Originally published in Issue #25 on September 17, 2021
One of the first things readers notice in the book of Jonah is Jonah’s flight from God. “That’s silly Jonah! Don’t you know that you cannot hide from God?”
I think that Jonah does, in fact, know that he can’t physically hide from God.
[Jonah] answered them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the LORD, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land.”
— Jonah 1:9 (CSB)
Jonah knows Genesis 1. He knows that God is the creator of all things and that no one can truly hide from him. I don’t think that his flight from God was because he thought that God wouldn’t be able to see him.
But then this raises the question: why run at all?
Jonah is a mirror. The book is designed to show the people of God their flaws in Jonah’s sins. The book wouldn’t be a very effective mirror if the point was, “don’t physically run away from God.”
Instead, I think the book is using Jonah’s physical flight from God as a way to highlight the ways that we run from God.
We Run Because Honesty Is Hard
We run from God because approaching God requires honesty and humility. God exalts the humble and resists the proud (James 4:6). One of the most difficult things we can do is be honest with ourselves about our own sins. We are not good enough.
We often fall into two opposite errors when talking with God. Either we hide from God by putting on a performance of goodness, or we beat ourselves up as though telling God how wrong and sinful we are as though beating ourselves up in his presence is what he’s looking for.
Jonah doesn’t talk to God until he is saved by the fish. God is trying to get his attention, and the pagan sailors respond to God, but Jonah won’t. Why? Part of the reason may be that Jonah doesn’t want to be honest with God. We finally see honesty come out in chapter 4 when Jonah accuses God of being good to Israel’s enemies.
True honesty with God is really difficult but brings freedom. Tell God the truth of what is in your heart. If you are sinning, confess your desire to sin. Not to look good before God by beating yourself up, but because you desire your sin and you want his help.
Or, if you don’t want his help, confess that too. If you don’t even want to be in his presence, tell him that! Be like the father who cried out to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)
In those places of true honesty comes true intimacy. Don’t run from God or hide behind a performance of goodness. As the apostle John wrote,
This is how we will know that we belong to the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows all things.
— 1 John 3:19-20 (CSB)
We Hide Because God’s Way Requires Sacrifice
The number one reason for broken relationships is missed expectations. If that is true of human relationships, why should we expect it to be any less true of our relationship with God?
It was certainly Jonah’s problem. Jonah expected God to only bless his chosen people, and to destroy all of Israel’s enemies. The only reference to Jonah outside of his eponymous book is in 2 Kings 14, where Jonah’s claim to fame is a fulfilled prophecy that Israel’s borders would expand.
We find out in chapter 4 that God’s message to Jonah for Nineveh all the way back in Jonah 1 was a message of judgment, but with hope. Jonah knew that if God offered hope to Nineveh, and Nineveh repented, that they would be granted mercy. But everything in the book shows us how badly Jonah wanted Nineveh to be destroyed.
The kind of sacrifice God requires of his people varies widely, but Jonah’s experience gives us one powerful example. God requires Jonah to sacrifice his hatred of the enemies of his people and to love them instead.
What God requires of us may be different. Whatever we hold most dear, whatever we hold as idols, that is God’s target. Not because he’s being capricious, but because he loves us. He knows his own worth. He knows that we find our true life when we desire him above all else.
This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and the one you have sent —Jesus Christ.
— John 17:3 (CSB)
Intimate knowledge of God is eternal life. Anything else is an idol. Money, health, our own nation’s prospering, family, our time. These things are good, but only good when they are subordinate to God.