The scriptural reading from this past Tuesday’s Office of Readings was from the Book of Exodus (6:28-7:25). In this passage we see Moses and Aaron going to Pharaoh in order to ask him to release the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt. Pharaoh is unwilling, and so Moses and Aaron use miraculous signs in an effort to convince him: Aaron throws down his staff and it turns into a snake, but Pharaoh’s magicians turn their staffs into snakes as well; even after Aaron’s snake devours the others, Pharaoh is unpersuaded. Next, Moses turns all the water in Egypt into blood,
But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts; so Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them [i.e., Moses and Aaron], as the Lord had said. Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not lay even this to heart. (Exodus 7:22-23)
We should not be surprised that Pharaoh so easily dismissed Moses and his miracles, because God had “hardened his heart” (Exodus 7:3), and someone whose heart is hardened toward God will always be able to explain away any evidence we can offer, any arguments (however sound), and even miraculous events. We cannot by either proof or persuasion change a mind that does not want to be changed.
Am I saying, then, that it is futile to for us to contend with atheists and agnostics in a contest of ideas? By no means. If a hard heart is the obstacle, then a softening of the heart can make change possible. This softening only happens through the work of the Holy Spirit, but our words and actions can either help or hinder the process. More significantly, we can plant seeds (if I may switch metaphors) that might take root in the soil prepared by the Spirit, and even somebody who is not willing to listen today may at a more fertile time remember what we have said. The atheist philosopher Anthony Flew is one example, who late in life was finally ready to be convinced by arguments he had been rejecting for decades, and willing to embrace the reality of a Creator. We see something similar in the case of another atheist philosopher, the Jewish-born Edith Stein, who later became a Carmelite nun and was murdered by the Nazis; we now know her as St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross.
What we say is important. How we live our lives and treat other people (expressly including those with whom we are debating) is even more important, because the good example of Christians has led to many conversions. Let’s return to Pharaoh for a moment. He eventually relented and released the Hebrews after the events of the first Passover, when the lives of the first-born sons of the Egyptians were taken. For many of us, the Holy Spirit softens our hard hearts through suffering or misfortune. In the Twelve Steps (the recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous, which has now been applied in many other areas) this is known as “hitting rock bottom”: life has become so difficult, so intolerable, that a person is finally driven to consider possibilities that had been unthinkable before. If a person who has reached such a point sees Christians living peaceful and joyful lives, he or she is likely to ask “why can’t I have that?” This person is ready for conversion. If he sees Christians who are back-biting hypocrites, on the other hand, he will probably start looking elsewhere, and the opportunity that the Holy Spirit has created will be lost.
Knowing Our Own Part
Apart from the person or persons with whom we are in direct dialogue, we also need to be aware of others who might be listening to our discussion. Who knows where they are in their faith journey? They might be wavering, and looking for reasons not to give up on God, or they could be someone for whom the soil has been prepared, and they are waiting for just the right seeds. Even if the person to whom we think we are speaking never comes to conversion, what we say, and how we say it, can have a profound impact on bystanders.
Finally, we have been commissioned to preach the Gospel by Jesus Christ Himself (Mark 6:15). It seems that our Lord wants to use us as his instruments, even though it is His power that changes hearts. Perhaps that’s why he sends Moses, who says “since I am a poor speaker, how is it possible that Pharaoh will listen to me” (Exodus 6:30), so that it is clear that it is God, and not Moses’ eloquence, that wins freedom for the Hebrews.
Seeing our proper role here is the key. Mother Theresa used to remark that she was called not to be successful, but faithful. This is a good reminder for all of us, because we tend to take upon ourselves responsibility for the results, when all that is under our control is the effort. Exodus reminds us that if we do what our Lord asks us to do, He can take care of the rest.