Updated: Jul 18, 2022
But if they will repent and hearken unto my words, and harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them. (3 Nephi 21:22).
I'm struck by the importance of cultivating a soft heart in order to be steadily grounded in the gospel and the Church. We talk about repentance and hearkening to the word of God a lot. But I am surprised by the richness of the blessings that the Lord associates with hearts that are not hardened. Not only are they vital to the church being established among us, but also to our having claim on mercy (Alma 12:34) and even salvation in the kingdom of God (Jacob 6:4).
Somehow, though, I think we have a cultural expectation that we have to harden our hearts in order to succeed in life (and parenting); also, to avoid getting walked on, made a fool of, or led away from our principles. We don't usually use the term "hardheartedness" but rather "toughness." Functionally, though, I think the terms are synonymous; that they refer to armouring our hearts so that they aren't easily touched by the claims of another, so that we can soldier on and do what we judge to be the necessary thing. Often, I think we tell ourselves that what we think is the necessary thing is really what's best for everyone. But how can we determine what's best when we're not letting ourselves feel?
The first time I remember deliberately hardening my heart was when my second baby was on the way and I believed that my lengthy night-time ritual with my nearly-two-year-old daughter was no longer sustainable. I used to sit beside her crib and sing until she fell off to sleep. I'm not sure why I didn't think I could continue to do so after the baby was born, but I think there was pressure from others who felt that I was too wrapped around my toddler's finger. I remember that I tried singing my toddler a couple songs, saying goodnight, and then leaving her in her crib. She actually threw herself out of the crib and came to get me. So we got a toddler bed, installed a lock on the outside of her door and locked her in her room if she wouldn't stay in bed. I remember standing outside her door and listening to her frantic sobbing while my husband and our landlords assured me that this was for her good. After she'd sobbed herself to sleep, I would slip into her room, pick her up off the floor, change the diaper she had filled in her distress, and tuck her, still sleeping, back into her bed. I couldn't endure that with an open heart. I hardened myself against her cries. And went ahead and inflicted lasting damage.
Now, I've done a Topical Guide search on hardheartedness and found zero scriptures that depict a hard heart as necessary or desirable. There are many scriptures that warn of its dangers.
Hard-heartedness is associated with blindness of mind. It prevents us from seeking understanding (1 Nephi 15:3,11) and from receiving it (Alma 12:10). Hardness of heart grieves the Lord (Mark 3:5) and prevents the Spirit from having place in us (2 Nephi 33:2, Alma 13:4). Little wonder that the Devil aims to harden our hearts by temptations (1 Nephi 12:17) and by lies (3 Nephi 1:22).
Meanwhile, a soft heart is a gift from God that we can pray for. Nephi reports that he cried unto the Lord while struggling in the hostile wilderness and the Lord softened his heart so that he was able to believe and not rebel against his father (1 Nephi 2:16).
A soft heart is meek and responds to correction. It is easily touched by another's joy or pain. The quintessential example of a soft heart is Jesus, who wept with Mary, allowing himself to participate in her grief even when he knew that just minutes later, He would be calling Lazarus forth from the dead.
What is also stunning to me about that story is that, caring as much as He did, Jesus was able to stay His hand until the appointed time. Mary and Martha had sent for him earlier and, knowing the Father designs, He delayed responding to their summons (John 11:6). By the time He began to journey toward Bethany, He knew that Lazarus was already dead (John 11:11-13).
How could He bear to delay, while also allowing Himself to feel the urgency and the anguish of His friends? I think it was that He paired a soft heart with a firm mind. Anchored in premortal and mortal covenants, knowing His Father's love and trusting Him implicitly, Jesus knew that everyonne would be blessed as He did what the Father directed. He was able to fully open His heart without any risk of being pulled off course.
A soft heart and a firm mind. I can open my heart wide -- without danger -- if I am firmly anchored in my covenants and my confidence in Christ. And if I find myself hardening my heart, that's a signal that I'm veering off track. I need to pray like Nephi so that my heart can be softened.
I'll finish with a poem:
I knew you'd come for we summoned you in haste, In calamity, our first thought was your name. The messenger assured you promised Lazarus would live; You'd be close behind. But then, you never came. I knew you'd come and the knowledge kept me sane While brother tossed and fought for every breath. I strained to hear your step (I'd know that step) outside the door. Instead, our only visitor was Death I knew you'd come as you came to her at Nain When hope was dead and carried on a bier. You were sought at every corner as we wailed through the streets. The tomb was sealed and still you were not here. You did not come. Consumed by double grief, Bereft of Lord and brother in one day, Assailed by wailing comforters who claimed your vacant place, I needed you, yet still you stayed away.
And now you're here, too late by days. My words dry up, I mostly gaze And cannot speak nor swallow down my fears. You meet my doubt with tender grace. My anguish echoes 'cross your face. You weep. My soul is washed with every tear. I don't begin to understand What kept you hence, what stayed your hand, I only know it wasn't lack of love. The ice within me melts to tears. You've made full answer to my fears. We matter, after all, and it's enough. You ask to see where he is laid, Roll back the stone, but I'm afraid The sight of Death will crush me once again. You call him forth; Behold, he lives! My broken heart's made whole, forgives And venerates the One who risked my pain.