“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.”
Obviously, these are the familiar first three verses of the Old Testament book of Jonah. The story of Jonah has always intrigued me: the story of a prophet who flees from God and in turn has the opportunity to enjoy the undersea lodgings of a large fish. We hear the story repeatedly in Sunday School as little children and often tend to gloss over it later in life because it is so familiar to us. Further, the story itself is the subject of much speculation about who Jonah actually was and the potential allegorical meanings of the book as describing the selfishness of Israel.
Without going too deep into such speculation, we can examine the character of Jonah and see exactly who he is today.
While we know pretty much nothing about his past, Jonah is clearly a Hebrew prophet. God calls him to go to Nineveh and preach repentance, which means that Jonah must have a history with God. Also, in 1:9 Jonah professes, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”
In spite of Jonah’s past experiences with God and status as a follower of the Lord, he turns away from his call. God clearly speaks to him; he understands that it is God’s voice; he runs away. In 4:2, Jonah explains his reasoning for 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 called to witness to people that he hates, and because of his selfish desires for the people to suffer he ignores the call and runs away.
It is amazing how many times Jonah seems to change his mind about his call and his own personal desires. He begins the story as a prophet and follower of God. When he is called to perform a task he does not want, he turns away from God. When it becomes clear that he and many others will die unless he returns to God, he turns back to God and is miraculously rescued by a once-in-a-lifetime experience of spending three days inside a large fish. Once his heart has turned, God calls the fish to essentially regurgitate Jonah onto dry land so that he can carry out his task, which he does successfully. The people of Nineveh repent and turn to God, saving their lives and glorifying the Lord. Naturally, Jonah turns from God and grows angry at the Lord for relenting in his anger and saving the city.
We could go even deeper into Jonah’s personal character, but it is clear to me who Jonah is today: me. I am Jonah. All Christians are.
At the beginning of the book, Jonah has evidently already encountered God previously, hence his status as a prophet. In our lives, we have already encountered God in His saving grace and love. We know God’s desire for all humanity to turn to Him, and we know our roles in this cause.
When we reach a point in our relationship with Christ that allows us to discern His will for our lives, we hear His specific call. Often, that call is something that we do not necessarily want – perhaps reaching out and sharing God’s love with someone who has made our lives miserable in the past.
At least in my own personal experience, God has not acted so drastically as to call a literal storm upon me when I turn away from His call, but this does not mean that it is any less important. We flip-flop like Jonah in constant fashion – drifting back and forth between devoted commitment and blatant disregard for the standards God has placed in each of our lives. We may not have the exact experience of Jonah, in which we grow angry when we carry out our call of ministry and it proves to be successful, but nonetheless we turn from God at the strangest times and make up pathetic excuses about how not everything is going exactly how we want it to go.
This is where we go beyond Jonah. When the prophet boarded the boat to Tarshish, we have no way of knowing what his plan was when he reached the city. Perhaps he intended to preach God’s love within that city and have a positive impact on lives there. Even if this is the case, that was not God’s call in his life.
Too often we as Christians claim discernment when we are really deciding what we want. We receive a job offer that fits all our hopes and dreams and we mold God’s call in our lives to fit that option. We enter a relationship – whether romantic or merely friendship – that we enjoy and then do our Christian duty of asking for God to carry out His will in the relationship. Except we do so by asking for specific signs that would affirm in our hearts that God has called us to this place, and the signs we ask for will be answered affirmatively whether or not God intervenes.
Too often we confuse good with God. I know I am very guilty of this, especially in the realm of relationships and (the wonderful call of Pacific Lutheran University) vocation. I believe that all of my past relationships have been “healthy,” and all have taught me important lessons that will benefit me in future relationships, but I was completely guilty of finding someone I “liked” and “asking” God to make it clear to me that it was right. It is amazing how easily hormones can be “mistaken” for God’s almighty will.
In terms of vocation, I have made it a habit of constantly asking God to make clear to me my future career path. Now, it is a very good thing for me to pursue God’s will in this regard, but it has become so easy for me to mistake opportunities as signs. I have had a steady stream of opportunities in the field of communication/journalism since even before I came to PLU, so it would be very easy for me to tell myself that clearly God is letting me know that this is the path He has called me to. I’ve spent most of the past three years doing just that.
After all, I have a passion for helping people. I have a desire to change lives. And apparently I am a relatively talented writer. Sounds like a born journalist, right? But as I draw nearer to graduation, I find myself less passionate than ever about changing the world one small-town beat at a time. It is not that I don’t want to move across the country to work my way up the journalism ladder (although to be honest, I really don’t), rather it is that I just don’t believe that is where God is calling me.
Instead I feel passion and joy rise up every time I engage in any sort of theological conversation. Whenever I crack open my Bible and delve into the Holy Word of God and learn something new, I feel as if I am better prepared than before to share God’s love with the masses. I love spending time with students and participating in their spiritual journey. I love the communal quest for the Holy Spirit and an understanding of the God who gave His only son that we may spend eternity with Him.
Obviously, I could ramble about myself for another 1300 words, but my point is bigger than me.
I am not the only Jonah in today’s world. We all are. Every time we settle for the good rather than casting it aside in the eternal pursuit of God, we are boarding that ship for Tarshish. It might seem perfect at the time, but God provides glimpses in our hearts that He has called us to something greater. Now we can settle for the good, and the storms that will accompany a life running away from God’s perfect call, or we can forever chase after God and experience the miracles of a refuge in a storm and a hotel in the belly of a large fish.
The thing we have to pay such careful attention to is the discernment between the good and God. It is often “easy” to choose between something obviously bad and God, but the best way Satan will limit our potential for a fruitful and joyful life is by distracting us with something that may be amazing and wonderful, but is not exactly what God has planned for us. Refuse to settle, especially in such important areas as relationships and vocations. Continue the unending pursuit of God, shunning the good that the world will place in our paths.
I’m sure I could live a happy and successful life as a full-time journalist. But God has called me to something so much greater. It might not always be what I want to do, but following Him will lead to greater experiences of God and a stronger faith. Settling will put me on course for a storm on the boat to Tarshish. We are all Jonah, and we should all learn from his mistakes and choices so that our lives may fully glorify God and carry out His will in this world.
Good vs. God. Do not give Satan the joy of seeing you settle for anything less than that to which the almighty God has called you.