Cultivating a Tender Heart

Dennis McCallum

The Paradox of Toughness and Tenderness

Christian workers who actively engage in invading the world system are well aware of the need for toughness. Those who think they can accomplish God's agenda as soft, or weak people are in for a surprise: Christian work is rough!

Paul characterizes serving God as a spiritual war (Ephesians 6:12). In other passages, he compares the rigors of serving God to the pain, discipline, and self-denial experienced by athletes (1 Corinthians 9:25). He reminds younger workers that reaping a harvest for God takes as much hard work, patience, and persistence as farming (2 Timothy 2:6). Jesus warned that following him in radical discipleship meant first shouldering your cross (Luke 9:23).

Workers for God in the western world today escape much of the hard-core persecution that workers in other parts of the world and throughout history have endured. But we will not escape intense suffering.

The nature of Christian work dictates that those who pursue it must be ready to take a liberal buffeting. Satan will increasingly terrorize us the more we advance for God. Intense times of temptation, doubt, depression, and despair are the lot of all effective workers for God. The evil one will continually press claims on us that nothing we do is accomplishing anything, that we are doomed to failure, and that we are painfully unqualified to serve God anyway.

Failure at different levels is a regular feature of all God-honoring Christian work. Jesus warned that only false prophets see all people speaking well of them. Unless we set our goals shamefully low, we will live with continual times of frustration as we are simply unable to accomplish what we set out to do.

Inner spiritual and moral failure often makes us feel like helpless hypocrites as we serve. How many times have I had to go forward to speak for God, heartsick in the knowledge of my own failure?

Then there are the people. We invest our lives into people, loving them from the heart, only to have them walk away as though nothing happened. Others even turn on us with spite and fury. While we certainly have times of joy and refreshment in our relationships, we will have frequent opportunities to practice forgiveness as well. Colleagues misunderstand and criticize. Lack of appreciation tempts us to promote ourselves.

To withstand all these trials and many more besides, Christian workers soon realize they are going to have to be tougher than they thought if they are to keep going. Within the first few years of serving God, our estimates of how much toughness we need continually rise as the difficulty of the task gradually dawns on us in successive waves. What we thought would be good enough during the first year or two seems ridiculously naïve several years later. Fortunately, God mercifully only gradually immerses us into the caldron of fire, lest we be overwhelmed. By the time we've been serving God for a few years, we are all too familiar with the hardships.

While we are tempered in the fire of spiritual warfare, we hopefully learn how to draw near to God for strength. We learn that our identity can only come from our position in Christ. Christian workers more than anyone, have to learn to walk by faith, not by our feelings. We learn that we can sustain heartache and heartbreak and still keep going. But we may learn some negative things as well.


When people are being battered from every side, the instinct for self-protection can become overwhelming. We instinctively realize we have to toughen our hearts if we are to withstand the barrage of negatives coming at us. Without any conscious decision on our part, we naturally begin to build an internal shell around our bruised hearts. It seems only reasonable to learn how to dim our emotional response to pain. Just as fingers continually chaffed by hard work build up layers of protective callous, our hearts gradually tend to harden.

This hardening is different than a hardening of the heart toward God, in the sense that we become entrenched in disobedience. That kind of hardening is conscious and sinful. (Heb. 3:12-15) The hardening Christian workers develop is different—perhaps a growing ability to care less when things go wrong. It's an ability to withstand blows that would flatten others. This hardening is morally ambiguous because it contains good and bad aspects. It's not a hardening against God, but a hardening against pain. This hardening comes from our effort to follow and serve God, not to rebel against him. (We'll use the term "toughening" rather than "hardening" to express this difference).

Not all of this toughening is bad. When I was a young worker I remember being plunged into days of inconsolable depression over a single accusing criticism. Larger betrayals and disappointments could completely derail my intention to serve and my walk with God. Looking back now, I see that as a young man I was a spiritual weakling, poorly suited to real spiritual battle. I'm glad I've developed a "thicker hide" in the years since, and I don't think I would be serving now if I hadn't.

We regularly see overly sensitive workers losing their composure and quitting. Some would-be Christian workers simply will not tolerate having their feelings hurt beyond a certain point. At the same time, those people's feelings are often hurt more easily than they should be. I have often admonished younger workers that they need to develop a "thicker hide." Experienced workers know we have to learn to let insults, slights, and disappointments slide off our backs like water off the back of a duck.

Partly we learn to do this by remembering our experience—all the other times similar things occurred, and yet God stood by us and his work continued to advance. We also become more secure in our identity in Christ, which enables us to discount other indications of our worthlessness. We have to learn progressively to minister under grace. Our own unworthiness and frequent lack of fruit are mainly countered by the grace of God.

But we develop toughness in other ways as well. One of the most subtle ways is also one of the most dangerous. Without ever deciding to, we begin holding back slightly in our relationships. It's not that we stop relating to people, but that we are more cautious about giving our heart over to them. Out of repeated betrayal and abandonment a pervasive distrust of people grows almost unavoidably.

Is distrusting people a bad thing? The answer may seem obvious, but wait: Even Jesus didn't trust humans. John records that, "Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man." (2:24, 25) Jesus knew people are untrustworthy, but he never took the next step—holding back. Unlike Jesus, workers who feel growing distrust are sorely tempted to toughen their hearts toward closeness and vulnerability. We opt for ways of relating that leave us less exposed. We still meet with people, still share, teach, plead, and encourage. But something may show up missing. We become reluctant, or even unable to truly love others from the heart. And that's a problem Jesus never had.

Here is where toughening the heart backfires. When we lose the willingness or ability to fully give our hearts to people, we also lose a significant measure of effectiveness. People sense that we are holding back with the safety of inter-personal distance. And when we are more distant, we have less influence with people. We find it more difficult to motivate friends when we operate at a safe distance. Our pleas will have less force. Our admonitions will create more suspicion. In a word, people become more responsive when they sense we love them with all our hearts, and less responsive when they sense something less.

Reciprocity also kicks in at this point with a negative impact. Reciprocity means the tendency people have to reciprocate, or to match, the relational pattern put forward by others in relationship. If one party is unforgiving and harsh, the other tends to reciprocate and become more harsh himself. If one holds back his heart, the other tends to do so as well. Thus, it becomes even harder for both people to be vulnerable, and the problem can snowball.

When we have a toughened heart, we lose sensitivity. We don't feel pain as sharply, but now we don't strongly feel other's feelings in empathy. We find it harder to move into our friends' joys and sorrows, resulting in further relational distance and ineffectiveness. We may even try faking it, but that usually rings hollow. Expressing loving emotions feels weird, and even if we do, we feel compelled to take something off what we say. Our bank-shot statements are so couched that our friends often don't even notice them.

Quality disciple-makers and leaders know that our gifting is greatly enhanced when we build relationships that glow with deep affection and love. People who thrive on their relationships with leaders are motivated to be like them. They, in turn, know how to foster similar relationships with others because of the modeling they have seen. A home church with leaders and workers who give their hearts to others in love glows like a warm fire that makes people want to stand close. Members of the body of Christ quite rightly draw strength from their quality relationships with others. How many times I've turned away from sin because I didn't want to let down key people I respected, and who I knew loved me from the heart.

Leaders with toughened hearts may become cynical. Consider the following relevant definitions for "cynical":
  • Believing or showing the belief that people are motivated chiefly by base or selfish concerns; skeptical of the motives of others
  • Negative or pessimistic, as from world-weariness
  • Expressing jaded or scornful skepticism or negativity

All of these can follow when we toughen our hearts toward others. Unfortunately, cynical attitudes tend to be self-fulfilling when held by Christian workers. Young Christians get vision when their leaders believe in them. That's why cynical workers cannot cast strong, positive vision for others. Thus, cynicism is not only self-fulfilling, it becomes self-reinforcing. The poor results we see from people in our ministries confirm our cynical suspicions.

Recovering a Tender Heart

Over the years I have frequently struggled with cynicism. It's a very confusing area, because people are often motivated by selfish concerns. A cynical perspective just seems so right so much of the time. Standing up and baring our souls once again to others after repeated experiences of betrayal and disappointment just seems too foolish!

How do we overcome our toughened heart toward others, while remaining tough enough to withstand the rough-and-tumble of hard-core ministry?

In seeking an answer to this question, I have often contemplated the verses quoted earlier from John 2. Jesus knew better than to entrust himself to humans, so he was cynical too! Not really. He certainly was tough. He was tough enough to wade into virulent conflict. He was tough enough to face the cross. But Jesus shows a remarkably tender heart toward people. Watch him weeping over Jerusalem. Hear his affectionate words at the last supper. For some reason, Jesus' insight about the people's selfishness didn't lead to any need to distance himself from tender feelings toward them. Jesus may have distrusted humans, in the sense that he knew how self-serving we are, but he never became cynical.

This paradoxical difference between Jesus and my tendency toward cynicism takes us deeply into the mysteries of a truly sacrificial outlook. Sacrificial people get messed over by their friends just like others do. But they aren't afraid of it. They have willingly chosen the path of self-sacrifice, and have already counted the cost of vulnerability. At my best times, I've felt this—knowing the chances are good that a certain person will mess me over badly, I have been able to nevertheless give my heart over in love. These relationships have resulted in some remarkable transformations in discipleship. At other times, I got messed over as expected. But strangely, these cases of betrayal don't hurt like the others.

Why is being betrayed by a friend so frightening? Isn't it our determination to avoid sacrifice that makes this prospect seem so menacing? When we willingly wade into sacrifice, God sustains us, and it's not as bad as we thought it would be. One reason such abandonment hurts less is that our conscience feels clear—I know I loved the person from my heart and gave all I could give. On the other hand, if we contemplate how to protect ourselves from the need to sacrifice, the prospect of betrayal grows larger and larger until it becomes a formidable fear. When abandonment or betrayal hits us, all our fears seem confirmed. The reservoir of dread and fear we have saved up all come crashing down like a loud warning to avoid this in the future!

On the night of his death, we read of Jesus that, "having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end." (John 13:1) As he sat down with them he spoke vulnerable words of affection, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you…" (Luke 22:14) Yet he knew perfectly well he would be betrayed and deserted by each and every one of them that very night! (John 16:32) Jesus showed an amazing ability to give out, emotionally and every other way, even to those he knew would let him down. Jesus' attention was so riveted on his intent to give, that any urge to protect himself was banished. To love one another as he loved us, we will have to take our fears in hand and commit ourselves to give.

One need not be the son of God to maintain a tender heart in the face of intense spiritual battle. Paul gives us a list of horrors he experienced in ministry that none of us could match. And the list includes betrayal by false brothers. Yet we see extraordinary vulnerability, sensitivity, and emotional affection in his epistles. How poignant his comment is in Philippians 2, "For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus." (20, 21) But in the same book he declares, "For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus." (1:8) You sense clearly Paul's tender heart when he tells the Thessalonians, "Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us." (1Thess. 2:8)

Practical Steps

  • Awareness

    The biggest barrier to dealing with a toughened heart is realizing we have the problem. The shift to emotional distance is so gradual, and our functional giving is so objective and real, that we can easily come to believe we are just as engaged as we ever were. Only careful reflection in prayer may reveal that a shift has occurred. Occasionally, other people may point out a difference. If they don't, we could always ask. Another way is to study our own commentary on ongoing events. Often, we find it easier to identify our cynical words and thoughts than any missing heart-felt love.

    Loneliness is also usually a sign that we have ceased giving out emotionally at an adequate level. But even loneliness is difficult to recognize. Often we just feel a vague sense of restlessness or depression that we can't put our finger on. I know of several times in my life when I have struggled with vague, low-level depression over a lengthy period without knowing why. Only after sitting down for some deep heart-searching did I realize, "I'm lonely!" How strange, considering all the people I'm involved with. I knew I had to put a new urgency into deepening my key relationships.

    Dissatisfaction with ministry is often a sign of a toughened heart. The reason we feel dissatisfied may be that we are disengaged from our people. When we are really loving our people from the heart, our church may not be growing as we'd like, but we still see valuable ministry we can do in the lives of our friends.

  • Preparation in Prayer

    We should begin with some in-depth times with God searching out the toughness in our hearts. Much of any ability to overcome heart toughening begins during our times away from the people we want to love. Like David, we should pray, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there is any hurtful way in me…" (Psalms 139:23, 24) As we pray through the people we serve, we can ask God to kindle a warm heart of affection for each. We can consider the risks and disappointments we see in each relationship and ask God to empower us to look past these, and give our heart unstintingly. Gradually, we may sense a growing warmth of heart, and God may even give us words to speak the next time we see our loved-one. As we persist in this, our relationships will grow in intimacy and care.

  • Theology of Relational Loss

    We need to reflect on the theology involved in personal loss in relational abandonment or betrayal. When we toughen our hearts, we choose a path that may impoverish us spiritually to some extent. Distancing relationships rarely stops with humans. Next we find ourselves more distant from God as well.

    God wants to use these painful experiences to prune out aspects of our flesh. We have to face deep questions about our trust for God. Do we believe he will use all things to our good? (Rom. 8:28) Will we cast all our anxieties on him, knowing that he cares for us? (1Pet. 5:7) We may put our feelings on autopilot and look the other way rather than casting our cares onto God. We miss part or all of what God wants to show us when we do this. We must walk through the valley of the shadow of death with God in trust if we expect to learn from our pain. This learning empowers us to minister effectively to others in pain. Without processing our pain before God through mourning, prayer, and renewed surrender, we will dish out superficial help to others.

  • The Choice to Invest

    We need a deliberate willful choice to oppose our heart-toughening trend. Are we convinced that only relational depth will result in that sense of love in our lives that fuels our happiness? Do we see that the very effectiveness we seek will evade us if we allow our hearts to toughen in this sense? Before God, we must make the decision to stride forward to again invest in relationships at the deepest level. We must do this consciously heedless of any pain that may result.

    Gary DeLashmutt counsels, "Invest in your people until you feel affection for them."1 This is good, practical advice. When our heart is toughened, only lengthy, determined investment will ultimately take us to a place where our affection is awakened. We can't simply command our hearts to open up, even if we have made a decision before God. But if we have given out and struggled with a friend over time, we do begin to feel a change. Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." This principle seems to work when it comes to relational investment just as it does with financial investment. The very fact that we have invested so much seems to awaken the deeper feelings of love in our hearts.

  • Success Comes to Success

    Just as relational distance snowballs as others reciprocate our relational patterns, reciprocation works in a positive direction as well. Finding a tender heart toward others causes them to respond with more openness. Relationships grow from deep to deep and become more rewarding. We also find ourselves more effective in motivating and guiding a friend when our relationship is deep. The church usually begins growing when the leaders and workers in the group forsake the safety of distance for real heartfelt love. Members built up and sustained by real love are less likely to fall into temptation and sin. Their emotional lives gradually become more stable. We find it easier to cultivate a grateful attitude in the church, so important to spiritual growth. If we see the need to raise tension and call for change, we are far more likely to be heard. Fewer people will resent admonition when we have given our hearts to them.

    Of course, there are exceptions. We will see defections, rejections, and resentment at times. But these are far easier to take when we know we have given our hearts to people. In the first place, we will be more willing to make hard calls when our consciences are clear regarding our investment. When we are disengaged, we become reluctant to strongly call on people, because we intuitively realize we won't be heard. Disengaged leaders usually become soft leaders. Softness is the price we pay for playing it safe. On the other hand, if we try to get heavy on an issue, even though we have been serving with a toughened heart, we often lose our following altogether. People simply will not take strong admonition as from a father when we have not loved them as a mother. (1 Thess. 2:7-11) Gifted leaders who command a mystical sense of respect from others, even though they are not relationally invested with those people can sometimes admonish with success even without personal investment. But very few of us are like this. Even gifted leaders know they will get even better results when they give their hearts to their people.

  • Taking Initiative

    We naturally feel willing to open up and express our heart to a friend if he does it first. When self-protection rules our hearts, taking initiative is the hardest part in cultivating warm-hearted love. It would be so much easier to respond to warm-heartedness from another, because that way, we are less vulnerable. But we need to make the commitment to be the first to open up. I may have to lay a specific plan involving me disclosing my inner struggles, hurts, and failures. I may need to plan specific things I can say that I know will warm the heart of my friend. This need not be manipulation. This may be no different than deciding I have a problem with over-eating, and going to the store to buy different food for my diet. This may be no different than deciding I need to quit smoking and buying some nicotine gum. I am merely laying specific, practical plans calculated to overcome my problem. I am convinced that relational problems like the toughened heart will not yield to mere reflection and inner resolve. We have to take proactive action if we expect movement.


1. Gary DeLashmutt, "Leading When You're Not a Gifted Leader"