When we pray we will face many challenges at different stages, but none more so than this. It is something that all of us will likely have to deal with at some point in our lives and even the disciples had to overcome it during their time with Jesus.
What is it?
In Mark 8:17-18, Jesus spoke to His disciples after they had been arguing about how little bread they had after having earlier witnessed the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 and 4,000. It is here we learn the characteristics of a hard heart:
“Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?”
Jesus is referring to all of these things in a spiritual sense and from it we can draw that the characteristics of a hard heart are being:
- Unable to see
- Unable to understand
- Unable to hear
- Unable to perceive
- Unable to remember
Ultimately, a hard heart is characterized by an inability to perceive spiritually, apathy and a lack of trust in God. Furthermore, when spiritual things are perceived, a hard heart will keep a person from understanding the few things they can perceive. They might see what God is trying to show them, but they can’t understand it in a way that they can apply to their life.
Our ability to do this was meant to be beneficial. God made us so that we could harden our hearts and shut out unwanted influences. The problem is that since the fall, our lack of trust and care for self has distorted this once beneficial gift to something that can have many adverse effects. Luckily, this is not a permanent block and with the right steps we can overcome it.
How do we overcome it?
Mentioned above, the three characteristics of a hard heart we need to break are apathy, lack of trust and lack of belief in God’s ability to act.
In our society, we are generally encouraged to take a sceptical view of most things until we have a chance to study them empirically. This is not an awful thing; however, it causes issues when placed into a relational context, both with others and with God. The key reason for this is that for a relationship to flourish, you need trust, often without prior evidence it will be rewarded. Only when we let someone completely into part of our life and see us warts and all does the relationship have the potential to bloom. Of course the problem is that first we must always, always go through the terrifying moment of first exposing that area of our life to them and we fear what their response might be. This is as true for our relationship with God as it is with other people.
For this reason, the way we overcome our lack of trust in God is by the same way we build trust with those we love. As you talk to God in prayer be completely honest about the subject you’re talking about. Start with less relevant things and then gradually over time build up until you are talking about deeply personal things. Take time to listen to God’s reply to every situation and as you encounter acceptance, love and guidance with small things, you will gradually be able to trust God with greater things.
Apathy comes about when we become too comfortable with our present state of life and stop caring about making it, or those of others around us, better. It affects our prayer because when we don’t care about the thing we’re praying about we become easily distracted and are unable to focus our heart and mind on the prayer at hand.
To remedy this problem, St Paisios has this to say on the matter: “To pray with the heart, we must hurt. Just as when we hit our hand or some other part of our body, our mind is gathered to the point we are hurting, so also for the mind to gather in the heart, the heart must hurt.”
When he was then asked how to pray when we don’t personally have some challenge, he replied saying “We should make the other’s pain our own! We must love the other, must hurt for him, so that we can pray for him. We must come out little by little from our own self and begin to love, to hurt for other people as well, for our family first then for the large family of Adam, of God.”
St Paisios has much to say on this topic and is one of the newest saints of the Christian church. For more of his wisdom, check out the book ‘Spiritual Father for Our Times: An Introduction to the Life and Counsels of Elder Paisios of Mount Athos’.
Growing the ability to perceive spiritually
The ability to perceive spiritually is a grace that comes from prayer; this means it’s a gift from God. For this reason, when we overcome our apathy and build our trust we will in turn become aware of how God acts as these two form the basis of our relationship with God. Whereas this may be enough for some people to know, there is more that can be done to help us understand how God works in the world.
Practical steps we can take to understanding how God works in the world and make us more willing to partake in his divine plan include: reading about the lives of the saints; researching Marian apparitions; and finding out more about Eucharistic miracles. With all of these, first check out more recent occurrences before going further back in history. This is simply a recommendation as it shows how, even to the present day, God is performing greatness around the world – and knowing about it can be a boost to your faith.
All this said, while it is great to learn and study others’ relationships with God, it cannot be the end point. The true way we come to know and live in relationship with God is through first-hand practically trying to respond to his invitation. Let the lives of the saints inspire you and, by implementing their teachings and lifestyle, see just how much your own faith can grow.