Stubbornness is defined as a ‘dogged determination not to change one’s attitude or position on something.’ Whilst determination is seen as a good quality, stubbornness implies an intransigence which is not always praiseworthy. I was once on a car journey back from the Alps in France and my father took a wrong turning onto the motorway, taking us further south instead of back north to catch our ferry home. Despite being told by everyone in the car (including my nine-year-old son) that he was heading in the wrong direction, he refused to change his attitude for some miles, adding miles and hours to our journey. He did not want to admit that he had made a mistake; stubbornness generally is connected to pride in some way.
The people of God have a history of stubbornness. They were often described as ‘stiff-necked’, a wonderfully evocative phrase which implies a rigid position of the head which fails (deliberately) to look at any other position (see Ex 32:9, Ex 33:5, Deut 9:13, Deut 31:27). Moses frequently despaired of the Israelites during the wilderness years and the whole history of Israel is of a people failing to heed God and His warnings through the prophets. (Jer 17:23) It was this stubbornness and intransigence on the part of the religious leaders that led to the crucifixion of Jesus and the persecution of His followers. Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:1-53 is a vivid résumé of the history of God’s people and their ongoing opposition to God.
Flexibility is the opposite of being stubborn or stiff-necked. When we are physically flexible, lithe and nimble, we can move freely and see a range of viewpoints. Stephen’s condemnation of those accusing him was heartfelt: “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.” (Acts 7:51-53) He showed us that stubbornness can lead to greater sins: resisting the Holy Spirit and disobeying God. We need to be spiritually flexible, willing to change our position and open to the new things God is always doing. Paul reminded the Thessalonians, ‘Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good.’ (1 Thess 5:19-21)
My son has discovered the benefits of stretching exercises (the tennis player Novak Djokovic once described stretching as his hobby, his favourite thing to do!) We need to learn to stretch ourselves spiritually so that we don’t become stiff-necked and stubborn.