Jonah and the Patience of God

I've always loved the story of Jonah. I think this is because Jonah is a story about a man with a calling, a man who has a clear vocation, but who happens to have a complicated relationship to that calling.

I think that's where my connection to Jonah's story has always started. I too hear silent rumblings and inner twists of passion that call me to get up and go. But where I've connected with Jonah in the past is in my fear that I will misunderstand these nudgings of the Holy Spirit, and will accidentally go down to a seaport and board a boat headed in the wrong direction. In previous seasons of life this anxiety around calling, this fear of missing the calling, of accidental disobedience because of misread signals, slowed my responses to the calling in attempts to avoid what I took to be the punishment of violent storms and of having to camp out in the belly of a fish for three days.

But this is not that great of an interpretation of the story of Jonah.

Jonah is definitely a story about conflicted calling, but the way his story is told Jonah doesn't misread God's signals: we are made to understand that they were as plainly before him as they are to us in the text itself. Jonah doesn't board the boat headed to Tarshish because of a misunderstanding - Jonah boarded the boat exactly because he fully understood what he was supposed to do but was intent on not doing it.

Jonah's actions, unlike mine described in the previous paragraph, were decisive and determinative - even bold or bordering on admirable. Jonah was called to get up and go, and he got up and went with a sense of purpose, if in the exact wrong direction. Jonah's disobedience was that of a good Lutheran: he sinned boldly, he took a leap of (un)faith. And then the storm came, not exactly as an act of the punishment of God, but as an example of God's patience with his prophet, of God's invitation to the sailors to worship him, and ultimately (through the fish) of God's salvation of Jonah and, ultimately, of the "great city" of Nineveh.

This is a much more helpful and a much more interesting reading of Jonah's story, and, happily, it's also much more faithful to the story itself. The story as it is doesn't address accidental disobedience, and in whatever sense such accidents are even possible this is a book that should be read as good news over those situations too.

Instead of accidental disobedience, Jonah is primarily a book about direct and purposeful, strong-willed disobedience. Jonah is an anti-type of Abraham in that regard. Abraham displayed a profound, even disturbing obedience as he was willing to sacrifice his son to God. Thankfully that story had a happy ending: it turns out that God is more interested in this kind of crazy faithfulness than he is interested in blood.

But Jonah as an anti-type of Abraham demonstrates a kind of anti-faithfulness. The fact that God wills to save all the nations of the world through the descendants of the faithful Abraham seems to be made problematic in the person of one of Abraham's own descendants, Jonah. Jonah, who was given an opportunity to reach out to one of these nations whose salvation is his people's raison d'etre. Jonah, who was faced with such an opportunity to fulfill his people's destiny, and who ran the other way instead.

But the surprising good news in this story is that God is not so much interested in wooing-the-nations-through-human-obedience as God is interested in just wooing-the-nations. And so the disobedient chosen one descends into the belly of a ship set out to carry him away from his calling, only to discover that the ship is destined to carry him further and more deeply into his calling. Jonah's ship purportedly on its way to Tarshish is headed away from the letter of his calling, but in spite of Jonah and the ship itself, this boat is actually on its way more fully into the spirit of his calling.

The hellish storm comes, and the first chapter of Jonah ends with God's prophet descending into the depths: God's man, the one God called to preach to the nations, is hurled into the chaos for the literal salvation from the storm of the ethnically and religiously diverse panoply of sailors who remain on board, sailors who then praise God, the God of Israel, the God whose prophet sinks deeper still.

This alone would be an interesting story, full of fantastic irony - God called a person from his chosen people to preach to the nations so they wouldn't get destroyed, but God's chosen one tried as hard as he could to avoid this task only to have great success in it, just in the wrong place, and then finally in the end it is the disobedient prophet instead of the nations facing destruction and judgment. God takes his chosen people's disobedience and turns it into praise; God transforms the unfaithfulness of his people into praise on the lips of pagans; Jonah's unorthodoxy becomes the Gentile sailors' orthodoxy. All that while the unfaithful chosen one sinks to the deepest depths.


Until out of those depths comes salvation. Out of those same depths that would swallow the unfaithful one up as a sign of his unfaithfulness there comes a fish who swallows the prophet and keeps him safe as a sign of God's grace. The fish keeps him safe in the bowels of death and, after a time, places him back on track, nudges him back toward his calling.

We suspect that God could easily find another preacher for the city of Nineveh. Jonah has objectively been a huge jerk and obviously doesn't want the job. Jonah has done everything in his power to disqualify himself from keeping the job. And God can do anything he wants - clearly there must be some better, more efficient, less messy way, some way that leaves Jonah out of it. Surely God can save Nineveh some other way.

But God chooses not to. He chooses the disobedient one to preach his word to the people. He is patient with his people in their mission to invite the nations to worship him, the patient God. God through this patience wants to save the world, and save he surely shall do. But this God doesn't just want to save the world: he wants to do so through, with, in and in spite of our obedience and our disobedience, our understanding and our misunderstanding. And, beneath the Sign of Jonah, he wants to use even me.