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;Matthew 13:13-15
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]
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.