As a student and teacher of foreign languages, I have spent a lot of time learning irregular verbs, verbs which simply don’t fit the usual pattern of conjugation and which have to be learnt. If you don’t learn these, you end up sounding very strange (think of the child’s ‘I buyed a new toy’ instead of ‘I bought a new toy’), and if there’s one thing that marks you out as a foreigner, it’s not mastering these things!
In the series ‘Yes, Prime Minister’, Bernard Woolley likens our subjective response to situations to irregular verbs, using emotive conjugation to make his point (this mimics the form of a grammatical conjugation of an irregular verb to illustrate humans’ tendency to describe their own behaviour more charitably than the behaviour of others.) He says, “It’s one of those irregular verbs, isn’t it? I have an independent mind, You are eccentric, He is round the twist.” (“The Bishop’s Gambit”, “Yes, Prime Minister.”) One of the most famous examples of this is related to stubbornness: ‘I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool.’ Our subjective opinion really does influence the vocabulary we use!
In Acts 19:1-10, we see Paul preaching and teaching in Ephesus, once again attempting to persuade the Jews and God-fearers in the synagogue that Jesus is the Christ and that the kingdom of God is near. Once again, we see how the Jewish people rejected the good news. ‘Some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way.’ (Acts 19:9)
Being obstinate or stubborn in the Scriptures often refers to a hardening of our hearts and instantly brings to mind not only Pharaoh’s response to Moses (see Ex 8:15, Ex 9:34), but the people’s response to God in the wilderness (Neh 9:29). God’s people tend to be good at hardening their hearts, but often we see this sin more easily in others than in ourselves and tend to treat ourselves more charitably and leniently than we do other people. The writer to the Hebrews offers us sound advice: ‘encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.’ (Heb 3:13) This chapter refers back to Psalm 95, which itself refers back to the wilderness wanderings. On these occasions, the Israelites hardened their hearts and refused to believe God; the Jews in Ephesus were in the same position (and missed out on God’s offer of salvation as a result.)
We are called to let God’s Spirit soften our hearts so that we are not hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. It’s easy to feel we are simply being firm or to see our refusal to change as a positive sign, but we need to be careful lest we are deceived. Stubbornness is not always something to be praised!