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?

47 Comments

  1. […] If your worship becomes more of a performance than an overflow of your relationship with Jesus, it will deeply impact our ministry and could do some damage to your soul. Like our teaching pastor, we need you to ensure your heart is right with Jesus. Your private spiritual disciplines will shine through in how you lead publicly. Take time to read scripture, pray, fast, journal. It’s vitally important that your heart remains soft and open to what God wants to do in your life.… […]

    • Andy on May 7, 2018 at 2:17 pm

      I’m going through the same as you all too,it feels like I’m numb in a way,,lost,,I’m praying,but don’t get response like I used to,,,I hardly ever pick up the scriptures,and don’t feel the spirit like I used to ,when I went to church,which as been over a year ago,I felt so alone at times,,like I Didont fit in there,,I’d like to return to the lord,,but it feels like I’m trapped,,I want to but can’t seem to get there

      • Emmerentia on May 8, 2018 at 1:48 pm

        Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, do the things you use to do when you first found the Lord, repent of anything that comes to your mind God is awesome and the same and even if you don’t feel him, praise and worship Him, The Bible says nothing can separate us from God nothing not even ourselves, bless Him thank Him, profess, scriptures and it will become real

      • Sherlonda on December 27, 2018 at 4:59 pm

        How are you now because I’m feeling this way!

    • Robin Mix on September 3, 2018 at 3:55 pm

      Thank you for your insight! I have issues that have kept me from reaching out to others, and feel as if I’ve grown hard hearted. Your message has helped me realize that this is something I need to work on!

  2. Anne-Marie Zack on March 21, 2018 at 12:26 am

    I’m going through most of these issues right now. Who’da thought that after being a believer for so many years I would backslide into being uncomfortably numb? Wonderful but scary article. When God hardened ppl’s hearts very bad things happened.

    • Sherlonda on December 27, 2018 at 5:01 pm

      How are you now I am going through this very same thing and it is scary!

  3. Kim on March 4, 2018 at 2:31 am

    “Hope deferred makes the heart sick”

    • Wanda on March 13, 2018 at 9:24 pm

      As far as I can remember I’ve been mistreated ,picked on ,talked about called names and reassuring me i’m ugly and look like a man and never had any friends and couldn’t keep a boyfriend and until this day my family didn’t like or love me and this is not the beginning so how does one NOT HAVE A HARDEN HEART And if humans mistreat me and don’t love me how i’m I suppose to believe someone I can’t see Love me Really? So of course my heart is hardened but not by choice but by force.

      • Emmerentia on May 8, 2018 at 1:52 pm

        Break ungodly soul ties with people who mistreated you! Call them by name, set them free as in forgive and say I break this ungodly soul tie and cut it off from my life, pray for God to send Godly soul ties in your life who will lift you up, It’s not God will for you to be mistreated

        • Kapel on September 14, 2018 at 2:27 pm

          God loves you because he created you and wants best for you. God isn’t like any human and his emotions should not be compared to another person. He loves us unconditionally even if we don’t love him. Find that love he has in store for you and live a righteous life. He wants all of us to repent and become a believer. When you find God and his love and happiness, you will stop caring about what other people think and instead forgive them. Jesus is the way the truth and the life.

  4. Faith on November 6, 2017 at 6:36 pm

    I’m faith! I have all the symptoms and I pretty much know I have a hard heart. My main problem is asking god to break it. I feel so far away like I’ve never did. I pray and everything but I still don’t feel a thing. It’s been 3 weeks since I’ve been praying and reading and I don’t get anything still. I’m more hurting than anything. My hard heart led to me being really mean to my good Christian friend. Every time I stay the night with her sisters and brother I see her and I feel so much pain. She’s 17 and I’m only 14 so she’s more experienced. She’s never gave up on a relationship like this. She doesn’t want to talk to me because I keep being really mean for a month straight. We’d talk and every time I’d say the same thing, I won’t do it again. She doesn’t know that I really don’t want to hurt her again. I want to let her know that I want her to try one more time. I never brought god in my relationship and now I’m ready to try. It hurts so much

    • Emmerentia on May 8, 2018 at 1:54 pm

      Satan is a liar, God loves you there is nothing to break, forgive those that had hurt you, release them, The word says there is NO CONDEMNATION FOR THOSE WHO ARE IN CHRIST

  5. Jonathan on January 20, 2017 at 11:50 pm

    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.

  6. christianpatriot on January 7, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    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.

  7. m.ali on March 3, 2016 at 7:45 am

    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

    • freddy on May 6, 2018 at 6:26 pm

      pray and change your thought patterns

  8. GW on September 2, 2015 at 11:41 pm

    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!

  9. Janet Shepherd on April 12, 2015 at 9:06 am

    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.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 12, 2015 at 6:09 pm

      Glad it resonated Janet. Best wishes with your writing!

  10. Kara on April 9, 2015 at 10:23 am

    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 (:

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 9, 2015 at 2:13 pm

      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.

  11. David on November 29, 2014 at 10:24 pm

    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?

  12. […] Your main emotion is ‘numbness’ – you no longer feel the highs or the lows. This was actually one of the earliest signs for me that the edge was near. I wrote more about emotional numbness here. […]

  13. bainyu on June 14, 2014 at 12:50 am

    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 on September 20, 2014 at 8:13 am

      God honors your will that is the true you!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 20, 2014 at 11:07 am

      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 on September 21, 2016 at 4:51 pm

        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.

        • Carey Nieuwhof on January 7, 2017 at 2:16 pm

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

    • joelle on July 20, 2017 at 6:06 am

      i’m so sorry that you had to go through this. i know this comment was posted a really long time ago and i hope that you’ve escaped this situation, that you are free. know that God still loves you, and He always will. know that you are not alone as you fight, and remember–the victory is already won in Him. hold on desperately and tightly to your faith in Him–He will save you. try to block out some time every day to read His Word–for the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).

      as you fight, keep in mind verses like Ephesians 6:13-18—”Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,”

      look to verses like Isaiah 35:4—”Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”” i know that this is tough, more difficult than words can say… but look to His word. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” — James 1:2-4

      draw close to God through His Word, through prayer. you may not feel Him–but friend, God is more than a feeling. you may feel that you are beyond hope, too far away, too sinful, too anything–but God says,”Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me? (Jeremiah 32:27)

      He can save you–and He will. don’t give up on Him no matter how hard it gets. even if it is hard to see, God is worth it. God is worth everything–and more.

      i have prayed for you, and i am sure many others who came across your comment have too. the Lord will save you. trust Him, for He is God. find someone, a trusted friend who is also a follower of Christ, to confide in. let him or her encourage you and keep you from giving up. stay strong, bainyu. He will give you the strength you need to make it through.

      Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9

    • Heather on February 5, 2018 at 12:51 pm

      That sounds like a spiritual battle from a heart that loves God! Read John Bunyan’s book Grace Abounding! Don’t give up!!!!!

    • Brittany on July 22, 2018 at 7:46 pm

      Hey brother, Bainyu I deal with this too read those verses and bad thoughts came against Jesus and all the HOLY TRINITY its hell I know how you feel . I tried to use Gods Word but feelings try to change what I am saying its horrribleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee 🙁 I feel hopeless. It goes away but comes back randomly like when I am half asleep or sleeping the enemy hits me hardcore and than I am so scared did I just say that. I just feel hopeless 🙁 I need prayer too. brother I know how you feel. MEMORMIZE SCRIPTURE and use it against those thoughts. don’t be afraid of the thoughts it makes it worse.

  14. Keep Your Heart Soft | TOOMUCHSTARBUCKS.COM on March 21, 2014 at 10:17 am

    […] a friend tipped me off to a  great blogpost this morning by Carey Nieuwhof. i needed to hear this.  check out the excerpt below, then head there for the rest! […]

  15. miguel on January 14, 2014 at 3:37 pm

    Help me I have this

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 15, 2014 at 11:21 am

      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 on September 20, 2014 at 8:08 am

        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 on June 11, 2014 at 12:34 am

      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. 🙂

      • Carey Nieuwhof on June 11, 2014 at 2:46 pm

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

  16. […] Sometimes, it’s not just unbelievers who have a hard heart. Even believers, over time can develop a hard heart. It’s a grief to the Spirit, but it’s even worse for the person because he/she may not recognize the hard heart creep. Read about the “signs of a hard heart.” […]

  17. Randy Willis on May 14, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    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 on May 15, 2013 at 12:03 pm

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

  18. Jenn on May 10, 2013 at 7:51 pm

    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 we.ve 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.

  19. gary on November 19, 2012 at 9:20 am

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

  20. cnieuwhof on November 19, 2012 at 9:10 am

    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.

  21. Rob Sellitto on November 19, 2012 at 9:03 am

    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.

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