Get Your Life and Leadership Back. Learn how.

The Early Warning Signs of a Hard Heart

I don’t know about you, but as for me, the longer I serve in leadership the more intentional I have to be at keeping my heart open and fully alive.

That’s a polite way of saying that the longer I’m in leadership, the more I have to guard against my heart becoming hard.

Hardness of heart is a condition that people on the other side of God develop. Pharaoh had it. Israel did on occasion. And the Pharisees specialized in it. Not exactly great company if you ask me.

So it’s a little bit vulnerable to admit you struggle with it. But I do.

At times I think it’s an almost natural by-product of ministry. (Maybe it’s a natural by-product of life…but I’ve done my adult life in ministry, so I’m not the best diagnoser beyond that.)

Like a physician who sees illness or tragedy every day, you develop a way of dealing with the pain. And some of that’s healthy. But if I don’t monitor things carefully, I can move into full seasons where I don’t feel much of anything at all. My heart can grow hard.

What are some early warning signs of a hard heart?

1. You don’t really celebrate and you don’t really cry. Well, you might on the outside, but in reality you don’t feel it.

2. You stop genuinely caring. Enough said.

3. So much of what’s supposed to be meaningful feels mechanical. From your personal friendships to your family to work, the feeling’s gone.

4. Passion is hard to come by. For anything.

5. You no longer believe the best about people. Even when you meet someone, you’re thinking about what’s going to go wrong, not what’s going to go right.

How does it happen? Here are a few ways:

You focus on patterns, not people. In my first few years in ministry, all I saw were people. Then I realized people behaved certain ways. Actually, people behave in certain predictable ways. Unchecked, that can lead to cynicism when you realize the people who say they want to change (and at first you believe them), don’t change. When I become fixated on the patterns, not the people beneath them, my heart grows hard. Patterns are discouraging. People aren’t.

You over-protect a broken heart. People promise and don’t deliver. Your hopes were bigger than what happened. You trusted someone and your trust was misplaced. Really, that’s just life. It happens to everyone. But how you respond is so critical. It’s easy to shield yourself from people. It’s easy to stop trusting, stop loving, stop believing. But that would be a mistake. It kills your heart.

You stop looking for what’s good in people and situations. Because life has its disappointments, and people are still people even after they become Christians (it’s amazing how that happens), it’s easy to focus on personal and organization shortcomings. If you keep that up, it can be all you focus on. Keep looking for flickers of light. Your job as a leader is to spot the hope in any situation anyway, to find a way when it looks like there’s no way. So keep looking.

You accept a harder heart as a new normal. A hardened heart isn’t inevitable, but it does take intentional effort to guard against one. When you feel your heart becoming hard, you need to take action and fight against it.

All that said, I’ve also discovered this: if you work at it, your heart can stay supple. When you pick away at the callous, something wonderful God created still beats underneath. And you enter a new season of life wiser, but very much fully alive.

How’s your heart? Is this something you have to struggle with too?

If you had to pick one thing that hardens your heart, what would it be?

Did you find this post helpful?

Did you like this post? Never miss another one again by subscribing!
  • Jonathan

    Okay we know the symptoms, the problem. But what about the solution? The answer. That’s what truly counts. Spend at least 15 minutes a day with God. Say your prayers on your knees. You’ll slowly heal, don’t give up. Give up when you’re dead. But heart is still beating, so that means purpose and hope.

  • christianpatriot

    After over 50 years of betrayal and abuse by family and romantic relationships, I have started to become numb. My extended family are lead by a Narcissistic mother. She inflicts abuse through others, upon me, like my entire family. I lost everyone of them, when I left “her”. She now inflicts misery upon me, through my adult children and now grown grandchildren. Even my kids have been convinced by her, that it is me that cannot be trusted and is unstable. My heart grows more hardened each time my children now doubt me. Not sure how I can endure the pain, if I keep caring. I NEVER thought this would happen to me and my children, we were ALWAYS so very close. As a single mo, for most of their lives, after their father tried to kill me, my kids have always been my life.

  • m.ali

    this thing really talks about me.. my heart is completely dead and it has become extremely suffocating to live with it.. i dont know what has made my heart hard but i dont know how to be free from it

  • GW

    Oct 5, 2008 I gave my life back to God and it was full steam ahead, blessing after blessing, my children were joyous to go to church, bad situations ensued….major bad situations occurred behind church doors and I decided that we as a family (I’m a single mom) after being in the church for 7 years, that we no longer needed the church. Now I am reaping the repercussions of that mistake. I have a 15 year old daughter running around depressed and I am reactive to anything and everything and wondering how we got here….laughing….but not really. Everything makes me angry, I want to stay in my little bubble and not get hurt anymore, but I know Christ wants and needs me to stay out there and be a real human being. I feel so, mechanical, like a robot performing. We have found a church that the kids like, so I go….sometimes. But it is no longer the center and I miss it so bad. Please Lord get us back to you as a family because we need you!

  • Janet Shepherd

    This is so amazing. Oh how God is right on time. I have been aware of my hard heartedness for several years now. I was just writing about this subject to the daughter of couple of friends of mine. And I’ve written about it in my personal journal on various occasions; I have enough material to work with and life experience has taught me a lot, I’m guessing maybe at least 2 chapters in my still unedited book.

    • Glad it resonated Janet. Best wishes with your writing!

  • Kara

    Hey Pastor

    Thankyou for all your posts on burnout, hard heart, leadership. It has really blessed me tremendously. I have been dealing with burnout and emotional numbness on and off for over 3 years now, but have not been able to adequately express it to anyone. Been feeling alone in this, and it is good to know that there are others who have walked this journey before, and that my normal will be a new normal that is better than before. Thank you so much for your ministry, God bless (:

    • Kara…you are so not alone. Keep going! And maybe try telling your story to a few trusted friends. Sometimes you just need people to believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself.

  • David

    Yes, this is me. I don’t care about the ministry I lead anymore and stay in it because I’m trapped. I lack support from leadership above me and have lost leaders on my level due to this.
    So I’m burned out and hard-hearted and don’t look forward to church tomorrow where I have to watch the leaders who ignore me smile at everyone else.
    So now what?

  • Pingback: Pastor Burn Out On The Front Lines | Basin and Towel Leaders()

  • bainyu

    I am demon possessed and i need God but i know the spirit of god has left me as he did saul. I feel myself getting worst each day. I grew up in the church and a month ago i started doubting jesus and the bible.. the thoughts took control it may have turned into unbelief… its like a nightmare my mind wouldnt let go. Then i read a verse the blaspheme chapter and then my mind automatically everytime i said the holy spirit would go to the name that they called the evil spirit. I knew it wasnt true i didnt believe it but its like when you try not to think of something you think it constantly. It was driving me insane. Now ive qsked for forgiveness so many times but its only grnted throught the holy spirit. I know im possessed by demons. I also believe jesus is lord and that he came in the flesh and he is the son of god amen. At this point i have tingling all over my body face and head and pain sometimes and movement in my stomach. My pupils are black and dialated. Im unable to retain memory. My heart felt like it was being chewed and ripped apart so now i feel nothing emotionally. I just want the holy spirit, nothing more nothing less.

    • Eva

      God honors your will that is the true you!

    • Wow…Bainyu…that’s a terrible place to be in. I am so sorry and I am praying for you today. I would encourage you to get to a Christian pastor or leader who is trained in deliverance. I don’t know where you live but there is almost always one nearby. You will need the help of the body of Christ to move through this. I hope and pray you find the help you need in a prayerful, skilled Christian who can deliver you through this time.

      • Derek Greve

        I’ve been there…. So much damage had been done to my soul and I’m still recovering from it. I went through a situation where I was overly anxious. I felt condemned all the time. I pleaded for God to forgive me and he always seemed to be far away. I knew I was the reason for his absence. My heart was hard and massive doubts started washing over me. I knew God is true and that I am indeed a sinner who is totally dependent on Christ. As a result, I started seeking God more. The problem is that we focus waaay too much on ourselves. God uses these problems in our lives in order for us to see our need and dependency on Him. I felt overwhelmed with what God called me to do. I couldn’t think straight, I wasn’t able to eat due to anxiety, I started doubting my salvation and other things. I even started doubting His existence. Occasionally these thoughts well up in my mind, but I know they are lies. It’s very hard to resist those lies that constantly well up inside of us. Sometimes we don’t even need the devil to lie to us, we conjure them up ourselves without even knowing it. I have belittled Him in my mind. Basically my problem is that I need to look to God more. It’s very easy to be overwhelmed with things, but God is in control and I have to constantly remind myself of that.

        • Derek…this is very well said. Thank you. And thank you for sharing your insights. Grateful you’re feeling better.

  • Pingback: Keep Your Heart Soft | TOOMUCHSTARBUCKS.COM()

  • miguel

    Help me I have this

    • Hey Miguel. Thanks for being honest. It was these 5 signs that landed me in a counselors office for the first time. I recommend it. At least talk to some friends who can listen and love you. Hope this helps.

      • Eva

        Why don’t you answer Bainyu’s comment! He seems to need the most help here! I’ve been there and of course there was nobody around to help just stared at me thought I was crazy. That’s church folks for you!!! Got out of that predicament on my own minus a number of wasted years! Word to Bainyu God honors your will and that is the true you!

    • Healed from Hard Heartedness

      Discovered my heart had hardened from too many hurts and disappointments and guarding it from same. Therefore, I’d gradually built a stone gate around it. Finally realizing this, I repeatedly beseeched Jesus to open and soften my heart again. He did by first reminding me not to hate those who offended me, and to forgive and bless them repeatedly. He reminded me not to fear anymore that my heart would be hurt. I prayed and determined to open my heart to people again, to see good in them again, to trust that even if my heart got heart feelings again, it proved I was alive and far better than a stone cold unfeeling (dead) heart.

      I sent a forgiveness and apology letter to someone I had long hated for hurting me. Immediately after I mailed it, the arteriosclerosis and symptoms I had cleared! A few days later, the hypertension symptoms I had cleared too! Suddenly people started responding open heartedly to me again with welcoming smiles and friendliness.

      Love, and keep loving. Risk hurt feelings again, it means you’re alive. Share your story and help others heal. All thanks to Jesus and His Word. 🙂

      • So well said…so encouraging. Thanks. Love the journey you’re on. Way to go!

  • Pingback: Frozen Pipes & Frozen Hearts* | noreputationcommunications()

  • Pingback: Question to Challenge – Day 21 | Bible Study Together()

  • Well said. This is helpful. I’ve been thinking for a while that hardening of the heart is a deteriorating condition we must all battle against. Especially leaders!

    • Carey Nieuwhof

      Randy it really does seem to me like leader’s suffer from this more than others. Great insight. We need to be extra diligent.

  • Jenn

    I have been thinking about other ways a hard heart develops, in us and those around us. So many times by the small things we let in daily, but also by the big decitions to disobey God. At a moment of outright disobedience we have justify it in some way..often we cling to the justification-even to the point of declaring what done if fine, didn.t hurt anyone, was for the best, whatever.
    Its in that moment that may be more like a flash freeze to a heart, than a slow hardening.

    Thanks for the post…this is not a topic we think on often…but key I think when speaking about surrendering our lives, to loving God, and to loving our neighbour-the 2 greatest commands.

  • gary

    Amen Rob Sellitto. Excellent diagnostic by Carey. Now to just get fixed.

  • cnieuwhof

    Rob…thanks for your honesty. Most leaders I know struggle with this. I am planning a follow up post on what to do about it. It will follow tomorrow or Wednesday.

  • Thank you Carey for your wisdom. Your thoughts are very timely for me. As i read through your characteristics I identified much more with them then I would like to admit!
    I don’t know if you are planning a follow up post, but I’d love to hear your thoughts/experience on how you work on it. Sometimes when you are getting to the point of a hard heart it is hard to see how to let it be soft again.