Jonah has been one of my favorite Bible stories for a long time. Specifically, Jonah 3:1 has been my favorite verse for a long time: “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time.” When I left Abilene the first time, my family moved to Rochester, NY, so that I could preach for the Lawson Road Church of Christ. It was great. I developed great relationships with our congregation as well as the others in the area. I was able to learn from some great preachers who had been serving God for a long time. As I was preaching there, I used Jonah a lot. There is so much to this short book, it continues to amaze me.
From the outset of the book, we see a character who is a spokesperson for God, a man who was used to speak the Word of God to God’s people, and he runs away from it. God called Jonah; Jonah ran. What really stands out to me is that Jonah runs; not because of a lack of faith. Jonah is running from God, not because he doesn’t know what God is going to do, but exactly because he believes God will do what God always does. Jonah, as any good Israelite, hated the Ninevites. So being told to go preach against them should be something Jonah would jump at. But Jonah knows God; he knows what God is capable of. So Jonah runs away.
But God won’t let him.
All throughout chapter 1, God is acting; He is preparing so many different things for Jonah. The storm, the fish, God is moving in Jonah’s life even as Jonah is trying to evade God. And you know something, this is one of the ways that God, sometimes, if we’re honest, can be annoying. I grew up the youngest of five boys. The more my brothers didn’t want me around, the more I persisted to be involved in their activities. The more they tried to get away from me, the more I fought to be around them. I was relentless. And so is God. God wants the Ninevites to hear His Word. God wants Jonah to proclaim that Word. And Jonah running away is not going to stop Him.
God does not just pursue the Jonah and the Ninevites, either. The sailors on the ship begin crying out to any and every god they can think of; they have to wake Jonah up to do the same thing. These pagans are more willing to act in a spiritual manner than the man of God. So they ask Jonah what he has done, they try to find some way to save him, and then they give in and throw Jonah overboard, and then the sailors worship God.
Up until this point, Jonah knows what God can do, but I think Jonah is starting to think God won’t do it for him.
Sometimes, life is just unbearable. There are times when we get to that place we call rock bottom and there is no way we can get any further down. At least it seems that way. We think, “Yeah, I know what God can do, and has done, for everybody else, but He’s not going to do it for me.” And that is where Jonah finds himself. Isolated, in a dark, damp, smelly place, all alone for three days and three nights. He has nothing to do but think: about what he’s done, about running away from God, about failing in his call as a prophet. And sometime during this three day period, he finally starts to get it.
“In my distress I called to the LORD.” How many times does it take a period of distress for us to finally call out to God? How much of our difficulty, how much of our despair could we have avoided had we only reached out to God sooner? But we can’t change any of that, can we? So all we can do is cry out to God from where we are. And that is what Jonah does. He cries out to God in his distress, and he ends with a song of thanksgiving. Jonah says he will worship God, Jonah will make good on the promises he has made to God. It took him falling as far down as he could possibly fall, but he finally got it.
And Jonah is easy for us to pick on, isn’t he? The prophet who ran away and was disobedient and didn’t pray and only called to God when he was in the belly of the whale. But I wonder if many of us relate to Jonah more than we care to admit.
So I have always known I was going to be a preacher. From the time I was very young, I was telling people I was going to preach, just like my Dad. My whole life, seemingly, was preparation for me to be a preacher. I used to go everywhere with my Dad: preacher’s meetings, Christian camp board meetings, Gospel meetings, area-wide sings, hospital visits, nursing home visits. Every time I had to the opportunity to do something “preacher-y” with my Dad, I did it. I came to ACU and majored in Bible focusing on pulpit ministry. I started an M.Div., and only left early because my wife and I were expecting our first child and I thought I needed to start finding a job. I have always had a love for the Northeast, so all of my interviews and try-outs were in that region of the country, and the position at Lawson Road in Rochester was absolutely a sign of God working in our lives.
When we got to Rochester, things started off real well. We developed a lot of relationships with the families who were there. We were able to connect with a lot of the young families and that brought more energy and life to the church. There were three great, Godly elders who invested their time in me, helping me to develop as a person and a preacher. Everything was going great.
Only something wasn’t. I had begun drinking occasionally, but now the occasions were increasing in number. I was being smart about it: only at home, only when the kids were in bed, never in public. Shawna was working part-time nights at a grocery store, so I would just kind of drink until she came home and then go to bed. And two things happened: one, Shawna told me she thought I was drinking too much and that I should stop; and two, life started happening at the church—arguments about what direction the church should take, struggles with people who led by manipulation, frustration with the elders for not stepping up to some of the people who were becoming overbearing, things that never at Highland. And I had a response to each of those two things.
First, I wanted to prove to Shawna that I was not drinking too much and that I didn’t need to stop. So I started to hide my drinking from her. I would make sure I was in bed before she got home or stay up real late until after she had fallen asleep. I would prove that I could drink as much as I want and still be okay. Second, I did not want to stand up to the people who were making noise in the church. I was afraid of confrontation. I was afraid to stand up and say anything, even something as simple as, “Let’s spend time in prayer to discern God’s will.” I found that the best way to quiet that noise was to drink. But then I would wake up in the morning and feel guilty, which just created more noise in my head, so I drank even more.
And throughout this whole time, I never once asked God for help. Because I knew He would help me and I didn’t want Him to. So my drinking kept increasing. People were questioning, wondering what was going on. And finally, I had had enough. I was ready to quit. Only, I wasn’t ready to quit drinking. It was a Wednesday night after Bible class. I had packed a bag because I was ready to go. I sat Shawna down and told her everything, all the hurtful things that I wish I could take back. And instead of leaving with my packed bag, I watched as Shawna got up and left. She called me later from the friend’s house she went to, and was understandably extremely upset.
But the next morning, she came back. She came up to our room, woke me up, and said, “If you want to keep your family together, you better get some help.” So I did. I went to the elders and told them everything I had told Shawna. And I broke down weeping. And these godly men surrounded me with love and mercy and told me they would walk beside me and my family as we all recovered. I continued preaching because they had faith in me. I started attending AA meetings. Shawna and I went to a Christian counselor to work on our marriage. Once again, things were going well. Only…
I had about three months of sobriety. And Shawna went out of town for the weekend on a church retreat. I still remember having the thought that I could take a drink while she was gone and no one would ever find out. I also remember thinking that I should tell somebody, Shawna, an elder, my sponsor, only what would people think about me if they knew I wanted to drink? So I kept it to myself. And I drank. And for the next year and few months, I continued falling deeper and deeper into my despair. Still preaching, still attending AA, still drinking.
Until, finally, one Sunday morning, someone thought they could smell alcohol on me. So they told the elders. They had previously asked me to be willing to submit to random urine screens, so they gave me one. And I failed. And I was fired. The only thing I ever wanted to be, the only thing I had any training in, the only thing I could do, was now taken away from me. I had been swirling for so long, avoiding God, avoiding my support network, avoiding myself, and now I was in the belly of the fish.
In order to make sure we could still pay the bills, I took a job working overnights stocking grocery shelves. It was a mindless job, and that was exactly what I needed at that time. Go to work, put product on shelves, go home. But while doing that, I couldn’t stop beating myself up. I couldn’t stop telling myself how much of a failure I was. I had a lot to time to tell myself how terrible I had become and everything that my family was experiencing was all my fault and it would never get better again.
And then one day, driving home from work, I heard these words on the radio: “Oh what I do to have, the kind of strength it takes to stand before a giant, with just a sling and a stone. Surrounded by the sound of a thousand warriors, shaking in their armor, wishing they’d have had the strength to stand. And the giant’s calling out my name and he laughs at me. Reminding me of all the times, I’ve tried before and failed. The giant keeps on telling me, time and time again, boy, you never win, you never win. But the voice of truth tells me a different story, the voice of truth says do not be afraid, the voice of truth says this is for my glory, out of all the voices calling out to me, I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth.”
I had to pull over because I could not see through the tears streaming down my face. Yes, I had messed up, yes I was in the midst of great distress, but now I could sing a song of thanksgiving, because God had not given up on me. So today, I stand here with several years of sobriety, being able to serve at (Highland Church ministries) Freedom Fellowship and Grace Fellowship and teach Celebrate Recovery, I am back in school to complete a ministry degree and a Marriage and Family Counseling degree, I am part of a church that has this incredible vision to reach out to those who are in the greatest need, and I have an incredible, Godly wife and three awesome children who have stood by me every step of the way. All because the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time.