Have you ever had a stiff neck? You wake-up and immediately you know that you’ve slept wrong. Your stiff neck seems to incapacitate the rest of your body, too. It is beyond annoying or inconvenient. And it is sometimes even dangerous.
Have you ever had a spiritually stiff neck? Perhaps you’ve had one for so long that you aren’t even aware that you should feel any other way. Or perhaps you think that having a stiff neck is what being a Christian is all about. You know, being steadfast.
I began thinking of my own stiff neck when I was studying through Nehemiah for a sermon. The more I considered the texts I had come across, the more concerned I was about the spiritual health of my neck. I’m going to share with you what I discovered about the dangerous condition of having a spiritually stiff neck.
Deuteronomy 10 beautifully illustrates how merciful God is toward us, as it records that He re-established His covenant with Israel after their failure at Sinai. A little over half-way through the chapter God advised them how to ensure that they didn’t fall again.
Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer. (Deut. 10:16)
I’m not sure if this is the first place that God describes His people as stiff-necked, but it is a wonderfully clarifying text for anyone who even remotely thinks that he/she can be saved by what they do.
All these centuries later, we often smugly cross our arms at this text and nod our heads. “That’s right,” we say. “You tell them how is it God. They need to get their act together.” And as we stand there in our spiritual arrogance, we fail to notice that these word were spoken to God’s people. That would be us today. Eye opening, isn’t it?
Yes that is right. We have no moral ground to stand on and cast judgement on the Israelites. If anything they could condemn us. Were you just released from a life sentence of slavery? Did you grow up in a culture so pagan that they mummified and worshiped cats and crocodiles? Nope, me neither.
So this advice should be easier for us to follow than it was for them. But is it?
How’s your neck feeling today?
The Whole Truth
When the Babylonian captivity was ended, it took a while for Jerusalem to “get back on its feet.” The book of Nehemiah records some of the history of the re-establishment of Jerusalem. But chapter nine is a type of interlude; in it the religious leaders stand and summarize the history of God’s faithfulness to Israel, and Israel’s repeated unfaithfulness toward God.
But they and our fathers acted proudly,
Hardened [stiffened] their necks,
And did not heed Your commandments.
They refused to obey, and they were not mindful of Your wonders that You did among them.
But they hardened their necks, and in their rebellion they appointed a leader to return to their bondage.
But You are God, ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger,
Abundant in kindness, and did not forsake them. . . .
And testified against them, that You might bring them back to Your law.
Yet they acted proudly [presumptuously], and did not heed Your commandments,
But sinned against Your judgments, ’Which if a man does he shall live by them.’
And they shrugged their shoulders, stiffened their necks, and would not hear. (Neh. 9:16, 26)
This is quite different than how the histories of God’s faithful people read in Hebrews 13. Here in Nehemiah, all the faults and failings are on full display. I’m struck when I read these verses at just how unreasonable, especially in the light of the surrounding texts about God’s faithfulness, these people were. I’m also struck by how like them I have been and can be. Just the last bit of verse 26: “And they shrugged their shoulders, stiffened their necks, and would not hear.” That is how you could have described me many a time as a teenager. And although I would like to be able to report that I’ve completely out gown that type of behavior, it is still there. I just don’t sigh as loudly or roll my eyes at my dad. No, now I roll my eyes at God when I don’t like what I hear.
At the beginning I mentioned that a stiff neck can be a dangerous condition. Car accidents happen because people can’t turn their head adequately to check for on-coming traffic. And this can happen spiritually as well.
So rend your heart, and not your garments;
Return to the Lord your God,
For He is gracious and merciful,
Slow to anger, and of great kindness;
And He relents of doing harm. (Joel 2:13)
Healing comes from re-turning to the Lord, but if we stiffen our necks (notice that in the verses from Nehemiah, it says just that) we decrease our own ability to “look and live” (Acts of the Apostles, 14).
Consider how impossible the following would be with a stiff neck.
But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. (Matt. 5:39)
Yeah, it caught me that way too. If I’ve stiffened my neck, there is no way I can “turn the other cheek” to see the situation from God’s perspective. I’ve created a trap for myself and happily climbed in. Sobering, isn’t it?
Now the enemy would like to confuse you by suggesting that steadfastness and stubbornness are the same thing and, according to this study, both bad. A stubborn heart though is set on having its own way, while a steadfast heart gently stays the course. Neither should we let the enemy substitute meekness for worthlessness in our minds. A steadfast heart is meek as it doesn’t demand its own way, yet it knows that God values it above everything else.
Jesus is the “Balm of Giliad” (Jer. 8:22). We can apply that nourishing and healing balm by looking to God’s word for direction in every situation of life. It may be difficult at first, and you may fail. But don’t give up applying the balm. Although “[t]he righteous man may fall seven times” (Prov. 24:16), he also got up seven times.
Pray for God to heal the stiffness in your neck. He not only can, but He’s longing to bring you the relief that you so desperately need.