This semester, I’ve seen my life parallel the tale of Jonah – but in order for me to explain you’ll need the complete context. Here’s the condensed story of Jonah:
The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord. Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up…
Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights…From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God…And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh...When God saw what [the Ninevites] did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die,and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jonah 1:1-4, 17; 2:1, 10; 3:1-3, 10; 4:1-11).
For context, I’ve been a Christian that has a relationship with God for five years now. Praise God for the work He’s done in those five years. Often I think it’s been way longer than that, but in actuality, it’s only been half a decade of walking with God. Now, that doesn’t mean I didn’t go to church or read my bible or participate in Vacation Bible School or say I was a Christian or lead a small group or advocate for “Christian things” six years ago, but it does mean that six years ago my faith was not a relationship with God. What’s the difference? It’s simple, but complex at the same time. Simply put, that means I’m doing the whole “Christian thing” for God, not for myself. It means that no longer am I going to church and reading my bible because I ought to or because I think it will make me a better person or somehow fix my problems, but instead because of the truth and love I have from knowing God personally.
In the past five years I’ve seen God work wonders in my life: He’s freed me from anxieties out of my control; brought family members into over 18 months of sobriety; sent family abroad to free women from sex trafficking; given me steadfast community; reshaped how I view love; repaired marriages and friendships; sent me to foreign nations; broke down my walls of pride and self-righteousness – just to name a few.
All these great things being said though, I’m no longer naïve to think it is always easy to walk humbly with God. In fact, sometimes it is really, really hard.
Sometimes God calls us to do things that seem absolutely absurd. On top of that, they often don’t seem right or just by our standards or the world’s standards. We shout out “There is no way, absolutely no way.” As a result, instead of following God, we run like hell from the things He’s calling us to. In that running, there are a few resulting things that can shake our foundations all the way to their core.
The first thing is we doubt the character of God. Our image of of a righteous, just God doesn’t match with this God who is calling me to do this particular thing. How could God, the judge, tell me to love that person after all they’ve done to me? We start to believe that God changes. That God changes His promises, His plans, and His self in ways that are convenient to Him and His purposes. We start to believe God is manipulative as a result of that. God after all I’ve done for You, You still want me to love that person? This all so that we can actually follow our selfish, self-righteous hearts rather than the unchanging heart of God. He’s telling us to do loving things, not easy things. He’s telling us to die to ourselves, not live out lives that are comfortable.
Here’s the thing too – once you’re in deep enough in this whole “following God” thing, there’s no turning away anymore. There’s no denying that deep pit in your stomach when you’re actively (or maybe unconsciously) running from God. You can try to run, but at some point, the pit engulfs your every fiber with anxiousness, anger, or fear. Those deprave and negative feelings aren’t God, but God works through them. He works in that dark pit-ness to draw you back into His unchanging plan and to bend our rebellion back toward following Him. He shows us the pit is not where we want to stay, but rather we want His steadfast unchanging love. It isn’t fun though, and often we still fight against God’s redemptive plan.
That’s where we start to feel numb. We start to feel numb because we don’t want to feel the pent-up, negative emotions anymore and rather than trust God, we sedate them. No, even more, we start killing them. We even become fixated on death to this negativity. Whether it’s through addiction, social media, friendships, hobbies, studying, we numb ourselves from feeling the negative emotions with distractions and instant gratification. This numbness doesn’t solely affect our negative feelings though, it creeps into our positive ones and eventually kills our whole person. The numbness becomes like a cancer that grows throughout our whole body until we are no longer ourselves, but rather a lifeless tumor; no longer alive, but rather wholly dead. It consumes us until we are hollow and dead too.
That’s where I can relate to Jonah. Read that story again. Jonah was told by God to go to Nineveh (near Persia/Assyria) and instead he takes off in the literal opposite direction toward Tarshish (Spain). He literally gets in a boat and flees to the ocean to escape this calling. Now, let’s evaluate the calling here. It’s an incredible calling to LOVE a group of people and share about God’s will for them. God isn’t asking Jonah what the “right” thing to do is in this circumstance because the “right, moral, legalistic” thing to do here would be to condemn the city of Nineveh for all the terrible things they were doing and leave them to be destroyed. The thing is, God isn’t asking Jonah what the right thing to do is; He’s asking Jonah what the most loving thing to do is. Jonah is living in the tension of knowing God is a “gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity,” with a world that says, “justice is about due punishment and destruction.”
Yet, instead of clinging to God, Jonah clings to his selfish, self-righteous pursuit of the world. Jonah denies God’s character as gracious, loving, and relenting from calamity and convinces himself that instead God would rather leave Nineveh to be destroyed in their unknowing sinfulness. So he leaves to go the opposite direction – probably convincing himself this was indeed what God actually wanted, despite what God said. He convinces himself that God changes His callings and plans. The thing is, God doesn’t misspeak. God chooses His words so wisely and with so much intention that they create entire universes and lift men from the grave. So when He tells Jonah “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it,” He means “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it.” Not only does He mean it, He also means it is the most loving thing to do; even if it doesn’t seem like the right thing or easy thing to do.
So Jonah, against his will, goes to Nineveh after God sends a storm and a whale to swallow him up and vomit him out. It’s a pretty good metaphor for what it looks like to run from God’s intentions and also proves His plans don’t change, they just come to fruition in different ways. When we run from God’s callings, it’s often painful and terrifying when He starts to put us back on the right track toward His kingdom calling. Like Jonah, we find ourselves one moment sleeping during a peaceful boat ride, and the next we are tossed into the ocean in the middle of a storm and in the pitch-black, fish-smelling digestive track of a whale and vomited into the exact place we were running from. It’s not fun, but it also wouldn’t have to happen if it weren’t for our rebelliousness.
This is where we start to see Jonah viewing God as manipulative. Jonah acts as if God is somehow inconveniencing him and manipulating the circumstances to benefit Himself. Jonah says, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” Jonah is basically saying, “I know better than you, God. You manipulated me. I knew you were going to forgive them if I came here even though it’s unfair to me who had to go all the way to Nineveh and hang around dirty, sinful people. So I chose to do the right thing and not go here, but lo and behold, you brought me here anyway.” It’s as if Jonah forgets that when God welcomes each sinner of Nineveh into His presence, He inconveniences himself to the point of dying on the cross for each of them. It’s as if Jonah forgets that God inconveniences Himself eternally for Jonah because of His great love; stepping down from His throne and into the form of a newborn child that would eventually die for Jonah’s sins.
This is exactly where we start to see Jonah’s fixation on death. I can imagine he might have some fairly common thoughts here too: something like “God, I’ve been righteously following you for some time now and this life sucks. I just want to be in heaven where I can be one with you and have no pain and suffering. Take my life, please, thanks.” Of course, he puts it more bluntly and eloquently (as we might expect of someone who thinks they know more than God) saying, “Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” In reality, while Jonah is probably claiming he wants to be in heaven with God, he is actually claiming three things underneath the surface.
- He thinks he deserves to go to heaven on his own righteous accord.
- He asserts death as ultimate, rather than life.
- He claims he wants death to the negative aspects of life rather than to his sinfulness.
First, Jonah forgets that no man gets into heaven on their own accord. No man is good, holy, or righteous enough to earn their way into heaven. That is why even the high priests in the Old Testament had to perform sacrifices to purify themselves before performing sacrifices to purify other people. No one was blameless enough to deserve going into the presence of God, let alone into heaven. His longing was not for a place of no more pain or sorrow or tears, but rather for a relief from the life he felt he didn’t deserve. Rather than basking in the wonder and gratitude that one day he gets to escape the brokenness of the world, not by his strength, but the goodness of God, Jonah wallows in his self-righteous, over-inflating bitterness.
Second, Jonah quickly forgets that death is not ultimate. Death is not what brings us peace – God brings us peace and through grace we receive Him. Jonah forgets that death is in fact not better than life, and rather than dwell in the death AND resurrection, Jonah dwells only in the death. Jonah in these two thoughts does something he did not intend – he ends up feeding the Gollum-like creature of sin that is inside him.
He only feeds this beast for one reason: he knows if he feeds it, it will numb the hard feelings of anger, sadness, loneliness, fear, and bitterness he’s been harboring. Little does he know, this sin-creature has one motivation – to kill Life inside him – and that is just what it does. Jonah gets angrier, the creature feeds on it, some Life is killed to numb the anger. The anger manifests, the creature is fed, it attacks Life more. Slowly Jonah’s Life is so consumed by this creature of sin, that he no longer wants to be Jonah. Even when asked by God if it is right to be angry, Jonah would rather die than let the anger go and accept God’s true character. His mind is so consumed by death because the cancerous sin has grown to the point that Jonah is no longer Jonah, but a dead, hollow man that resembles Jonah.
This hollow man, as TS Elliot might put it, is a puppet that is ultimately controlled and twisted about by the Gollum-like sinfulness. The numb man begins to believe he is in control of his circumstances and slips deeper into numbness and anger. When circumstances don’t go his way, he curses God because God must be bad. God asks, “Is it right for you to be angry?” and he doesn’t respond because he knows the answer is no, but convinces himself that his anger is just and right.
That’s when this plant springs up. It gives Jonah shade and a moment of comfort in the midst of his sadness, lowliness, and anger. He rests for a second. Then God takes the plant away and Jonah goes right back to his cursing – this time because God took away his plant. What Jonah fails to see is the truth God was placing right before his eyes: nothing in this world is Jonah’s. Nothing was wholly made by Jonah, nothing was wholly complete by Jonah, nothing was Jonah’s to keep. He was pushing Jonah back on a path toward love and true righteousness by bringing Jonah to an awareness that this world is not worth worshipping; is fleeting; and is outside Jonah’s control. Yet, Jonah’s heart still desired to stumble down a path toward vain self-righteousness.
How similar are we to Jonah? How often do we run from God? How often do we think we deserve to go to heaven and are good enough on our own accord? How often do we feel mistreated by God in our affliction rather than rejoice in the work God is doing through us? How often do we even desire death more than life as if death is what bears peace and joy and satisfaction and the only thing life can bear is suffering? How often do we want to die rather than put sin to death? How often do we desire deceitful, fleeting comfort rather than ultimate, everlasting goodness? How often do we believe the world is for us and God is against us? How often are we similar Jonah?
There is, however, hope in the awareness of our apparent running from God. This hope is Jesus.
*tires screech. eyes roll. mouse moves toward red “x” in the corner of the screen*
Hold on a second. I understand those impulses when you read “This hope is Jesus.” When I’ve been in similar seasons of running from God, similar to Jonah, I’ve been super skeptical of people that say there’s hope in my situation. Give me just a few more minutes to explain and consider this: Jesus is the better Jonah.
Jesus, like Jonah, is called a great prophet. He is constantly communicating with God and hearing from God during His ministry. He travels all across the region sharing about God’s plan and God’s gracious, compassionate, slow-to-anger, loving, and calamity-relenting character. Similar to Jonah being called to Nineveh, Jesus leaves his comfortable home in Heaven, in oneness with God the Father, and by the will of the Father goes into a world that is broken, and unknowingly sinful. Even further, God doesn’t simply ask Jesus to live amongst and minister to this sinful world, God asks Jesus to die for these sinners. Now, dissimilar to Jonah, not once does Jesus run from God in this calling, but instead He cries out to God and says, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will,” and dies on the cross (Matthew 26:39).
Jesus lays down His will, His rebellion, His fleeing to Tarshish. Never once does He forget the character of God or deny the goodness of God. Though He is without sin, He never believes Himself to be above the will of God the Father and deserving to be self-willed. He understands that He is called to love God and love His neighbors to the point of dying for them and though He is ultimately and completely righteous, He is not exempt from this calling. He continues onto the realm of death, bearing the weight of the sins of all the earth, but He does not dwell in death. He rises three days later. He returns to life and overcomes death’s entrapments. He puts sin to death and gives life to sinners. Then He calls us to rejoice with Him and to tell others that death is not ultimate anymore – He’s defeated death and brought Life.
Christ does not say that the road will be easy when we start following Him. To the man who says he will follow Jesus wherever He goes, Jesus says “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” (Luke 9:58). He makes it clear that it isn’t easy, but He also makes it clear that it is worth it. It becomes increasingly apparent that in order to live life as a Christian, it no longer is about our righteousness, but about His love. It is about following the call of God. It means knowing His still, small voice and trusting it when He speaks with His tender, omniscient intentionality. How do we do that, you ask? We draw near to Him, so He can draw near to us. We humble ourselves by hiding the righteous deeds of our right hand from our left, as to not know the good things we, ourselves, are doing. We have a relationship with God and seek to know Him as He seeks to know us.
Paul writes to the Corinthians about this very subject. He says this relationship with God is no longer about getting the laws right and making ourselves righteous as was the mindset of Jonah and priests and people of today and myself oftentimes. Rather, this relationship with God is about basking in the presence and love of the Father as Jesus did. This reverence and “ceasing of striving” as the Psalmist writes in Psalm 46:10 frees us to be transformed to be more like Him. Paul says,
“Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit,” (2 Corinthians 3: 12-18).
That’s it, friends. It’s all about Christ. We trust that as we stand before Him we are becoming truly righteous, God-honoring, and loving: not all at once, but one degree at a time. Jesus doesn’t run from God and welcomes us into a relationship with the Father. God doesn’t run from us and welcomes us into relationship with Him. A relationship where there is no more striving toward righteousness that leads to death. A relationship where there is a freedom to love one another. A relationship where we are alive, living as we are gradually and surely transformed into the image of a perfect, loving God.
A God who is affectionately and appropriately called Love.
So whether you’re fleeing God or you’re in the belly of the whale. Whether you’re being vomited up in your own personal Tarshish or you’re joyfully following God wherever He calls you. May you rest in the presence of our gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love; our God who relents from sending calamity.