I’ve been making my way through the Old Testament, and I’ve noticed a phrase which pops up frequently when God is referring to His chosen people, the Israelites. When He gets especially exasperated with them, God calls them a “stiff-necked people.” For example, in Jeremiah 17, God says, “They were stiff-necked and would not listen or respond to discipline.” In Proverbs 29, we read that “whoever remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy.” There seems to be a connection to the stiffness of their necks and their overall level of obedience.
As a lover of words, I started thinking about this phrase: stiff-necked. It reminds me of those times when I sleep funny and wake up with a crick in my neck. If I have to drive my car with such a sore neck, turning to check my blind spot involves my entire upper body—shoulders, neck, and head moving in one awkward motion. Unless you’re Frankenstein’s monster, it’s not the way our necks are designed to move.
The idea of being stiff-necked also makes me think of a child working himself up for the incoming storm of a full-blown tantrum. Eyes squinting, jaw clenching, the muscles on his neck bulging in stubborn rebellion. He is unyielding to whatever the parent suggests or demands. (If it’s a toddler, it’s probably something reallyimportant like putting shoes on the correct feet or having to drink from the blue cup because the red cup is in the dishwasher. Monumental issues such as these.) This kind of stubborn mentality is why God said to Israel, “For I knew how stubborn you were; your neck muscles were iron, your forehead was bronze.” (Isaiah 48)
Looking at all of the instances where stiff-necked is mentioned in the Bible, I can say for sure that’s not a trait I’m striving for, and it’s definitely not listed in the Fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, stiff-necked…). So how do I do the opposite and live a humble life? Well, the Scriptures are full of instructions for practicing humility. Our best example comes from Christ himself: “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2) Christ’s example teaches me about obedience, thankfulness, and sacrifice. From His life, I learn about love, compassion, and forgiveness. I read stories about Jesus being a good listener and putting other people’s needs before His own.
And if you want to be really literal with the analogy, I think the opposite of a stiff neck is a neck that is flexible enough to bow the head that sits on top of it. Maybe that neck even bends aaaallll the way until the forehead touches the floor. Once in that position of humility, my heart—with all its biases and flaws and distractions and baggage—can pray to a God who I am willing to admit controls the universe and then admire the way He runs it, because His ways are so much better than mine.