If you know Jesus, then you know how he has changed your heart and given you a new sense of peace, joy, and love.
As you grow in your faith, you might want him to change your heart even more. Or you might long for others in your life who are cold, calloused—or even abusive—to experience such a life-transforming change. So you pray for such a change?
But can God actually change a person’s heart?
Only God can change a person’s heart. As Christians, we should pray for ourselves and for others. As we do, we find that the heart most transformed is our own, as God seeks to use us to reach others.
How Does God Change Hearts?
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.Ezekiel 36:25-26
This is the promise that God spoke to Israel through the prophet Ezekiel above, and it is the promise that David sought in his prayer of confession when he said “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)
All of us need to experience this change of heart that comes from God’s cleansing. The heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9). So without the transforming power of God’s grace, our hearts can only lead us on the path to destruction.
Of course, when we ask, “Can God change a person’s heart?” most of us are asking with someone other than ourselves in mind.
Sometimes we simply want others to experience the peace and joy that we know in our own hearts. But usually, when we invite God to change another person’s heart, it is because of some negative impact that the other person has on us.
So how should we pray when we want God to change another person’s heart?
Mercy: the Heart’s Change Agent
As we pray for the hearts of others, let us pray for God’s mercy to be revealed. It was mercy that delivered the cleansing spoken of by Ezekiel. It was mercy that answered David’s prayer for renewal. It was mercy that called you and me to salvation.
Mercy precedes the changed heart. We see this in the promise delivered through the prophet Jeremiah:
My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.Jeremiah 24:6-7
Here, God promised to watch over the people, return them to their land, and build them up before He changed their hearts. It was only after they had received His mercy that change began.
By contrast, we cannot achieve the change of heart that we hope to achieve through judgment. As God declared in Isaiah 57:16, “I will not accuse them forever, nor will I always be angry, for then they would faint away because of me—the very people I have created.“
From this verse, we see that accusation and judgment turn a heart away from God, not toward Him.
Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart
The relationship between judgment and a heart turned away from God is best illuminated by Pharaoh’s role in the Exodus.
The Lord said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. – Exodus 4:21
The Lord unambiguously declared that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart. For many Christians, the idea that God would do such a thing is discomforting, until we understand that God is declaring that Pharaoh is already under judgment.
When God’s judgment began to unfold in the form of the ten plagues, Pharaoh’s heart became even further hardened:
But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said to Moses.Exodus 9:12
It is the relationship between judgment and a hardened heart that helps us reconcile one of the most uncomfortable verses in all of the New Testament:
Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.Romans 9:18
Just as the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart came as an act of judgment, the softening of our hearts comes through God’s mercy.
Mercy in Action
If you are a Christian reading this and fearing that God might harden your heart, let scripture put your fear at ease. All who know Christ are under mercy and are therefore no longer under the condemnation of judgment (Romans 8:1).
Jesus delivered his mercy while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8) so that we might be free from judgment and receive new hearts. This is the same model that he followed throughout his earthly ministry.
Jesus healed freely, forgave sins, and sent renewed people forth telling them that their faith—faith in His grace and mercy—made them well.
In Luke 19, we read of a man who expressed a profound change of heart in response to Jesus’ mercy:
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” … But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” – Luke 19:5, 8
Jesus did not confront the crooked tax collector Zacchaeus with accusation and condemnation. He extended grace. And that grace compelled a softening of Zacchaeus’ heart that led him to repent.
Be the Change
As we pray for God to change a person’s heart, we often find that it is we who experience the most profound change of all.
Acts 10 records Peter’s vision that prompted him to go to the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion.
At first, Peter objected because his heart was closed to the ‘unclean gentiles.’ But when he reluctantly agreed and went, God used Peter to bring the good news of salvation to the family of Cornelius.
As Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit poured out on these ‘unclean’ people, his heart toward them changed. He had no defense against the free gift of God’s mercy.
So let us not cease praying selflessly for others to experience God’s mercy. And let us be prepared to have our own hearts transformed, too, so that God might use us to share His mercy with others.