In praise of stubbornness

August 31, 2011 | Viewpoints | Number 17
Melissa Miller |

A common interaction at our house goes something like this. Person One says (with some heat): “You’re so stubborn!” Person Two then replies (with some indignation): “I am not stubborn. I’m principled. I’m determined. I’m firm and have integrity of opinion.”

Stubbornness is not usually a quality we are eager to claim. Stubborn has synonyms like obstinate, bull-headed and even mulish. We know that too much stubbornness, too much of an attitude of “my way or the highway,” strains intimate relationships and fractures family connections. In such situations, former marriage partners may find themselves locked in bitter court battles, and parents may sadly be estranged from their children. Is it possible that many church splits have happened because of stubbornness on the part of one or more parties?

Given these negative connotations, how curious it is that Jesus promotes stubbornness in not one, but two, stories in the Gospel of Luke. In these stories, though, the quality is known by its gentler cousins of persistence or perseverance. In Luke 11, Jesus praises a pesky man who wakes his neighbor at midnight, looking for food to give to a guest. Similarly, Jesus commends the persistent widow in the wryly surprising story he tells in Luke 18. The woman is successful in her petition to an unjust judge only because he is worn down by her repeated pleas. In both stories, the stubbornness that Jesus extols is stubbornness in our prayers, as we ask God for daily bread, for forgiveness of our sins, for our own capacity to forgive others, and in our quest for justice.

So it seems like stubbornness has a useful, even virtuous, place in our lives. I wonder, after a decade of living on the Prairies, if such persistence and backbone wasn’t crucial for the survival of the first settlers in this part of Canada. Where would our churches be if our spiritual ancestors had not had sufficient temerity to survive the cold and isolation of a long Manitoba winter? How did those parents raise a large family on a precarious farm income back in the early days without some stubbornness?

Conflict resolution specialists speak of five styles or kinds of responses to conflict, all of which have their time and place in healthy conflict management. Each style also has negative consequences or limitations to when it can be used effectively. One of these responses is designated as a “competitive” response, where the person is primarily focused on his or her goals, and not as concerned with the other individual’s needs or interests, or with tending the relationship between the two people. This could be called a stubborn response, when one person persists in a personal agenda irrespective of what the other person is seeking. Such a response can be useful in an emergency, where there is injustice occurring or when someone needs to be protected from harm.

In Jesus’ stories, we see two people who persist in having their goals met: the man wanting bread for his guest and the woman’s quest for justice. Jesus himself used this kind of response, for example, when he spoke forcefully to rigid religious leaders about their abuse of the poor, and when he defended the woman accused of adultery. Following Jesus’ teaching, if we’re going to be stubborn, let’s be stubborn in praying, in asking God to give us forgiving hearts, and to pursue justice for those who are vulnerable or oppressed.

Melissa Miller ( lives in Winnipeg, Man., where she ponders family relationships as a pastor, counsellor and author.

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