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)

28 Responses

  1. Nick says:

    Let us pray for sinners.

  2. yan says:

    But your reverence, aren’t you essentially saying what the westboro baptists are saying about america? isn’t it always possible to repent before death, even if it may be very difficult? just as it is always possible for a country to change its ways?

    am i just being overly hopeful?

    if we accept the proposition that there is a certain point at which repentance becomes constitutionally impossible, you would not suggest that we look for signs of this in other people and thus not bother with them, would you?

    regards
    yan

    • Just preaching what God says. What do you think of the Scripture texts?

      In referring to me as “your reverence” and comparison of me to an extremist group, you seem to have some sort of a chip on your shoulder, not sure what that’s all about but I hope you will be freed from it.

      I think my article makes room for your view, in that when our no (or yes) becomes final is mysterious. It may be the moment of death, yet as the Proverbs 26:1 text suggests it may also be sooner. Bottom line = harden not your heart. If you have read this blog at any length you know that I and other readers are not about writing people off. As long as people live we have an obligation to evangelize them.

      In a comment on a previous blog post here you wrote: We get what we as Americans deserve, Msgr. We elect pro-choice senators and presidents, we get a rule of law that is pro choice. It is as simple as that. If americans were to really become pro life, this debate would end immediately. Would I interpret you to mean that we should stop trying to end abortion because Americans are “simply” pro-choice? I am not sure that such an interpretation of you would be fair to you and ask you to consider how your interpretation this post is unfair and unnecessarily strident.

      • yan says:

        Msgr., please, I meant no offense whatsoever. Sometimes it is difficult to interpret tone when it comes to email. If I offended please chalk it up to my pure ignorance of how to correctly address a Msgr. I actually thought that ‘your reverence’ was an appropriate address to a bishop of the church of God. Forgive me as I have been trying to figure this out for awhile, but no one seems to know for sure. They other day I addressed a local Msgr as Fr. but he didn’t take offense. Recently I saw our bishop and all I could get out of my mouth was ‘hello bishop,’ which seems vastly under-appreciative.

        In my post I meant only honest questions. And i did not mean to offend by comparing your view to ‘extremists.’ Sometimes extremists can be correct about a thing or two. I care little whether the westboros are extremists. and if they are correct in the eyes of God then may God then count me an extremist too.

        As for my previous posts i think i made my view quite clear that we ought ALWAYS to pray for an end of abortion and for conversion of hearts. that was i think the main thrust of what i wrote. what you have written in this post tends to diminish the motivation to do that, if indeed it is possible that some people come to a point where they are beyond saving. so i was simply asking for clarification if that is indeed your view. and if you are right then you are right. I meant no stridency Msgr. if you are correct then there begins to be an argument that we ought to simply separate from society if enough people are in the condition of being unable to repent, and this is what the westboros think, and this is why they think they are doing God’s will be speaking God’s judgment on a generation that, in their view, is unable to repent. this is simply logical on their part, given their assumption. and your argument might tend to support their assumption. that was all i was saying, so i wanted to clarify what your argument was. perhaps the westboros are correct. my main beef with them has always been that they could not know what they claim to know about the rest of society and the world, because people can always repent. but maybe i am wrong and they are right.

        again, no offense intended Msgr. I am just trying to understand and live the faith the best I can. When you consider what happened in NY the other day, one is at the least tempted to think that the westboros are right and that the world is getting to or at the point where it cannot be saved.

        regards
        yan

  3. Ruth Ann says:

    Thank you for the sobering reminders. I love the Softly and Tenderly hymn.

  4. jj says:

    PREACH PASTOR! This is one of thise shoutin sermons. Gotta go put on my shoutin shoes. Thanks be to God for correction!

  5. Nguyen Thuong MInh says:

    Epistle 179
    My some ideas of “the homily” of Msgr. Charles Pope are here below:
    Firstly, reading and comprehension of Msgr. Charles Pope’s homily are very essential.
    The title of the homily told the whole tenor of the homily.
    Msgr. Charles Pope stressed that for many of us, tendency of stiff-necked is gradually softened. But for some, the stubbornness never abates.
    The Stubbornness of the Stiff-Necked (or Stubbornness and Stiff-Necked) is a very great mystery, which St. Paul termed the mystery of iniquity.
    The word “iniquity” means literally is “without law,” and by extension, speaks of an attitude of living in lawlessness; and of having utter disregard for God’s law.
    Msgr. Charles Pope quoted 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.
    The short text from Proverbs is He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing. (Prov 29:1).
    Gist of the short text is God reproved us because God loves us. God is pleading with us to come to him, to accept his Kingdom.
    God who loves us and want to save us, but who also respects our freedom and warns (reproves) us of the cumulative effects of our sin.
    Secondly, now we discuss additionally about the Father’s homily.
    In the homily, Msgr. Charles Pope reproved someone, but is not reproved me because I am not the Stiff-Necked, and the Father still very loves me.
    Msgr. Charles Pope said to me as:
    “Though I do not know you and have never seen you. Minh, I am certain that if you are a believer in Christ. God has repaired something better for you, far better than all the best things you’ve had in this life.”
    Msgr. Charles Pope is praying that all the best things will happen to me./.

  6. polycarped says:

    This all makes complete sense to me and a great reminder for all of us, I’m sure – thank you for the post, Father. But here’s something that I’m struggling with a bit . It’s very much related and perhaps you might be able to offer some general comments: the context of this article seems to be mainly that of people becoming stiff-necked and stubborn in their resistence to the truth. But what about being stiff-necked and stubborn in standing up for the truth? A very close friend (and person of very strong faith) recently rebuked me for becoming too zealous in my desire to make known to our clergy my opposition to certain positions being communicated by/on behalf of our local Church. Whilst I reflected long and hard on his charitable rebuke and am in many ways thankful because it has made me doubly conscious of my actions, I neverless remain of the view that, as long as I communicate my views in a way that is charitable and constructive, it is a legitimate and necessary defence of our faith. I feel this is so important in instances where truths are being watered down, seemingly to make the church more ‘friendly’ or ‘accessible’ but where as a result people are being left potentially very vulnerable (the particular case was a view on contraception being made publically which contradicts church teaching and also on some very questionable/irreverent behaviour being promoted within the church building – the sanctuary in fact). I feel very strongly that people are more than ever seeking clarity from the Church in a time where everything seems to be buolt on sand – compassionate and welcoming of course – but clear teaching. A bit like providing clear, safe boundaries to toddlers and teenagers! What thoughts might you be able to share on this (obviously with the caveat that you have very limited insight into my particular case)? Thank you and God Bless.

  7. Brad says:

    May God bless you, Monsignor!

    Your essay reminds me of St. John Bosco’s dream of hell: http://www.todayscatholicworld.com/bosco_hell.htm

    One of my favorite quotes ever comes from that saint, who, when asked about his life in general, looking back, he said, “I have prayed and trusted in the Madonna.” Just think of all the options he had at that moment. He chose that summation. Amazingly beautiful!

  8. Not Convinced says:

    It’s dangerous to make too much of a proverb. Think of all the faithful parents of disobedient children who are haunted by “train a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.” (22:6)

    Also, let me give you another perspective on this sort of message. Picture the believing wife dragging her unbelieving husband to mass and listening to a sermon that says it’s all his fault that he doesn’t believe. It’s his pride. It’s his attachment to sin. It’s his stubborn refusal to give in to God.

    God, the preacher assures, is constantly reaching out to everyone in love, and it’s only because of sinful resistance that anybody disbelieves.

    Baloney.

    I know that you’re obligated to teach the threat of the depraved heart because it is a clear thread in Scripture. But let’s hear the other side as well — that in some cases God hardens the heart; that God has to change a man’s heart before he can believe; that God “appoints certain ones to life” but passes over others. Etc. Texts could be multiplied, but I’m sure you know them.

    Maybe the blame doesn’t lie with the unbeliever, but with God. That is also a recurring thread in Scripture.

    • Yes, I thought about blogging on the topic of God hardening hearts. But it was too complicated to weave in here in any brief sort of way. It is a deeply mysterious theme in Scripture and tied up with the philosophical and theological notions of primary and secondary causality. These topics require a great deal of sophistication to sort out in a way that does not cause us to lose balance. Primary causality and what it is affirming are tough in the modern age which so emphasizes the empiricism of secondary causality as to have almost totally eclipsed a grasp of primary causality and I struggle with how to present in a coherent way that does not send people off more confused than enlightened. I have tried in classes to work with parishioners on the topic and found it fraught with snares and difficulties. I have often wished to devote the time to such an article, but have had so little success in live setting that I feel ill-equipped to write the post. Do you know of any good and balanced articles on this point?

      • Not convinced says:

        I don’t have any great insights for you. The only perspective that ever made any sense to me was to preach the passage in front of you and don’t try to reconcile everything — as if our puny brains could reconcile everything even if we did try.

        When you’re on a passage about depravity or reprobation, preach that. And when you’re on a passage about election, preach that. And when you’re on a passage about the free offer of the gospel, preach that.

        The trouble (from the preacher’s perspective) is precisely when you try to reconcile things.

        You could interpret what I just asked you is how one thing (the guilt of the sinner for not believing) is reconciled with another thing (the fact that it’s God who calls and enables the sinner to believe) — but I don’t really expect that. I would rather see both sides preached faithfully, but I don’t hear it. I never hear God’s sovereignty in salvation preached.

      • John Pope says:

        Father. This is an important topic for me personally as several years ago I went through a personal crisis and through it I began to meditate on this idea that God chooses some and rejects (hardens) others. As I thought about this I began to believe that God did not love me for some reason. It was more of Election in reverse; for God to choose some He had to reject others, including me. A priest responded to this claim of mine one day by simply saying, “That’s pride.” That was enough to turn my thinking around: it’s a trick of the Devil. God does not reject us,we reject Him! Finally, permenently, we say no to God. He never says no to us.

  9. Will says:

    Something I try and think about every day and to talk about on a daily basis with family and coworkers. The greater majority of Americans are rich compared to most of the world. Even the poorest Americans who still have access to job related healthcare, Wal-Mart, means of travel and a roof over their heads, are rich compared to billions around the globe. We must never forget that.

    It amazes me what a certain preacher at a mega-church keeps telling his congregration regarding wealth.

  10. David says:

    Could the natural disasters our country is enduring (floods, tornadoes, extreme heat, drought, etc) be a “national reproving”?

    • I tend to doubt it or at least prefer to remain agnostic about such things. For why do some get hit, and others not and why does not God send a clearer more target message if that is the case. Perhaps he should target specifically wicked men or countries. There’s just too many questions, if we go down the road attributing Natural disasters affecting large numbers and varieties of people and leaving large numbers and varieties unscathed. But I will not utterly exclude your thought either.

  11. Bill Robberson says:

    Thank you-we all need to hear this. There’s a saying that may apply here–”no decision IS a decision”.

  12. Peter Wolczuk says:

    So much good comment and discussion here. The comment in the conclusion about the benefits of sobriety and God as “a Good God, and a divine Physician” really struck me and reminded me of how I sometimes hear a person express a feeling of unworthiness of being a practicing Christian. Sort of like, “Regular church attendance is for ‘nice’ people who wear ‘nice’ clothes to go to a ‘nice’ church.” At such times I refer them to Matthew 9:9-13 where we are told that it’s the sick who need the doctor. Thank you so much for that.
    As I read this what I feel most are my recent thoughts (solely mine? I doubt it) on things which threaten a personal world view. How many times I’ve been given suggestions which were positive and beneficial but chose the more “comfortable” path; comfortable in the short term only perhaps; of not choosing to take and enact that advice. Both from family/friends and from God through His Scripture.
    How many times I’ve seen a good suggestion in a workplace rejected, even though workers, management, the environment and customers would all benefit. I’ve even encountered times when a person challenged the initiator to physical violence when an idea was given which was beneficial. Was the challenger more afraid of something in the words; or the idea behind them; than of physical violence, which is always so-o-o unpredictable?
    Consider; when a new idea is presented (or we’re reminded of an old suggestion for betterment which we’ve kept putting off) in order to accept – there seems (to me) to be a need to shift our world view on one of two levels. Either we must re-assess how we apply the decisions we’ve made in interpreting the world, as we know it or …, even tougher, we must restructure our interpretation of how the world “is”
    I suspect that rejection of this second level of shifting our world view; in spite of appeals such as warnings about self destruction, doing harm to those we love or God’s infinite mercy is a major contributor of an awful lot of senseless evil. And I’m not excluding myself as a doer of such, though I strive to do better.
    Also ……………… The longer we wait – the less time allotted toward accumulating graces as we miss the opportunity to learn how loveable other people truly are.

  13. Peter Wolczuk says:

    errata After “God’s infinite mercy” one of these is needed ;
    And I did proof read several times before submitting. Humanly imperfect.

  14. JuliB says:

    “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. ”

    I was an atheist for 25 years. I thank God at every Mass for bringing me home. When I read the above comment, I am chilled to the bone. That could have been me…

    These words are hard to hear, Msgr., but they are good to reflect on…

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