I’m fascinated by the story of Jonah and it has nothing to do with the fish. Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against the fish—it plays a critical role in the story. I just find that scene too hard to relate to.
Jonah, on the other hand, is easy to relate to. He’s more dramatic that I am, but I can see myself in his story nonetheless. Jonah is a runaway, and when I’m honest, I find that I too have my moments of running away from God.
I’ve never boarded a ship destined for Tarshish, but I have my own ways of running from God. I’m guessing you’ve done this too because most of us are experienced runners. Most of us can spot a runaway without much difficulty, but it’s harder to see this in ourselves. Based on Jonah’s story, here are a few signs that might help you discover if you’ve begun to wander.
You’re willing to sacrifice a lot for a questionable purpose
Jonah flees to Tarshish which is noteworthy for two reasons: it’s in the opposite direction from Nineveh and it’s clear across the Mediterranean Sea. Jonah’s voyage would have been very long and very expensive which reveals that he’s willing to sacrifice a lot to avoid Nineveh (the detail about Jonah paying the fare in Jonah 1:3 helps us understand this point).
The call to follow Jesus is intertwined with the call to live sacrificially. However, it’s possible to sacrifice things that don’t move us closer to Jesus. We must ensure that our sacrifices truly have God-honouring purposes before taking action.
When you make a costly decision, do you invite others into your decision-making process or do you have a habit of doing this on your own?
You point to your feelings to justify your actions
It’s not uncommon for people to experience physiological side effects when something in their life is unhealthy. But the absence of indigestion or sleepless nights shouldn’t give us complete confidence that our direction is perfectly aligned with what God is asking us to do.
Jonah manages to fall into a deep sleep while his shipmates are being terrorized by a vicious storm. We should be careful not to elevate feelings of peace or comfort as the primary indicator that God is pleased with our actions. It could very well be that our obedience to God will cause us to experience feelings of trepidation (consider the hardships that the Apostle Paul endured). It’s important than we listen to what our bodies and emotions are telling us, but we must make God’s instructions our ultimate guide for taking action. In other words, listen to your heart, but don’t follow it at any cost.
Can you think of a time when your feelings moved you away from an action that God asked you to take?
Your words and actions don’t match
Jonah’s life is devoid of congruence. He describes the Lord as the God of heaven who made the land and the sea (Jonah 1:9), but his decision to sail away makes his words sound questionable at best. After all, would Jonah have really tried to escape the Lord on a boat if he truly believed that God had dominion over the waters?
We can be tempted to say words that our hearts don’t really believe and that we aren’t willing to live by. This shows that we are no longer following after God, but drifting in a different direction.
Do your words flow from your actual beliefs and your intended actions? Or do you find yourself saying things just because they sound like the right words to say?
You’re not motivated by the things that matter most
The storyteller waits until the end of the book to tell us why Jonah ran. By this time, Jonah’s frustration has boiled over into anger and a request to die (Jonah 4:3). Jonah rejected his assignment to Nineveh because he didn’t want to see the Ninevites spared. His desire for justice (as he defined it) superseded his desire for people to be saved (which was God’s ultimate goal in this story).
Can you think of a time when your desire for something honourable became more important to you than what is closest to God’s heart?
The story of Jonah is filled with helpful principles and it isn’t hard to see that his life isn’t much different from our own. Instead of continuing to your runaway destination, I encourage you to be honest with yourself about your true motivations. This may expose an area of your life that has not been surrendered to God and it may also give you a clearer sense of what God has in store for your future.
[Keith Reed is the Director of Church Relations for MB Seminary.