The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh…” Jonah 1:1-2
There’s a dark truth people don’t tell you, when you sign up for a life of faith. You won’t find this truth plastered across t-shirts, or on big banners hanging over pulpits, or engraved in fancy gold script on the front of your new Bible.
The truth is this: the God of Heaven may hurt you. He may break your heart. He may send you to Hell.
When you make the commitment to serve Him, you promise to go where He sends. You promise to accept His will. You promise to do as He commands.
But when you first begin your Christian journey, you believe His commands will lead you to your Promise Land. Because that’s what Love looks like, right? Love does no harm. Love protects. Love is synonymous with blessing and joy and answered prayers.
One of the most quoted verses in the North American church, the verse you will find plastered across t-shirts, on big banners above pulpits, and engraved on shiny new Bibles, is found in Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you, and not to harm you. Plans to give you a hope and a future.”
Oh yes, we LOVE that verse.
What we miss, in our focus on that promise, is a gigantic, uncomfortable reality: there’s an entire Bible full of other verses and promises. And some (many) promise pain.
The story of Jonah is a profound example. Buried in the first two verses of this book, there’s a dark truth big enough to rock our beliefs about God to their core. The problem is, most people are in such a rush to condemn Jonah, to characterize him as a buffoon and a whiner, they speed right past the warning sign.
Any child who has ever experienced a Sunday School flannel board knows Jonah as the “prophet who ran from God”, the “disobedient prophet”, or “the guy who ended up as whale food”. And Jonah was all those things. But before his seaweed wrap, he was someone else.
To get the full picture, we need to look at the scene right before the curtain goes up in Jonah 1:1. What was Jonah doing? Was he cheating on his taxes, stealing candy from children, and beating puppies? No. In fact, quite the opposite: He was faithful. He was holy. He was chosen. He was exceptional.
Jonah was a prophet of Israel. He held one of the highest offices in the nation; a role that was often more powerful than the king or the priests of the land.
His every word was tested and weighed by the people he served. And, He spoke on behalf of a God who did not tolerate falsehood, impurity, or greed in His ambassadors.
Jonah’s career was what you might call “high risk”. If you misspoke or misstepped as a prophet, you didn’t get a slap on the hand or a timeout in a corner; you got a quick death and a small grave, courtesy of the people you served –or God Himself.
But there was no grave for Jonah, because he was doing the job right. He filled this role for years. He anointed a King. He probably acted as a military advisor for the country in battle, and served as a social and spiritual guide for the entire nation.
Imagine a bearded, Jewish version of Billy Graham, dressed in sandals and an embroidered Yarmulka. A spiritual giant who is also a five-star general and a life coach. This guy takes faith and obedience seriously. He keeps his hands and heart clean. He’s seasoned, committed, and mature.
And then one day, the God of heaven, the One Jonah has served and trusted all his life, throws open the door of his world, and says those fateful words: “Hello Jonah, faithful servant. Go to Hell.”
Over dramatic? I don’t think so. That’s the problem with breezing past these first two verses in Jonah’s story. We miss the implications, the sheer devastation in the statement, “Go to Nineveh.”
The first word out of God’s mouth was, “Go”.
For some of us, hearing a “Go” from God is something we’ve longed for. “Go get your adopted child.” “Go start that job.” “Go take that vacation.”
But on this day, for this man, “Go” meant something else. “Go” meant: “Today you lose everything you love. Give up your family, your position, your church, your friends, your animals, your belongings, and your house of white-washed stone. Give up all that is familiar—your culture, your language, and your community. Surrender your routine, your stability, and your favorite papyrus-jersey sheets. Go, knowing you will use up your energy and resources on the way. Go with no assurance you’ll ever return.”
That command alone would be sufficient to break most of us.
But God wasn’t done. As Jonah sat there in silence, God announced the destination. “Go, Jonah. Go to Nineveh.”
If the first command was tough to comprehend, the second was far, far worse. To lose everything was one thing. To be sent to Hell? Entirely another.
And for Jonah, Nineveh was Hell. It represented the greatest evil and torment he could imagine.
In Jonah’s day, the Assyrian capital of Nineveh was massive, powerful, and universally known for its terror and brutality. This was a city where they filleted the bodies of their Hebrew captives—while the captives were still alive—and hung their skin on the walls as trophies. This was a city whose rulers and commanders were killers and sexual deviants. This was a city where dark magic, animal sacrifice, and spells of witchcraft took place in every street and alleyway.
The Assyrians also had a thing for attacking their neighbors, and they had caused more damage to Jonah’s people than any other. They laid siege to Jerusalem and razed many other villages to the ground. They rounded up their children as slaves, raped their women, and disemboweled their men.
These were not people who arranged guest suites with fruit baskets for itinerant preachers come to prophesy their doom. So Jonah knew that besides being sent to Hell, he was also being sent to his death.
And yet, we’re so smug when we talk about how rebellious and disobedient he was. “That Jonah,” we say, shaking our heads. “What an idiot he was to disobey. To think he could run.”
I suggest that if we received the commands Jonah did, our smugness would shrivel faster than a lone gourd in an Assyrian desert. Our faith might shrivel that fast, too. Why? Because we’ve all got our own version of evil and torment; we’ve all got that one nightmare that wakes us up in a cold sweat, with dread drenching our hairline.
Only one thing could fill us with greater horror than that nightmare: If the God of love and grace, the God we’ve been so sure is good, sends us there. Because He’s the rescuer. The Savior. The Father of love. He’s supposed to save us from Hell, not send us there. Jeremiah 29:11 says so. Right?
This year, my husband was torn away by an unexpected, long-term military deployment, I said farewell to my friends, my animals, my church, my home, my belongings, my ministry, and the business I ran for a decade. My credit card was hacked, I lost a year of irreplaceable computer files during a computer corruption, was horribly wounded by someone I trusted, was struck with blindness in one eye, was diagnosed with an incurable disease, and with that diagnosis saw my greatest dream for the future fade. My insurance refused to cover my medical treatment when I needed it most, I experienced several severe financial blows… the list of losses goes on, and on, and on.
This year, everything I loved and treasured was ripped away. This year God sent me to Hell. Had I known what was coming, I might very well have made a run for Tarshish, too.
Many Bible teachers say Jonah’s primary reason for running away from God was that his patriotism and zeal for justice exceeded his faith and zeal for mercy. While I’m sure that’s true, I suspect Jonah fled to the ends of the earth for another reason. I suspect he ran to escape the face of a God he no longer recognized.
I mean, what do you do when you’re a Prophet, and the God you’re supposed to represent goes completely postal and schizophrenic? Because surely that is how God appeared to Jonah after He issued His command.
For centuries, God specifically commanded the Israelites to avoid any association with brutal, idol-worshipping, baby-sacrificing cultures. These Assyrians and their king had bullied, mocked, and terrorized the Israelites for years. God Himself killed 185,000 of these Assyrians in one day, when they attacked the Israelites. But now, suddenly, He’s worried about 120,000 of them (and their cows) in the capital city? Worried enough about them to send Jonah there and destroy Jonah’s whole life in the process?
Madness! Jonah must have believed that either he was losing his mind, or his God was. Either way, there was only one option that made sense: Run.
What a dark day of disillusionment that must have been, for this man of faith. I doubt he wore his Jeremiah 29:11 t-shirt when he boarded that ship for the ends of the earth.
I think many of us have had a Tarshish season. A time when God appears more monster than messiah.
I am living that season right now. The heartache and loss God has allowed in our life in the past year devastates and enrages me. I struggle to see how this level of Hell can possibly coexist with any form of Divine Love.
What I’ve found equally challenging is the response of people around me as they observe our suffering.
In many cultures around the world, suffering is such a consistent part of life and faith, it doesn’t require an explanation. Suffering just is. But in our culture, where we’ve been taught that health, success, and prosperity are directly connected to God’s blessing and approval, suffering is not as common, and therefore must be categorized, labeled, and explained.
Three labels have been constant in people’s comments to me: Sin, Stupidity, or Schooling.
A large number have suggested that our heartbreak is a direct result of our sins. That we did wrong, offended God, and are being punished. Because only bad people suffer. Good people get Rolexes and river cruises.
A second group believes that our heartbreak is a direct result of our stupidity. If we had been smarter, if we had responded in a more thoughtful, strategic way to our losses, God would not have allowed them to continue. Because only dumb people suffer. God blesses smart people.
The third group contends that our heartbreak is a direct result of God’s schooling in our lives. “Wow, God must be preparing you for something big, to put you through all this.” “God must really trust you to send all these trials your way.” Because only those He trusts suffer. Those He doesn’t trust get to be happy and healthy.
Beyond the gaping theological holes in these simplistic explanations, the thing these well-meaning people forget is that when you are suffering, you don’t need categories and labels and explanations. You need courage. And pronouncements like these do not produce that. At all.
I suggest that if there must be a label and an explanation for our suffering, it is a fourth, which is closer to the explanation for Jonah’s experience.
In Jonah’s life, the storm and the swim and the seaweed were all consequences of his refusal to do as God commanded. But the death sentence He received from God before that? That was because Jonah was doing things right.
What kind of leader sends the person who is doing right into Hell? I can think of only one.
When we first become Christians, we focus on God as the God of Love. And He is. He is. But just as Jeremiah 29:11 is not the only promise in the Bible, so God is not just a God of Love. He bears many titles, not all of them as comforting. For instance, God is also known as our Captain and Commander.
The great Italian commander, Giuseppe Garibaldi, once made this speech during a recruitment drive:
“I offer neither pay, nor quarters, nor food; I offer only hunger, thirst, forced marches, battles and death. Let him who loves his country with his heart, and not merely with his lips, follow me.”
Jesus may not have said it with the same Italian flair, but He conveyed the same reality when He said, “If any man wishes to be my follower, let him deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow me.” The problem is, we’ve so insulated our faith with scripture t-shirts, and big banners, and shiny new bibles, we forget the seriousness of what we signed up for in the first place.
God is a God of great compassion, but He is also a great commander. He sees the whole picture, and will send His followers wherever necessary in order to accomplish His great end goal.
I suspect the hard part, for Jonah, was the moment he realized fulfilling his role in God’s great end goal would allow the Ninevites to escape judgment, while costing him everything. And if tradition and legend can be believed, it did cost Jonah everything. A tomb, in the ruins of Nineveh, is believed to hold his body.
The ending of the book of Jonah is sad. Plain and simple. Jonah’s sitting outside the city, in the desert, and he is angry. Angry and praying for death, because God doesn’t make sense. God has granted mercy to a city of tormentors, and taken away all Jonah cared about in the process. Jonah who served Him faithfully all his life. Jonah who tried so hard to be holy. Jonah who always remembered to tithe, who always went to church, who always washed his hands before eating.
Jonah’s story is a vivid reminder that God’s ways will feel horribly unfair at times. But this is especially true if we focus on all the happy Bible verses about blessing, and ignore the others. The ones that suggest a great cost of self-sacrifice comes with our faith. The ones that suggest that God can (and will) do whatever He chooses with our life when we give it to Him. The ones that suggest that God has a very different perspective from ours about what success and glory look like.
What has kept me from losing my mind, in this season of anguish and struggle, is not to question or even think about His goodness. At times like this, the goodness of God feels about as far away as Tarshish, and thinking about it only makes us crazy.
The truth is, He may or may not restore and repair all the loss and injustice of this season. He may or may not heal this incurable disease. He may or may not allow the military to continue to send my husband into harm’s way and separate us for yet another year.
But I don’t follow God because of what He can do for me. I don’t serve Him because He’s some kind of Divine David Tutera, who whips out fairytales, miracles, and perfect parking spots while smiling and calling me his Bride. I follow Him because He is God and there is no other. He is my Commander. And that means He has the right to break my heart and send me to Hell if it will accomplish His overall purpose.
There are two possible outcomes, I think, to being sent to Hell. Hell can leave us in ruins, or we can leave it in ruins.
In Jonah’s case, the trip to Nineveh ruined him. It broke his heart, fricasseed his faith, and destroyed His relationship with God. How well I understand that. How many nights I have lain in bed this year, bouncing prayers off the ceiling and feeling ruined beyond repair.
Jonah didn’t have the benefit of reading his whole story up front. He only saw the immediate horror and loss before him. And when we’re in our Tarshish season, that’s true for us as well.
But based on his story and all that happened to Nineveh during and afterward, I believe that if/when God sends us to Hell, He doesn’t intend for us to die there. He intends for us to plow into it, leave it changed, and get the Hell out of there (ahem:P).
And so, in this Tarshish season, I remind myself that I don’t see the whole picture yet. And I keep walking, keep following my Commander, and keep remembering the words of another great general:
“If you are going through Hell, keep going.” – Winston Churchill