What kind of God hardens people against himself?

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I'm a Lutheran Christian. Much like the Reformed Church, the Lutheran Church emphasizes the action of God in salvation, rather than our human actions. I believe that God gives us faith (Eph. 2:8-9) and calls us to himself (John 6:44), not the other way around. But ever since seminary, as I have begun to put aside the language of "choosing God" in favor of "God choosing us" (John 15:16), I have been struggling with this teaching known as "election." This struggle became heightened last year as my Bible study group dug into the depths of Romans 9-11 and I found myself stopped in my tracks by verses like, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated" (9:13). As I read about how God hardened Pharaoh's heart, I found myself recoiling. What kind of God hardens people against himself?

My struggle was made more difficult by the fact that despite the sometimes universalist-leaning seminary education I received, I have never stopped believing in hell. The Bible is too clear on this matter to ignore the stern warnings we are given. So, I wondered, does this mean that God is coldly and deterministically sending some people to a line that leads to heaven and others to a line leading to hell … simply because he feels like it? How could this be? This does not resonate with the God I see in the face of Jesus Christ. This does not jive with the Jesus who died for me. But I simply could not find a way to resolve this apparent conflict in my mind.

Finally, I had enough of the questions niggling at the back of my mind. I took a block of time to pore over Romans 9-11 with my study Bible, intent on finding some answers and coming to see how God's character of love and graciousness could exist in a world where God is the one who chooses and sends us to heaven.

And I had a breakthrough.

I read Romans 11:32 and it knocked me between the eyes: "For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all" (emphasis added).

Suddenly, I got it. Election is not about wrath or the capricious choosing of one person while another is ignored. Election is about mercy. It is about God literally pulling out all the stops to woo a stubborn human being to himself.

The Bible says something really important in 2 Peter 3:8-9: "But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." I think in my mental struggles over election, I was ignoring this verse. When God says he doesn't want anyone to perish, but all to come to repentance, he actually means it!

God is not a cold deterministic machine in heaven. He is a Lover. His heart is filled with love for every person who has ever been born. And he is actively at work to woo every single one of them to faith in him. This means that sometimes God will send suffering into their lives to call them to faith. On my blog, I wrote about the powerful impression Laura Hillenbrand's recent biography of Louis Zamperini, Unbroken, had on me. In this story, we see a man going through tremendous suffering and enduring unspeakable deprivations, tortures, and abuses, and yet staying alive. But we also see a man who, upon his rescue from a concentration camp and return home, was in bondage to PTSD, to alcoholism, and to his brokenness. I don't know whether God causes or allows this kind of suffering in our lives, but I know it cannot exist with his permission. And I also know now that when God allows such suffering into our lives, he is on a path to woo us to himself. If Zamperini had not been brought to rock bottom through the pain that he suffered, he may never have come to faith.

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