There is a verse from the Letter to the Hebrews that deserves attention because it is a more common problem than many imagine:
See to it, brothers, that none of you has an unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But exhort one another daily, as long as it is called today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (Heb 3:12-13).
When most of us read a text like this, we think only of obvious and dark cases. For example, someone’s tendency to lash out at others leads him to increasing violence and cruelty, or someone’s desire for possessions leads him to increasing stinginess and unkindness, or someone’s lust leads him to sexually promiscuity that is more and more debased and perverse. However, there are less egregious versions of what this text describes that can lead even religiously observant Catholics to become hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.
An example of this is the outright, almost categorical denial of the doctrine of Hell by a large number of Catholics, even ones who attend Mass faithfully each week. Although Jesus taught it consistently, many today firmly resist the biblical teaching that many people are in significant danger of going to Hell.
It can be argued that 21 of the 38 parables have as their theme the warning of impending judgment in which some are judged unable or unwilling to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. For example, there are sheep and goats; wheat and tares; those on the right and those on the left; wise virgins and foolish ones; those who accept the invitation to the wedding and those who refuse; those properly dressed and those who are not; those who are told, “Come, blessed of my Father” and those who are told, “Depart from me.” This is not the place for me to give a full teaching on these doctrines. (I have posted in more depth on these topics: here and here and here.)
Many today, even among the religiously observant, do not take these consistent teachings seriously. “God wouldn’t do that because He is love and compassion,” they say. “There aren’t many people in Hell, except maybe Hitler.” Most people are quite “hardened” in this “deceitful” view, to use the language from Hebrews. Even when presented with verse after verse from Scripture—most directly from Jesus’ mouth—many still stubbornly persist in rejecting what is clearly taught, saying: “Yeah, I know, but He didn’t really mean it. He won’t really do that.”
To illustrate, some years ago a woman confronted me after Mass objecting to my sermon, which included a warning about Hell for those who refuse to repent. (The Gospel for that Sunday included Jesus’ sad warning that the road to Hell was wide with many on it, while the road to salvation was narrow and only a few were walking its way and would find salvation). She said to me, “I didn’t hear the Jesus I know in your sermon about Hell today.” I replied, “But ma’am, I was quoting Jesus!” She did not miss a beat, saying, “Oh, please! We know He never really said that.” This reply indicates a hardening by the deceit of sin on several levels: she rejects the revealed Word of God in favor of her own views, she rejects the doctrine and warnings of Hell itself, and she remakes the Lord so that He conforms to her notions and can be worthy of her credence and worship. (We used to call this last thing “idolatry.”)
Listen again to the words from Hebrews: See to it, brothers, that none of you has an unbelieving heart … so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. This refers to more than just wicked behaviors. Sometimes the hardness is a refusal to believe revealed doctrines or to accept the Lord’s serious warnings. A world hardened by the deceit of sin will not accept that there are lasting consequences for the refusal to repent. Many have allowed themselves to be influenced by it, setting aside God’s Word in favor of human ideas and preferences.
Beware of this tendency, which is so common today. Study the doctrines. Read the warnings of the Lord in Scripture. Ask questions about things that puzzle or trouble you; pray for insight—but do not be misled into sinfully and stubbornly rejecting what is revealed.
The reading for Wednesday’s Mass contains a salutary warning:
Rely not on your strength in following the desires of your heart. Say not, “Who can prevail against me?” for the LORD will exact the punishment. Say not, “I have sinned, yet what has befallen me?” for the LORD bides his time. Of forgiveness be not overconfident, adding sin upon sin. Say not, “Great is his mercy; my many sins he will forgive.” For mercy and anger alike are with him; upon the wicked alights his wrath. Delay not your conversion to the LORD, put it not off from day to day; For suddenly his wrath flames forth; at the time of vengeance, you will be destroyed. Rely not upon deceitful wealth, for it will be no help on the day of wrath (Sirach 5:1-10).
The Lord says these things because He loves us. He does not want us to be lost. In the end, though, God respects our freedom to say no to what He is offering. He knows how we are made and how stubborn we can be. He knows that the values of Heaven (particularly love of our enemies, forgiveness of those who have wronged us, and chastity) are not pleasing to many people. The Lord will not force us to live values like these, but they are what Heaven is about. Thus, He warns us to let Him instill a desire in us for what He offers so that we will desire the Heaven He describes. Listen to Him; He warns us in love so that He can take our heart of stone and give us a true heart to desire the Heaven He is offering.
Do not be hardened by deceitful teachings rooted in this world of sin!