One of the consistent observations that God makes of our human family, and we, the individual members of it is that we are stiff-necked (cf Ex 32:9; 33:3; Deut 9:3; 10:16; 2 Chron 30:8; 2 Kings 17:14; Jer 7:26, and many, many other texts). That is to say we tend to be stubborn, prideful, and difficult to correct. And when reproved we easily become resentful and tend to harden our hearts.
One of the more humorous and true things God ever said to us (in love) is: I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass (Is 48:4). This is another way of saying: I know that you are stubborn. Like iron, you are hardheaded. Like bronze, nothing gets through your thick skull. Yes, we are difficult to be sure! God calls us sheep, but in some way we are more like cats, and our Shepherd Jesus, has the unenviable task of herding cats!
For many of us, this tendency to be stiff-necked is gradually softened by the power of grace, the medicine of the sacraments, instruction by God’s Word, and the humility that can come from these.
But for some, the stubbornness never abates. In fact it grows even stronger as a descent into pride, and an increasing hard-heartedness sets up. The deeper this descent, the more obnoxious the truth seems to them, and the less likely their conversion, as a they are not just resistant to the truth, but hostile to it. They harden their hearts and stiffen their necks and at some point, it would seem they reach the point of no return.
This is a very great mystery, which St. Paul termed the mystery of iniquity (2 Thess 2:7). The Greek word here translated “iniquity” is ἀνομία (anomia) which literally means, “without law,” and by extension, speaks of an attitude of living in lawlessness; and of having utter disregard for God’s law. While it is clear that our rebelliousness has its roots in Original Sin, there remains a mysterious aspect of why we are so easily rebellious and stiff-necked. The mystery deepens as we ponder why some are this way more than others, why some harden their hearts, while others find the path of humility more open to them.
But let us be clear, being stiff-necked, stubborn, impenitent, and ultimately hard-hearted is deadly. It is a path straight to destruction, to Hell, if it is not repented for those who have hardened their hearts to God cannot submit to him in order to be saved.
Let’s consider a short text from Proverbs to illustrate the grave and mysterious problem of “anomia,” of being lawless, of being stubbornly impenitent and persisting in disregard and even contempt of God’s Law:
He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing. (Prov 29:1)
Consider this text in three stages (with acknowledgment to Rev. Adrian Rogers who preached a sermon on this I’ve never forgotten. The alliterated structure here is his, the content is mine):
1. Spiritual Direction– Note how the text describes us as being often reproved. God sends us endless messages always urging us to repentance, to, to turn toward Him, to call on Him, to learn obedience, and to rejoice in the salvation he offers. He whispers, he urges, and he calls. No one who ever went to Hell, went there without being “often reproved.” The Hebrew word is תּוֹכֵחָה (towkechah) means chastisement, correction, refutation, proof, argument, reasoning, rebuke, or reproof. Well, you get the idea, God is pleading with us to come to him, to accept his Kingdom and the Kingdom values that underlie it. He does this in many ways. He sends to us his:
- Spirit – The Holy Spirit of God pleads with our spirit. The voice of God is echoing in our conscience. Scripture says, And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left (Isaiah 30:21). Another text says, This is what the LORD says–your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: “I am the LORD your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go (Isaiah 48:17). So the Holy Spirit of God directs us.
- Servants – God sends his servants, the prophets, he sends his priests, deacons, bishops, indeed, he sends many holy men and women to each of us, to testify to the truth and summon us to holiness and truth. Even in a sinful world, there are many around us who live lives of exceptional holiness and by their testimony summon to God and offer us direction and reproof, where necessary. Scripture says, The Lord gave the Word, and great was the company of the preachers and those who announced it (Ps 68:11)
- Situations – In many an varied ways God directs us through the situations of our life. Since we are stubborn, it often takes great difficulties and challenges to get to us. But where necessary God will allow these to draw us to humility and dependance. Scripture says, Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word (Ps 119:67)
- Scripture – God directs us through his Word and through the Teachings of the Church. Scripture says, All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). And again, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim 3:15)
Yes, it is clear that God gives us spiritual direction in many ways. We must be clear, God is pleading with sinners. There is no one on this planet according to this scripture (Prov 29:1) who is not often reproved.
2. Stubborn Disobedience – The text goes on to say that, despite this, some “stiffen their necks.” as we have noted this is caught up in the mystery of iniquity. Why some stiffen their necks all the more and others heed, is mysterious. The usual reasons and manifestations of these are:
- Procrastination – some become hardened merely through endless delay. Scripture says, Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth (Prov 27:1). And yet many say, siempre manana (always, tomorrow). Yet the more we delay our conversion the less likely it becomes. The further down a road we travel, the more invested in it we become, and the way back seems too large an undertaking. We become invested in the familiar. As we adjust to the darkness, the light begins to seem harsh. God is light and those accustomed to the darkness cannot endure him easily. The longer we wait, the deeper we sink. Deathbed conversions are possible, but not as frequent as one might think. Jesus said, This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil (Jn 3:19). Yes, the light is detestable to a world in darkness.
- Pride – Pride is the sinful refusal to recognize anyone or anything greater than us, to whom, or to which we owe reverence and obedience. Modern man has not only abandoned God, but even natural law. In Original Sin Adam said, “I will do what I want to do and I will decide if it is right or wrong.” Thus he refused submission to God. Modern Man extends this concept beyond God’s law, even to reality itself. In this attitude, there is no reality outside himself to which he must conform himself or to which he woes any allegiance. In abandoning natural law, modern man increasing says that reality is what he says it is. Reality no longer matters, all that matters is what I think or feel. In severing his relationship with God, and even with reality itself, the human person can turn in almost entirely on himself and be unreachable. He becomes hardened in his self-enclosed thinking and will only admit data and people who conform to his stinking thinking. As time goes by, almost nothing can break through this wall of pride. Scripture says, For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools….(Rom 1:22-23). They become hardened in their hearts and stubborn in their thinking.
- Pleasures – Scripture is replete with warnings about the pernicious effects of wealth and worldly pleasure and how these things draw us away from God and cause us to stiffen our neck against God and following him. The world and its pleasures are considered preferable to God and those who go down this path become lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God (2 Tim 3:4). This makes God and any limits he might set, or demands he might make, seem obnoxious and too costly. The rich and the lovers of this word have too much too loose. Thus they harden themselves against God whom they come to see as unreasonable. Jesus said, How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! (Lk 18:24). Knowing this, most people, including Church going Christians, still want to be rich. Jesus’ teaching is “for someone else” who earns a $1 more an hour than I do. St Paul says, But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs (1 Tim 6:9-10). Thus the pernicious effect of wealth and pleasures of this world cause many to stiffen their necks against God who they increasingly come to see as a thief.
And so it is that some, even though often reproved stiffen their necks and harden their hearts against God.
3. Sudden Destruction – There comes a point when this hardening, this stiffening of the neck become permanent, beyond repair. Here too is a deep mystery. For in this life, conversion seems always possible. Yet God teaches, there comes a point when this is no longer the case, when our hardness of heart will be forever fixed and beyond remedy, our destruction complete. When exactly this happens may not always be clear. It could be death itself, or perhaps it happens for some, long before death. But the Lord is teaching us a very hard truth that, if we are not careful, our “No” will become permanent, our hardness of heart complete.
And the LORD said, My Spirit shall not always strive with a man (Gen 6:3), as if to say “There comes a day when I will accept that your “no” is final.” For now the Lord “often reproves us” but there comes a day when that will end for some, for they have stiffened their necks and hardened their hearts.
While we may think this time to be way down the road, the Lord warns us it may come suddenly, that is, more quickly than we think. For the descent into deep sin and toward a hard heart is steeper and faster than most imagine or admit. So God says, “suddenly.”
Please understand this post for what it intends to be. It is not a post of despair, or severity, but of sobriety. God is a Good God, and a divine Physician. But a good doctor does not lie to his patients, and make light of things that are deadly and harmful. He warns of heart disease not because he is cruel or judgmental, but because he loves his patients and wants them to be well and saved from sudden loss of health. It is more so with God who loves us and want to save us, but who also respects our freedom and warns us of the cumulative effects of our sin. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts! (Psalm 95; Heb 3:15)