(I wrote this for those who are interested in seeing Japan transformed by the good news about Jesus.)
Have you ever heard a believer talk like this: “Japan is a difficult country to evangelize because the Japanese people have hard hearts. It is extremely hard to find fertile soil for God’s word because the Japanese people remain stubbornly resistant to embracing the Gospel”? I’ve heard people say things like this all my life. If you have spent time in Japan, then I bet you have too. I remember asking a bunch of high schoolers last year if they had heard similar things before and almost all hands shot up.
But is this really an accurate belief and mindset to have? Is it appropriate for believers to talk like this?
What causes missionaries in Japan and Japanese Christians to think like this anyways?
It certainly doesn’t originate in the Bible. The Bible does not speak of entire countries or individuals being “more difficult” to evangelize than others. There are examples of whole cities rejecting Jesus or Paul, but those happened because Jesus did something crazy (e.g. Mark 5:10-20) or a rabble rouser stirred people up (Acts 19), not because the people had hard hearts.
When the phrase “hard heart” or similar is used in the bible, in the vast majority of cases it is in reference to people who claimed to know God but actually didn’t (e.g. Pharisees). Thus it is not biblical to speak of people who don’t claim to know God as hard hearted. They are just uninformed. If anyone, it is people who call themselves Christians who might be hard hearted. If the Japanese people were truly hard hearted, they would be openly persecuting Christians like many Jews did.
Of course people who reject the Gospel exist, but no one can make a generalization of hard heartedness to the people of an entire nation (in fact no one should judge another’s heart, as if people’s motives are obvious). This is especially true when we consider how most Japanese people don’t even know what the Gospel is! (And, might I add, whose responsibility and privilege is that?)
So if it’s not the scriptures, what is making people say that the Japanese people are hard hearted?
I believe the only one truly reasonable explanation left is experience. Let me explain.
Most people who do or have done ministry in Japan have not seen much fruit, both quantitatively and qualitatively (at least compared to what we see in the bible and also compared to a good part of the rest of the world). Judging from the minimal growth of the Christian population since Christianity became legal in Japan, this is not only a phenomenon of our generation but an intergenerational pattern of stagnancy. Naturally, people try to find reasons for what is causing their experiences in order to understand them. I propose that the “hard hearts” theory has become a common reason people use to explain the small spread and slow growth of the Gospel in Japan.
But small spread and growth are not acceptable to believers; the Kingdom of God is not described in that way, nor is the Church recorded to have experienced such trends in the Scriptures. Quite the opposite, in fact. Jesus described the Kingdom as growing in and spreading to all possible places (Matthew 13:31-33), and Acts records explosive multiplication of the Church body (Acts 2:41, 4:4, 5:14).
The effects of this negative mindset are diverse. First and foremost it provides low expectations of how people will respond to the Good News of the Gospel. When we think people’s hearts are hard we also think they will probably not accept Jesus. When we think people will not accept Jesus we are much less likely to tell people about him. If you believe someone has a 99% chance of being saved when you tell them about God, would you? I bet you would! (At least I sure hope you would.) How about if you thought there was only a 0.01% chance? Most people would be much less inclined to do so. Notice that it is not anything about reality or the other person that is affecting our decision, but only our thoughts in the form of expectations.
The mindset also makes room for excuses. We can say, “I’m a Christian so what I’m doing is right. Therefore they must be doing something wrong, namely rejecting Jesus. If they’re not accepting the Gospel, it’s their fault.” But I repeat – most Japanese people do not even know what the Gospel is, and therefore they cannot be rejecting Jesus. The Japanese people are just people. In terms of receiving good news, they are no different than people of other countries. Seriously, quit blaming them.
We also cannot blame God as if he is holding back his blessing and power. We don’t need to pray to try to make God do something; He’s already completely willing. He’s the one waiting on us. Begging God to do something he has told us to do and has also promised to back us up in is unbelief.
Suppose for the sake of argument that Japanese people indeed do have harder hearts than the people of other countries. I then pose this question – who is the one who softens those hard hearts? You? I for one am not going to attempt that feat. I plan on simply sharing good news and letting Jesus do the heart part. Let me further inquire; is it harder for God to soften some hearts than others? If we believe in God’s omnipotence, then the answer is no; to God there are no “levels of difficulty” of performing actions. God is not wringing his hands and breaking a sweat trying to figure out how to save people. He has a plan, and that plan is us, his body. (And if you are discouraged over some hard hearted individual, I encourage you to be encouraged by considering the case of Paul.)
There is nothing about Japan that makes missions harder compared to other countries.
Hard hearts are merely excuses for a lack of fruit.
Missions in Japan only seem hard when we have our eyes set on ourselves. God doesn’t feel that his job is difficult. He doesn’t even need our help! Yet he has chosen the Church as the primary means through which he ministers his grace to the world; we are co-laborers with Christ. When we have negative mindsets that God doesn’t have it affects his movement in the world because we fail to move with him. God wants to harvest with us, not despite us (Mark 16:20; Acts 14:27; 1 Corinthians 3:9; 2 Corinthians 6:1). The number of unsaved people is the number of people who can get saved. That means the fewer saved people there are, the more opportunity there is to see salvation! The harvest is plentiful, but we will not experience that harvest and the laborers will remain few if we continue to propagate the false message that the harvest is not plentiful due to hardened hearts (John 4:35; Matthew 9:37).
As for me, I’ve decided to abandon this language of unbelief. Instead, I talk about my excitement for all that God is doing in Japan right now. He wants the lost people saved. All of them! He wants to do more than I can think, hope, or imagine. And no hard heart can stop him from what he has planned!
But the facts should not simply be ignored – it is true that missions in Japan have not seen tremendous fruit, especially when compared with countries that have seen people come to Christ in droves and their churches continually grow in numbers and in maturity (e.g. India, China, Africa). What is different about missions in countries such as these that have resulted in such remarkable results?
I’ll point out the two that are most obvious to me.
One is the lack of power in ministry. Where is the healing of sicknesses? Where is the casting out of demons? Where is the raising of the dead? Where are the gifts of Holy Spirit? Where are the signs, wonders, and miracles that we see all throughout the New Testament? Jesus said that we would do the same works he did and even greater works (John 14:12), and Paul considered “fully preaching the Gospel” as not mere words but also including tangible demonstrations of its reality (Romans 15:19, 1 Thessalonians 1:5).
The other is the preaching on an inaccurate gospel. We know whether a gospel is the true one by the kind of people it produces; we know a tree by its fruit. The true Gospel will always produce people who bear the fruits of Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, besides holding different beliefs and attending a service on Sundays, in general the church in Japan does not look significantly different from the people around it. I know this because it is the testimony of unbelievers themselves.
Are you manifesting the power of God? Are you preaching the right Gospel?
The Gospel has no difficulty spreading in Japan. But spreading a powerless and only partially true gospel, which is really no gospel at all, is really hard!
Interestingly, when hardness of heart shows up in the bible, it is most often related to unbelief. Unbelief is often among those who think they already believe the right things (e.g. Pharisees). As Kris Vallotton points out, “the nature of deception is that you don’t know that you are deceived.”
Perhaps it is time for a reexamination.
If the Kingdom of God isn’t manifesting in my life and ministry like the bible says it should, I assume that I am the one who is doing something wrong, not the people who don’t have a relationship with God. I want to begin to take personal responsibility for what is my privilege and stop blaming unbelievers for a lack of fruit.
It’s about time we destroy the lie that Japan is difficult to evangelize, and not just by talking about it but by demonstrating the heart of our Daddy.
This is not to condemn anyone for what they are or are not doing. This is good news. This is to let everyone know that there are greater things for us.
I’m going to see this nation change. I won’t fail, because the Kingdom doesn’t fail. Jesus is the desire of the nations, and regardless of whether Japan knows it or not, he is their desire.
Hard hearts do not arouse doubt or fear in my heart in the least. All I see is Jesus. The Gospel that I believe in is so good that it will spread effortlessly. People will accept it wholeheartedly as they realize it’s what they’ve been looking for all their life.
I’m not going to spend hours asking God to bring revival. I have the fullness of God living in me. I am revival.
So are you.
Boys and girls, let’s do this.