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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Freewill and the Hardening of Pharaoh's Heart

My brothers and I have great text discussions. We are two educators and an assistant pastor. It is kind of how our family rolls. This particular day, we were talking about Pharaoh and why God hardened his heart. The common interpretation that this is exactly how it happened was not the path I took. Yes, I am that little sister—precocious little sister.

Before you say, “Of course God hardens hearts because the Bible told me so” hear me out on this one. I am well aware what the Bible says about Pharaoh, but it never made sense to me. I heard it said that way a bunch of times, but I never thought it was true. It seemed to indicate that God removed freewill from Pharaoh. It also seemed to say that God speaks only to people who believe in him. How would that work? Would people ever believe if God never spoke to them?

Here is what I learned during my journey—God was trying to speak to me every single day. When I realized this, my healing went into warp speed because God was always there with an insight, a nudge, a memory, or a prompt. When I began listening and watching, I realized how incredibly powerful God really was. God didn’t need to be the controlling, vengeful, condemning, punisher we often make him out to be.

Then I had questions . . . of course I did. Did God merely talk to me every day and not to other people? Who did God choose? Well that seemed like a hopeless path to travel. If God talked to me every day, it made more sense that God was talking to everyone every day. It occurred to me that maybe the problem was in the listening, not in the speaking.

Then, there is the problem of what to do when God speaks. If we aren’t listening or don’t believe God speaks, it is hard to hear God, but let’s say we do hear—then we have a choice to make. That is exactly what Pharaoh did. He made a choice.

The whole scenario reminds me of my favorite Aesop’s fable—paraphrased.

The sun and the wind had a conversation about a man sitting on a bench wrapped in a coat. They decided to have a contest to see who could get the man to remove his coat first. The wind was very powerful and claimed victory before beginning to blow, but the harder the wind blew, the tighter the man clung to his coat. Then the sun stepped in and began to glow its warmth down on the man. It wasn’t but a few minutes before the man removed his coat.

There are several different versions of the moral but the one I like best is, “Persuasion is better than force.” Yes, persuasion is much better than force, and yet we sometimes think God chooses the lesser path of control.

But back to pharaoh:

The LORD said to Moses, "When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. Exodus 4:21

Think about that verse. Did God not want the people to be allowed to leave? That doesn’t really make sense especially since that was the purpose of sending Moses to talk to Pharaoh. Everything was being done to accomplish this goal, but God decides to harden his heart so he will say no?

What if instead, God was simply making a commentary on what he knew to be true about people? Like the wind, God was going to try to convince him to let the people go, but it was going to have the opposite effect—it was going to harden his heart—because that is how people tend to react. The more God tries to speak and guide, the more reticent the one who should be listening. There are other places where the text says Pharaoh hardened his own heart, but for some reason, we get stuck on “God did it” thinking.

I did a bit of searching about the ways people explained the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Most of it made God seem extremely capricious and even vindictive toward his own creation. Most of it made it appear like God was saying, “See how powerful I am?” Sadly, this is the message, “Just when it seems like you might be listening to me, I will harden your heart and bring calamity on you and your people just so I can show you how powerful I am.” That is not the God who led me through the dark hours of my healing.

If there is one thing I learned on my journey, it is that everything we think is through a lens of experience. If we have been taught that God chooses to take away freewill in some instances, then we really don’t have a problem with thinking God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. On that path, we also believe that God chooses to harden hearts so they will do really terrifying things to us so we understand how powerful God is and learn to trust him. If that were the case, it was an epic fail for the Israelites.

The saying “God is good. God is good all the time” became very popular a few years ago. Do we really believe it? If so, hardening hearts is just not a good fit--unless of course you believe that having horrific things happen to us is part of God's goodness. There are other ways to look at this that are clearly part of the common human experience—such as, when God is trying to guide, people get stubborn and out of freewill, make wrong choices.

It is so much better to believe that God is in the rescue and the healing instead of being the cause of the pain. This is my truth.

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