At Odds With God

Being at loggerheads with God is a tough row to hoe. I hate being in that place and yet, recall times when my attitude and agenda positioned themselves perpendicular to God, instead of parallel. When we set our hearts towards a specific outcome and God does the unexpected, we don’t always adjust well. Once such time for me occurred when I re-entered the teaching field after many years of absence.

In my forties, I returned to college and added an English degree to my existing Music and Communication degree.  My goal to become an English teacher, seemed quite attainable.  God led me to add that certification, so I felt certain he’d reward me with the position I desired.  My passion for directing choirs and plays became eclipsed by my desire to teach literature and composition.

No matter how I kept re-working my resume, the only job interviews I could land were for music teachers. I felt angry and frustrated with God that I kept my end of the deal, and he didn’t come through on his.  Spending all the time, effort and money on that English degree seemed like a waste, and so I reluctantly accepted another job in Vocal Music. God clearly opened the door, as the school asked me to come interview before I ever applied.  I set my heart to teach direct choirs again, heartily unto the Lord, and trusted him to heal the disappointment of not teaching English.

Jonah behaved horribly when things didn’t go as he hoped, and the people of Nineveh repented. After initially running away, Jonah preached his judgement message in Nineveh. I can only imagine the dangers and ridicule he faced delivering that news. Judging by his reaction to the city’s massive move towards humility and repentance, we conclude that he didn’t rejoice in that outcome at all.

His outburst to God is both tragic and hilarious.

“He prayed to the Lord, ‘Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you were a compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live’” Jonah 4:2-3.

As I paraphrase this passage, here’s what it sounds like to me.

“God, I never wanted to go to Nineveh in the first place. Those people are perverse and wicked and deserve to be destroyed.  I just knew that they’d probably repent if I went there and preached and then you wouldn’t judge them, like you really should.  Just kill me now.”   Jonah didn’t think Nineveh deserved mercy and thought there should be a different outcome for his efforts.

God answers back. He grows a leafy plant to shade Jonah from the desert sun then sends a worm to destroy the plant.  Jonah repeats his request to die, and God explains his object lesson.

“But the Lord said, ‘You have been concerned about this plant, thought you did not tend it or make it grow.  It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than hundred and twenty thousand people (children in the Hebrew) who cannot tell their right hand from their left-and also many animals?’” Jonah 4:10-11

The above verses abruptly end the book of Jonah.  We don’t know if the prophet ever walked parallel with God again.

When we are in a perpendicular place with God, he asks us the same question, “Why are you so upset about this thing over here, that didn’t go your way, instead of seeing heaven’s vantage point on this matter?”

When we find ourselves at odds with God, we need to acknowledge that we are the odd man out.  We think we deserve explanations about stuff that goes sideways, but God is not beholden to our limited thinking abilities.  He’s under no obligation to answer all our questions. God is looking for people of faith who can say, “This makes no sense to me, but I’m going to obey God heartily and cheerfully and walk through the doors he opens for me and not bang my fists against the ones he closes.”

That last vocal music job I took turned into an English job during the second year. God delayed my dream, but he did not deny it because it originated with him just as Jonah’s call did.  I wonder if we might have heard from Jonah again in the Old Testament if he hadn’t gone off on such an angry bent.

Stop overthinking every situation that goes a different direction than you expected.  If you keep your heart pure and humble before God, he will cause even your honest mistakes to be part of your destiny journey.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time”

 I Peter 5:6.

If you are on the outs with God right now, please don’t stay there.  Accept that he is weaving a complex tapestry with your life. You can only see a small portion in any given moment.  Trust the One who sees the entire work from beginning to end.  Don’t be a Jonah.

 

 

God’s Reckless Mercy

Who needs your mercy and forgiveness instead of judgement? How quickly do faces come to mind?  How often do their sins float through your thoughts? Your reasons for judgement may be well founded and maybe these people aren’t remotely sorry. God understands. This is how things stood between him and the people of Nineveh.  In a surprising move, instead of wiping them out, he sent Jonah with a simple message, repent or be destroyed. God didn’t owe the sinful Ninevites the courtesy of a warning. I think his desire for repentance and relationship, carried more weight than his absolute right to judge and condemn them.

I love stories of repentant sinners and prodigals. They give me hope for my own lost and wayward soul prayer list. So, why didn’t Jonah break into a happy dance when Nineveh repented? Instead of enjoying the thrill of being used by God to save an entire city, he exploded with anger. Who knows that without Jonah’s message and Nineveh’s repentance, another Sodom and Gomorrah event was scheduled to occur? Why couldn’t Jonah celebrate that, even for the sake of innocent children?

The people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (Jonah 3:5 ESV).

“But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry” (Jonah 4:1)

To find an answer, let’s transport this scenario into the present day, so we can better understand Jonah’s response and God’s forgiving nature.

 Recently, I attended a service featuring a group of men from our local Teen Challenge Ministry. Men and women in the Teen Challenge Recovery program often enter with criminal records and  substance abuse  problems. When they commit to enter the program, they kick addictions cold turkey, and enter a new life of discipleship in Christ. Many of their testimonies are harrowing.

One young man stood out because he did not come from a broken home, abuse and neglect like the others. His background included a stable, Christ-centered family and a dynamic church.  After a college education, he started a career in money management, married and fathered two children. An experiment with cocaine became a love affair that cost him his job, his family and his faith. He left his parents and wife on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt. Finally, his criminal activity left him with nothing except the choice to enter Teen Challenge for a year or spend eighteen months in jail.

Listening to his story, I wondered how his extended family responded to his repentance? What does forgiveness of such acts look like, as this family struggled for years to resolve the consequences and damage this young man generated? Did  they lose or re-finance their homes to pay debts? Drain savings? How did his wife, suddenly thrust into single parenthood and one income, provide for herself and her children?

My thoughts drifted to Luke 15, Jesus’ story of the prodigal son. I looked at the older brother’s feelings with fresh eyes. Consider what happened in this family because of the prodigal’s selfishness and sin. First, he broke his family’s hearts, wondering and worrying about him.  Secondly, when he finally came home, he came with nothing. He spent his entire inheritance.  What did this mean for the entire family going forward, financially? Is he trusted with more money, at the risk of him squandering it?  Is he made to work in his father’s business and pay him back, displacing another sibling or employee? Did he also leave behind unpaid debts?  Lots of questions here.

As the prodigal’s sister, I’d need extra doses of God’s grace to believe his story of repentance and forgive him for hurting my parents deeply.  Second, I’d feel mixed up about spending money on a dinner party to welcome him home considering how he squandered everything he’d been given. Finally, I’d be deeply concerned about my flakey brother re-entering the family business.

As I pondered all of this, I came to a revelation when I examined the responses of God to Nineveh and the father to his prodigal son.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10 ESV).

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20 ESV).

God’s forgiveness and mercy will never make sense to the natural mind. Mercy is risky and forgiveness is often not deserved, at least that’s how humans see it. The stink of Nineveh’s sin made it to God’s nose. The prodigal son wasted his entire inheritance on immorality. Yet, in both stories, God sees potential and boom; judgement plans are canceled, and mercy’s showers start to pour.  Jonah didn’t approve. The older brother didn’t approve. Sometimes, neither do we.

 God views prodigals and sinners differently from us. He longs for us to adjust our paradigms and see people’s value as he does. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He’s profoundly serious when he expects us to balance hatred for sin with love for the sinner.  Jonah never did, as far as we know. The stench of Nineveh’s sin, which Jonah experienced first-hand, overpowered the reason God called him to the city, to save humans from destruction.

God’s highest priority is to redeem people from hell and hellish living. The mess of that redemptive process can be overwhelming to us, when we engage with sinners. God understands intimately. His entire creation ended up sideways, due to sin. Instead of irreversible judgement, his only child endured a brutal death to make a path of forgiveness and restoration for us. He will grant us eyes to see potential in the worst offenders, if we ask him.

Lamp and Sword

****Further resources for study and reflection****

“Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path.” Psalm 119:105

“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword.” Hebrew 4:12

  • If you are struggling to forgive someone, particularly when there is no sign of remorse, I suggest a read-through with these verses. When you are a victim of someone’s sin, be it great or small, your inner sense of justice is disturbed. Only God can set it right. Sometimes we can receive justice in the natural, but there are times when we don’t. These are the places where God completes the picture for us and gives rest to our souls.

Romans 5:8, Matthew 6:14-15, 5:43-44, Psalm 7:11, Amos 5:15, Ephesians 5:2, 1John 4:8

 

  • Sometimes our thirst for judgement is directed towards people we’ve never met. We are aware of their sins on a national and international level. Liars, cheats, murderers, thieves, abusers and such can stir up great anger and we cross the line, rejoicing in their downfalls and misfortunes, forgetting that they too are souls God loves, and for whom Christ died. If you find yourself brimming with unrighteous anger when you are confronted with evil current events, I suggest you ponder these verses. Ask God to help you pray for justice, victims of evil while also praying for the repentance of wicked perpetrators.

Romans 5:6-8, I Timothy 2:11, Romans 12:20-21, Romans 2:1-4, I John 4:20

  • A Divine Revelation of Hell,” is a book written by Mary K. Baxter, based on thirty days of visions God sent her as to what hell might be like for those condemned to its fires. If your heart needs a jumpstart to care about and pray for the wicked and lost, this will do it. The book is easily available used and new on several different online sites.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Obeying God When You Want to Run Away

Ever feel like you want to run away from life? I loathe the physical act of moving my legs fast, but I’m a fantastic metaphorical sprinter.  When life becomes painful and messy, I’ve attempted to check out and go elsewhere. Maybe you can relate?

 

  • During my second, full day of childbirth labor, my crazy dial went red zone. I gripped my husband’s hand, and stated calmly, “I can’t do this anymore. Take me home.” Ken refused that request kindly but firmly.

 

  • My first week teaching in an inner-city high school, a few students unused to boundaries, cussed me out, threw music in my face, threatened me with gang violence, overturned chairs and my piano then instructed me that they’d chase me off like the previous three vocal teachers. Eager to accommodate them, I composed a resignation letter during my second week.

 

  • When we adopted Bella, a beagle/lab mix, the rescue organization embellished her resume by including the word, “housebroken.” In truth, Bella did her puppy business only on our carpets, or during endless walks around our neighborhood. She refused to consider our backyard as an option. This occurred during a bitter Michigan winter when I developed intense bronchitis.  After months of cleaning up accidents and stumbling around on ice-covered sidewalks, sick, she showed no improvement. I wanted to return her.

 

Everyone wants to run away from life, at some point. Jonah fled from his assignment from God to preach in Nineveh.  After some research, I understood why. First, the city was huge, sixty miles wide and populated by close to a million people. Where modern Bibles say in chapter four, “a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left,” God isn’t talking about stupid humans. The word “people” in original Hebrew, is the word for children. Scholars estimate the greater population number based on the number of children so young, they didn’t know right from left yet. So, one prophet, called to preach repentance to a million people.

Secondly, Jonah expected great resistance. Nimrod, the architect of the tower of Babel, built in rebellion to God, also founded Nineveh. The worship of Ishtar or Astarte, the goddess of fertility, death and destruction, dominated the cultural and religious life of the city.  Immorality and violence existed to such an extreme in this place, God said to Jonah, in the first verse of the book, “Go to Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”  Apparently, many angels lodged complaints about Nineveh.

Imagine walking through the most dangerous neighborhoods of any large city shouting, “Repent of your sins or God is going to destroy this city!”  I don’t know many people eager to take on the kind of assignment God brought to Jonah. Nevertheless, God expected obedience from Jonah and he still expects it from us.  Instead, Jonah ran in the opposite direction and set a chain of tumultuous events in motion that still ended with him preaching in Nineveh.

How can we stay put in our assignments and circumstances into which God directs or allows us, when our minds and emotions scream for us to run? How do we show up for our life authentically, with all its pains and trials? How do we stay fully engaged instead of phoning it in?

  • First, discern whether your situation is a result of your own poor choices, someone else’s sin or if you are right smack where God’s planted you. Sometimes he places us deliberately in difficult situations for many reasons like, our growth, to encourage and lead others and to change environments around us. Knowing how you landed where you are, is important to move forward.

 

  • If you are in a tough place due to your wrong decisions and actions, God is still there. “If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there” (Psalm 139:8 NLT). Jonah landed in a fish’s stomach, due to disobedience, but God never turned away from him.  Like Jonah, cry out to God and repent. After that, God is eager to forgive and re-appoint you into the plans he’s designed for you, just like King David and the apostle Peter.  Your ability to squirrel up your life is never greater than God’s power to forgive and restore. “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” I Peter 5:10

 

  • You may be jammed up due to another’s sin or other circumstances beyond your control. An unfaithful spouse, addicted child, ruthless employer, devastating weather events or economic downturns, can turn your life upside down.  Consider Sarah’s predicament, in Genesis 20, when Abraham’s cowardice and lying turned her into a king’s concubine. God protected her from rape and blessed her life immeasurably while calling out Abraham’s sin through a pagan king. Imagine the pain and betrayal she felt from her husband, yet God turned the situation around for her good.  He is marvelous at doing that for his children.  There are always new beginnings waiting, with God.

 

  • Lastly, when you find yourself in God-ordained circumstances that confound, depress and hurt, remember, God did not place you there to destroy you, but to refine you. “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 hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV). God’s plans to develop our character and deepen our faith usually involve some pain. Invite a couple trusted friends to partner with you in prayer so you can go through the mountain instead of being crushed by it. Find scripture pertinent to your challenge, memorize and speak it out loud. The Word of God changes hearts and environments. “You have tested us O God; you have purified us like silver” (Psalm 66:10 NLT). “I have refined you, but not as silver is refined.  Rather, I have refined you in the furnace of suffering” (Isaiah 48:10 NLT).

 

 If you run from God’s assignments, he will plunk you in a different furnace to accomplish his purposes in you.  Jumping from church to church, job to job, relationship to relationship, does not create character depth. I stayed in that inner-city school until God led me out, and Bella still lives with us five years later. Strength is gained through God-directed perseverance.

 

Jumping around only makes us good jumpers. What if Joseph escaped from prison and ran back home?  How does that work out then for him to rule over Egypt and save his family from starvation?  What if the apostle Paul escaped one of his prisons? We’d be missing key New Testament books.

 

Remember Jonah the next time you’re tempted to let Satan chase you off. Instead, trust God to do amazing things in the most unlikely circumstances.