Jonah: Lessons on Leaving the Lord
I had always wanted a camelhair overcoat. Pastoring in the cold icy Oklahoma winters made a camelhair overcoat the common desire of a lot of people. We had just been through one of the coldest winters on record. Merchants in Ada, Oklahoma, always celebrated the end of the winter season with a half-price sale in order to clear their racks and make ready for the spring fashions. So I took the plunge and bought the camelhair overcoat I had always wanted and packed it away securely to await next winter. However, that winter never came. We moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where it is seventy degrees twelve months of the year. After living there a few years, and never wearing the overcoat, I received an invitation to preach in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the middle of February. I readily accepted, knowing it would be a tremendous opportunity to break in my new camelhair overcoat. I rose early on the appointed morning, and laid my overcoat and briefcase near the front door while I said my goodbyes to the family before heading off to the airport. Having checked in for the flight, I was sitting in my seat and the plane was barreling down the runway when a haunting thought came to me: I had left my overcoat by the front door at home. I left it. My big opportunity to wear my new coat — and I blew it! Minneapolis greeted me with a temperature of eight degrees below zero and snow drifts of eight feet. And I greeted Minneapolis without my coat.
Have you ever left anything? It is a terrible feeling. It leaves an emptiness when we leave something that is dear to us. Jonah left something. In fact, he left a lot when he left the Lord. He left his aspirations. I have seen men and women who aspired to do great things for God, but in getting out of His will, they left those aspirations when they left Him.
Jonah also left his obligations. I have also seen people who have left their obligations. Once they were active in the service of Christ, but today they are asleep in the storm.
Jonah also left his communications. I have seen this in the faces of men and women who once prayed, once had a sweet fellowship with God. But when they left His will for their lives, they left the ability to communicate with Him.
Jonah also left his reputation. I’ve seen men and women who once were looked on with respect and appreciation. Once they had a testimony. But when they left the Lord’s will, they left their reputations and their testimonies behind.
We often talk about what it costs to serve God, but Jonah gave us a vivid picture of what it costs to leave God.
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 had a calling from God to go to Nineveh. This was God’s will for his life. He was a prophet of God, a man of God, and he had aspired to know God’s way until he left the will of God. Then he also left his aspirations behind. He resigned his calling.
Everything in the book of Jonah obeys God’s will except his own man. Think about it. God sent the waves and they obeyed. The lots obeyed. The storm obeyed. The fish obeyed. The worm obeyed. Birds fulfill the will of God in their lives. Snakes fulfill the will of God in their lives. Man was made to fellowship with God and he is the only one of all of God’s creations who is not fulfilling his purpose and will.
Some people think they can get out of the will of God and maintain their Christian aspirations at the same time. They are deceived into believing they can go on in their sin, and God’s mercy will simply cover them. If we can go on and on in unrepentant sin without the chastisement of God, that is certainly not a sign of His mercy. It may be a sign that God is giving us over (as He said in Romans 1:28), “to a depraved mind.” God sends storms of chastisement on His people when they are out of His will. The wind and the rain that beat against us are God’s way of getting us to wake up and come to our senses.
However, before we point a finger of accusation at Jonah, we must ask the question, “What about us?” are we fulfilling our purpose? Are we in the will of God? Or have we too left His will and found a boat for Tarshish? One thing is certain, when we leave the Lord, we leave our aspirations behind also.
Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish” (Jonah 1:4-6).
The crew was frantic. They were praying to their own gods. Those rugged sailors had seen many a storm on the Mediterranean Sea. It would take quite a storm to get them alarmed. And Jonah? He was indifferent and unconcerned. In fact, he was sound asleep. That shouldn’t surprise us. This usually happens to men and women who leave God. They leave their obligations behind as well. Jonah was the only man on board the ship who knew God. He was the only man who could lay hold of God — and he was asleep. He had left his obligations.
While the others on board were fighting for their lives, Jonah was sleeping through the storm. He was really no different from a lot of professing Christians who are in the same boat today. So many of us seem to be at ease while the ship is sinking. So, many people seem to be asleep while the storm is raging.
What is happening to this nation in which we are living? This ship we call America is in the midst of a storm and has been close to sinking while Christians have been in in the bottom of the ship asleep. We have put a creed on our coins that says: “In God we trust.” The Declaration of Independence says we are “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.” The Mayflower Compact declares that America was established for the “glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith.” This very America is now in a storm. All of those affirmations of our heavenly Father are being stripped from before our eyes. We have come a long was as a nation since George Washington said in his farewell address on September 19, 1796, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to a political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness.”
While we Christians have been sleeping in the ship, the Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools in 1963. Christmas carols have been prohibited in many schools. The courts have stripped the 10 commandments from public spaces. Crosses in some city parks have been declared unconstitutional. Like Jonah, we are endangering the souls of others by being out of the will of God. Like Jonah, we had better wake up before it is too late.
The Bible says the Lord sent the storm (Jonah 1:4). What should I do if my children disobey me? If I am really a loving parent, should I say, “Well, that’s all right, honey”? Or should I discipline them? How do we know if we love our children? We discipline them. The Bible says, “The Lord disciplines those He loves and He punishes everyone He accepts as a son” (Hebrews 12:6). Every once in a while some mother will say, “I just can’t whip little Bobby because I love him so much!” But the Bible says that’s not love. In fact, the Bible says, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him” (Proverbs 13:24). If we really love our children we will discipline them.
God is too merciful and too loving to let His children drift into open rebellion without disciplining them. David said, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey Your Word” (Psalm 119:67). “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees” (Psalm 119:71). Why does God send the storms? In Jonah’s case it was because he would no longer hear and obey. And some of us wonder why a storm is raging around us right now. It may be that it is the voice of a loving Father disciplining us, and in His mercy not giving us over to wrongdoing.
It is hard to believe that Jonah could sleep in such a storm. It shows how insensitive we can become. Sin hardens the heart. When we are on the run from the Lord’s will, it is inevitable that we become spiritually insensitive.
Paul said in the Ephesian letter, “They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more” (Ephesians 4:18-19). (In the King James Version, verse 19 starts with the phrase, “who being past feeling.”) Those words bear with them the picture of a callus. In fact, some translations use the adjective callous instead of “past feeling.” A callus is skin that has lost its sensitivity. Most athletes know what it is to have calluses on the bottom of their feat. Seamstresses know what it is to have calluses on their fingers. You can stick a pin in a callus and not feel it; there is a loss of sensation.
This is what happens to our hearts if we continue in sin and leave the will of God. We become hard and without feeling toward God. WE have no response to any spiritual stimulus. Do you remember the pain you felt the first time you committed some sin that really plagued your conscience? For children, perhaps it was a lie you told your parents. For others, it might have been act of thievery, or an act of immorality. Think about it. Can you remember it? The hour of temptation came, you hesitated, you knew in your heart you shouldn’t, but you finally said, “I’ll try it just this once.” And you fell. Do you remember the pain that came afterward? You went home. You couldn’t bear the thought of facing those you love the most. You felt such shame. You were conscious that the eye of God had been upon you. You felt unclean. You were concerned about what others would think. You got into your bed and thought, “If that moment could only be lived over again, I’d never do it again.” Oh, the pain you felt in your heart.
Then came the second time. The temptation came again. Again you succumbed. Afterward, the pain was there, but it was a little less. And the third time, and the fourth, and on and on and on. Now you continue in that sin, and it scarcely bothers you. Your conscience is not affected by it anymore. You started on a walk of insensitivity. Your heart has become hardened.
The psalmist said, “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Psalm 95:7-8). Every time God calls us and we say no, continuing en route to Tarshish, we become a little less sensitive. The callus on our hearts gets a little thicker. Before long we are totally insensitive to His call. Now that doesn’t mean He has stopped calling; He continues to call. But the problem is, we can no longer hear. We are asleep. We are on a path of insensitivity that the apostle said is “past feeling.” Those are haunting words.
I am writing to some whose hearts use to warm to the Gospel. You used to aspire to the great things of God. You used to take seriously your obligation as a Christian. But something happened. You turned aside and tried to forget what God wanted of you.
If I were outside the will of God and felt no chastisement from Him, I would begin to examine myself to see if I was in the faith, or if God had given me over to a depraved or reprobate mind. Paul said that some folks go on in sin and “Give themselves over.” When a person makes a willful decision to leave God, after a certain point God will let that person go. In the greatest doctrinal treatise ever written, the book of Romans, Paul said:
“Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves,who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
“For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature.Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.
“And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting” (Romans 1:24-28).
The Old Testament says it like this: “Ephraim is joined to idols; leave him alone!” (Hosea 4:17). Most persons who are out of the will of God are like Jonah in that they have not necessarily been given over, but they have been “overtaken in sin,” as Paul talked about in the Galatian letter.
Jonah slept on while the storm raged. It is interesting that we really don’t know when we are asleep. On a given day, after returning home from Saturday church visitation, I sat in a chair in the den to rest for a while and in just a moment I looked at my watch and I had slept in that chair for an hour. I didn’t know it. I thought, “Was I asleep?” So many people are not aware that they are asleep in the midst of the storm.
Further, when we are asleep, we dream of doing things we would never do when we are awake. Such was the case with Jonah. When we are sleeping through the storm, we don’t like to hear the sound of an alarm. We want to sleep on. We are so comfortable. Most of us know that experience. It’s the same spiritually. This is why messages and books that sound the alarm today rub many people the wrong way. They do not like to hear the alarm. They would rather go on in their sleep. They would rather listen to some positivist preacher who makes them feel comfortable in their sin.
The trouble with Jonah was that he was content with his rebellion. As long as our hearts are broken over our sin, as long as it keeps us awake at night, there is hope for us. But when we become comfortable in our sin, it is a danger signal. Many Christians are now content with uselessness. Some who used to cringe at the thought of certain social evils now are not bothered by those things. It is possible to be on the run from God’s will even if we are not going anywhere.
Even though Jonah had forgotten God, God had not forgotten him. He continued in love to discipline and chase down his prophet. A little later we will see how far He went to get his attention.
Oh, that we would hear God’s voice today. What do we mean, raising our children in “Christian homes” and not praying with them daily? What do we mean, saying we are Christians our lives do not match our lips? What do we think we’re doing — sleeping through the storm?
Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah (Jonah 1:7).
When we leave the will of God we leave the ability to hear Him. Jonah had a God who spoke to him. When he left the will of God, he also left his ability to communicate with God.
Listen to the captain of the ship. When the waves of death were lashing against his ship, he suddenly believed in prayer. Fair-weather sailors are found not just in the open sea; they are found in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is interesting in coastal areas that when the hurricanes come the television commentators who interview people hear lots of comments like, “We are boarding up and praying a lot.” “We hope the good Lord spares us.” “We are trusting in the Lord.” It’s strange that we hear people interviewed by these commentators the rest of the year and never hear anything like that until the storms come. It is the same with church members.
But Jonah? He was not praying. There is no evidence here that Jonah called on God. Later he did, but not here. Do you know why? He couldn’t. He was regarding sin in his heart, and God would not hear him. So often our praying seems ineffective — and it is. The Bible says, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18). Isaiah put it this way: “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor His ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:1-2).
When we live with open and unrepentant sin in our lives, we cannot communicate with God. There is a sense in which what we are when we pray is more important than what we pray.
The sailors cast lots. Does that mean it is all right to gamble? Is it all right to take part in a lottery? Although we see the casting of lots other times in the Old Testament, it is not right for us under the new covenant. Rather, we are to live by faith in our God.
The storm was raging, and the inevitable had to come. It always does. We can hide for a little while, but sooner or later we will be found out. Jonah learned this and so have many of us. The Bible says, “BE sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23).
It is a sad day when a saint of God has to be exposed before an unbelieving world, but that is what happened to Jonah. My heart is broken over verse 7. Every time one of us falls, it hurts the cause of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our hearts should grieve over what happened on this ship.
Since Jonah would not listen to God, God had to speak to him through the storm and through the sailors. Some of the storms of our lives occur because that is the only way God can get our attention.
So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and land.” This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord because he already told them so.) (Jonah 1:8-10).
Jonah was the only man on board that ship who knew the living God and now, in leaving that God, he had also left his reputation.
A powerless Christian is pitiful to behold. “If the salt loses its saltiness… it is no longer good for anything” (Matthew 5:13). Some of us once gave the world a good taste of Jesus, but now as far as the kingdom is concerned, we are not “good for anything.” Like Jonah, we hurt the testimony of Christ if we claim to be Christians and do not live like it.
Dr. R. T. Kendall tells a story of some youngsters who played a prank on a man with a moustache. They put limburger cheese on his moustache while he was taking a nap. When he awoke he said, “This bed stinks.” He got up and walked around the room and said, “This room stinks.” HE went into another room, took a deep breath, and said, “This whole house stinks.” HE walked outside, took a deep breath, and said, “The whole world stinks!” Could it be that we are the ones who are making everyone else miserable by our rebellion against God? Oh, we are quick to blame them and feel that if they only started acting right, things would be wonderful.
This is the tragedy of backslidden Christians. They make everybody else miserable, and so it was with Jonah on the ship to Tarshish.
The thing that gets to me most about this part of Jonah’s pilgrimage is that he had lost his testimony. It’s amazing to note the questions with which Jonah was bombarded in these few verses. Think about it. “How can you sleep?” “Who is responsible?” “What do you do?” “Where do you come from?” “What is your country?” “From what people are you?” “What have you done?” “What should we do to you?” Could it be that people around us are asking the same questions?
It is a very sad day when a prophet of the Lord has to be asked, “What is your occupation?” “Who are you?” If someone has been around us for a period of time, and has to ask us if we are Christians, that is proof that we are outside the will of God.
And what about the question Jonah was asked, “Why have you done this?” (1:10, KJV). What a rebuke. And this question came from a lost man. How humiliating.
But let me ask you, why have you left the will of God? Listen to this question again: How could you have done this? Why did you do this? Because God is so cruel you didn’t want to follow him? Is it that you just couldn’t trust him? Was it that you didn’t believe his word? Were you simply tired of him? Have you found a better friend? Was He unfaithful to his promise? Why? May the Holy Spirit press that question to our hearts.
We used to sing, “I’ve found a Friend, O such a Friend, He loved me ere I knew Him.” We used to work with those dirty-faced little bus kids. We used to find our joy in seeing folks come to Christ. Why has all that come to an end? I’ll tell you why. We found a ship. We got on board to flee from the will of God. But if any reader of these words is on the ship to Tarshish today, a loving God is chasing you down as He did Jonah. The Bible says, “Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord and He will have mercy on him, and to our God for He will freely pardon” (Isaiah 55:7).
The question is not “Why?” The question is “What?” What will we do about it? Will we go on in our rebellion or will we come back to Christ?
Jonah was found out. He had concealed his identity. Why do we point a finger of accusation at him? Some of us have worked in an office for years and not let anyone know we are Christians. How embarrassing it must have been for Jonah to admit this when his life was so different from his lips: “I worship the Lord.” His practice had not matched his profession. Of this type person Jesus said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8). Many people profess to fear God today but their “saying and not doing” is nothing but blatant hypocrisy. Is it any wonder the church has lost so much influence?
Jonah’s testimony didn’t mean much, did it? This ought to be a lesson for all of us. Jonah was quick to say, “I worship God.” But he didn’t. If he did he would have been en route to Nineveh.
Who fears God today? Have you really met anyone lately who fears the Lord? Men and women are not afraid of God today. So many of our churches seek to make sinners comfortable in their sin. They do not want to sound the alarm. This passage is a call for us to awaken from our slumber. The alarm is sounding. WE may want to reach over and turn it off, but we had better wake up before it is eternally too late.
Is there a Jonah reading these words? A Jonah who has fled from God’s will? Know that you will be a very unhappy fugitive. God will not let you go unpunished if you are one of His. He will follow you. He will pursue you. He is the “hound of heaven.” The storm will come.
Thank God for the storm. Heave you thought about it? God did not have to send the storm. He could have let Jonah go on in his rebellion. He could have cut him off. The storm was a sign that God was not finished with Jonah yet, and it just might be a sign that God is not finished with us yet. Remember, God sent the storm. Some of us have been blaming the storm experiences of life for our difficulties, when all the while it has been a loving Father calling us home. Let it remind us that we left our aspirations, obligations, communications and reputations when we left the Lord. Jonah finally admitted, “I am a Hebrew.” Who are you?