At the heart of the gospel message is transformation. God is in the business of changing lives, taking what is broken and fractured due to our self-destructive habits and hang-ups, and transforming us to look more like Jesus (see Romans 8:29).
Our conformity to Jesus isn't natural. Sin and selfishness are inherent to us all. Jesus is selfless and sacrificial, and we are not. That's why God is in the business of transforming lives. God, by His grace and for His glory, transforms us to conform us. Over time, we look more like His Son in character and lifestyle. That's God's purpose for us.
God forbid we resist.
God calls any resistance to His transformational work by the name stiff-neck. For example:
- "I have seen these people," the Lord said to Moses, and they are a stiff-necked people." (Exodus 32:9).
- "You are a stiff-necked people." (Deuteronomy 9:6).
- "He became stiff-necked and hardened his heart and would not turn to the Lord." (II Chronicles 36:13).
- "Yet they did not listen or pay attention; they were stiff-necked and would not listen or respond to Me" (Jeremiah 17:23).
- "You stiff-necked people! You always resist the Holy Spirit" (Acts 7:51).
Stiff-necked is used as a description of God's people when they resist the Holy Spirit and refuse to do what they know God desires. We don't use the compound word "stiff-neck" often today, so Christians have little understanding of its meaning. Let me see if I can help bring some clarity to this soul virus to help us avoid it.
This word is transliterated from the original Hebrew as qesheh `oreph. It literally means "hard of neck." We use the English phrase "bowed-up" to describe someone who gets angry or defensive. "Bowed-up" is similar to what the Bible calls "stiff-necked." It's becoming hard to the truth. It's obstinacy. It's defensiveness. It's a spiritual condition of hardness to the truth of God.
I'm a lover of God's people. I'm also a vocational pastor. My role is to simply speak the truth in love. I am never the transformational Agent for God's people. That's the job of the Holy Spirit. I speak the truth in love, but it is between God and His people whether they receive it or not.
In religious circles, pastors and people play God. They speak the truth and then they "goad" people to obey the truth. It's God's job to goad, not pastors.
Let me explain.
The term "stiff-neck" (qesheh 'oreph) came from ancient farming when the Hebrews used oxen to plow their fields. The farmer tied the plow to a pair of oxen, and the oxen pulled the plow. Sometimes, an ox would move to slow so the farmer would use a goad to poke the oxen in the hind legs to pick up the speed. The goad was a long pole with a pointed end, and when an ox got poked on the rear end or hind legs, it became quite uncomfortable, even painful for the ox. Every now and then, a "stiff-necked' ox would "kick against the goad" and literally stop and fight the farmer. The farmer, with reins in one hand and the goad in the other, always won the battle. But the fight could sometimes be intense.
When Jesus met Saul on the road to Damascus and transformed Saul's life, Jesus said something to Saul that is interesting:
"Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads." (Acts 26:14).
Three things I learn from Christ capturing Saul, things that are always helpful to me in pastoral ministry.
- Christ is the one wrestling with Saul. Nobody else even heard Jesus speaking.
- Christ has more than one goad in His arsenal of change, for it's "goads" (plural).
- Christ moves in mercy toward Saul, revealing "it is hard for Saul" to fight Him.
I'm reminded of the Scripture verse that should put every Christian at ease when it comes to other people and their relationship with God. "Being confident of this, He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion" (Philippians 1:6). God's got this; we don't. We should be confident He'll always win the fight in the end.
One of the ways I always know if I love my brother or sister in Christ unconditionally is by measuring my ability to tell people the truth without playing the role of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
God's people are only truth-tellers. We are not the Holy Spirit.
If we become stiff-necked and decide to go our own selfish way and do our own destructive thing, God will intervene. He sends people like prophets (eg. Jeremiah) and others to plead with His people "to change the way they are thinking." God will sometimes take direct action, without any intermediary, like He did with Saul on the road to Damascus.
God's got this.
When we stop playing Holy Spirit and simply love people where they are, loving them enough to always speak the truth, but accepting them whether they obey God or not, then we can relax and rest in the confidence that the God who began His transformational work will finish it.
The goads of God are always effectual in their purposes. We'd be wise to avoid the painful soul virus called "stiff-neck" ourselves, but we should rest easy if others are infected. God knows how to cure.
Do you see the picture at the top of this post? It's an actual drawing of ancient Englishmen plowing with oxen. The prayer says this:
"God speed ye plow; bring us corn now."The fruit of one's life (corn) is in the hands of the One who carries the goad (God), and when I wish someone God speed, I am asking God to "prod them along" the path of what is right, for the good of all.