Jonah. I don’t even know where to start with poor Jonah. If there’s any book of the Bible that I find myself avoiding from sheer discomfort (besides Revelation, of course), it’s the book of Jonah. Besides it being more of a downer of a story, I’m all too often left feeling uncomfortable with how familiar it all feels.
The story starts with Jonah getting what so many of us crave and search for. He got a calling. But when he did, he ran from it, and fast. Jonah hopped on the first boat to Tarshish. Now, understandably, his calling wasn’t exactly “Here’s a million dollars, why don’t you build a nice resort in my name.”. God called Jonah to Ninevah, a city he was on the brink of wiping off the face of the earth which tells you just about everything you need to know about the state of it. I can genuinely see why Jonah panicked and tried to run to Tarshish. Still, as we all know, Jonah never reached his destination. A storm, an unexpected swim, and a rather large fish had something to say about his running. One way or another, Jonah still ended up going to Ninevah.
It’s easy to look at this story and wonder why Jonah thought that would possibly work or why he didn’t just listen and go to Ninevah in the first place. At the same time, I look at Jonah and see myself. Maybe I’m not on a boat, but I am all too often on my way to Tarshish.
Because Tarshish isn’t just a city and you don’t just get there by boat. Your Tarshish is whatever place you’re running to instead of where God’s calling you. I start heading towards Tarshish all too often. I wrap it up in a little doily of holiness so I can pretend God’s calling me there, but it’s still no good. If I woke up tomorrow and said “Oh! I’m going to become a worship leader and work in a church full time!” it would still be my Tarshish when God is specifically and loudly calling me to use my gifts and talents somewhere else. I could do plenty good there, sure (hypothetically, because no one wants to see me actually try to lead a worship service), but it doesn’t cancel a Nineveh if that’s what God’s calling me to do.
How do you know it’s your Tarshish? It’s probably the safest and easiest place by all worldly standards. It’s that place that looks pristine and comfortable but keeps you on that same cycle of life that never helps you grow or get anywhere better. Tarshish looks like an accomplishment, but really it’s the epitome of taking the easy route. It’s just flatlining, faked security.
How do you know what your Nineveh is? It’s probably absolutely terrifying to you and yet you still can’t describe just how badly you want it or how God brings it up every time you have a chat with him. It may seem like absolute madness, but your Nineveh is always going to be the best place in the world for you. Not because it’s dangerous or different, but because it’s where God has laid out a blueprint with your name on it.
I’m reminded of something my dad has told me on multiple occasions when I was feeling uncertain and afraid of where God was taking me. Which, if I’m being honest, has been more times than I care to mention. Whatever it was, going to Nicaragua, enrolling in school in Germany, trying to publish my own book, my Dad has had the same words of wisdom:
“The safest place in the world for you is in the center of God’s will.”
It’s as simple and as hard as that. We may see the danger of Nineveh and the safety of Tarshish, but add God’s calling to the middle and the two completely flip. There was nowhere in the world better for Jonah to be than Nineveh. Tarshish could only ever take him farther away from God’s calling.
You don’t have to like going to your Nineveh (although I think you’ll find it goes a lot better if you travel with a cheerful heart), you just have to go. For a while there, I genuinely thought I was going to go into overseas missions. I was talking with all sorts of organizations, praying about it, and learning all that I could about extremely remote jungle locations in the middle of nowhere that somehow have human populations. A few months into the hunt, I remember having coffee with a dear friend to talk about it and where my thought process was. I told her that I felt a responsibility to explore this completely and that I wanted to approach it not as “Is God calling me to missions?” and more “Is God calling me to stay?”
“Here’s what I’m going to do,” I told her, “I’m going to go for this with everything I have, and if God doesn’t want me to go, he’s going to have to tell me in a really big way, because I can be really dumb about this stuff.”
Be careful what you wish for.
Only about a month later, I got my answer. God didn’t send a fish. He sent a rabbit of all things. If you didn’t know, I’m the queen of stupid allergies. I carry around an EpiPen and a really good story of a near-fatal brush with almonds and other allergens. Rabbits are on the list but had never been that bad until I met one at a friends house and had a reaction so bad I honestly should have gone to the ER (oops).
I got myself in to see my allergist, told her about my hunt into missions, and got walloped with the news that it would be next to impossible for me to live in those remote locations I’d been researching. It wasn’t a whale, but God used a rabbit to say no in a way that could get my attention.
At the time, it didn’t make any sense why he was saying no. Wasn’t it a good thing that I was looking into missions? But I’m learning what God had planned piece by piece. I could have done good work overseas, but I would have been running from something God had planned just for me. For a lot of people, the idea of going overseas is a scary one, but it seemed completely simple and safe to me at the time. What was terrifying was the idea of staying here and digging into my writing and trying to make a way for myself in a society that has lost the art of taking a moment to breathe. Naturally, it was the thing God kept whispering to me about and wouldn’t let me get away from. It only took a rabbit to see it and still I wish I had listened sooner.
You can’t afford to run from God. There’s just not time.
Don’t waste your time on the road to Tarshish. It’s too easy and you were meant for so much more. God created the heavens, the depths of the oceans, mountain peaks, butterflies, lightning, grass billowing in the wind, lions, and the aurora borealis and decided that he wanted to create you just as much. You have a calling. You have a Nineveh. I beg you, don’t leave it behind for the “safety” of Tarshish. Don’t wait for the whale (or rabbit). The road to Nineveh can start today.
Let’s find some joy,