I’m rather fond of the story of Jonah. Partly this is just because it’s so funny, what with the cattle of Ninevah repenting in sackcloth and ashes, and Jonah melodramatically announcing that he would be better off dead after God kills his shade plant. But I also like Jonah because there are ways in which I see myself in him. In particular, I’m quite sympathetic to his decision to flee in the opposite direction when God calls him. That’s frequently my reaction to God, too.
Running from God might seem a bit nonsensical; where exactly are you going to go? Nonetheless, it’s an urge that makes sense to me. I’m still somewhat haunted by the image of God which frightened me as a child: the God who is always watching in quiet disapproval, the one who like the angels is “silent notes taking,” the one who has my name on a list followed by black mark after black mark. That’s a God I would prefer to get away from; if I hear him standing at the door and knocking, I’m going to look for a window to escape through.
Jesus taught again and again that he came to save sinners, to help “not the whole, but they that are sick.” Yet I find it quite counterintuitive to seek divine aid when my life is going downhill due to my own bad decisions. Instead, I’m prone to run, to emotionally distance myself from God. I’ve been known to avoid praying for a while when I’m feeling particularly guilty, due to some vague idea that God might need some time to get over things before he’d want to hear from me again. Better to keep away, I figure, until the storm blows over. I’m well aware that I’m operating on questionable theological premises, but it’s a kind of instinctive response that’s not always easy to challenge.
Because of this, the message “you can’t get away from God” conveyed in the story of Jonah and elsewhere is something I’ve usually heard as ominous, as threatening. Yet in thinking about the subject in preparation to teach Gospel Doctrine last year, it occurred to me that maybe there’s another side to this. It’s the one in the parable of the lost sheep, in the scriptures that tell us about Christ descending below all things in order to succor his people. I was reading something by the Catholic theologian Hans Ur von Balthasar a few years ago on the possibility of rejecting God, and he makes an observation that I found particularly poignant: “to the one who has chosen . . . the complete loneliness of being-only-for-oneself, God himself enters into his very loneliness as someone who is even more lonely.” It’s an image I can’t seem to shake. Who is this God who not only stubbornly continues to call after me, but even accompanies me into the darkness I’ve brought upon myself?
I still find myself running. But if I’m honest about it, I’m actually a little ambivalent about the possibility of getting away.