Seminary was never in my grand plan for life; in fact, I really did not want to go into ministry at all. Throughout college, I had visions of grandeur (or actually self-delusion), convincing myself that I would one day be the next Hemingway, Vonnegut, Flaubert, blah blah blah… But even back then, I always had this faint feeling that I was running from something. I felt like I was running away from God Almighty Himself.
If you were to ask me who my favorite character in the Bible is, the answer may baffle you: it is not Abraham, who by faith was willing to sacrifice his promised son, Isaac; it is not Paul, who wrote half of the New Testament; it is not even Jonathan, who had an amazing first name. No, my favorite character had a small book named after him and a whole Veggie Tales movie based on him: poor foolish Jonah.
What makes Jonah so special to me? Look at his track record: God gives him one job: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2, ESV). All you had to do, Jonah, is do your job as a prophet: get up and tell God’s message. And we see him do the first command, because Jonah does get up, but instead he “rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3). And because Jonah tries to escape God’s presence, all we see is him going down, and down, and down, and down. When you try to escape from God, your life only becomes a downward spiral of failure.
Even though Jonah thinks he can escape God’s presence, the Lord is right there with him. You will not (because you cannot) escape the presence of the Lord. You can run from your calling to ministry like I tried, or run from the church itself, or run from all of Christianity, but you will never escape the Hound of Heaven that is relentlessly pursuing His children. King David even wrote a poem about this:
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand shall lead me,
And your right hand shall hold me (Psalm 139:7-10).
Just like the Police song “Every Move You Make” (a song about a stalker!), God is right there watching you.
And that’s the best news you could ever hear.
Look at the Gospel of Matthew: “And when he [Jesus] got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, ‘Save us, Lord; we are perishing.’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’ Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?’” (Matthew 8:23-27).
Jonah failed miserably with his mission; he forgot Christianity 101, and with the great storm wailing around him, all he wanted to do was go down into the boat to die (Jonah 1:5). While Jonah slept resigned to death, Jesus slept in perfect control of the storm (Matthew 8:24). In fact, the answer to the disciple’s question in 8:27 is found in Jonah’s response thousands of years earlier: “I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9).
You may think that you’re better off without religion, God, the Bible, or whatever makes you feel great. But all us, religious or irreligious, believer or non-believer, have more than Big Brother watching; we have the Lord God, whose presence is inescapable. But instead of a stalker who just wants to ruin your day, God is the one who controls the universe. The God that commanded the sea to be still is the same God who died so that we might live.
For the final words of Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith finally gives into the brainwashing of the omniscience and all-powerful Big Brother, and all that Orwell can tragically say is “He loved Big Brother.” Thankfully, God is watching all of us, but instead of that fact causing dread, it should be the source of all lasting peace, hope, and comfort. Jonah is my favorite Bible character because he reminds me of myself, and this story reminds me that there is hope for flaky people.