Over the past several months I have found some eye-opening revelations in the book of Jonah. You remember Jonah: the guy famous for running from God. Maybe it’s because I have historically had a tendency to be a “runner” myself, but I have always viewed the story of Jonah from the perspective of Jonah. As I have studied the book recently, however, I realize that I’m reading it with an entirely different perspective.
You see, having lived in central Florida for over twenty years, I’ve been fortunate to join in community with friends as we shepherded a generation all the way from being babies to having babies. As we have released that generation to fly, I must confess that the experience is simultaneously exhilarating and excruciating. At this crossroads of emancipation, some of the kids I’ve watched grow up have left their parents’ home and continued forward into an even deeper relationship with Jesus. Agonizingly, others have turned — at least for a season — and gone the exact opposite direction.
I find myself suddenly watching in bewilderment as my beloved Jonahs head to Tarshish. I would venture to guess that it’s not just parents who feel this agony. It might be a spouse, parent, sibling, or friend, but all of us have a loved one who has turned from God, leaving us at a loss for wisdom about how to engage. What does loving well look like when those we’ve shepherded respond by walking away from the truth?
The book of Jonah offers profound but difficult truths for this very situation. Surprisingly, the book of Jonah is not about Jonah. The whole “belly of a fish” narrative is actually a tale about God’s relentless love. It also gives me wisdom about how to love my Jonahs.
First of all, God let Jonah walk away.
Think about it: God could have halted Jonah in his tracks at any point. (He is, after all, GOD.) He didn’t have to let Jonah get all the way to Joppa, buy a ticket, hop on a ship, and head to Tarshish, but He did. When I think back to my own seasons of running, I am awed by the wisdom here. Remember, Jonah’s journey was an attempt to get as far away from God’s calling as he possibly could. If God had shut Jonah down right away, he likely would have spent the remainder of his days resisting or resenting God—but never repenting. God’s ultimate desire for Jonah was rich relationship, not grudging obedience. So God let Jonah choose to walk away.
Then, God pursued Jonah.
What strikes me most as I think of my Jonahs is how God chased Jonah. He didn’t run behind begging, and He didn’t revoke His call. (“Okay, Jonah, if you’ll just come back, I’ll let you off the hook.”) Nope. God sent a storm. And a big fish. What looks like punishment here is actually pursuit. The harrowing circumstances God sent into Jonah’s life were not instruments of wrath, but of restoration. Not until God had taken Jonah in the belly of a fish down to the very depths of the sea did Jonah cry out to God. I’ve heard this type of pursuit from God described as His “severe mercy.” It makes sense. In my own life the times that I have sought the Lord most desperately are the times when my life was most difficult. Because those trying times brought me greater intimacy with Christ, they are the best gifts I have received from God.
As we seek to apply lessons from Jonah, there are two dangerous approaches we can take, especially regarding “runners” who are adults. The first is that we try to execute our own severe mercy and inflict the consequences that we think will bring our Jonah back to God. Except here’s the thing: we’re not God. Trying to play God in the life of another is as foolish as thinking I can create an actual thunder storm.
The second dangerous approach happens when our anguish over the storms of consequences in a loved one’s life causes us to rush in and rescue. When we do, what we inadvertently are doing is preventing the very trials that might cause him to cry out to God.
Instead, we need to let God be God. Who but God knows how far Jonah must run before he can be brought back? Who but God knows precisely what storm will cause Jonah to cry out? As hard as it is (and believe me, it’s hard), I realize my best response to the Jonahs in my life is to let them run and trust God to pursue them as He sees fit. Then, when their choices bring storms, I must get out of God’s way and trust His severe mercy.
I am not implying we should abandon wandering loved ones. It’s just that when the storms come, I don’t want to oppose God by rescuing them from the storm. What I can do is love well by walking with them as they experience it, always pointing back to the relentless love behind the storm.