Photo credit: Fr. Darryl Millette
Softening is a curious thing. We soften water, counteracting metals and minerals that stain and damage our clothing. We soften edges, to prevent slivers and injuries. We soften butter, to stop it from tearing through bread. So many seasons of Lent I have heard the echoes of God’s call: “Harden not your hearts” (Hebrews 3:15). Only this week did it occur to me that the opposite of harden is soften. And what does it mean to soften a heart, anyway?
It seems intuitive, rather than purely logical, that hardness is undesirable. Hard things become brittle and easily broken. To be hard is to be difficult, rigid, unmoving. Hardened arteries threaten to stop our beating hearts. Softening, however, does not feel like the virtuous opposite to me. It feels weak and defeated. Softening is what is happening while I give in to eating donuts and have too many children to fight all the battles – or any at all.
But this battle between avoiding a hard and rigid heart and resigned indifference is surely not what the season of Lent (specifically) and the pursuit of God (more broadly) is all about? There has to be more to it than this.
I have been reflecting on the way that God has been at work in me over three and a half decades. A startling realization hit me in the silence that so frequently occupies the place where God used to speak to me: God is simultaneously relentless and gentle. All the tenacity of iron and steel is wrapped up with the desire to set us free.
What if softening isn’t giving up, but is instead a bending towards God’s “still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31)?
I keep discovering a God who keeps asking me to take just one more step toward love. Even when I am so exhausted that I cannot imagine how I will rise if one more tiny voice calls my name in the night. When I want to return hurt with hurt. Especially when I have failed again to get ready to leave the house without being kind to my family.
It is a soft ask, this call of God’s. He does not break the door down and give a me time out. Never once has the Spirit broke open the heavens and forced me to do the right thing. For as long as it takes for me to hear, God whispers with that “still small voice” (1 Kings 12:19). Even when the lesson takes me decades of practice to begin to learn, God’s heart is a soft place for me to land.
What if softness is the way of God?
What if a softened heart isn’t different from the water, the edges, the butter. Each of these things, so much a part of ordinary living, is softened to prevent its power from doing damage. Each is softened to allow its essence to be a gift.
My heart gets hardened in a thousand tiny ways, each almost imperceptible in ordinary moments. I feel hurt and choose to assume intentionality. I justify my own bad behavior while demanding good manners from my children. Framing the day with all or nothing thinking, I stop trying. And all of this sharpens my edges, inflicts damage on myself and my people, tears through the vulnerable places. Violent self talk, restrictive plans for self-improvement, nurturing guilt and despair: these are the habits of a hardened heart.
In God’s extraordinarily soft way, He asks me not to harden my heart, but will not harden His approach if I don’t listen.
Softness comes from the same small and abundant moments. I can hear the truth in a difficult conversation and choose to let everything else go. Carried by a deep breath and a grace that comes from somewhere beyond me, I say sorry and ask if I can start over. I set down the laundry and the dishes and climb into a bath and remember that people whose dirty dishes and laundry wait are God’s beloved children too. A soft heart feels its power and its potential and refuses to let either do damage.
Softening, I am coming to believe, is a much more difficult way. The warning is warranted. A soft heart is patient and kind, honest and attentive, faithful and free. Softness can catch and lift, bend and challenge, forgive and begin again.
O God, soften my heart this Lent.