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Diving into Jonah—Overcoming Reluctant Ears, Hearts & Eyes

Reluctant. That’s how I see the prophet Jonah in his eponymous book. God calls him, and he just doesn’t want the ministry he’s called to.

I get that reluctance. I wonder if that’s why I resonate with Jonah. What comes to mind for you when you think about reluctance?

A Reluctant Prophet

Jonah had an established prophetic ministry when we meet him. God spoke through him while actively protecting Israel despite their evil king (2 Kings 14). Jonah heard God speak. Jonah heard the call to leave his homeland and his work with his own people. But Jonah didn’t want to obey. With all the chaos at home, God’s call to Jonah fell on reluctant ears.

And how about that call, inviting Nineveh to repent, so they wouldn’t be destroyed? In Jonah’s time, the Ninevites waved the flag of empire as they crushed and humiliated their opponents. Our political parties, sports rivalries, campus clashes, and most modern geopolitical conflicts don’t even come close to matching Israel’s fear living in the shadow of that empire. Thus, with Nineveh as the intended audience, God’s call to Jonah fell on a reluctant heart.

During times of great tension, we can also develop tunnel vision. In his masterpiece on negotiation, Daniel Shapiro writes about “vertigo,” which complicates the resolution of every emotionally charged conflict from a fight with your parents to peace between warring tribes. The “vertigo” experience in conflict narrows our sense of our options, intensifies our perceptions of the stakes, and exhausts us. Jonah slept during a storm on his way to Tarshish. He thought that only death could solve his problems. He preached judgment without repentance. He lost sight of God empowering his ministry, sustaining his soul, and giving the people of Nineveh the same mercy he gave Israel. With Jonah’s emotional turmoil, God’s call fell on reluctant eyes.

Reluctant ears, reluctant heart, reluctant eyes—all this adds up to a reluctant prophet. What you hear, feel, and see will shape your willingness to follow Jesus.

No Time for Reluctance

This isn’t a time for us to be reluctant. The pandemic continues to devastate the world. Campuses remain closed or restricted. America continues to groan under the burden of racial injustice and inequities. We continue longing for revival.

You’ve got so much creative potential. Your presence and kind attention can be a much-needed shelter for your friends, family, campus, and community. You don’t want to shrink back now, do you? I say this to encourage you, not to pressure you. God is at work in you. You need to hear and feel and see this. But our ears, hearts, and eyes are under attack right now.

Distractions abound. I’ve found myself playing chess on my phone while binge-watching West Wing and hanging out with my roommates (I call my wife and kids that sometimes). I’m all over the place, swept along by amusements and obligations. But will I hear God’s call? Will I respond? Will you?

Fear knocks on my door. I don’t know what the next six months will bring. Will the vaccines help? Will campuses reopen? Will I be able to pay for food and rent and tuition? Will I be able to find or keep work? Will life go back to normal? In the face of all this uncertainty, I’m tempted to respond selfishly. The swirl of negative emotions forms a terrible wall between the people I want to love and me. How can the call of God enter my heavily armored heart? Or yours?

I feel the pull to narrow my focus, to set to-do lists and do only what’s on the list, to elevate efficiency to a godlike status. In my anxious moments, I believe that the only resources available are the ones I can see. The weight I imagine on my shoulders exhausts me and prevents me from receiving what Eugene Peterson called “the unforced rhythms of grace” (Matt 11:29–30). I see too much and too little. What will I do with these eyes? What will you do with yours?

Moving Past Reluctance

The story of Jonah ultimately reflects on repentance. The Lord gives forgiveness and just mercy to all who repent, even to reluctant prophets. God doesn’t give up on Jonah, and he won’t give up on us.

How can you move past reluctance, moments when you shrink back from God’s invitation to love and serve? What will you do if this season of disruption has left you reluctant to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God (Mic 6:8)?

Start with your ears. Listen to God. You hear this in Jonah’s story. God doesn’t stay silent. And he’s speaking even now—to you and me. Pick up a Bible and ask God to speak. Read Jonah if you need a place to start. Read slowly. Read aloud. Really listen.

Move to your heart. Jonah vents his anger to God, his anger at God. He doesn’t bottle up his depression, his anxiety, his frustration, his shame, . . . or his delight. Feel your feelings. Feel them in God’s presence. Journal about them. Bring your feelings into the light, so you can acknowledge them. It’s okay if you don’t like the way you feel today. Feel it anyway. The way out might be through.

Now move to your eyes. In Chapter 4, Jonah sees a vine and a worm but misses 120,000 people. Maybe God is doing things around you that you just aren’t seeing. Maybe you’re ignoring reality (we all do sometimes). Submit your vision to God and ask him to direct your attention. Consider a media fast. Write a gratitude list. Go outside if it’s safe (or watch a nature video to see God’s goodness on display). Expand your horizons.

We don’t know what happened to the reluctant prophet. Jonah’s story ends with God asking a question: “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh?” (Jon 4:11).

But reluctance doesn’t have to have the final word in our lives. Jesus can turn our reluctance into willingness, into eagerness, into delight. Ask him.

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