I have a confession to make. I ran away from home once. Looking back, it was one of the dumbest things I have ever done. I was in eighth grade, I think. I blame the hormones. A boy was becoming a man, or so he thought. It all started when I decided to cut my own hair. The mushroom hairstyle was popular back then. Some of you may be familiar with this. Anyway, in an effort to look cool, I tried to thin out the sides of my hair with a razor! Right, bad idea. In doing so, I accidentally cut my hair to the skin; about the size of a small rectangle. Well, my dad came home and let’s just say, he wasn’t too pleased with the situation. But I reacted very strongly to his displeasure. I stormed out of the house barefoot. I ran away.
So I walked down the block, down the street and down the next street. Where was I going? No clue. My feet were hurting, but I kept walking. Every car that passed by, I tried to inconspicuously cover my bald spot, though I think more people were concerned with why I wasn’t wearing any shoes. Thankfully no one was walking their dog that day, for then it would be really bad news. Well a half-mile into my journey, a car pulled up next time. My dad opened the passenger, shaking his head in disgust. To be honest, I was relieved and thankful he came after me, but as a teenager, you just pretend you’re angry. I got in and went home. The sad part of it was that we had to go to a family party that night and since I was already on my parents’ bad side, I didn’t fight about not attending. But I still had my bald spot! So I decided to cover it up with a band aid, pretending I cut my head it was bleeding. Now that doesn’t make any sense (why would I be bleeding there?) and I don’t remember what happened at that party (perhaps I have purposely tried to forget), but I can tell you that never again did I try to cut my own hair or run away!
Sometimes you just want to run away, especially when you feel threatened, stressed or paralyzed by fear. Some of us like to fight in a conflict, but others of us like flight instead. We like to bail when the going gets rough. Or when we are overloaded with a mountain of responsibilities, we run away too our hobbies or friends or escape into entertainment. Kids want to run away from parents, sometimes for good reasons, like abuse. Some spouses want to run away from their marriage (and some have done that emotionally).
It is in our nature to run. But since the Fall, we have been running away from God. Remember when Adam and Eve, after eating of the fruit, try to run and hide from God (Gen. 3:8)? And God, not like a policeman looking for a criminal, but a Father looking for His lost child, comes looking for them. Perhaps that was the first hide-and-seek game ever of mankind. He’s still the best seeker ever! And we have been playing that with God since then. Maybe it’s not so much that we are good runners, but we try to be good hiders. Sin, running and hiding all go together.
Today I want to talk about running from God. Yes, you and I both run. And the sad part is that we could be sitting at church running from God. But why do we do it? And what’s really beneath our running from Him? We are going to explore that today in our text. It’s easy to say, “Yes, I am running from God, I need to get better,” but it is more important that we know our heart and its propensity to run and why we run. I guess you know me well enough that I like to dig deep in the Word, so we are just going to look at the first three verses today. Take a note of this first thought:
I. Running from God is forfeiting God’s best for us (vv.1-3)
Sometimes people run from God because they think He is angry or too strict or impossible to please. They think God enslaves them, not sets them free (which ironically is the opposite of what happens). They might run because of fear; whether fear of failure or fear of the unknown or fear of what God will ask them to do (which is in this case with Jonah I think). But I want you to see that running from God is forfeiting God’s best for our life. Hopefully you’ll see it much clearer as we dig in here.
The story gets going quickly. Look at verse 1. Here is the typical call of God. Yahweh, the covenant intimate name of God that the Jews like to use, comes to His prophet in typical fashion. Now remember this is not the first time God has spoken to Jonah. If you remember from last week, God had used Jonah to tell King Jeroboam to strengthen the borders of Israel (2 Kings 14:25). It was a message of mercy. Israel and the King were involved in idolatry. Yet God, in His mercy, as unworthy as Israel was, through Jonah, blessed Israel politically. I wonder if God did that knowing what Jonah will do later when He asks Jonah to deliver another message of mercy, but this time to the Ninevites?
Anyway, here we find that God comes to Jonah (we don’t know how exactly, whether a dream or vision or some other means), but tells him, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” Nineveh, a leading city in the Assyrian Empire, is about 200 miles north of modern day Baghdad. But if the Jews heard that name, they would probably start to gag. The prophet Nahum says of Nineveh: “a city of crime, utterly treacherous, full of violence, where killing never stops” (Nah. 3:1). One author says for Jonah to go to Nineveh was to go to hell. Nineveh was well known for their violence, their “carefree” living making them think they were invincible (Zeph. 2:15), the brutal atrocities it inflicted on its war captives…and for their idolatry. They were the Nazis of their day. The Assyrians were their enemies. And for Jonah to go there was like God calling a Jew in WWII to go to Germany because God has a heart for them. It would make them sick of such a thought!
Interestingly, Nineveh at this time was in a period of decline. They were going through inward dissension, a defeat in war, a solar eclipse, which was followed by flooding and famine. They probably already interpreted this as a sign of divine judgment. By the way, though God would use Assyria to take the Israelites into exile, Nineveh would eventually fall to the Babylonians and Medes dramatically in 612 b.c. Its overwhelming greatness lasted about 150 years. But God was already working there to soften their hearts. They are ripe for repentance. Now if only He can get his missionary there!
Here take note that:
a) When we run from God, we lose His heart of mission
We lose the best God has for us because we lose His heart, which is set on giving us His best. Notice here that God is a God of mission. Here God calls Jonah to be part of His work. What a privilege! What an opportunity to see God using you and getting a sneak peek into who He is (which turns out to be Jonah’s problem. He doesn’t like who God is).
By the way, God’s heart for mission didn’t start in the New Testament. His heart has always been a heart for mission. You could even argue that God is the first missionary when He is searching for Adam and Eve when they hid in their sin. He even tells Abram that He wants to bless the nations through him (Gen. 12:3). And Jonah hates that about God. For Jonah, it is right and proper for God to be merciful to Israel, but not right He should show grace to anyone else.
But God’s heart is a heart of mission. Jesus Himself said to another guy who ran and hid named Zacchaeus that His mission statement was “For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). That was His mission. Is that ours? Is that our heart? Is our heart a heart of mission? When we are running from God, we are running from God’s heart as well. We lose His purpose for our lives and we will not experience His heart for the lost. It will be really difficult to run from God and then try to evangelize. That will be the last thing you want to do. When you are right with God, you will automatically want God to do for others what He did for you. Secondly,
b) When we run from God, our hearts will deceive us
Now if you are an ancient reader, here is where you are getting excited for God’s prophet to carry God’s message obediently, courageously right into the Enemy’s territory, followed by God’s wrath at their refusal to repent and obey the Lord. But we are shocked to read verse 3: “But Jonah rose to flee.” Not “Jonah rose and went to Nineveh.” In the original Hebrew, the command “Arise and go” is contrasted here with “Jonah rose and fled.” We are surprised to find that it is not the Ninevites and their hardheartedness and wickedness we see here, but from God’s own missionary and messenger!
Notice three times in these verses that Tarshish is mentioned. The author is deliberately trying to get us to see that Jonah is not accidentally going the wrong way in his life. He is deliberately, intentionally running away from God. God told him to go east of 550 miles, but he goes west of 1000 miles, possibly headed to modern-day Spain. Tarshish was known as the farthest west you could possibly go. It was as if you were called to go to Boston, but instead you purchased a ticket to Los Angeles, headed to Australia!
So Jonah runs. He ends up 35 miles from Samaria, to Joppa, a port city. I picture him looking around and asking someone about the ships. I see Jonah kind of casually asking one of the merchants: “Hey, where are the ships going today?” And lo and behold, he says, “to Tarshish.” Wow! Exactly what I wanted. When your heart is set on sin, you will always find a ship to Tarshish. Jonah may have even thought God was understanding and sympathetic to his deliberate plan and was even helping him along here. He might have rationalized that. Our hearts are so deceitful. By the way, why didn’t Jonah just say, “No, I’m not going to Nineveh. I’m just not going to do anything. I’m going to sit right here”?
Pastor Ajith Fernando provides a clue here: “Well, Tarshish was a place where you would least expect a revelation from God. The people there didn't know the Lord. Being disobedient to God is extremely uncomfortable, and when you're disobedient to God and meet God's people, you become even more uncomfortable. So Jonah wanted to be a safe distance from anything that reminded him of God.
Isn't that true even today? When people are living in disobedience, they often avoid close contact with Christians. They miss church; they don't come to the small group meeting. Sometimes they give very legitimate reasons as to why they can't come, but the real reason is that they want to avoid the discomfort of being with Christians. If they do come to the meeting, they rush off before anyone catches them for a conversation.”
But beware of how rational sin may appear. Sin can always be rationalized. We can even find Bible verses for our sin. Beware of your heart. When you do not want to do what God wants you to do, you will find a million reasons why you cannot do it, though the real reason is not because you cannot do it, it is because you will not do it. “Jonah’s runaway posture is our posture,” one author says, “every time we sin, whether in thought, word, or deed, whether it’s something we consider big or something small, whether it’s doing something we shouldn’t or failing to do something we should. Every time we sin, we are telling God, ‘My way of navigating this particular situation is better than yours. My wisdom and skill are more efficient and more effective in this moment than your wisdom and skill.’ It’s not that we stop believing. It’s just that what we believe has shifted.”
And guess who will help you along? The Enemy! And he will make you think God is helping you along in your sin. Don’t you wonder sometimes, “Why doesn’t God just stop me or close that door for me if it’s a sin?” It’s like a recovering alcoholic asking God to close down the liquor store near his house to help him stay away from drunkenness. It doesn’t always work that way with God.
Be careful of such rationalizations. If your heart is set on greed and materialism, you will find ways to say God blessed you to have such-and-such a thing and you will find an amazing deal on it! Such things are not always “answers to prayers.” Your head will always turn where your heart is fixed. Interestingly, the writer of Hebrews says, “Take care brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:12-13). Sin is very deceitful, as it overpromises and under-delivers every time. Running from God is running from the light, which means running into darkness. You forfeit God’s best for you.
c) Running from God is attempting to build an identity in something other than God
Notice two times in the text: “away from the presence of the Lord” and again in Jonah 1:10. This phrase is interesting. Turn back to Genesis 3:8. Here we see Adam and Eve, as mentioned earlier, hiding from “the presence of the Lord.” Look at Gen. 4:16. Cain went away “from the presence of the Lord” into the land of Nod, which means “wandering.” To be in God’s presence in the Old Testament was to be in the place where your identity was forged. It was the place where you were alive, where your life had meaning and thus you received joy. This is why the Psalmist longs for the presence of God (Ps. 16:11; Ps. 27:4). As Martin Buber says, “The I is created in the presence of the Thou.” It is saying, “I am truly who I am when I am in your presence. You give me a sense of identity. You make me feel at home.” So when Cain leaves God’s presence, he is wandering, he is homeless, just like the prodigal son, and just like Jonah.
When we flee God’s presence, we are saying, “I am going to run from God and live my life my way. I am no longer going to get my identity from what you say, God, but from what I want to do.” The author is trying to tell us that this is not an isolated incident in the life of Jonah. This is a deliberate resignation from ministry and an attempt to build an identity from something else, which in reality, is the essence of sin. Sin is the despair of trying to find your identity in something other than God. Jonah’s purpose in life was to be a prophet. This was God’s purpose for him. However, he turned that good thing, as Tim Keller would say, into the ultimate thing. His meaning in life, his significance was being an Israelite, not being who God wanted him to be, which was to be God’s messenger.
Whenever I find myself trying to build my identity in something else, I am running from God. And Jonah is not going to be free, but more enslaved. You can see where your identity is built by looking at what devastates you, what pains you when it is taken away or not given? Is it approval from others, your parents? If it is your career, what will happen when you don’t get your dream job or you lose your job? If it is in pleasure and gratification, you will be enslaved by it, seeking escape from it. If it is in a person, you will be jealous, emotionally dependent and controlling. For Jonah, his attempt to build an identity, a life apart from God, will not make him come alive, as we shall see, but put him to sleep.
John Macarthur adds that Jonah here is “…just flat out, as clear as you can make it, leaving God's presence; leaving any sense of responsibility; getting himself in a position where he cannot do what God wants him to do, and forcing God to pick somebody else.
He just reasoned, I'll be physically unavailable. The Lord will know that I'm so unwilling and so reluctant and so far out of the picture, He'll pick someone else. I think there are many Christians like that, who have been spoken to by some message, some text of Scripture, some time of conviction in private prayer…And you feel the call and the movement of God to a certain ministry and you're afraid of it. You don't want to do it; you will resist, and so you turn and you spin your wheels; you go as fast as you can in another direction. Get yourself as busy as possible; as far away from the influence of that particular call, as you can. And think you'll find in that kind of safety some respite from what it is that God wants you to do. If you can just kind of get into your work and get very involved and get very busy and get yourself tied down and get a big mortgage and get in hock and get a lot of problems, God can't extract you from all of that, you're gonna be safe from doing His will. But, attempting to run from God's will is like fleeing from light; you just end up in darkness. It's like trading wealth for poverty or wisdom for ignorance or joy for sorrow or peace for chaos or usefulness for uselessness or fruit for leaves or reward for punishment. It's a silly exchange.”
A silly exchange. Life for death. Joy for denial and sleep. Order for chaos. Home for wandering. Freedom for enslavement. Beloved, we lose God’s best for us when we run from God. We lose a sense of mission. We are helped by the enemy and we exchange God’s identity for our own. A silly exchange.
It seems to me that we are good at trying to change our behavior and spotting the symptoms of our sin. We hear these kind of things and we say to ourselves, “I have to get better. I need to do more quiet time. I need to go to church, etc.” But we never try to diagnose the real heart issues. God is not interested in behavior modification. He is interested in heart transformation. And that only happens when we go to the root of our sins and not just studying and plucking out the fruit.
Let me talk about my own sin and my own running away. As many of you know, I have some health issues like diabetes and high cholesterol, to name a few. I take several pills to control it. I also know I need to watch my diet and exercise regularly. A few weeks ago, I went to the doctor. He has been progressively telling me that if my blood sugar levels are not controlled, I will be on insulin. So that day, I did my blood work. I went home scolding myself for not exercising enough. I also scolded myself for not eating right and told myself I need to get better. That is called behavior modification. And that determination lasted a few days and I slipped back into my old ways.
Since I did my blood work, I have had two calls from the doctor’s office asking me to call them back. And I have not called them back. I have been running away. Instead of building my identity in who I am in Christ, I have been trying to build an identity in myself. I have been feeling sorry for myself. I have been feeling my health is out of my control. Now my flesh tells me to do better and modify my behavior as the solution. Get back in the gym! Eat right!
God’s been working on my stubborn Jonah heart. I have to ask deeper questions. Why am I not working out? Because I am not motivated. Why are you not motivated? Because I don’t feel like it will help, since my failing health is inevitable. Why do you feel like it’s inevitable? Because I have the same genes as my father. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere! I grew up with a dad who was constantly sick and weak. In addition to diabetes, he had/has arthritis. He was dependent on others. As I have shared with you already, God has used and is using this for His glory. At the same time, I have had a deep fear that I will be as weak if not weaker than him as I get older.
And for me if my health is out of my control, I fear failing in other areas too as a father, husband and pastor. Instead of leading others, I don’t want to be dependent on others. I don’t want to be weak. I want to appear like I am strong. I am not telling you to just do psychology with your heart. What I am telling you is that our deepest problems come from a failure to apply the gospel in our lives. When I let the Lord see my fears, He can apply the gospel in that area. The gospel tells me that though my outward man is wasting away, my inner man is what God wants to renew day by day. The gospel tells me that God is preparing a glorious new body for me. The gospel tells me that Jesus became a weak man on the cross, enabling me to find strength in my weakness. And this pain leads to deeper surrender, which means freedom from me being enslaved to my fears.
I am not standing here with a success story. I still haven’t called my doctor yet. But God is working on taking this truth and helping it to travel the longest journey in the world: from my head to my heart. But I think I am for the first time, starting to open to God these wounds and letting Him touch it with His nail-scarred hands. It is painful, but necessary.
And you know what, I am not trying to scold myself to modify my behavior. See, if we just see our sin as breaking the law of God, we will continue to scold ourselves and modify our behavior. But God wants heart transformation. Again going back to Keller: sin is not simply breaking the law of God, but breaking the heart of God. And in confessing my idolatry of self, of my desire to control what is out of my control, I am finding freedom. And I have a long way to go.
Where are you running from the Lord today? I want us to ask the Lord to search our heart to see maybe we have rationalized sin. Maybe we are trying to build an identity in something other than in God? Perhaps we have lost a sense of God’ heart for others? Ask the Lord to show you the root, not just the symptoms of your sin. Jonah needed to see that before he attempts to denounce the idolatry of the Ninevites, he had to see the idolatry in his own heart. And if we are going to be useful to the Lord in reaching the lost, we need to first see how deep our sins are.
Thankfully we will see that as rebels and runaways as we are, God runs faster than our strongest attempts at running from Him. Praise God for that!
Nixon, R. (63).
Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. (1465)
Nixon, R. (61).
Bruckner, J. (2004). The NIV Application Commentary: Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (41). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
Fernando, Ajith. “Running away from God (Urbana 87).” http://www.urbana.org/articles/running-away-from-god-urbana-87 accessed 3 December 2010.
Tchividjian, T. (33).
Nixon, R. (68).
 Keller,Tim. The Reason for God (Dutton, 2008), pp. 275-276, and Tim Keller,"Talking About Idolatry in a Postmodern Age," www.thegospelcoalition.org from www.preachingtoday.com accessed 7 January 2010.
Macarthur, John. “The Worst Missionary,” http://www.gty.org/Resources/Sermons/80-111_The-Worst-Missionary accessed 3 December 2010.