Have you ever tried to run from God? If so, you may have found that (a) it can’t be done, and (b) He will pursue you to the ends of the earth.
The idea that we can never get away from God can be either encouraging or terrifying, depending on our perspective. For instance, a woman who finds suddenly finds herself a victim of human trafficking can, in the midst of fear and off-the-charts apprehension, find some comfort in the fact that she is not out of God’s sight – indeed, God is right with her. But the monsters who have forced her into that world, if they have any regard for God at all, should rightly tremble in terror at the knowledge that God has seen, and is seeing, the whole thing.
But what about the seemingly more pedestrian situation in which a person of God wants no part in what God is trying to lead him into and says “No” to God by running in the opposite direction of where God wants him to go? That was the case for a man named Jonah.
God called Jonah to a task. It is a high privilege for the God of the Universe to give a person something to do on His behalf, but Jonah wanted no part of it. God was calling him to go to one of the great cities of the world at that time and preach against it, for the evil of that city had risen to God. The city was Nineveh; Jonah went, instead, to Tarshish, which was in the opposite direction of Nineveh, for he had decided that, instead of obeying God’s call on his life, he would run from the presence of the Lord.
Perhaps Jonah thought about what an impossible task it would be to preach against a powerful and godless city like Nineveh, but he had not stopped to consider how much more impossible it would be to flee from the presence of the Lord. That’s how it is when we try to run from God. We don’t stop to consider the unreasonableness of it; we just face the wrong direction and start walking – or running – thinking that God will somehow lose us in the crowd and leave us alone so that we can continue on in what we perceive to be safety. But, as David reminds us, there is nowhere to which we can flee where God is not there (Psalm 139:7-12).
Jonah hopped a ship bound for Tarshish and got as far out of God’s sight as he could imagine, aboard a tiny ship on a large sea and below deck on that ship. I wonder if he thought, “Not even God can find me here.” But then came the storm.
This was no arbitrary storm. It was not the result of two weather fronts colliding. The text tells us that this storm arose when the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea (Jonah 1:4). The strength of the storm was such that it threatened to break the ship apart. To put it in baseball terms, the One who hurled that wind has a great arm. The storm was placed specifically where Jonah was, thinking he was running and hiding from God. And as the story unfolds in Jonah, chapter one, we see that Jonah himself realized this about the storm.
As Jonah was telling his shipmates that the way out of their desperate situation was to throw him overboard, I wonder if his thought was that God had thrown the storm upon the ship out of anger toward Jonah. I wonder if he thought that his drowning would appease the wrath of God and that his being out of the way would give God no further reason to inflict the awful tempest upon the others on the ship. But those shipmates of Jonah’s had what appears to be a more noble idea than throwing Jonah overboard to drown; they wanted him off their ship, yes, but they decided to try as hard as they could to row to land and let him step off onto dry ground. But God had other ideas; He actually wanted Jonah thrown overboard, but not for the reason that Jonah might might have been thinking. As the men attempted to row for land, the God-inflicted storm only grew stronger, preventing their success, and giving them no option but to throw Jonah overboard, which they reluctantly did.
Could it be that God had sent the storm in anger? That He had actually wanted Jonah to drown? That He turned His wrath upon that ship to give Jonah what he deserved for daring to attempt fleeing from God? The answer to all of those questions is “No.” We may sometimes view God in such ways, but God has more grace than that. And so we read in Jonah 1:17 that “the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”
Jonah’s storm came upon him for the same reason the metaphorical storms of life often come upon us: We are out of step with God, maybe even attempting to flee from His presence, and He, in His love for us, graciously refuses to let us go blissfully away from Him. He is ever pursuing us and getting our attention, and the quicker we jump ship on running from Him the sooner we will get back to the joy of walking with Him.
Maybe God has brought a storm into your life for this very purpose. And maybe you are at a point where you have begrudgingly acknowledged that God has won the day, but you have still not submitted to His will. If that’s the case, you may be riding in the belly of a “fish” that He has prepared for you. It’s time to move beyond a sense of bitter defeat and move on into gratitude to the Lord for not ignoring you or giving up on you. And it’s time to move on into submission to His will.
One of the things about God that blesses me so much is his capacity for forgiveness. Those who come to know God’s forgiveness do so initially when they place their faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. Doing so makes one a child of God. But while our experience of God’s forgiveness may begin at the cross, it doesn’t end there, for once we become children of God, we proceed to demonstrate what wayward children we are.
There are different levels of waywardness. Some stumble here and there in the details while maintaining an overall walk with God, but others can seemingly tend to wander away from God altogether. Either way, God’s forgiveness is always on the table.
In the Scriptures, Israel and Judah, the two nations that comprised the one people of God (i.e., the Jews) showed a great propensity for wandering away from God. And yet, again and again we see God offering them a way back and receiving them when they would turn back to him. Hosea chapter 6 gives us some good insight into God’s forgiveness of his wayward people. We read in verses 1 and 2: Come, let us return to the LORD, for he has torn us that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days, he will revive us; on the third day, he will raise us up that we may live before him.
A child of God who wanders away will inevitably face difficulties in being away from God. Our Father just won’t let us walk away comfortably. And we see in this passage that at least some of the difficulties we face when we walk away from God come directly from him. The way most people view God would suggest that such difficulties are because he wants us to know just how mad he is about our wandering away. But this passage gives a different view of God: namely, that he hurts us to help us. God wants his wayward children back where they belong (i.e., with him), and the difficulties we face in walking away from God are for the purpose of driving us back to the place that is best for us – the place of refuge and safety. They are for the purpose of directing us back to the God who loves us.
But notice that God’s intention in doing this is not just so we can live happy, self-directed lives doing whatever we want to do. He does it so that “we may live before him.” The self-directed life of doing whatever we want in the belief that God is the ultimate tolerant Being is actually the life of wandering away from God. Living “before him” rather than away from him means that we have a conscious awareness that we are in the presence of the holy and righteous Creator and Judge of the universe. It means taking God seriously in how we live our lives. Will we fail? Absolutely. All the time. That is why we require his forgiveness, which, from a New Testament perspective that Hosea didn’t have, comes through faith in Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, who came to earth to bear our sins on a cross, paying the penalty our sins have earned for us, and offering us forgiveness free and clear through faith in him, a forgiveness which results in a life of fellowship with God and, ultimately, eternal life.
And yet, even when we have this eternal life, we can have times when we wander away from our Lord. When we do, we can be certain that he will (as Hosea says) tear us so that he may heal us, strike us down so that he may bind us up, all in an effort to draw us back to the place of refuge and safety – the place of living before him.