Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.” But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. (Jonah 1:1-3)
I like how our story begins. It begins with God – God initiates the action. God speaks. Our attention as a reader then turns to Jonah: “But Jonah flees…” This map gives us a pretty clear picture of how desperate Jonah was to get away from God’s call:
Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, was undoubtedly one of the most depraved cesspits of sin and human ugliness in the ancient world. And yet, God sends Jonah to the city for a redemptive purpose. Jonah is sent to extend an invitation of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. But it really shouldn’t be very hard for us to see why Jonah did not want to go. The Assyrians were an incredibly cruel people and they had terrorized the Israelites for generations. Jonah may have even lost family members or friends to the barbarous enemies. God sending Jonah to Nineveh would be something like God sending a Jewish holocaust survivor to preach repentance to the Nazis in Berlin! Jonah’s primary fear wasn’t that he would lose his life in Nineveh or that he would fail in sharing his message – he was scared that he would succeed! (See Jonah 4:2.)
Now, let’s turn the situation around on ourselves: We all have “Ninevehs” in our lives, don’t we? Don’t we all have those messy people and relationships that we really don’t want to invest in? Those uncomfortable ministry opportunities where we really don’t want to serve? Those sacrifices God is calling us to make that are just too much? And so, many times we will opt out of God’s plan and pay the fare for Tarshish:
Like Jonah, we’ve paid the fare at one point or another. The escape to Tarshish for some people takes the form of shopping, where the temporary fascination with something new takes your mind off of Nineveh… Others retreat inside; they escape by isolating themselves from everyone around them, keeping everyone at arm’s length. Some fill their lives with busyness to ignore their inner dissatisfaction with life; some escape in pornography, a sense of intimacy without strings. (Jonah: The Man Who Ran and the God Who Ran After Him)
Yes, we all have a Tarshish where we retreat to instead of going to the Nineveh where God is calling us.
Notice that Jonah had to go through a lot of steps to run away from God’s plan. He had to: 1.) go down to Joppa, 2.) find a ship going to Tarshish, 3.) pay the fare, and 4.) get on the boat. God could have stopped Jonah at any one of those intervals. God could have simply stopped Jonah from getting on the boat, right? If I were to imagine myself in a Jonah-like situation, I would probably have reasoned out something like this: “You know, I’m not really sure that I heard God speaking to me after all. It was probably just my overactive imagination. I know it seemed like God was leading me down that road, but that road looks a little scary and uncomfortable. I think I’m going to go down this road instead. I’ll just pray that God will shut doors and drop road blocks to stop me from going down this road, if it’s really not His will.”
You see how we often reason things out? We often know in our heart of hearts where God wants to take us, but we resist His will and then we justify our rebellion by saying things like, “I’ll just pray that God will close doors if I’m going down the wrong path.” But in Jonah’s case, God waits until Jonah is well on his sea-bound voyage… And then God sends a storm.
As we reflect on what we can learn from Jonah’s journey, I can think of a few self-directed questions:
- What is your “Nineveh”? Think and pray on the opportunities and relationships where you have heard God’s call.
- Are there areas in your life where you are resisting God’s call? What is keeping you from fully surrendering to His will? Is it fear? Difficulty? Inconvenience? Bitterness, perhaps?
- Where is your “Tarshish”? Where do you run to escape?
- What are you going to do about it?
Tune in next time for “Jonah, Part 2: The Storm”