One reason donkeys often (unfairly) get labeled “stubborn” is their naturally strong opposition reflex. Push or pull on a donkey, and they’ll automatically push or pull right back.
This tendency might help them fight off lions in the wild. But when a human wants to guide them with a tug on a lead rope or rein, or a press of the hand, it can be problematic.
That’s why good owners take time to teach their donkeys to follow rather than resist pressure. This makes care and communication easier, not to mention safer and less stressful for all involved.
When it comes to making life choices, we humans have our own “opposition reflex” that can be equally double-edged. Once we settle on a habit or thought pattern, we tend to stick to it and resist change.
Our stubbornness can help us reach goals or hold on to convictions. But if those goals or convictions happen to be harmful or wrong, we’ll find ourselves plowing down a dark, slippery road.
That’s why it’s vital that we learn to yield to the guidance of our wise, loving God. As much as it goes against our natural impulse, yielding ultimately keeps our souls safe, close to our Maker, and on the best path for our lives.
There’s a technical term for this yielding: repentance. And it’s relevant no matter our spiritual life stage.
“Repentance” is often defined as regret. But biblical repentance goes beyond that. The Greek word translated “repent” in the New Testament means “to change one’s mind”. The Hebrew of the Old Testament says simply “to turn or return”, envisioning wayward people veering off the path of sin to seek and follow God.
One of the most common biblical metaphors for describing unrepentant people is “stiff-necked”. The allusion is to an uncooperative animal stiffening like a board at the handler’s cue to turn. Persistent prodding or tugging might get it to shuffle its feet, but nothing can get it to actually bend.
All that tension certainly serves the animal’s purpose. But it’s also exhausting. Not just because tension takes energy, but also because extreme tension disrupts balance and causes muscles and joints to move in unnatural, unhealthy ways.
It’s the same with unrepentance. Our souls were designed to respond to God’s voice and touch, to grow and flourish, to move freely in His presence and walk with Him wherever He leads.
When we turn away from Him and “stiffen our necks”, we effectively restrict our spiritual wellbeing and potential. Our souls become stunted, unwieldy, and unhealthy. We might think we’re free, but really we’re hobbling along with our eyes and feet set in one direction – away from our Leader.
You’d think a person carrying so much tension would want to soften and move with freedom and balance. And sometimes they do.
But doing so means making a change. And change is hard, too. Even as we release the tight places (e..g. fear, stinginess, bitterness), we have to engage other places that have been disused (e.g. faith, generosity, gratitude). And actually wanting to change doesn’t necessarily make the process easier.
Yet by the grace of God repentance is possible. So how do we start?
Where Softness Starts
Simply put, repentance starts at the point where we and God connect.
We can try starting the process on our own, focusing on how we feel and how we ought to act. But until we acknowledge and soften to the divine touch, and look to the One behind it, we’ll never truly bend.
That’s because, at its core, repentance is about changing the way we relate to God.
Remember the Greek about changing one’s mind? Repentance begins when we change our minds about who God is to us. Not just who He is generally, but who He is to us personally. As I once heard a preacher point out, even Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who delivered Jesus’s death sentence, acknowledged Jesus’s identity as King of the Jews; yet he still missed the mark by not acknowledging Him as his own King.
Is Jesus your Lord? Is He your Savior? Did He die for your sin and rise again to offer you eternal life? The answer to the last question is yes, but until you believe it for yourself, you can’t and won’t claim its promise. And until you accept Him for yourself, you can’t and won’t live in a way that reflects His truth, character, and desires for your life.
Think of it this way: If the One tugging on your lead rope is your enemy, you’ll haul on that rope for all you’re worth. If He’s just some nobody who happens to be holding the rope, you’ll ignore Him. If He’s your peer, you’ll yield or stiffen as you see fit.
But if He’s your Leader, you’ll not only move your feet but also your whole being.
That’s why salvation requires repentance. Not because repentance scores us points with God, but because it’s the first step of faith. It’s less a feat we have to perform to qualify for eternal life and more a posture we adapt in order to live that life.
Making the Turn
Repentance is never a one-time move, because sin is never a one-time foray. Even after we choose to follow Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we still sometimes stray from the path of faith. We might spy a bit of greener grass by the road, or disagree with Him at a crossroads, or decide that a change of terrain calls for an impromptu change of pace.
Sure, the strayings might be closer to home, and we might not actually yank the lead rope free. But every step away from Him begs a step back toward Him. Every ounce of tension we collect needs to be released.
So, whether you’ve walked with Jesus before or are just now eyeing Him from afar, take a moment to assess your position. Is there any tension between you? Is any part of you hanging back, pushing ahead, or leaning away? Is any part of you pointing in a direction different than the one He’s guiding you in?
If so, confess it to Him. Tell Him how you feel and what you think (be honest – He can handle it!). Ask Him to show you what you need to change, and how He wants you to move next. Ask Him to forgive you, cleanse you, change you, and guide you. Thank Him that He not only can, but will.
Tell Him who He is to you – and then let Him be it.
Search me, God, and know my heart;Psalm 139:23-24 (NIV)
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.