Q: “Can you please clarify why a loving God would harden someone’s heart, like the Pharaoh in Moses’ day?”
A: This is a good question because it can cause confusion for people who are trying to come to terms with the ways of God. In order to understand the question, it is important that a person understands the makeup of the heart. The first thing we must understand about the heart is that an unregenerate heart is wicked and deceitful to the point that even the individual cannot know the depth of wickedness and deception that abounds in it (Jeremiah 17:9-10). When you realize that the carnal heart is inclined towards wickedness and operating according to a perverted reality, it would make sense that it can easily enough become hard in the right situation.
To understand how a person’s heart can be hardened, we must realize that God first searches all hearts to try their “reins.” “Reins” point to the mind or inner character of a person. King David asked the Lord to search his heart and see if there was any wicked way in it (Psalm 139:23-24). Clearly, David understood that he did not know his own heart and asked the Lord to reveal if there were areas in his attitude, approach, and thinking that were wicked to Him, but unknown to David. David wanted such ways to be brought to the light so they could be addressed. We also know according to Matthew 13:3-23 that there are four heart conditions: the hard, stony, worldly, and open hearts. The heart condition determines how the Word of God will be received.
In Romans 9:14-23 and 2 Timothy 2:19-21 we are told that God uses vessels for both honorable and dishonorable dealings to bring about His plan. In 2 Chronicles 16:9 we see that the Lord searches to and fro to find those through whom He is able to show Himself mighty.
In the case of Pharaoh, God knew his inner character and used him as a dishonorable vessel through whom He could show Himself mighty on behalf of Israel and confirm that He is the LORD GOD and their DELIVERER. We know there were ten judgments leveled at Egypt, and God knew how Pharaoh would react in each judgment. He knew that instead of Pharaoh being broken in his stiff-necked ways that he would resolve in his will and mind to resist God even more so. Each time he resisted God, the harder his heart became toward God’s words and warnings, resulting in God’s judgments which revealed the true character of Pharaoh’s heart.
When you read that God hardens the heart of someone, it does not mean He literally hardens the person’s heart; rather, it means that the individual already had a hard heart towards the things of God and when challenged, simply continued to resist truth and righteousness which resulted in the person’s heart becoming harder towards the conviction and moving of the Holy Spirit in the matter. You must also keep in mind that God is the one who sets leaders in their positions, knowing their heart and character in order to bring about His righteous judgments and perfect plan.
Sadly, as a ministry, we have witnessed people’s hearts becoming hardened through the years. We have contended with people who were in delusion, rebellion, denial, and anger. We have used God’s Word to challenge, guide, edify, and warn. If a person’s heart is tender towards God, the Word will break, instruct, and comfort that person, but if the person insists on his or her own reality (deception) and way (rebellion), while maintaining his or her right to do as he or she sees fit, then the individual’s heart becomes more resolved, or harder, as a means to maintain his or her particular darkness as being light, and not the darkness of evil. The problem is the more you contend with people who are in a state of hardness, the harder their heart becomes as their ears become deafer.
As ministers, we struggle with how much to contend with a person. If we see the individual continuing to resist the truth, we pull back and seek the Lord as to whether we are to continue to contend for that person, because we do not want the person to be turned over to his or her delusion to pay harsh consequences by tasting the bitterness of his or her wicked ways.