It’s almost 2017 and the internet is buzzing with words like “resolutions” and “vision.” Plenty of counsel abounds in books, articles, and sermons on how to be successful in reaching those goals. Its’ not that setting goals is bad; I personally set goals and trust that God is in my goal-setting.
I struggle not to have preconceived ideas about how God will help me bring my goals to pass. I have, all too often, failed in my attempts to allow God to work His plans out instead of me working my plans out. This began early in life for me. I assumed as a young child that I could excel at any sport or activity, until I actually tried and realised there was more to success than natural ability. No, I was not a gymnast, swimmer, runner, or celebrity. By the time I reached adulthood, I had an idea that I wasn’t all that and a bag of chips. But I still thought I knew enough to figure out how a situation would pan out. When I got married, I was sure that I would be a princess forever (for Jamie called me princess then) until I became a real-life Cinderella and toilets needed scrubbing! When I had children I thought I would be the patient, perfect parent and then found myself talking through my teeth. Things were not proceeding as planned…
And I wondered after a few years of thinking I knew how things would turn out – what if I was wrong? What if, after all my fumbling around, there was something to be said in surrendering to God and His will when it made no sense? What if the problem wasn’t in my surroundings but in my own reactions and prideful thinking in the depths of my own heart? I found myself to be very much like the prophet Jonah of old.
One of the things I appreciate about Jonah of the Bible is that he’s real. There’s nothing hidden about Jonah. He wears it all on his sleeve and yet, God used him. To me, that meant as I read about Jonah, that there was hope for me!
We can read that God had sent Jonah to the ancient city of Nineveh for a special mission (Jonah 1). God wanted him to go on a three day trip inland from where he was and proclaim God’s message to the people of the city because God had better plans for them; He had better things in mind for them than what they were living. He loved even the people of that city.
The problem with this was the historical hatred that existed between the Jews and the Ninevites (who were Israel’s ancient enemy, the Assyrians). The Ninevites (Gentiles) were a warring people that periodically plundered Israel, destroying their villages, killing their people. So this command given to Jonah by God was more than his mind could grasp – and his solution was to flee.
Once Jonah fled, God had a two-fold problem on His hands: an unrepentant city and a runaway prophet. Jonah took refuge on a ship sailing for far-away lands and hid, but he ended up being thrown overboard and then swallowed by a “large fish.” What living in a fish’s gut is like is not something I care to think of – the very lightest whiff of “fish smell” makes my stomach turn.
God held on to Jonah in the belly of that fish and He holds on to us – He holds on to you. He used a lot of adverse circumstances to “corner” the runaway prophet and get his attention. Had Jonah just obeyed he could’ve avoided a lot of trouble. Just like me. I could’ve, in my lifetime, avoided a lot of adverse circumstances by just obeying. Instead, I found myself wrapped up in attention-getters of my own making.
It took a lot for Jonah to respond to God. Even when he finally did respond to God and go to Nineveh to give Nineveh God’s message – He did so with an attitude.
Nineveh was a huge city, in Jonah 3:3 it says that the city was so large that it took 3 days to travel across it. What that really means in actual mileage is uncertain, but we can be pretty sure it was of substantial size. This meant that Jonah had a big job to proclaim God’s message. He couldn’t just say it quietly at a corner in an obscure neighborhood – it had to be preached.
As I think of it, he must have had to take several days to get the word out that unless the city repented, the city would be overthrown (Jonah 3:4). Can you imagine him looking at the people in that place. We might think that Jonah was just disobedient simply because of how the Ninevites had plundered his people. Have you ever considered that he might have lived through some of the raids of Nineveh on his people and it might even be that Jonah himself lost some family members to this warring group of people? The Bible doesn’t record more than Jonah’s anger against the people for all the atrocities they had committed, but one wonders, had Jonah been hurt? Had he lost loved ones? Friends? It was to these people that he hated that he was called.
As Jonah was, so are we. We are called to this world. The unforgiving, unashamed, hard-hearted, hurtful, mixed up, and angry world. Those who have hurt us, those who don’t help us, those who oppose our beliefs, those who don’t care when we are wronged – these are the ones we are called to.
And just like with Jonah the choice is ours – do we choose the school of the storms and fish or the school of God’s aggressive love?
Let’s pick up the story here in Jonah 3 when Jonah had finally come to his senses and decided to obey God:
Jonah 3:5-10 NKJ “So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, ‘But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away form His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?’ Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.”
Why is it that God is so forgiving? Here in the Old Testament, to a group of people that were pagan, the Assyrians by descent who were ancient enemies of Israel, noncovenant people! And to this people, He extends the opportunity to repent and turn to Him. So much for God loving one group of people over another; He has always loved this world and has sought to bring His message to all who would hear.
Even having gone through the school of “storms and fish” Jonah begrudges God’s love for the people of Nineveh:
Jonah 4:1-4 NKJ “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry. So he prayed to the Lord, and said, ‘Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!’ Then the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’”
The chapter goes on to account God teaching Jonah about forgiveness and compassion. From this scene, Jonah stomps off to a distant part of the city to see what would happen (maybe he was hoping God would relent and destroy the people anyway). God planted some kind of plant/tree to give him shade – but then sent an insect or worm to destroy it. So Jonah was angry over the death of the tree. God questions Jonah if it was right to be angry over something like the tree, and Jonah says, “Yes! Even angry enough to die!”
God cornered Jonah by saying if Jonah had pity on a plant he hadn’t planted and had withered in a night, why not pity people who are of much greater value?
Jonah 4:11 NKJ “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left – and much livestock?”
God’s love is so powerful, so aggressive that nothing can stop it. No one can stand in its way. But Jonah’s life compass was off and couldn’t get a grip on the love of God. He was so wound up in his hate of this group of people that his sense of direction was gone. It was then that God had to “erase his hard drive” and start all over with him. This is the power of God’s great love: He loved Nineveh, that reprobate city, and He loved Jonah, the unforgiving, runaway prophet.
I once had a laptop that had been infected by viruses and for those of you who have even a small understanding of computers, you understand how devastating viruses can be. The very mention of the words “computer virus” strikes fear in the hearts of those who work at their laptops. Well, I was able to remove the virus that had struck the computer but had to reformat the hard drive (a very scary process for me, this was my only computer). Everything was erased from it and I started over installing all programs and backed up information. I succeeded! PTL!
Sometimes that is what happens to us. We’re infected with a virus from this world and the hard drive needs reformatting. God wants to keep us on His track but for some reason, our internal guidance system has been corrupted and has to be reformatted. How this happens has a lot to do with our surrender. God wanted to send Jonah without trouble – but Jonah chose to flee. This brought him to disaster, but God’s aggressive love brought him back because God had something better in mind for the runaway prophet.
Our plans don’t always pan out in the way we foresee. Often this is because we’ve not surrendered our will and our plans to God. Once our plans become His, we are set onto a playing field that God can use! God knows what is happening when we don’t!
Jeremiah 29:11 NLT “‘For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.’”
This is a very well known verse; many of us can even quote it. However, as we quote, we’re often so busy trying to map out our paths that we have forgotten that the Director knows the way. We reckon that with our wisdom we know the way – but more often than not, we don’t!
As a parent, there have been many times I’ve tried to instruct my kids to do various chores or help with homework. Often, my assistance has come at their request. When I do roust myself from my “unimportant” chores like paying bills or cooking dinner to help them, I am met with “Oh I know, I know Mom.” Bewildered, I’ll pull back and ask, “If you already knew then why are you asking for my help?”
Math has been a subject for my kids whose logic has often eluded them. I would do everything to try and help when things became frustrating for them. What it came down to most of the time wasn’t their inability to count, add, or subtract, but their rushing through the work so they could do what they thought was more important. When their papers would get marked with many corrections, tears and anger would result. Sad to see them sad, I would try to help them and in their frustration they would shoo me away saying, “I know Mom, I know!”
There’s nothing like being told you know nothing when you know that you know something.
Without doubt, my children had some knowledge about their math assignments but that knowledge wasn’t proving sufficient to get the correct answer. Knowledge without the right process of applying it won’t produce needed results. Besides, no one likes a “know it all.”
1 Corinthians 8:1b NLT “…Yes, we all know that ‘we all have knowledge’ about this issue. But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church.”
We are so like our own kids in our relationship with our Father God! I can picture me in the middle of a “life test” and failing miserably and not understanding why. In my frustration I call on my Father and as He tries to help me, I push Him away saying defiantly, “I know, I know!” Then I picture Him standing back, like me with my own kids, wishing I would let Him help!
The wonder of living life in the love of God is knowing that He will hold the pieces together – and we don’t have to! We don’t have to know everything because He is our Father and always has our best interests at heart. He is capable of guiding us when we don’t understand, He is capable of saving us when no one (not even ourselves) can. He really does know a whole lot more than we do!
Hebrews 11:40 NLT “Because God had provided something better in mind for us, so they would not reach perfection without us.”
The crux of the matter is this: God, our Father, has something so much better in mind for us – it’s better than our best! God supersedes everyone in that not only does He promise to give us the best (because He is the best), but He also has the power to deliver the best.
In fact, what God has in mind is so good that those heroes of faith mentioned in the earlier portion of Hebrews 11 couldn’t reach perfection (or completion) without our cooperation with the plans and mind of God for our lives.
Consider this gallery of faith-mentors cheering for us from the grandstands of heaven: Moses, David, Samson, Rahab, Gideon, Samuel, Barak, the list goes on and their perfection or completion is seen in us – in our aligning ourselves with His plans and not our own because God’s kingdom is an everlasting kingdom that is always expanding. We’ve just picked up where those who have gone before us left off.
Hebrews 12 goes on to say that because all these are cheering for us, since they “surround us,” we need to run with endurance. We need to bear up with the correcting of our course, with that discipline when it comes. They are shouting, “Don’t run away to the school of storms and fish!” Their lessons, and Jonah’s, teach us to 0bey at the first word, don’t wait or we will learn like they did – the hard way!
Hebrews 12:12,13 NLT “So take a new grip with your tired hands and strengthen your weak knees. Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong.”
It’s time to shake off the pain, put a little band aid on there, and get a new grip. As it was with Jonah, that fierce love, that aggressive love of God is meant to flow through you and not sit stagnant within you. This aggressive love will bring the expansion of the Kingdom to those who remain outside; to those of Nineveh. Perhaps they will repent. Perhaps they will turn from their sin and to God. Perhaps, just perhaps, through our surrender we can see God’s plan for them (what He has in mind that is so much better for them) unfold.
Get a grip! Lift up your tired hands and strengthen your weak knees and take courage! God also has better things in mind than for us than to sit angry under a tree that will wither. Our destinies have farther-reaching implications than we ever thought. We’re all more like Jonah than we think – but the good news is this: he, together with many others who’ve crossed that boundary before us, are cheering for us. Jonah made it, and so will we!