running from God
These days, there seem to be a lot of people renouncing the Christian faith they formerly claimed. It’s happening a lot with young celebrities who, as they were coming to fame in their teens, might have been vocal about their faith but now are saying they have left it behind. It’s happening a lot with young adults who, rather than making the transition from youth group to so-called “big church” are leaving church and the faith altogether. It’s happening as people read and hear the so-called new atheists who, because of the Internet, are able to have a more vast visibility and influence than atheists of the past.
I watch this going on – and I’ve seen it with people I know, people I’ve formerly pastored, and even blood relatives – and I go back and forth between weeping and scratching my head. I weep because of the eternal destiny that lies ahead for those who deny Jesus and will one day stand before him. I scratch my head because, while I have wrestled with doubts as much as anybody, I don’t get how someone can just walk away from Jesus. Having known him all these years, I can only surmise that people who walk away from him never really knew him in the first place. Perhaps they grew up in a Christian home or joined a church because of the nice people there, all while never really having a true, spiritual encounter with Jesus. They knew the lingo; they could recite the gospel message; they even learned the various arguments for the faith; but they never really knew him. That’s the only thing that makes sense to me.
Why would I walk away from Jesus because of the influence of small-minded, straw-man arguments put forth by so many of the “new atheists?” I once saw Sam Harris speak on TV, and I’ve skimmed a couple of Bart Ehrman’s books while sitting in bookstores. They don’t move me. In fact, I thought there were so many holes in their arguments that I might use them to drain spaghetti.
Why would I walk away from Jesus because of how Christians have sometimes treated me (and folks, it has sometimes been bad). It wasn’t Jesus who mistreated me; it was people. Christian people sometimes, yes, but still people. What does the failure of people who follow Jesus have to do with his death on the cross for my sins, his resurrection from the dead, and his promise of eternal life through believing in him? Nothing, that’s what.
Why would I walk away from Jesus because of disappointments and struggles I’ve had in life? Have I sometimes been mad at God because of life’s disappointments? Yes, I have. And I’ve told Him so. But His Spirit has always worked on my heart in those moments, and hindsight has inevitably revealed life’s difficulties and disappointments to have been good training exercises for things that have lain ahead, as well as protections from situations I might have encountered had I had my way. Additionally, I’ve seen God use disappointments in my life to enable me later to counsel others with comfort I would not have had to share had I not known myself the disappointment they were facing. I love the words attributed to the second-century bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, as he was about to be put to death for his faith and was given one last chance to deny Christ and live: “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he has never done me injury. How then can I now blaspheme my King and Savior?” I concur.
Why would I walk away from Jesus because of questions about the eternal, infinite God that my puny, finite brain might not be able to answer? For instance, I don’t understand the concept of the Trinity. I can define it, but I don’t understand it. So should I deny its reality? A better question would be, why should I expect that I would be able to understand it? After all, the Trinity is entirely unique, in the truest sense of that word. Is there anything in the experience of mankind that is three, distinct things and yet, at the same time, one thing? Not one thing with three parts; we have lots of things in the world like that. But there is nothing where the three are one, and the one is three. This is why Muslims accuse Christians of being polytheists; they say we worship three gods. But we worship one God who is three distinct persons. In human terms, that sounds like a committee of three or a Federal court with three justices, but it’s not like those things at all. In those scenarios, the individual members are entirely distinct; it is only the framework in which they serve that is one. They can hide things from each other and play politics with one another. They can disagree with each other and manipulate one another. None of those things is done by the Trinity because, in God, the three are truly one, and the one is truly three. The fact that it can’t be perfectly compared to anything means that it cannot be fully understood, but that doesn’t make it not worth believing. After all, does outer space have an ending? If so, how? If somewhere out in space, one were to come to a wall – a dead end – that wall would have to have thickness, so it would go on beyond the limits of space. And beyond that wall’s thickness, there would have to be something; how could there not be? And yet, we have nothing in our human experience with which to compare a never-ending thing, but that does not mean it’s not true. If such a conundrum exists in thinking about a created thing, how much more so in thinking about the Creator? No, it would be arrogant for the limits of my puny mind to walk away from Jesus simply because I can’t answer all the questions I might have. In fact, I’m not sure any god whom I could fully comprehend would be worthy of my worship.
Why would I walk away from Jesus? To paraphrase the Apostle Peter, where would I go? Jesus has the words of life.
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.