 4:6 says, “my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge.”

When we don’t embrace the truth of the gospel or a truth of the Kingdom because of a lack of knowledge, I believe God has patience for that. He woos us and invites us into understanding. He sends opportunities to learn and grow. He sends people to challenge us with new ideas even if they are hard for us to embrace at first.

The second, however, is very different. The word translated as unbelief in the Greek is simply the word “faith” with a negative prefix attached. Literally it means “no faith, no belief.” It is one thing to be unaware of a truth; it’s another to be aware of it and simply reject it because of unbelief. This is when we allow doubt to dominate our thinking rather than faith. Doubt and skepticism are cheep imitations for real spiritual discernment. Over and over again in the scriptures we discover that God does not look kindly upon unbelief.

Unbelief is often equated with a hardness of heart in scripture (Mark 16:14; Hebrews 3:15-19). Unbelief is not an issue of the mind but an issue of our heart posture. It’s less about not agreeing with the right arguments and more about being unwilling to trust. Hebrews 3:12 says, “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.”

Unbelief is often the result of a wound of the heart that never proper healed and instead calcified to protect itself. This calcification, this hardness of heart, then becomes unbelief. Unbelief and a hard heart don’t get softened from convincing theological arguments. Instead, unbelief must be surrendered so that God can do the softening. In other words, it is not a surrender of the mind but a surrender of the will that allows faith to emerge through the hard ground of unbelief.