Zelophehad’s Daughters

Running from God

Posted by Lynnette

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.

11 Responses to “Running from God”

  1. 1.

    that was very thoughtful Lynette.

    Jonah has to be one of the most fascinating people of the Old Testament, because he is so different than all the other, quite predictable prophets. The Lord certainly didn’t need Jonah to go tell the Nineveh people to repent. Heck, they repented in sackcloth and ashes by his curt words: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” He didn’t plead with them to repent. He didn’t go door to door, he merely showed up, probably told the local priest and the scooted out to his shade plant. Anyone could have told the Nineveh people to repent, in other words. But the Lord wished to instruct Jonah.

    I don’t think we have all of Jonah, personally. Look at the way it ends: “and much cattle?” Huh? That’s gotta be the strangest ending to any book in scripture! I think we’re missing more of the story.

  2. 2.

    Lynette, I really like your take on Jonah. My perception has been tainted by (I know this is embarassaing) Veggie Tales. For those of you who don’t know, Jonah is a feature length film that we saw in the theaters.
    The movie’s message is this, “God gives everyone, from the prophet to the fish-slapping Ninevites, second chances.”
    I think your message of God’s inescapable grasp mixed with a second chance is a really powerful concept.
    I also find the idea that we can’t get away from God very aptly represented in the whale, swallowing Jonah whole. (of course, I’m not sure there were singing choirs of angel asparagus in the whale’s belly, but I’m sure it’s possible)
    Always nice to remember that no matter how far we run, and what veggies, sea-creatures, or plant life greet us, the Lord is there to say, “Where do you think you’re going? I’m here to help you, not hurt you.”
    That is a comforting thought.
    (now, off to the fridge for some cucumbers)

  3. 3.

    Beautiful post. And apt choice of ‘ambivalent’ at the end. I completely agree.

    God has always accompanied me into my darkness forays.

  4. 4.

    “Instead, I’m prone to run, to emotionally distance myself from God.”

    That reminds me of one of my favorite hymn lines:

    “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
    prone to leave the God I love;”

    Thanks for this post, Lynnette — I enjoyed it.

  5. 5.

    Lynette–I sometimes say that I treat God like a boyfriend with whom I’m totally in love but by whom I desperately fear being dumped. Thus in my paranoid and lonely moments I “break up” with God pre-emptively because I don’t want to bear the pain of Him breaking up with me. Which he wouldn’t do–but our Jonah moments aren’t really known for logical acumen :).

    Love the post. And I’ve always thought the story quite funny as well.

  6. 6.

    Your bit about lonliness and ambivalence also reminded me of this little portion of an essay I’ve got forthcoming. I hope it’s not too obnoxious to paste it in here:

    Eventually, I realized that I needed to be broken. If it hadn’t happened on my mission, some other event would have someday forced me to face the reality, doctrinal and physical, that “all we can do” is sometimes very little and that the groundwork for understanding the atonement is often laid in desolation. Elisabeth Elliot, who served as a missionary to the Quichua and Waorani Indians of Ecuador and whose missionary husband was slaughtered by the latter, wrote of her life’s tragedy:

    Faith begins in the wilderness when you are alone and afraid, when things don’t make sense…In the wilderness of loneliness we are terribly vulnerable…But we may be missing the fact that it is here..here where we may learn to love HIM, here where it seems He is not at work, where His will seems obscure and frightening, where He is not doing what we expected Him to do…If faith does not go to work here it will not go to work at all. God’s answer is always “Trust me.”

    Simply put, heartbreak teaches us about grace. Heartbreak even brings grace. When we are broken, we are open to God.

  7. 7.

    Lynette,

    I had to smile when I read your post about Jonah. I have been thinking a lot about this book of the Bible recently. Mostly because I am feeling guilty that I am feeling so reluctant and fearful about facing a future that I received spiritual direction to pursue.

    I have been thinking that maybe Jonah was deeply afraid of losing his life if he went to Ninevah; what if he had tried it before with disasterous results? As readers of the Bible, we have the narrative distance to perceive Jonah’s flawed perception of his future in contrast to God’s omniscience. It is so easy to criticize Jonah in Sunday School, but it has been humbling to see myself in Jonah. I can only hope that, despite previous experiences that warn me that I am embarking on a path that will exhaust my emotional and spiritual reserves, that God will be merciful with my weaknesses. Janet, thank you for sharing the excerpt from your essay.

    Recently, I mentioned in jest to a friend that I was feeling like Jonah. He promised to send out divers to search Lake Michigan if I fail to meet the moving van on the other side of the country.

    A side note about a fascinating retelling of this Bible story: An anonymous poet wrote about Jonah’s predicament in the 1390s in a Northwest Midland dialect of Middle English. This poem is titled “Patience” by modern editors. The characterizations of God and Jonah are ironic and humerous, especially in the context of the stoic patience advocated by the narrator. My favorite translation is by Marie Borroff.

  8. 8.

    Jonah must be one of the most human of the prophets. He is stubborn, disobedient and sullen. And I love his story.

  9. 9.

    Which book is it by C.S. Lewis where he describes being pursued by God? He is quite comfortable being an atheist, but over time, he gradually begins to think that God exists. He regards the prospect of his conversion with a sense of dread finality.

  10. 10.

    >> Look at the way it ends: “and much cattle?” Huh?

    The Lord says to Jonah, “You are upset at the destruction of the vine, which you neither made nor grew. Should I be any less upset at the prospect of the desctruction of 120,000 people, who I did make (even though they are so stupid they can’t tell the difference between their right and left hands (but I love them anyway)) and all their domestic animals, which I also made (and which I love at least as much as I love sparrows (Luke 12:6,7))?” I don’t think the mention of the cattle indicates anything missing.

  11. 11.

    Jonah really is a delight; thanks for adding your two cents on the book, Dan, Jessawhy, danithew, and Bruce H. And Jessawhy, I’m vaguely familiar with Veggie Tales, but I had no idea there was a full length feature film on Jonah.

    S.L., I appreciated your comment. I’m glad the term “ambivalent” resonated with someone; my relationship with God has so often been characterized by sharply conflicting feelings and desires.

    Kaimi, those lines are from “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing”, right? I love that hymn, too.

    Janet, I love your analogy–the “I’ll break up with you before you can break up with me” move has been a part of my dealings with God often than I’d care to admit. I also very much enjoyed that bit from your essay; that’s beautiful. I’m intrigued by that connection between heartbreak and grace; I’d like to explore that further.

    Hi, Fideline! I can so much relate to being in a situation in which I am highly reluctant to embark on something even while feeling that it is the course I should take. I wish you well on your path. And like your friend, I’ll send out a search party if you disappear near a body of water. ;) Thanks also for the note about the poem; it’s fun to hear about different ways the story has been re-told.

    Mark IV, that’s very much how I’ve felt in my relationship with God; honestly, I’ve often thought that my belief is more a matter of resignation, of giving in, than anything else. (Which raises its own set of questions about volition and belief, but that’s probably worth its own post.)

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