Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.
We don’t need to pretend that I know anything about horses or mules. All my information about them is secondhand at best. But we can take other people’s word when they tell us that horses need bridles to be steered and that mules are stubborn. So even without equine experience, God’s point in Psalm 32:9 is still evocative. Rather than simply telling us to stop being stubborn, He paints us a simultaneously humorous and devastating picture with a clear and simple point: when you resist God’s grace, you’re acting like a mule or a bad horse. You aren’t enjoying the living relationship He’s designed us to enjoy. You’re just pulling away from where God (graciously) wants you to go.
Consider these bits of meditation on spiritual stubbornness:
God’s warning against stubbornness flows from love. In the previous verse (Ps. 32:8), God has promised to teach, instruct, counsel and watch over us. What an amazing thing, that the Creator of the Universe would take a proactively loving and caring involvement in our lives! So when He tells us to stop being stubborn in the previous verse, we can see that His hatred of our stubbornness isn’t mere frustration, but is love itself. God hates our stubbornness because it is a roadblock to the joy and goodness He’s constantly pouring out on us.
The pain of stubbornness is best learned second hand. Psalm 32 is David’s own account of his pursuit of joy in God. At the very beginning, David declares what it means to be happy and blessed: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven…” He then humbly continues and relates to us in song his own path of repentance. And it wasn’t often pretty. David spoke about the times when his own body was falling apart because of his sin, yet he still refused to listen and repent. This is a story every saint older than you would tell you, too: “Don’t be like me. Don’t wait so long to repent.” In fact, I’ve never heard anyone grieve over repenting too quickly. So learn from David and from other Christians…or else learn on your own. But one way is significantly better than the other.
Stubbornness is seen in slowness to repent. Any and all delay in repentance is the stubbornness God graciously warns us against. How many times do you need to hear that particular sermon before you run to God for forgiveness and help? How many times do you need to be confronted with particular sins or sinful patterns until you relax your grip on your own desires? Any sin is one too many, of course. But let’s not make it exponentially worse by holding on to our guilt and shame one minute, one second longer than we need to. There is no mandated waiting time for forgiveness, there is no waiting line for God’s grace. He is ready to immediately and gracious forgive and restore. What are you waiting for?
Stubbornness is also insensitivity to the Spirit. As David relates his own testimony to us in Psalm 32, we read of a man whose own body was preaching a powerful sermon to him: “when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.” As the sovereign controller of every last cubic inch of creation, God has a billion ways to get your attention. And he often uses them. We are used to thinking about God getting our attention through sermons and private worship, but is He preaching a sermon to you in other parts of your life? As with David, an illness can be a call to repentance. A loss of a job can be a warning about pride. This isn’t to say that every difficulty is due to your personal sin, but you should at least ask the question every time: “God, what are you saying to me here?” Personally, one of the ways God often gets my attention is by refusing me sleep. So be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s many pulpits and respond whenever He preaches.
The cure for stubbornness must be found in God Himself. Repentance isn’t fun. Avoiding it makes a certain amount of sense if beyond the act of repentance is just more repentance. But that’s not the Christian life at all. Beyond the act of repentance is God. Making haste to repent means enjoying more of God! Refusing to repent only makes sorrow abound (Ps. 32:10) but running to God through repentance means that we get to “be glad in the Lord and rejoice!” (32:11) If our goal is God Himself, enjoying and cherishing the communion we have with Him through Christ and the Spirit, then nothing will keep us from Him – not even the pain of repentance.