So, my mom and grandmother are here this week! I’m so excited they traveled all the way from St. Louis to see me. Since they’re here, I prepared this post, on Jonah, a few days ago. I probably won’t be able to blog again until next Monday’s installment of this series, but look for more from me next week!
I had a dream a few nights ago. DH and I were in a remote swamp. It was unlike any place I’ve ever seen in real life—the kind of scene that might show up in a movie or one of those reality shows about people who live deep in the wilderness lowlands. There we were, filthy and just sitting around in the mud. Weak waves kept washing up on the bank of some murky body of water, and time after time they deposited what I can only describe as manna on the shore.
The “manna” appeared in different forms, like marzipan animals and homemade cookies. It was a melt-in-your-mouth kind of delicacy. The kind of rare treat that makes you happy deep down in your being. When I woke up, I had a message in my mind. I distinctly felt God was saying that as long as I still want my own way, I’m not trusting him.
When I told DH this great insight that had been revealed to me in my sleep, he looked at me funny and accused me of stating the obvious. And maybe it seems obvious to you, too. But it hit me. I keep saying I trust God, and then I keep asking him, “Please, oh please, can’t we just do it this way?”
Which brings us to Jonah. Jonah made no bones about his dislike for God’s plan. When God told him to preach to Nineveh, he didn’t just refuse to go, he hopped a boat in the exact opposite direction. Have you been there, too? At the heart of his disobedience was the same sin I struggle with: A belief that his way and his ideals were better than God’s.
While Jonah wanted the Ninevites doomed to destruction, God wanted them to repent and turn to him. If it had been up to Jonah, they wouldn’t have had a chance at rescue. But it wasn’t.
We saw in Moses that sometimes God calls us to do things we don’t really want to do. Moses didn’t feel equipped to answer God’s call. He didn’t question God’s desire to rescue the Israelites from their Egyptian masters, simply God’s determination of who would represent the rescuer. While Moses’ cries of “please pick someone else” can be chalked up to his great humility, it’s hard to find any virtue of Jonah’s that even begins to justify his willful disobedience.
The book of Jonah starts with his call:
“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” (Jonah 1:1-2).
Sometimes I find myself hoping for such a clear call. But what if, like Jonah, I hear something I didn’t want to hear? Would I do as Jonah does?
“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” (Jonah 1:3).
The story that follows is commonly told to children. A storm comes up and ultimately Jonah is thrown overboard to satisfy God and save the ship. Jonah, in fact, tells the crew to throw him into the sea. It seems he would rather die than do as God has commanded. But God isn’t going to let him off that easily: he provides a great fish that swallows Jonah. Jonah resides in its belly for three days and nights.
We can safely surmise that Jonah isn’t having a good week. And when you’ve hit rock bottom—or the innards of a fish—isn’t it only natural to turn to the only one who can pull us out of the deepest pit?
That’s what he does. He prays to God. He calls out to God and thanks him for providing rescue. And even then, I think, he tries to make a case for why he did what he did. He says, “Those who cling to worthless idols [like the Ninevites] turn away from God’s love for them” (Jonah 2:8).
“But,” he says, “I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord’” (2:9).
In modern vernacular: “God, those Ninevites who prefer idols over you and your love don’t deserve to be saved. But, even though I don’t want to, I will sacrifice my desires to yours. I’ll do what you want, I’ll tell them how they can be saved, and I’ll praise you all the while.”
He seems noble in this moment, right? But still a little bit unsurrendered. There’s still that “I don’t like it, but I’ll do it” tone, isn’t there? Oh man, I keep seeing more of me in Jonah than I care to admit.
So, “the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land” (2:10). Gross, right?
And Jonah preaches to the Ninevites. And Lo! They believed God. They start moping about, showing their repentance. They fast. They dress in sackcloth—from the king down to the animals (yep, even the animals had to wear that itchy stuff). And the king announces, “Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish” (3:8b-9).
They don’t try to justify their evil behavior. They don’t moralize their way out of recognizing their sin. They just repent. The “evil” Ninevites offer us a better example of repentance than God’s own prophet. And God does indeed relent.
So, Jonah is called to prophesy. He runs away. He relents and does what God told him. And he’s fully learned through his traumatizing fish-belly experience that God’s plans are greater and better than his, right?
Let’s see: “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’” (4:1-2).
Fail. Jonah is again justifying his earlier disobedience. I guess it’s a good thing for him that what he says about God is true: God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love–even to Jonah. But God points out, and then shows Jonah in a way that we can only hope does get through, that he doesn’t have any right to be angry about what happened.
It’s easy to look at Jonah and say, “Man, that guy really messed up.” But then I have to look at myself and say, “Man, this girl really messes up.” And that’s not quite as fun as critiquing Jonah.
Jonah’s calling was straightforward, but he ran away from it. He didn’t want to go through with what God asked him. His challenges in accomplishing his call were pretty much entirely his own doing. Is God calling you to do something that you’ve been putting off? Have you been running away from God?
I have. I’ve felt the call to apply to seminary for several years. And I’ve made excuses and tried to push it behind me and pretended like maybe that’s not really what God wanted.
No more excuses. I’ve said it before, but I’m applying this year. If God wants me to go to seminary, I’ll go next fall … or whenever he desires, I guess. I don’t fully understand why or fully agree that this is what I should be doing. My plan is different. My plan is to have babies and stay home with them and maybe go to seminary when they are grown. But I guess it’s time to give up my plan and really put my trust in God. And, trusting God means choosing his plan over mine.
This is episode 5 of my “They Were Called” series. If you want to follow along, I am posting on Mondays. For previous episodes, see:
Introduction: Working for My Calling
Episode 1: David Asked, “How Long, O Lord?”
Episode 2: Moses Looked to the Reward
Episode 3: Hannah Took It to the Lord
Episode 4: Noah Chose to Build