WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE STUBBORN?
In Heb. 4:7 the author quotes David (PS. 95:7-8) as saying: “If you hear God’s voice today, do not be stubborn.” Earlier in Ch. 4 of Hebrews the author comments on how God’s people, the Israelites, heard the good news [about a promised rest] but that hearing it did them no good because they had no faith in what they heard.
The assumption is that God’s message is always meant to help us, to do us some good. But we play a part by interacting with that message. We accept it in faith or we ignore it to our peril. It is not simply a matter of listening to God and saying “Oh, yes, I see what He means.” Comprehension does not lead inevitably to action.
One reason why action may not naturally follow is due to stubbornness. When we are stubborn we are inflexible, intractable, obstinate, opinionated, recalcitrant, self-willed, stiff-necked, unbending, even bull-headed and pig headed. In short, we are head strong and determined to do what we want and unwilling to change our minds. [We are unrepentant].
Now none of us are always as bad as the adjectives I have listed and most of us are perhaps sometimes as good as their antonyms. But taken on the whole, God has had to deal with stubborn people who insist upon their own opinions to such a degree that they cannot, will not, allow faith to enter in to diffuse their own beliefs and assumptions. For example stubborn people who are atheists do not understand that the universe was created by God’s word. They insist that what can be seen was made out of what can be discovered. They cannot hear God’s warnings because they cannot usually see the objects of the warnings and, when they do, they stubbornly refuse to believe God.
To be stubborn then is to put oneself in a terrible condition, because the grace of God is ignored, in fact, trodden upon. And, if being stubborn leads to such a terrible condition, what can be done about it?
First, we must understand our condition when we are stubborn. The main characteristics of our state is that we are inflexible, a trait which some Christians consider a virtue, perhaps because they equate themselves with the solid, unwavering, unchanging ,immutable Word of God and its author. But of course, we are not God, unless we are our own idol, and we must change. We understood this sufficiently to repent and we must pursue repentance throughout our Christian lives. We need to change, to have more of the kind of personality which Christ had and to become more like Him, according to the Scriptures. An inflexible spirit does not seem to characterize Christ, who was visibly moved by people and events. He was unmovable in regard to His purpose of doing the will of God, but His approach to His disciples was flexible and did not display some particular management “style”.
We are not only inflexible in attitude: we go further, we become self-willed. We cannot be persuaded that God wants us to change, to become more and more like His dear son, who was sent to save us and be an example for us.
The stubbornness of the Israelites was such that God said they were a “stiff-necked” people. Any of us who have had a stiff neck can visualize the metaphor. In this kind of obstinacy it hurts to look around and is more comfortable to keep one’s head “locked” in position. But it is more than that: the flexibility and motion which are necessary to look around, to change one’s direction, are immobilized.
Sometimes, in English, we become so strong-willed, so impervious to change, that we are bull-headed or, in the English idiom, pig-headed. We are like animals who lack much intelligence: strong, sometimes unpredictable, but always rushing madly along, guided by instinct, reaction and wrath.
There is another aspect of stubbornness that is even more frightening. When we are stubborn, really stubborn, we become rebellious and unteachable. We turn against God and we will no longer listen to what He has to say. When the Israelites built the golden calf (Ex. 32) and worshipped it they showed their rebellion and stubbornness. When we build a golden calf in the form of possessions and pride, we stop worshipping God and believe that work, money, and our ego have freed us. What followed for the Israelites follows for all of us, to one degree or another: we sit down to eat at a feast and end up in excess, an orgy of self-promotion.
Stephen, in his speech before the council, summed up his speech like this: “How stubborn you are”. They, like their ancestors, resisted the H.S. and were deaf to God’s message.
If stubbornness is so persuasive, what are the remedies? We might learn something by examining how we deal with stubborn children. We want them to understand that they must obey, yet we do not want to harm them physically or psychologically.
It is important that the child trusts the parents’ judgment and that he or she responds to their love. If children cannot feel the love or believe that the parents have their interests at heart, it will be difficult for them to respond at all. Stubbornness can be overcome by persistent love, but it may not seem that way at times.
Imagine, for example, a child who takes a disliking to oatmeal, surely not untypical, and who will therefore not eat breakfast properly or at all. The child is stubborn about it and the parents may become equally stubborn: “Sit there until you eat it”, or “Go to your room until you decide to eat it”, they may say. Or they may promise rewards for eating the oatmeal, rather than punishment for not eating it. With either extreme the child can see no direct benefit of oatmeal. If athletes or comic figures ate it or if peers sang jingles while happily gulping it down, the child might be persuaded to do so as well.
The best way, it seems to me, for us to teach the child to eat oatmeal is to sit down and eat oatmeal with him or her. If it is supposed to be that good, we better eat it too. And, if it isn’t good at all, we should know that as well. We become willing oatmeal eaters to help the stubborn oatmeal eater.
In Ro. 11:25, we read that Israel was stubborn for a time. They were unwilling to learn and had a closed mind.
We have all met people with closed minds: evangelical Christians close their minds to liberals. There is nothing, they believe, to be profitably learned from them.
The opposite of a closed mind is an open one, in which we are willing to learn and evaluate. In Ac 17:11 we read that the people at Berea (in the synagogue) were more open-minded than the people at Thessalonica. The T. people caused an uproar trying to find Paul and Silas; the B. people listened to the message of P. & S. with gladness.
We can note then, that open-minded people are not prone to stubbornness because they want to learn. They do not believe that they already know every thing.
Who were some of the stubborn people that are mentioned in the Scriptures?
Kings were especially stubborn and their officials equally so. They were represented by the Egyptians in Exodus and by the Israelites themselves later on in the book of Kings. However, God accomplished His purposes through these stubborn rulers. Nevertheless, their stubbornness’s manifested itself in evil and violence, the natural outcome for those who consistently and persistently ignore the commands of God.
But the Israelites, as a nation, were stubborn too. God sums it up when he tells Moses to say to them: “You are a stubborn people” (Ex. 33:5). God, loving His people, goes further and says, “I will break your stubborn pride if you do not obey me. (Lev. 26:19). In 2 Ch. 30:8, the stubbornness of their ancestors is used as an extreme example by King Hezekiah in calling His people to repentance and worship.
King Pharaoh became more stubborn each time that God dealt with him. The pattern was stubbornness (not allowing the Israelites to leave Egypt), punishment by God (the disasters of blood in the rivers, frogs, gnats, fleas, death of animals, boils, hail, locusts and darkness), temporary repentance by the king and then stubbornness all over again. Finally, with the death of the first-born, the king gives in but it is at enormous cost, including the death of his son.
While the story in Ex. relates well with what happens in extreme stubbornness, it is only part of the story. After all, God made the king stubborn (Ex. 11:10).
The real lesson is the result of stubbornness: there is no repentance, there is rebellion, viciousness and evil. The heart becomes as if it were made of bronze and iron (Jer.6:28) or stone (Ezek.11:19), elements that are not pliable.
Even in this sad state, or perhaps because of it, we are finally “able” to let God take away the stone and iron. Stubborn as mules and donkeys (Heb. 4:16, 8-9) we finally ask God to change us – to give us a new heart.
We see that stubbornness is contrary to what God wants. It is opposite and incompatible with His will. We become so headstrong that we are immovable.
At this point we should pause and ask: What is so bad about being immovable? Don’t we want workers who are decided, firm, inflexible, and resolute? Of course, but coupled with these characteristics we must see obedience, gentleness, pliability, a certain submissiveness, and someone who is teachable.
We read in one story how David acted contrary to God’s commands. He was decided in his compulsion to have Bathsheba and it led to adultery, murder, deceit and life as a fugitive.
Despite this, or because of the sins he committed, David became a man after God’s own heart. He demonstrated the qualities that are opposite to stubbornness.
If a stubborn person is obstinate, refusing to budge, habitually determined to do his own thing, we might expect that the opposite of stubbornness is to be docile, dutiful, obedient, pliable, submissive or teachable. Undoubtedly each of these attributes enter into the equation at some extent but, it seems to me, the primary characteristic of the person who is not stubborn is that she/he is humble, like David, recognizing sin and confessing it, repenting in gratitude that God, the waiting Father, accepts him. For the Gospel of J.C. is one of forgiveness and unlike Islam, turning the cheek to accept – even welcome for Christ’s sake-persecution.
Humility, of all the antonyms of stubbornness’s, seems to sum up the religious sense, where one ascribes to God and not himself all credit for life and purpose. The humble servant is compliant to God’s Will and submissive to His purposes. He is unpretentious and unostentatious; there is nothing to be showy about because His life is one of obedience to God’s commands, which leads to peace with others. There is no need of pretension or assertion because God is in control and the humble person is subordinate to the wishes of God.
There are a number of components that are associated with the meaning of humility. These include obedience, in that a humble person often must yield to others and be submissive, in particular, to the Will of God. Such a person is also respectful, even in a sense subordinate because he or she is not interested in improving their position. Like the man mentioned in James, he sits at the lowly position unless he is asked to come to the head of the table. He then does so, but with humility, that is, showing deference to others, considering them as better than himself.
Such a description sounds like a joke in our contemporary society. Can you imagine a politician offering his seat to anyone else, unless there are cameras to record the “event”? Here our values promote self-aggrandizement and the person who does not “look out for number one” (i.e. one ’s self) does not get ahead. The literal metaphor, in which we speak naturally of “getting ahead” says it all: to be first in line, to have more of anything than any body else, to be recognized, to have privileges and favors; this is the soul stuff of American life. Wherever a humble man lacks pretension and is unassuming the natural American man is in charge and boastful.
The boasting is not always blatant: but in one way or another we report on our tithes and offerings, our service and dedication, ones righteous opinion and correct theology.
One distinctive of the humble man is widely, although futily, sought in our society is the searching for peace, represented at times by quietness and patience. However, the assertive climber soon loses his patience and their is no peace of mind or family: marriages collapse like the house of cards they are built upon, tempers flare on the freeway and in the home, impulses rule in sex and greed.
Oh to have peace. However, it does not come without calculated personal cost: one must become modest and moderate, under control and not beyond it. In short, become humble.
It seems, from Scripture, that we can either humble ourselves or God can humble us.
We read in Num.12:3 about the humility of Moses. He was not only humble, he was more humble than anyone else. Moses learned his humility through fasting (Lev. 8:2). During those 40 years God was teaching His people the meaning of humility. He tested them so that they would learn obedience and learn to listen to Him. They were to become obedient by humbling themselves, a command repeated in the Bible in 2 Ch. 33:23 to King Amon, but one which he did not follow and, as a result, became even more sinful than his father (Manasseh) had been.
Humility is coupled with patience and compassion (Eph. 4:2), as well as, honesty, kindness and gentleness (Col.3:12).
The compassion sometimes grows out of the humbling process: in the O.T. signs of humility were weeping, torn robes and sackcloth. The humbling process included hunger, oppression, calamity and sorrow.
So humility is the opposite of stubborn pride, stubborn inclinations, refusal to obey God and follow His commands. In describing where the stubbornness is situated, it is in our spirit, heart, mind, or ways; in short, it permeates our being such that we are unrepentant and obstinate. It is so pervasive that God must help us by humbling us. Only then can we see the need for change and pursue it.
The humble person pursues peacefulness. He does not make bold, rigid, pretentious statements or issue challenges to others. He is not assertive, but is convinced and content that God is controlling all events, including the position of man in society and government in nations. With this perspective there is no need or desire to control others, but rather there should be a desire to serve them.
For reasons known but to God Himself, He does not choose everyone to be Christians. However, in saying this we recognize that God desires all people to know Him and that He provides clear paths to Himself. But it is obvious that in some cases God goes much further: He marks some people as His own for special work. These Christians are called to a particular task, like Saul of Tarsus or Borden of Yale. They may have been stubbornly resisting God but He decides on their destiny.
In doing so God invariably destroys their pride and hence their stubbornness.
To summarize the contrastive components of stubbornness and humility include:
+OPPOSE/ -CHANGE +OBEY/ +PEACEFUL
-PEACE/ -OBEY +SUBMIT/ +PATIENT
The stubborn person lacks certain qualities; the humble man resists features that are without merit and that are hindrances to the Kingdom of God.
Note some further characteristics of the stubborn [perhaps rel. to OE stub]
Determined to do what I want
Unwilling to change my mind.
- Contrary: completely different from St. + opposite
- Inflexible: cannot be altered -change
- Intractable: difficult to influence or control – control
- Obstinate: determined to do what one wants -change – persuasion
- Recalcitrant: not susceptible to control
Refractory: unmanageable, not responding -control
- Self-willed: follow own will – persuasion
- Stuff-necked: stubborn, obstinate – change
(cannot turn neck) -flexibility
- Unbending – rigid in-Flexible -flexibility
Stern or severe = attitude
- Bull-headed +strong – intelligence
- Pig-headed -change
On the other hand, note characteristics of the humble:
- Compliant – acquiescent; disposition to yield to others + obey
- Deferential – showing deference; respectful, submissive + respect
- Gentle – mild or kindly nature, quiet + peaceful
- Lowly – humble, low in position; meek +subordinate
- Meek – patient, long-suffering, submissive +peaceful, +patient
- Mild – gentle, temperate, moderate + peaceful
- Modest – humble opinion of self, reserved -pretension
- Submissive – humble, servile + obey
- Unassuming – modest, unpretentious -assertive
- Unostentatious -pretension
- Unpretentious -pretension
- Yielding +obey, submit
Have you ever been humbled? That does not, necessarily, or for a long period of time, make you a humble person. If I was humbled last week, it does not mean I am a humble person. It simply means that I had nothing to be proud about the event. In fact, if you are humbled, i.e. by some outside person or event, it can make you stubborn. You can dislike someone if they humble you.
It is much better to humble ourselves, i.e. to not think more highly of ourselves than we ought. But how much can we “ought”? We are told to consider others better than ourselves. But we know this isn’t true – we excel over them, don’t we? Let’s be honest!
We are left with some hard words from Philippians:
Philippians 2:1-16: 2 1-4 If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
5-8 Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
9-11 Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.
12-13 What I’m getting at, friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning. When I was living among you, you lived in responsive obedience. Now that I’m separated from you, keep it up. Better yet, redouble your efforts. Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you, God himself willing and working at what will give him the most pleasure.
14-16 Do everything readily and cheerfully—no bickering, no second-guessing allowed! Go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God. Carry the light-giving Message into the night so I’ll have good cause to be proud of you on the day that Christ returns. You’ll be living proof that I didn’t go to all this work for nothing.
The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson