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. Jonah 1:1-3 (NIV)
The book of Jonah tells a simple story: A man by the name of Jonah was called by God to go and preach in a pagan city. He didn’t like the idea, so he got on a ship and went in the opposite direction. The ship sailed into a storm, and Jonah was thrown overboard.
But in His great mercy, God rescued Jonah in the most remarkable way. He provided a saving fish that swallowed him and then spat him up on the beach when he began to pray.
Jonah then decided that he had better do what God said, so He went to Nineveh where he preached God’s Word. The people repented of their sins and were saved from God’s judgment.
It’s a great story that most of us know well. But it is so much more than a remarkable, memorable story:
What Can You Expect to Find in the Story of Jonah?
Expect to see yourself
Expect to see yourself in Jonah. This book is about the unraveling of one godly man’s inner life. It shows us how a man can serve God while under the surface there is a battle going on in his heart. You need to know how to handle that struggle and so do I. Jonah loves God, but he also struggles with God.
This book gives us a window on the spiritual conflict that goes on inside a Christian believer. Jonah was a prophet and He had a great ministry. He experienced great miracles in the depths of the ocean, and God used him to change a whole city. You might think that a man like this is beyond the struggles that “ordinary” Christians experience.
But Jonah shows us something different. At the end of the book, after the miracle of being saved by the fish, and after the triumph of seeing a whole city repent, Jonah is angry, he is dissatisfied, and he is out of sorts with God.
This takes us into a surprising truth: Those who throw themselves most fully into the service of Jesus Christ often experience inner conflict more intensely than others. If you read the lives of Luther, Augustine, or any of the great Christian leaders you will find that those at the forefront of Christian ministry experienced intense spiritual conflict.
This is a great book for missionaries, for pastors and other Christian leaders who find themselves surprised by the intensity of spiritual struggle as they extend themselves in the work of the Gospel. If you become more deeply committed to Christ, your inner struggles will become more, not less. The more useful you are to Christ, the more you will experience intense struggles in your inner life. That is why we need to pray in a special way for missionaries and pastors and all who are on the front lines of evangelism.
If you think they are beyond some of the struggles we have, think again. The book of Jonah explores the inner life of a mature Christian believer like no other book in the Bible. When I look at Jonah, I see myself. I think you will see yourself too.
Expect to be disturbed by God’s passion for the world
Jonah was comfortable worshipping and serving God, until God laid hold of his life and said, “I want you to go and minister to people of another race in another country. They matter to Me as much as you do.” Many Christians and many churches live happily with a comfortable inward-looking faith. What we’re interested in is that God is there for me and that God is here for us.
Nothing is more disturbing to a comfortable faith or a comfortable church than God’s passion for the world. God called Jonah to leave the life he loved in order to reach the people God loved. God’s call to something new suddenly exposed the selfishness that was reigning in Jonah’s heart.
Expect to be surprised by how much God cares for His servants
Most of the books in the Old Testament are about God’s message, but this book is about God’s man. Jonah tells us that God cares not only about His work but also about His workers. He cares not just about His mission but also about His missionary. If God cared only about the work, He could have ditched Jonah and sent someone else, but God cares about Jonah, and that is the heart of this book.
In God’s mercy a great city was saved from judgment through the ministry of Jonah. But the salvation of the city gets very little attention in the book. The book is about God’s patience and perseverance with Jonah. God cares more about you than about what you are doing.
How Can I Avoid a God-Centered Life?
You can avoid it for a lifetime
I’ve given this series an unusual title: “How to Avoid a God-Centered Life.” I chose the title because I think that’s what Jonah was doing, not just at the beginning when he got on the ship to Tarshish, but for a much larger slice of his life.
Jonah was running from God at the beginning of the story, but he was also arguing with God at the end of the story. Even after God used him in a remarkable way to evangelize a pagan city, he was still out of sorts with God.
That raises the interesting question of when Jonah wrote the book. I don’t think you can write under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit while you are arguing with God! So I assume that the book was written late in Jonah’s life.
Later in his life he looks back on his ministry and sees how he avoided a God-centered life. He gives us this account of his experience: “God used me in a remarkable way, but what’s of real value to you is that I spent much of my life avoiding the God I purported to serve.”
The great irony of Jonah’s life is that while he was teaching God’s Word, he was actually avoiding God’s call. Jonah wrote the book so that we would not be like him. He reflects on his experience and in his book he tells us: “Choose a different path!”
You can avoid it behind the disguise of a good reputation
There is only one place in the Bible where we learn about Jonah outside of his own book: “In the fifteenth year of Amaziah son of Joash king of Judah, Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years.
He did evil in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit.
He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher” (2 Kings 14:23-25).
Jonah was one of the spiritual leaders of his day. He is introduced as “God’s servant Jonah—the prophet from Gath Hepher.” He is called “the prophet,” not “a prophet,” as if there wasn’t another one worth mentioning in that generation.
This was a man who spoke the Word of God. His prophecies came true because they were wonderfully from God. The borders of Israel were extended during the time of Jeroboam “in accordance with the word of the Lord spoken through his servant Jonah.” This is a man who hears the Word of God, walks in the presence of God, and is filled with the Spirit of God: “God’s servant Jonah… the prophet from Gath Hepher.”
You can avoid it by protecting your own comfort
Against the backdrop of that extraordinary reputation: “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’” (Jonah 1:1-2).
It’s hard for us to grasp how shocking this must have been for Jonah. In Jonah’s lifetime there was one world superpower: the Assyrians. The Assyrians were known for their brutality. They had refined the art of torture in a way that is recorded in history. It would make your hair stand on end. They were the terror of Jonah’s time.
Nineveh was one of the major Assyrians cities. The prophet Nahum describes it as “the city of blood, full of lies, full or plunder, never without victims” (Nahum 3:1). This was not a place you would want to visit. If you saw that in a vacation brochure “city of blood, full of lies,” you would not go there.
The Word of God came to this successful prophet. He was highly esteemed in Israel. His wonderful prophecies about extending the borders of the Promised Land came true. He was settled and secure in what he was doing for God. Then God said to him “Go to Nineveh!”
Suddenly, the music stops in Jonah’s life:
“Lord I am really happy in the work you’ve called me to do here in Gath Hepher.”
“I want you to go somewhere else.”
“You want me to leave the ministry I love?”
“Where do you want me to go?”
“That’s in Assyria. There are terrorists and torturers there. What do you want me to say?”
“Preach against the city, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
“That’s not surprising. Their wickedness is notorious! And if you judge them now, it will be a big relief to all of us!”
Put yourself in Jonah’s shoes: This man has a successful ministry among God’s people. He was known for prophesying good things like extending the borders of Israel. He has a good life in a good place, doing good work. And now the Word of the Lord disturbs his comfortable life.
Our culture says “live your dreams,” but God has a way of disturbing our dreams. We all have hopes and dreams of what our lives will be. We plan our families. We plan our futures. We plan our finances. Then God breaks into the plan: A child is born, a loved one dies, the market crashes, you lose your job, and suddenly your life is not going according to your plan.
When God stepped into Jonah’s plan, his heart was revealed. Jonah’s self-centeredness was hidden under the surface of his successful ministry but his “I want a comfortable life, God,” was exposed when God called him to leave something old and to start something new.
You can avoid it by running after your own plans
“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” (Jonah 1:3).
“Jonah ran away from the Lord.” Jonah was a prophet, well-schooled in the Scriptures written during that time. He knew that God is present everywhere. Jonah would have known David’s words:
“Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
…if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast” (Psalm 139:7-10).
Jonah knows he can’t escape from God’s presence. What he is running from is God’s call. That’s the issue here. When he gets in the boat, he is giving up being a prophet. He is resigning from the work God called him to do. He is saying, in effect: “There are other things in life that I could do, besides bringing the Word of the Lord. I’m quitting this ministry and I’m going to make a new life in Tarshish.”
Jonah is dodging a God-centered life: He planned where he wanted to live and what he wanted to do. When God disrupted his plan, he quit.
If your plan becomes more important than God’s plan, you cannot live a God-centered life. What if God wants you in another place? What if God wants you to do another kind of work? What if God has another purpose for you for the sake of people who need to hear the Gospel?
How Can I Cultivate a God-Centered Life?
Recognize that whatever you are doing now is only for a time
The world wants you to believe that everything is stable, secure and permanent. But it is not so. The home that you live in is yours for a time. The work that you do is yours for a time. The people you love are yours for a time.
One day, others will live in your home. One day, others will continue your work. One day, others will have your money. James says: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14).
David says: “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
Whatever you are doing in your life, hold it lightly because it will not be forever
Keep your dreams on the altar of God
How hard this is to do. We all have hopes and dreams for the future. But we have no rights. There are no certainties. God is free at any time to disturb in any way your dream, to give you a completely new calling, so keep your dreams on the altar of God.
None of us knows the sovereign purpose of God. But God is always at work, and while He planned for you to hear this message today, His plan will have many of us in a different place a year from now. For some of us that will mean that we will be with Christ. Many of us will be worshipping in another location. God may have you in another part of the world doing something you never imagined yourself doing.
If God should call you to something new, it will be a defining moment for you. Jonah never imagined himself in Nineveh. What is going on under the surface of your life will be revealed.
Lord, help me keep my dreams on Your altar. Don’t let me be like Jonah. Don’t let me become the kind of person who is so comfortable in my home, with my friends, and in my ministry that I would be unwilling to do something completely different for the sake of Christ, for the sake of the lost, for the sake of the Gospel.
Practice making yourself available to God
The more comfortable you are, the more difficult it will be for you to obey God’s call to do something new. When you love what you do, you’re happy in your life, everything seems to be going well, and God seems to be blessing you, it is really hard to keep your heart in a place where you can say to the Lord “If there’s something else you want me to do, I’m willing to do it.”
Have you ever honestly asked if God wants you on the mission field? Have you explored whether there is some way in which your gifts could be used in cross cultural ministry? When you think about your career, what you do when your children are at school, when you think about your retirement, have you come before the Lord and asked how you can be most useful to him? Or it is really about yourself? Practice making yourself available to God.
Jonah and Jesus
There is an extraordinary contrast between Jonah and Jesus. Think about Jonah: He lives in a good place, he is doing a good work and enjoying a good life, and God says “Jonah I want you to go to another place, do another work, and live another life for the sake of people I love who are facing judgment. And Jonah said “No.”
Think about the experience of the Son of God: He was surrounded by the joy and life of heaven. He ruled the universe by the Word of His power. He was adored by angels with all creation at His feet. The Father says to the Son “I want you to go to another place, where you will be utterly rejected. I want you to live another life that will lead to torture, crucifixion and death. I want you to do this work to reach and save people I love, who are facing judgment. And Jesus said “Yes!”
Lord, make me less like Jonah and more like Jesus.