“There’s none so blind as those who will not listen.” Neil Gaiman
Stubborn (adj.): having or showing persistent determination not to change one’s attitude or position on something, esp. in spite of good arguments or reasons to do so. Difficult to move, remove, or cure.
I see a lot of stubbornness in counseling… from teens, children, and grown men and women; this issue does not discriminate. I have seen stubbornness emanate from people from all walks of life (and from myself, more than I care to admit). This is an issue that can stunt our emotional and spiritual growth, and can cause a bitterness that will destroy our quality of life and relationships with others.
What causes us to choose to be stubborn? (I have come to believe that this is a choice)
What can we do to stop it? How can we overcome our hardness of heart?
In Scripture, this word “stubborn” is often surrounded by other “challenging” words such as proud, rebellious, unfaithful, greedy, obstinate and defiant. None of these actions or attitudes are in line with Perfect Love. They all “miss the mark.”
They are defense mechanisms used to avoid or cope with conscious conflict or anxiety. Biologically speaking, our bodies have defense mechanisms in place to fight of disease-causing organisms. In the animal world, we see chameleons and other animals use camouflage, butterflies and other creatures with false features to trick their prey, and physical or chemical combat such as the quills of a porcupine, the shell of a turtle, or the spray released by a skunk. All of these methods are protective mechanisms used to keep the “enemy” out, even if they cause the one using them to be misrepresented or misunderstood. We protect, defend, shield, and fortify in an aim to preserve ourselves or others from harm.
What does this have to do with stubbornness?
God makes this statement in Ezekiel 11:19 in reference to His people:
“I will give them singleness of heart (or an “undivided heart”) and put a new spirit within them. I will take away their stony, stubborn heart and give them a tender, responsive heart (or a “heart of flesh”).” (Ezekiel 11:19).
When our hearts are divided and distracted, we are not choosing good self-care! Stubbornness is bad for our holistic health!
The root-words for “stony” or “stubborn” actually means to build, rebuild, establish, to guard, protect, and keep watch. What’s the point? Stubbornness is a means of protection that causes people to build walls in order to keep themselves safe. Stubbornness manifests in a variety of “creative” ways: arrogance, acting all-knowing, dangerous sarcasm, being inflexible, “needing to be right,” arguing, debating, and silence, or a total lack of willingness to engage.
When we only look at the behavior and fail to see the possible causes and reasons for the behavior, we judge others (and ourselves) and choose rejection, bitterness, and lack of relationship instead of choosing to love. When we choose to love and seek to understand an individual who is stubborn, the “walls” and defenses crumble and the person no longer has a need for this defense.
So, how do we overcome this issue?
- Defend with the weapons the God provides.
We are instructed to “be alert and watchful” (1 Peter 5:8) and to practice things like “putting on the full armor of God” (Ephesians 6:10-18). Why? Because there is a very real enemy that is seeking to “steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10) us and the plans that God has for our lives. It would be unwise to allow our minds and hearts to fill with evil things or not to protect ourselves against the attacks of the enemy. But sometimes we get it wrong. We choose defense mechanisms that are unloving, isolating, ugly, and detrimental to our quality of life.
2 Corinthians 10:4 says, “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.” Righteousness, peace, the Word, truth, and love… these are the defense mechanisms we are provided to use against the darkness. One of the most powerful weapons is forgiveness. We are urged in Colossians 3:13 to “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Forgiveness is an intense process that acts as a jackhammer to a hard heart.
- Tell yourself the truth
We have all heard the phrase “the first step is admitting it.” I will suggest that this applies to more than just substance abuse. When we react to those around us out of stubbornness, we are working from a flimsy, skewed perspective. We often qualify, rationalize, and justify in order to “make a case” against having to change because, frankly, change is terrifying to most of us. We essentially learn to lie to ourselves because the truth is too painful. But, we must go through pain and discomfort (“through the valley of the shadow of death,” Psalm 23:4) in order to find true and meaningful healing and to increase the quality of connection with others in our lives (and with God).
- Singleness of heart
Another way to overcome stubbornness is to be un-divided in our relationship with God. Division in our heart’s commitment causes us to be inconsistent and untrustworthy. James 1:8 says, “A double minded man is unstable in all his ways;” another version says, “Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.” When we make a commitment to get married, we are saying through ceremony, vows, and postured heart, “I am committing myself fully to you, I will not allow anything to cause my loyalty to be divided.” If we decide to share ourselves with another person extramaritally, we are obviously engaging in adulterous and unfaithful behavior. This communicates a profound lack of value to our spouse. It really is the same thing with God. This tender, responsive “heart of flesh” that God wants to put inside of us is soft, malleable, moldable, shapable, fertile soil- in contrast to the stoney, walled-up, rocky, stubborn one that we can develop.
- Learning to understand your value
It may be hard to understand the connection between discovering your self-worth/value and stubbornness… but the link is clear. When we have low self-esteem and struggle to value ourselves, we react to others with a knee-jerk, instinctual defensiveness. Notice the difference between reacting and responding in the example below:
Let’s say my wife, on our way home, gives me feedback about an inappropriate comment I made at dinner with friends. The stubborn man has this response: “Who cares? Everyone laughed. I don’t know why you are always so uptight. Chill out.” This reaction comes from a man who isn’t seeking to become the best version of himself and hears all criticism as a threat to his ego. He has to prove himself! So, he makes excuses and fails to own his mistake. Stubbornness is a strategy for disconnection, to attempt to protect us from pain!
If he learned to cultivate a strong sense of self-worth and value, he may respond this way: “You’re right, honey, that was uncalled for. That’s not the kind of man I want to be. And I don’t want to do things that make you uncomfortable. Will you forgive me?” This response protects the man’s sense of worth and edifies it. He accepts responsibility for his actions (even if though he may disagree internally) and promotes connection with his wife by initiating forgiveness. He chooses humility (not thinking less of himself, but thinking of himself less). This others-focused perspective gets us out of our self-protective, false defenses.
- “There’s a strength in there”
One last way to overcome stubbornness is to recognize the strengths that are hidden in this attitude and behavior. I have come to call this “mining the gold”. (read more here: “Three Ways to Find Buried Treasure”). Stubbornness is really just a wrong expression of passion, persistence, and determination. I once heard someone say that a stubborn person needs to learn to switch from “won’t power” to “will power.” Stubborn people have a drive, power, and fire that is unparalleled. I always say to my pessimistic clients, “there’s a strength in there… we just have to do a little digging to uncover it.” People who wrestle with stubbornness have often been told in their lives that they are “too much” or “overbearing” or “bossy.” With some training, mindfulness, and practice using the weapons that the Lord instructs us to in His word… they can undo these deceptions about their identity and give space for the correct, more healthy expression of stubbornness to shine forth.
God wants to “…put a new spirit…” in us; this is the Holy Spirit, His Spirit, the Spirit of God that created the universe! Learning how to replace our instinctual or learned defenses with the ones given by God takes work and practice! Seek help through counseling and community through a church where you feel loved and accepted. Proverbs 13:20 says, “He who walks with the wise grows wise,” and Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together.” We can learn from others about how to fight the battles in our lives; and to have support through them is always better than trying to do it alone. We are better together!