The problems that afflict us can be grouped into two categories: suffering and sin. Both are approached with humility and love. Sufferers hear comfort; sinners hear warnings, with comfort waiting on the far side of confession. Yet the author of Hebrews prefers to make the boundary between sin and suffering more permeable. He cautions sufferers about hardening their hearts, warning that it is a backdoor path to sin.
To paraphrase: “Dear brothers and sisters, be comforted by the One who knows temptations and hardships because he went through them. And—please, hear me on this, please hear me because this is so important—be warned, because the track record of human beings in suffering is abysmal. We so often harden our hearts to the Lord when trouble comes our way.”
He wants to comfort and warn those in distress, but his priority is to warn.
Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert. (Heb 3:7–8)
He quotes this passage from Psalm 95, which refers to Israel’s forty years in the desert. He quotes it again; then he quotes it again.
The Warning of Hebrews 3
Read through Hebrews 3. There is no question—the author is, indeed, warning the suffering church. He stands in the Old Testament tradition of prophetic writing with its alternating warnings and comforts. And it is exactly what we need to hear, because in times of suffering, faith wavers and unbelief is rarely far away.
This unbelief comes in many forms when we experience hard times.
Why is he doing this to me?
God doesn’t really care—he doesn’t really hear.
Sometimes I think God is out to get me.
What have I done to deserve this?
No, I haven’t prayed about it. What’s the use anyway?
It’s not fair. I don’t ask for much from God. Why doesn’t he answer?
All these suggest that we do not really believe God is who he says he is. We decide what we want to believe about him based on our own interpretation of events, and then our hearts turn away from God rather than toward him.
This is not good.
How Do We Warn One Another?
The writer of Hebrews is mobilizing us. He wants us both to encourage and to warn each other in the midst of suffering. That makes sense. We all know that we are spiritually vulnerable during certain hardships; Hebrews confirms this and helps give us direction. But it is hard to actually do this with each other. With this in mind, it’s time well spent to consider what this ministry could look like. Here are some possibilities of what you might say.
- Have you ever read Hebrews? That guy is tough! He is always telling us not to harden our hearts when we are going through the hardest times of life, especially when those hardest times don’t seem to stop. I guess we might as well follow what he suggests. Have you been turning away from the Lord in the midst of this? (This is a personal favorite. When in doubt, blame your pastoral care strategies on someone else.)
- Have you been having questions about God’s goodness or his promises? Has this been shaking your spiritual foundation?
- How is your relationship with the Lord in this?
- Has it been hard to pray?
- Have you been getting hit with spiritual doubts?
- Is there Scripture I could read to you that has been encouraging?
- Let’s pray.
There are hundreds of ways to do it. What is common to them all is Hebrews’ challenge to jump in and get to spiritual allegiances quickly. We don’t have to be artful and sophisticated. We simply have to know something about how our hearts respond to hardship and then…love well.