There are many reasons for suffering, but I want to organize them into three categories so that we can better understand the specific cause of Jonah’s extreme discomfort.
Humans are Human
The first cause of suffering is that humans are human. Human beings are sinful in nature and frail, and therefore subject to physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual injury, to disease, and ultimately, to the process of death.
The second cause of suffering is from persecution based on one’s deeply held beliefs, whether they be political, social, or spiritual. Our sin nature creates division among human beings and the groups within which they live and move. The search for unity without God is impossible. The reason the United States has endured as long as it has is due to the people being united by an idea that provides freedom to choose one’s divine purpose and safety from human government and its overlords. As God continues to be gradually removed from culture and fidelity to the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution diminished, our freedom (which is not separate from morality) and our safety, from government overlords, is diminished. The consequence is the destruction of unity and the establishment of human social and political constructs that divides and then subjugates people. The suffering is not unimaginable, because we have witnessed it throughout human history; however, it is intolerable.
The third cause of suffering stems from the human need for discipline. As human beings, we have the tendency for utter selfishness, the arrogance to find our own individual beliefs and mores (which are generally, if not always, destructive), we require discipline from an authority (parent, teacher, employer, etc.). Discipline is designed to bring a wayward soul back into the fold or to punish the soul that will not conform. In a Lord-less system of government, discipline is quite often, if not always, replaced by maltreatment and subjugation. When discipline is overseen by a loving God and administered by faithful leaders (whose eyes are fixed on Christ: Hebrews 12:1-3), it becomes a natural process which guides a person or group of people from selfish and destructive waywardness to obedience, faithfulness, and a deep and abiding faith that pleases the Lord and produces personal and communal cohesion and confidence. Please read the following passage from Hebrews 12.
4 You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; 5 and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons,
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
Nor faint when you are reproved by Him;
6 For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines,
And He scourges every son whom He receives.”
7 It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.9 Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. 11 All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterward it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
The suffering that Jonah must endure is not due solely to his natural human condition or at the hands of persecutors, but it is directly linked to his prejudicial (today, he would be accused of racism) attitude toward the Assyrian citizens of Nineveh. God tells Jonah to “go to Nineveh, the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before me” (1:2). Clearly, Jonah has an allegiance to his culture more than to His Lord. Rather than obey the Lord, he runs from the task that he has been given. Simply stated, Jonah will suffer because he disobeyed God, as will any of His children who ignore learning about Him and knowing His desires for them. Where there is no wisdom, people perish (Psalm 1:6; see also Proverbs 30:3 with 11-14; this passage describes the character of kinds of people who lack wisdom: those without respect, hypocrites, the arrogant, and the selfish and greedy).
The Suffering of Jonah By God’s Discipline
That Insufferable Fish (Jonah 2)
Often the Lord interrupts a believer’s plan when his or her plan directly violates/ignores the well-defined plan that God desires to be followed and finalized. In this instance, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and declare His desire for the people to repent (Jonah 1:2). Job decides that it would be better for him to board a ship and go to Tarshish in Spain, which is about as far as you can travel to the west of Nineveh without crossing the Atlantic Ocean. “Maybe God won’t notice or if I reach Tarshish, He’ll allow me to serve Him there.” But the Lord loves Jonah; he’s not just a divine tool; he is God’s chosen.
Jonah knows that his faith is lacking, which means that his allegiances are split (we’ll briefly look at split allegiance later when we discuss James 1:2-8). On the one hand he is devoted to God; on the other hand, he is locked into his own personal beliefs and attitudes. At this rather low degree of divine knowledge, Jonah’s faith is not what God wishes it to be, nor will his faith be as fruitful and joyous as it can and should be. Jonah needs to learn that continuous obedience leads to faithfulness and continuous faithfulness leads to a deeper and abiding faith. To help Jonah develop an abiding faith, he is going to reap the world-wind and take an involuntary ride beneath the waves to the closest beach, from which he can begin his journey to Nineveh.
The discipline that Jonah receives, on the sea and under the sea, is necessarily severe (Jonah 1:3-2:10). If you’re going to suffer, suffer doing the will of God, not running from His will—without repentance, the latter suffering has no eternal value for anyone. After being tossed into the sea by his travel companions, Jonah was treading calm water with the only ship in view going further and further away from him. Alone, he could only contemplate his imminent death by drowning. He had disobeyed the Creator; his fate determined. Life was over. He was not able to escape the hand of God. Then out of nowhere a hungry and giant fish saw its next meal kicking in the water and oblivious to his presence. In an instant, Jonah found himself being engulfed by a humongous mouth, then transported through its slimy esophagus, and into its foul-smelling stomach where he would remain for 3 days and 3 nights. Thankfully, Jonah missed the cetaceans (teeth), so he was at least whole while he was in the belly of his oceanic transporter. Expecting a horribly slow death, Jonah called out to the Lord (Jonah 3:1-10). Believing that he had been “expelled from the Lord’s sight” (v 4) and left alone and dying, Jonah asked the Lord if he could once again stand in His presence and do as the Lord requested (4b, 7, 9-10). Repentance is the return to obedience; it is the passport from disobedience to faithfulness. It’s the necessary change of heart and mind that allows the believer to work with God to accomplish his will in a penitent’s life and in the lives of others.
But Jonah’s rebellion and his discipline were not over. His heart was not in agreement with the Lord’s regarding His salvation being given to the repentant Ninevites (Jonah 3). Jonah did not want the Ninevites to repent; he wanted God to destroy them (Jonah 4:1-2). This is similar to having an SS Nazi Guard, who captured your family and then killed and cremated your father, come to Christ and, later in your imprisonment, ask your forgiveness; it’s like the man who raped you asking for forgiveness after he gets saved; it’s like fellow Christians, who betrayed you when you took a stand for the Gospel and then ask forgiveness when they realize they were in the wrong; it’s like the mother, who belittled you throughout your childhood, and then ask forgiveness from you when she became aware of her brutality; and it’s like your best friend betraying your trust and undermining your good and proper efforts, and then asking for forgiveness after the betrayal has cost you your career. It is hard to forgive those who injure you, but is this not exactly what the Lord has done for each individual whom He brings from darkness to light? Yes, it is! To be God’s servants, we must reflect His love to others, His character, not ours. Only a perfect Person can cast a stone; the rest of us need to put them down and minister to embrace those who seek mercy and grace from God. Jonah now needs to learn this lesson through some intense and loving discipline. God knows that Jonah’s life will only become fulfilling when he embraces the will and character of God as his own.
That Intolerable Heat (Jonah 4)
Jonah was not gracious or compassionate, slow to anger or full of lovingkindness (Jonah 4:2). He was an angry hypocrite, who was thankful to God for his own salvation, but unwilling to see God’s grace extended to others. He wanted to see the destruction of every soul in the city of Nineveh, so he made camp east of the city hoping to see fire and brimstone coming up from the earth and exploding over the city. The Lord placed a tree by Jonah’s camp that would provide shade to keep him cool in the extreme heat. Jonah was grateful for the gift of the tree. However, as the next day dawned, the Lord used some of his tiny creatures to damage the tree so that it withered and could no longer provide Jonah with shade. The Lord also blew in an intolerably hot east wind through the area that greatly distressed and angered Jonah. Having no shade to comfort him, he became angry that the tree died. The Lord’s response is instructive: “You care about a tree that you need but did not create, plant, or water, but you care nothing for the 120,000 people whom I created and about whom I care and have compassion.” Jonah wants compassion from God but is not willing to have compassion for others. “Provide for me, but not for others.”
Human beings are a stubborn, obstinate bunch. In our fallen state, we are selfish and often ungrateful. Even as believers, our selfish nature keeps us from dependence on God when we fail to realize the obedience that an effective faith requires. Jonah did not have, at his disposal, the immense knowledge of God that believers of today can access. God gave us 66 books that reveal His plans and purposes, His attributes and His character, and His will for His people. The Scriptures are God talking to us in the same way He talked to Jonah. Disobedience and the discipline from God that it brings to believers (and unbelievers) is mostly unnecessary; knowing and understanding His will is simply not that difficult to discover, although our selfish tendencies often make knowing His will more arduous than necessary. God’s will is not so much about where you serve as much as it is about how you serve, that is, exemplifying the mind and heart of God. To do this, the believer must be proficient with the Word of God. Much of the suffering Christians endure comes from not knowing the attributes and character of their Lord and Creator. The less one knows and understands God and this world biblically, the more frustration, confusion, disappointment, anger, sorrow, and despair he or she will experience. In this context, suffering is more likely to be self-imposed than from divine discipline.
The point is this—if I am going to suffer, I prefer that it comes from faithfulness to God (persecution) and not from disobeying God (divine discipline). God generally loves His human creation, but He unconditionally loves His children and desires to fellowship with us as we fellowship with one another. But this fellowship (unity) cannot be achieved without an accurate knowledge of God as defined in His word and without some Fathering when it becomes necessary to move us in the right direction.
A suggestion: churches must stop electing men as elders who do not have the ability to teach the Scriptures. If a person’s career or interests are more important than the study and teaching of God’s Word, he cannot be an elder. If a man does not have the ability to teach, he cannot be an elder. Each elder must be a capable teacher (1 Timothy 3:2) and, while serving, must be teaching the adults in the congregation. Logistical example: if there are seven elders, the church congregation should be divided into seven geographical sections with each elder being responsible for the teaching of one section. We have left the teaching of Scripture to the Pastor at our own loss and shame. Whether a church has 50 congregants or 5000, elders must engage in teaching the Word of God. Sitting on the elder board discussing and working out policies and solving problems does not suffice.
Wisdom from James
Don’t Run from the Trials (James 1:2-4)
2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Suffering from tests or trials, whether they come from natural human frailty, persecution, discipline from God, or our own short-comings, makes us stronger and more faithful when we learn to respond to them biblically, that is, according to God’s will and consistent with His character. In this way, the awful pain that accompanies suffering has a purpose and honors our Lord Who genuinely loves and wants the best for us. Enduring difficulty and painful life adjustments will lead to growth and bring you joy because, through them, you become more like our Savior and better able to experience life with divine purpose and genuine pleasure (joy). Don’t run from the trial, work through it with prayer, the study of the Word, and good sound counsel. As you age, the suffering and trials may take a toll on you physically and mentally, but the strength and confidence of your faith are so very satisfying. There is a peace with God that is priceless, a connection with Him that generates an unwavering bond, a quiet and constant joy that eagerly awaits the Holy Spirit’s clarification of another passage of Scripture. The trials are troubling, but God is there in the midst of the trouble and on your side. The more you know how He thinks, the more you will trust and love Him. In life and death, God is with you.
Seek and You Shall Find (James 1:5-8)
5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. 6 But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, 8 being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
God wants you to succeed, especially in regards to your faith, which needs to be the foundation upon which your family, friends, career, job, gifts, and talents develop to their fullest. Like any period of discipline, it is meant to be for a season, not a lifetime. At some point, discipline has little to no value and the child becomes an adult lacking the knowledge and understanding it needs to mature and become wise. The suffering from this point on is too often self-imposed and, therefore, mostly destructive (See Proverbs 1:7). This person, as James describes, is like a wave blown in any and every direction by the winds of the culture or environment in which he/she lives (James 1:6). He/she is habitually unsettled or anxious, insecure and even volatile, and a doubting Thomas. This believer (James 1:7) cannot reasonably think that he/she will receive from the Lord any guidance or blessing from his/her beleaguered and purposeless faith. Yes, God does let His children wander in the wilderness of their own making. Christians cannot be double-minded or have two mentors (James 1:8). Each believer must decide upon whom and what he/she will value most. Allegiance is beneficial only when it is singly-focused! God first; everything else is governed by one’s knowledge of the Word of God. On the other hand, dual allegiances leave a believer directionless and compromised; marriages never fully unify; children grow up politically and socially confused and usually, if God does not intervene, are captured by the culture in which they live; churches sacrifice truth for cultural acceptance, which is followed by moral compromise or they become isolated or separated from the culture because their fear of the culture is stronger than their faith.
How do we, as believers, avoid double-mindedness or dual allegiances? Surprisingly, the path to single-mindedness is quite simple. If you desire the Lord to be your primary focus, all you have to do is ask (James 1:5). He yearns to generously spread His wisdom far and wide amongst His children. All you have to do is humble yourself and ask. He is not going to look down on you for asking or blame you for being lacking in your knowledge of Him and His ways—He gives wisdom without reproach, i.e., He won’t insult you, like a teacher who thinks you should have known better than to ask (I had quite a few of these). He knows when He calls us to salvation that we lack the spiritual ability to serve Him faithfully and effectively. He didn’t have 66 revelatory books written to keep His will and wisdom from us. JUST ASK and you will receive. The more biblical knowledge and understanding you acquire, the more wisdom you will acquire. In other words, the more efficiently you will be able to apply your knowledge and understanding of God to your daily life, no matter your focus, career, job, or profession.
I became a Christian late in my seventeenth year; however, I did not start asking God for wisdom on a regular basis until late in my twenties. At that point, I sincerely wanted to know the Lord. Since then I have worn out at least 5 English translations of the Bible in my search for God’s mind and heart. Along with this commitment, I have had an insatiable desire to learn about history, world religions, and culture. I also served the Lord in the Navy for 20 years. Though I have made mistakes and surely frustrated the Lord from time to time, He has been faithful to His promise to generously give me His wisdom, which has enabled me to represent Him more accurately throughout my life. Although the Lord has not had to discipline me too harshly throughout my life, the wisdom I obtained through learning Scripture ensured, in the environments I lived, that suffering through persecution would be unavoidable. Sexual assault and molestation, lost friendships, isolation, lack of promotion, career threats, harassment, professional humiliation, spiritual warfare, deceit, and denominational betrayal along with dealing personally with the sadness, sorrow and death that naturally accompanied my choice of profession left me physically, emotionally, and mentally broken. Though I have overcome much of the loss, I will bear some of the consequences of these experiences for the rest of my life and I am happy to do so.
To be faithful to God has been my greatest achievement, and the wholeness that God has restored to me and my family is testimony to His love, forgiveness, and His commitment/promise to give me the wisdom necessary to do what is right by Him rather than what I might have considered as right for me. He continues to open the pages of His Word to me and to give me His peace. He will do the same for you. Ask Him for wisdom and don’t stop asking. You will find that you will do the right thing more often than not. You will also grow in your faith in ways that you did not think possible. And when you stumble, as I have, He will not leave you hanging. He is your Father and He loves you. He has your soul in His hands; eternity with Him is yours. Make this life count for you, your family, and, as much as possible, for others by asking God to give you His wisdom. He will provide it! But remember, the asking comes with a requirement: you must become a student of the Word, no matter your job or profession.
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