I read through the Book of Jonah last week.
I vaguely knew the story of Jonah. I knew he got trapped in a whale and was eventually spit out. The children’s Bible I grew up with depicted it as Jonah being blown out of the whale’s blowhole. That’s how I envisioned the story going down – Jonah gets swallowed up, he chills in the whale’s stomach for a bit, and then he flies out of the whale via the blowhole in a water spout of glory.
Really, the story of Jonah is about fear and running from your purpose – or trying to.
In the Book of Jonah, God commands Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and prophesy against it. Jonah doesn’t like the sound of that and chooses to flee instead. He manages to get himself on a boat headed to Tarshish. While out to sea, God whips up a storm so fierce the sailors realize it is no ordinary storm. They cast lots and realize Jonah is the reason for the storm. Jonah admits it and offers to be thrown overboard. The sailors initially say no, but they realize they have no choice and into the water Jonah goes. As a result, the storm calms.
Jonah is “rescued” by a whale swallowing him. He hangs out in the whale’s stomach for three days and three nights – just like Jesus and the tomb – where he prays to God for forgiveness and promises to do as he was commanded. God then commands the whale to vomit Jonah out and Jonah follows through on what God has asked him to do, fear and all.
I’m a big believer that you get the message you need when you’re ready to hear it and Jonah’s story certainly resonated with me in a time when fear has gripped us all in some shape or form.
I fall into the camp that believes each of us has a purpose in life. We were each sent here to do or accomplish something. I also believe we have free will. We can choose if we answer that call.
Jonah invoked free will when he boarded that boat to sail away from God’s call. God was pretty swift with his correction of Jonah’s course, whipping up a storm like no other and causing Jonah to eventually come around to the inevitable. Generally speaking, God is a lot slower with us, gently correcting our course and trying to bump us back to center while still allowing us the opportunity to decide “nah, I don’t wanna.” He doesn’t MAKE us do anything. He didn’t make Jonah do anything – Jonah always had the option to say “thanks, but no thanks.”
Why is that? Why do we run from our purpose?
Jonah was terrified of his calling. He was so scared he tried to flee. While we might not be boarding boats to sail away, fear is often the root cause of us not stepping into the unknown and doing whatever that thing is that niggles at us.
You may have heard faith be compared to a muscle – you have to work it for it to get stronger. Fear is a muscle too. Living in fear isn’t easy. It might FEEL easy – it is certainly easier to stay put rather than follow through on that nagging feeling that you need to move to a new city or search for a new job or join a new church – but it isn’t easy to live in fear at all. It’s actually exhausting. I think of fear as living life in a hamster wheel, spinning and spinning while we let the things we really want pass us by. We whine and pout about how things aren’t going the way we planned and while not all of it is in our control – you know, pandemic – there is also fear, whether we know it or not, keeping us from taking just one step forward.
When it comes down to it, fear is a stronger muscle than faith.
Fear strong arms us into staying in jobs we hate, towns we don’t belong in, relationships that don’t make us happy. Fear keeps us from joining that gym, going to that art class, hitting up that networking event. Fear prevents us from booking the ticket, submitting the manuscript, RSVP’ing ‘yes’ to the invitation.
It’s not easy to live in fear, but fear is the stronger muscle.
Jonah displayed that.
He took off on a boat and got sucked up by a whale because of fear. But fear was a stronger muscle in that moment. He allowed fear to guide him.
We’re all a lot like Jonah. We let fear keep us from fulfilling our purpose or simply going after something we want in life. If you’re looking for a reason not to do something, fear will gladly provide you with one or even a few.
But we also have a purpose.
We might not know what that purpose is yet. We may be sitting around wondering what, exactly, we’re supposed to make of this life. The overwhelming majority of us won’t get the gift Jonah did – we won’t get God or whoever/whatever we believe in showing up and saying “hey, go do this” in a super direct and undeniable way. We’ll have to rely on our instincts, those “niggles” as I like to call them.
Whether you know what your purpose is or not, start to flex that faith muscle a little more. Take stock of where fear is holding you back, of where you’re on Jonah’s boat, paddling away from what you want out of life because the first step towards it is scary. Just take one small step. Then take another. And another. All of those small steps will add up.
Fear is a strong muscle, but it doesn’t have to be the one that dictates our lives. We don’t have to flee like Jonah did. Perhaps we’ll get a major course correction like Jonah’s storm, or perhaps we won’t, but we can’t allow fear to keep us from our purpose, from chasing those dreams that feel big and scary.
It’s usually the big scary ones we’re supposed to chase after anyway.