The LORD said to him, “On your return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have put in your power. I will harden his heart, however, so that he will not let the people go.
You can’t shake the Devil’s hand then say you’re only kidding.
~ They Might Be Giants, “Your Racist Friend”
This lyric from They Might Be Giants has been stuck in my head for the past few days. I’ve been a fan of the band for years and have listened to this song many times, but just the other day, this line, which goes by quickly at the end of a verse, suddenly caught my attention and stuck with me.
The song “Your Racist Friend” tells the story of a friend’s party where you meet someone your friend knows, but you don’t, who is comfortable, and drinking, and speaks at length, making a variety of racist comments. The singer can’t believe that his friend isn’t as offended as he is. In the chorus, he comments “I know politics bore you, but I feel like I hypocrite talking to you and your racist friend.”
However, the line I’ve been focusing on comes from a verse near the end of the song, when the singer has thrown up his hands, remarked that he simply can’t stand for this, and begun to leave the party. The racist friend realizes he’s offended and follows him to apologize. He says he understands that he’s offended, that he’s been drinking and said things he didn’t mean. Then the singer responds with this one simple statement: You can’t shake the Devil’s hand then say you’re only kidding.
This is something I don’t think I consider often enough. Every day we do things without thinking about them, make spur of the moment decisions, passing remarks, quick retorts, and don’t consider their deeper meaning. In these moments, it is easy to cater to what is easier or what we prefer in these kinds of decisions rather than what is right and what God prefers.
On occasion, this goes even farther and we make a serious, thought-out decision based on our personal wants and what is easy rather than God’s wants and what is right.
All of these decisions, when we cater to our human flaws over God’s plan for us, are wrong. And we find that, in the long run, they don’t do us well, and we wind up apologizing to God, making our penance, and, human that we are, trying again to do better. And God forgives, over and over, especially the rash decisions.
But we must watch ourselves for the patterns. When we develop a pattern of this kind of behavior, making comments in poor taste, taking actions we know to be self-serving and contrary to God’s plan, find ourselves being racist, or adulterous, or murderous, we have done more than made a rash decision. We have given in to the sins of sloth and selfishness and chosen the easy, self-serving path. And when we make that decision, we seal our contract with the Devil with a firm handshake.
God is eternally forgiving, we learn that from Jesus in the gospels. God is also a father though, and he wants us to learn when he forgives. Once you’ve shaken hands with the Devil, it’s hard to come back. God hardens your heart, like he hardened the Pharaoh’s heart in Egypt so he would not release the Israelites.
The vengeful God of the Old Testament is not different from the loving God of the New Testament, He’s just redefined. Yes, God is eternally loving, but the amount of sin you have built up stands between you and Him. It is a barrier around your heart, keeping Him out, hardening it. Perhaps the line from Exodus should be reworded to say that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, surrounding it with sin and keeping God out. And once we’ve hardened our hearts, it’s not that God doesn’t want to forgive us, we won’t come to him to ask for forgiveness.
I like to think of Pinocchio, the little boy who is always making decisions not only rashly, but based purely on ease and self-service. His father, Geppetto, it willing to forgive him over and over again, but he continues to make these kinds of decisions. Finally, he finds himself at Pleasure Island, the land of instant gratification and pure self-service. Pinocchio thinks he’s hit the jackpot and is no longer worried about his poor father’s feelings or forgiveness. Yet, he wakes up the next morning to find a transformation has occurred. He has been turned into a donkey, a physical representation of his stubborn refusal to right his ways.
God sees us for who we are, and if we travel away from him, if we harden our hearts, we, too, will be transformed, and those around us will see us for what we are inside. Once you have shaken the Devil’s hand, it can be seen by those around you, and you won’t be able to just say you were kidding, or that you didn’t mean it.
But what if you’ve shaken the Devil’s hand, what if you’ve developed a habit and a lifestyle that is contrary to God’s plan, stuck in a sinful rut? God is, as Jesus told us over and over, eternally forgiving. You just have to climb all the way out of the rut you dug for yourself, break through the hardness around your heart, and reach out for Him. Like the prodigal son coming home, we are greeted by our father, running out to meet us, having killed the fatted calf and declared a celebration for our return.