My prayer these past couple months has been a big one, one that I didn’t expect to be answered right away. Healing and fulfillment take time, especially since I (just like all of humanity) began sick and empty. My prayer, summarized into “Take this fear, focus my heart on You, and please, please send me genuine friends,” would take awhile to be answered. Years, maybe. As much as I would love for God to flip a switch and make me understand His ways immediately, life doesn’t work that way. Humans don’t work that way. We need time to heal and understand our infinite yet knowable God. So I prayed my prayer and waited for the inevitably long and most likely painful journey to my answer.
But, and I didn’t realize I did this until God began giving me answers, I handed in a suggestion along with my prayer. I basically said, “God, take my fear by telling me I have nothing to fear because I’m doing everything right. Focus my heart on You but only enough to get by so I can focus on myself too. And please, please send me genuine friends because it’s obviously everyone else’s fault I’m having this sub-par college experience. Fix everyone else please, ’cause You and me are already tight and I don’t need to change.” I hate to admit it, but that was my prayer, hiding deep in my heart. It was a prayer I didn’t even know I had, but it dictated the way I treated others and the way I knelt before the throne: in expectation for the fulfillment of my will. I had mixed up my own desires and masked them as God’s.
But, God being the ever patient lover He is, gently slapped me in the face. Well, He actually just opened my eyes and I suppose my own selfish desires slapped me in the face. Either way, I didn’t like the answer because it really hurt and I really didn’t want to hear it.
It started with that conversation I had with Kristine, when she told me, “God is so big, and He wants to answer our prayers.” That was Monday of week one of spring quarter. The initial weight of that sentence didn’t hit me until after God began answering my prayer. Then Tuesday came. On Tuesday nights, a couple girls on my floor host a Bible study. This quarter, we are going through Jonah and Nahum, and were asked to read Jonah 1 for the first week.
I read Jonah 1 quickly, a few minutes before the Bible study began, thinking this would be fun and cute and not necessarily groundbreaking in my theology. And to be fair, it wasn’t groundbreaking but I liked it a lot, seeing it as yet another good way to stay in the Word during the week. But God spoke to me when I read Jonah 1 again during the Bible study, and though I shared my thoughts with the rest of the group and no one disagreed, I believe God meant it as part of his answer to my prayer.
I read Jonah 1:10-15 aloud to the group, which says,
10 Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, “Why have you done this?” For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. 11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you that the sea may be calm for us?”—for the sea was growing more tempestuous.
12 And he said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will become calm for you. For I know that this great tempest is because of me.”
13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to return to land, but they could not, for the sea continued to grow more tempestuous against them. 14 Therefore they cried out to the Lord and said, “We pray, O Lord, please do not let us perish for this man’s life, and do not charge us with innocent blood; for You, O Lord, have done as it pleased You.” 15 So they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.
After I read it, we all wondered why Jonah had to be thrown off the boat, because God never explicitly told Jonah to do that. He didn’t really give him any more instruction except go to Nineveh and tell them to repent. So why was Jonah’s first instinct, after being discovered as the cause of the storm, to plead to be thrown off the boat? Ideas bounced around the room of girls, the most popular being Jonah was scared of God’s wrath and would rather die than face it. But I saw something else in Jonah.
You see, Jonah had been called by God to bring truth to an evil city. He had a task, a clear path, a vocation from God Himself to do His will. If it were me, I would freaking love that. Verse 1 says, “Now a word of the Lord came to Jonah…” How amazing would that be, if I could substitute my name–“Now a word of the Lord came to Kayley”–and know exactly where I was supposed to go and what I was supposed to do. The task before Jonah was so clear, so simple! Yet, verse 3 continues “But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” Jonah freaking runs! What the crap Jonah?! Here God, THE GOD OF THE UNIVERSE, MIND YOU, tells Jonah where to go and what to do, and because He is God, will never leave nor forsake Jonah as he goes to save a wicked city, and JONAH RUNS! At this point in the story, I just wanted to face palm, grab Jonah by the ear, and ask him what the crap is wrong with him. Verse 3, and I’m already embarrassed for the main character.
But, I can also sympathize with Jonah. He is scared, alone, and called to do something much bigger than himself. And if that fear can still grip Jonah, even though he heard the word directly from God, then of course fear can grip my heart too. I saw myself in Jonah, understanding that because I am so beautifully broken in my humanity, I allow fear to grasp me and hold me back from my calling. So I run to my family and friends and comfortable life, just like Jonah ran from God. Thankfully, Jonah’s story doesn’t end there, and neither does mine.
So Jonah’s on the boat, right? Then a great storm comes, threatening to destroy the ship and kill everyone on board. Amazingly, the men on the ship know exactly what is going on. The Veggie-Tales version put it simply, “Somebody up there must be pretty upset with somebody down here.” In that version too, they all play Go-Fish and the loser is considered responsible for the storm. Their logic is strange, but it works, because Jonah loses. The men don’t immediately think about throwing Jonah overboard. It’s Jonah who tells them who he is, who he serves, why he is there, and tells them the only way they will live is if he gets off this ship immediately. They have to throw him off.
This is the interesting part. God may have placed it in Jonah’s heart to go overboard, keeping His perfect plan a secret. But I think, especially since Jonah is a Hebrew, a devout follower of God, Jonah just knew I am not supposed to be here.
As Christians today, when we realize we are wrong and come to terms with it, we simply say we are sorry. That’s what I would have done in Jonah’s position, honestly. I would have cried out to God and begged Him for forgiveness and asked Him to quiet the storm and promised that at the next stop, I’ll get off right away and head straight to Nineveh. And then I’d wait for God to do His part, thinking that I did mine perfectly. I wouldn’t actually do anything outside my comfort zone, thinking the initial calling was pretty far out there in the first place. But here we see Jonah’s maturity, we see his understanding of God’s character and that saying your sorry is not always enough. Jonah knew he wasn’t supposed to be on that boat and the only way off immediately was overboard into the sea. I think this was a hug leap of faith. Jonah recognized his mistake, knew he shouldn’t be where he is, and knew God was in control. All he had to do was practice faith. I don’t believe Jonah knew wholeheartedly if God would save him or not, and I think that is where most of the point lies. We can’t live our lives in anticipation of what we think God will or will not do. God’s ways are not our own, nor can we figure them out or bet He’ll act one way over another. As Kristine said, “God is so big.” When He calls us to do something, we can’t attach limitations and guidelines for God to follow if we say yes.
So there was the first part of God’s answer to my prayer: Stop running. You aren’t where I called you. Jump into me and exercise blind faith.
Since I was still stuck in my own head, awaiting the answer I told God to give me, I didn’t catch the connection to my own life, even as I shared it in that small group. And I could tell I didn’t catch it, because some statements were made in that small group that were extremely heretical and pissed me off royally, and I ended up going back to my dorm and sending a snarky email to my high school principal, begging for good sources so I could prove why I was right and the other girls with very new ageist ideas were wrong. God was trying to show me something, but my ego was just so darn big, I chose to only apply what I was learning to everyone else, thinking I was perfectly fine.
Here God already answered part of my prayer, one day after I’d solidified it, and I missed the answer completely.