In Christian circles there is a high degree of suspicion towards people whose beliefs are constantly changing. We applaud Luther for his “Here I stand; I can do no other” attitude but we deplore Bunyan’s Mr. Pliable. Luther stands strong in the face of opposition while Pliable is blown this way and that by “every wind of new teaching.”
It is right to be critical of Mr. or Ms. Pliable, or any other spiritual Gumby who bends over backwards to avoid conflict or debate. He or she takes the path of least resistance, not because it is true but because it is easy. He or she is not convinced by facts but guided by the moral and intellectual fashions du jour.
A spiritual Gumby keeps an eye on the latest trends, eager to stay on society’s good side. When things gets tough, the spiritually tough (like Luther) stand firm, but the Gumby folds.
No one wants to be a spiritual Gumby, but one mustn’t mistake being stubborn for being strong. Obstinacy is not a sign of spiritual muscle. At first glance, some people look firm, but it’s only because spiritual rigor mortis has set in.
It is necessary to remain unbending before injustice and immorality, but the virtue does not lie in being unbending but in acting justly and morally. Too often people see inflexibility itself as a virtue. It is nothing of the sort.
A person who thinks inflexibility is itself a virtue is already on the way to becoming rigid. That person, to his or her credit, may not yield to the pressure of unjust or immoral cultural demands, but when the time comes to yield to God, he or she may not be limber enough to do that either. A Christian’s life is characterized, as St. Paul tells us, by transformation into the likeness of Jesus. But to the unyielding, transformation can only be a painful ordeal.
The biblical term for a follower of Jesus is “disciple.” A moment’s thought makes clear that an unyielding disciple is a contradiction in terms. Since a disciple is first and foremost a learner, the person who thinks she knows everything already cannot be a disciple. An unwillingness to learn and change puts discipleship to Jesus at risk.
The Bible has a term for the unwillingness to learn or change: “stiff-necked.” It was a word early Bible readers understood well. When an ancient farmer plowed his field, he would use a long pole with a sharp iron tooth to prick an ox’s neck on the left of right to get it to turn. But a “stiff-necked” ox would not feel the jab and would continue on its way.
Likewise, a stiff-necked person is insensitive to the jab of divine persuasion. He or she continues down the same path, even though it leads to trouble. It is therefore necessary to remain soft enough to feel and pliable enough to change.
Why do people get spiritually stiff? There are a number of reasons. Lack of exercise – they’ve sat too long without testing their intellectual and spiritual muscles. Or they have suffered an injury, spiritually speaking, which has twisted their beliefs. Or they are afraid. Fear – of loss or injury – will cause a person to tense up, and unremitting fear can make him or her stiff.
How does one stay spiritually limber? Start with stretches, including hearing those with whom one disagrees and thinking through their arguments. But that’s just a warm-up. There is nothing that will stretch a person like actually doing what Jesus instructs his disciples to do. Thinking abstractly about Jesus’s words is good, but doing them will have the extraordinary effect of training a person to be pliable to God and inflexible to cultural pressure at the same time.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/30/2016