Lessons from Jonah about Going the Wrong Way

Many Christians stress the importance of knowing God’s will as it pertains to their future decisions. Should I take this job or that job? Should I buy this car or that car? Some decisions that arise border on trivial, such as, should I take Airline Hwy. or I-10? We want to know God’s will, but we may over-do it. Sometimes God just wants you to get to work – either route will be fine.

Though these life questions may be deeply emotional and unnerving, the more troubling discernment can arise when we clearly know what God requires of us. You don’t have to pray about whether God wants you to love your enemy. He does; He already told you that. You don’t have to pray about whether God wants you to care for orphans and widows. He does; He already told you that. You don’t have to pray about whether God wants you to tell others about who He is and what He has done. He does; He already told you that. But obeying these clear commands from God can be difficult – leading us to turn the wrong way on a one-way street of honoring God.

We see an example of this in Scripture through the life of Jonah. Jonah was a prophet from Israel – the northern kingdom of the divided people of God. In Jonah’s lifetime, Israel was still a sovereign nation, but the Assyrians were bearing down. Assyria was a massive nation with a very impressive city called Nineveh. Americans have few opportunities to emotionally relate to Jonah’s ill will toward Nineveh. The United States has never shared such close proximity to such a militarily dominant, aggressive neighbor. Modern Americans have never gone to sleep at night wondering when their wives and daughters might be subject to the pleasures of an invading army. As such, we might underestimate Jonah’s hesitation to obey God’s call to go to the enemy.

The book of Jonah begins with the word of God. This is significant because the word of God and the effectiveness of the word of God is the most significant theme of the book. God tells Jonah to get up and go preach against the wickedness of Nineveh. In a time when gods were generally associated with specific nations, the God of Israel was rebuking the wickedness of a physically superior nation. Jonah immediately responds by going the opposite direction, on a ship going to Tarshish.

In the course of the next two chapters, God sends a storm on the ship, Jonah identifies himself as the reason for the storm and encourages the sailors to throw him overboard, and God sends a great fish to swallow Jonah. While inside the fish, Jonah prays to God: “I will sacrifice to You with a voice of thanksgiving. I will fulfill what I have vowed. Salvation is from the Lord!” After three days and three nights, God commands the fish to vomit Jonah onto dry land.

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At this point, one might expect a repentant Jonah, who has been through an extraordinary expression of the power of God over nature and an extraordinary expression of God’s effectiveness in accomplishing His purposes, to preach with renewed vigor – trusting wholly that God knows what He’s doing. But that was not the case.

Jonah gets up and goes to Nineveh where he walks for three days, telling of the judgment that will come from God on Nineveh. Reports of Jonah’s message reach all the way to the king, who responds in a most unexpected way. The king orders everyone (man and beast) in the kingdom to fast, mourn, and call out to God in hopes that God might relent His judgment. This heart-felt repentance, a true turning from evil, was pleasing to God and He relented from the disaster He had threatened.

Jonah must have been ecstatic, right? Best preacher of all time! Brought the Assyrian Kingdom to repentance! No. Jonah wasn’t excited. Jonah 4:1 says, “But Jonah was greatly displeased and became furious.” Jonah knew that God was merciful and compassionate and that he would relent disaster from the Ninevites – that’s why he didn’t want to go in the first place. The literary style is subtly humorous in its assertion – the animals of the pagan Assyrians were more willing to humble themselves before God than the prophet of Israel.

Sometimes we want to trade obedience in what we clearly know that God has commanded for obedience in things that are less clear or even unknown. Like Jonah, we cry out to God, “I will sacrifice to you with a voice of thanksgiving,” but then show reluctance to go God’s way. Do you think that God want’s you to show hospitality through a new, large house with room for many guests? Great, but are you being hospitable now in your current accommodation? Do you think he might move you to a new community and a new job in order to be a witness? Great, but are you witnessing where you are today. God is not vague in what he requires of us. Nor is He vague in what he will accomplish – the restoration of people to Himself from every nation, tribe, people and tongue. Are you willing to go in the direction that God has clearly stated that He is going? That’s the only true, right way.

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