Thursday, 7 April 2016

Are you stubborn?

We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads”. Acts 26:14

I like to think I am purposeful and persevering; my wife says I’m just stubborn. Oh well, she tends to be right about most things…

In this verse the risen Jesus accuses Saul (not yet called Paul) of being stubborn – he is “kicking against the goads”, like a cow or ox rearing up its legs against the farmer’s cattle-prod. And in the process he is of course causing himself pain: “It is hard for you…”.

Saul is telling the story of his conversion, before the Jewish king Agrippa. His hatred of the new-born church, he says, was such that he tried to stamp it out altogether by harassing and hopefully killing its first members. And then, in a day that changed history, he met the risen Jesus and heard these words. He is never the same again: the persecutor of Christians becomes the preacher of Christ.

Saul’s stubbornness was dramatically broken that day.

But what about our stubbornness? What about the times we hold out against God? I’m not talking necessarily about conversion, though obviously that could be the case. I’m thinking more about people who are genuinely converted, but who are stubbornly refusing to obey God in some area of their lives. That could certainly be me; perhaps it could also be you.

You could be turning a deaf ear to a call to some form of ministry or service: children’s work, pastoral care, music, administration, overseas mission, you name it. You could be refusing to get to grips with a deep-seated sin or weakness: a tendency to gossip, a failure of discipline in some area of your life, a spirit of anger or jealousy against somebody; again, you name it.

It could even be something more gross, violence or abuse perhaps. Yes, even Christians can be dominated by such habits.

And for many years the voice of Jesus in your heart has been pleading with you to put it right. But no: either you have got so used to it that you can’t imagine being without it, or you have made feeble efforts, but given up with a shrug of the shoulders. So Jesus says to you what he said to Saul: “Can’t you see that you’re just hurting and damaging yourself by your stubborn disobedience?”

There are various Bible stories of people kicking against the goads.

In the early chapters of Exodus we meet Pharaoh, the Egyptian ruler. He has the people of Israel enslaved in his country, but God calls Moses and Aaron to announce that unless he lets them go there will be bad consequences. Pharaoh refuses – he “hardens his heart” (have you ever done that?) – even through a series of plagues, frightening demonstrations of the power of God in his land. It leads to tragedy and disaster. And all so easily avoidable!

Centuries later God calls the prophet Jonah to preach to the people of Nineveh. But, as the Bible puts it, “Jonah ran away from the Lord” – not me, Lord! He too kicks against the goads, and in doing so condemns himself to misery and a bad conscience (in Jonah 1:10 he openly admits to pagan sailors what he is doing) – not to mention a distinctly unpleasant encounter with a fish. All so easily avoidable!

The religious leaders in the time of Jesus refuse over a period of some three years to acknowledge that he really is the long-awaited Messiah. This in spite of the authority of his teaching and the power of his deeds. After his crucifixion they “gave the order for the tomb to be made secure” (Matthew 27:64) – surely the ultimate exercise in sheer futility, making King Canute look quite reasonable in trying to turn back the sea.

And after he is raised they pathetically, even laughably, give money to the soldiers to spread a story about the disciples stealing the body. How “kicking against the goads” is that! As if the power of almighty God can be hushed up by some feeble story. Forty years later their wonderful temple was destroyed by the Romans and the whole structure of their power disintegrated. All so easily avoidable!

The saying goes, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ’em”. A little crude, perhaps, if we relate it to God. But it puts it in a nutshell. The best way to gain victory is… to admit defeat. To stubbornly resist the will of God is, ultimately, absurd, futile and painful.

A word to you? To me?

Lord God, if there is any area of my life where I am foolish enough to be kicking against the goads, get me to the point where it hurts! – so that I really do set about putting it right. Amen.

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