“Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD” (Jonah 1:1-3).
“What is God’s will for my life?” “What vocation should I pursue after college?” “I wish I could hear from God more clearly and directly.” “Where is God leading me?”
These are common questions I hear as a pastor working with many young adults and college age students. When we first meet the reluctant prophet Jonah, we’re both envious of his clear direction from God (“the word of the Lord came to Jonah”) and desperately hoping God doesn’t give us such a difficult task (“Arise, go to Ninevah, that great city, and call out against it”). Jonah knows exactly what God wants him to do, and he flees in the opposite direction “to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.”
Here’s the problem: We can’t have it both ways. Many want to have some “religion” on the side of life. We want a safe amount of “spirituality” in our lives, some divine assistance in our own pursuits, and a rosy afterlife when we die. But we don’t want to completely surrender our lives over to the will of God, to give Him sole control over our life’s destiny and main purpose. We’d prefer to chase our own dreams, and give God an hour on Sunday morning, and keep Him on speed dial for when emergencies arise.
Jonah is faced with a simple choice: Thy will be done or my will be done. God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah, but Jonah flees to Tarshish “away from the presence of the Lord” (1:3). Scholars really have no idea where the ancient city of Tarshish was located. This doesn’t matter, because Tarshish powerfully symbolizes any place away from the presence and will of God for our life. It is a place of rebellion, a foolish attempt to outrun God, and place hide-and-seek with the omnipresent Deity. It’s a longing for a more comfortable life, and to escape the all-or-nothing demand of Christian obedience.
So, have you heard from the Lord lately? Do you sense where He’s leading you? Are you playing tug-o-war with the Almighty, teetering back and forth between obediently going to Ninevah to do the “hard thing” or fleeing to your own version of Tarshish — a safer, less costly life path in opposition to God?
Finally, we’re told that Jonah boards a ship and pays the fare. Perhaps we’re allegorizing too much to ponder the significance of this fare, but are we willing to hand over any amount of petty cash in exchange for a life in communion of the Living God? A life of faithful obedience is very costly indeed, but it comes with the reward of intimate communion with the Living God. Jonah sets the stage for another cowardly lion to emerge some eight centuries later, when Judas will exchange his relationship with God-in-flesh, Jesus, for a bag of silver coins.
Where are you heading today? Obediently toward your own Ninevah? Or trying to buy your way to an easier way of life in a Tarshish of your own making?
Choose carefully which destination you choose.