That feeling of dread, regret, or resignation. Not wanting to step into your parish office. Wishing you’d never taken on that new volunteer position. Wanting this year of RCIA to be over because you don’t even want to see the other team members. What does it mean when ministry becomes the setting for feelings of desolation? Where is God leading me in times when problems seem overwhelming and suffering seems far from redemptive?
Job often comes to mind as a Biblical portrait of suffering and persistence. Yet, Job’s situation is very different from most of ours in specific ministry settings. See, God puts Job through a trial of extreme crises in faith and life–questions of survival of everything and everyone Job knows and loves. Job does nothing to bring this on himself. For many in ministry (whether paid, volunteer, ordained, or non-ordained) our particular way of living out the call to missionary discipleship is something we’ve discerned and chosen. Something we’ve stepped out to do.
This brings us to a different Old Testament character, Jonah. Jonah is a missionary prophet. He’s actively stepping out to do God’s work. While Jonah does face a crisis, it’s not one of basic human needs and longings, but of if he’s going to listen to God’s words for him and how Jonah should fulfill the call God has placed in his life.
When we think, maybe I’m just not where God called me to be, we’re in a place to enter into Jonah’s story more deeply, to see where we might persevere or change in order to serve God in the way He desires of us.
Diving into the Bible, we first meet Jonah with the narrator’s declaration, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah” (Jonah 1:1). Notice the passiveness of Jonah. His patient, receptive posture. Jonah was listening. And we find out in verse 2, that he hears God’s communication clearly. Jonah’s not acting on divine silence, nor guessing in absence of communication or answered prayer.
Maybe when we experience desolation in our ministry, it’s because we never heard the word of the Lord as Jonah did. Maybe our good intentions were charitable, but not what God willed for us, personally.
But Jonah, he’s not falling into that trap in his ministry. He hears God, yet he decides to resist. He “made ready” for a new, impromptu plan of “fleeing” away from the city and ministry God had called him to (1:3-4). Jonah is being reactive; there’s seemingly no purpose to his actions other than trying to be “away from the Lord.”
Jonah takes flight on a boat and a storm comes. In this dangerous situation, the boat’s captain comes to Jonah (1:6). Jonah’s qualities and calling in ministry can’t be ignored–even if he’s choosing to turn away from what God has equipped and called him to. Jonah is immediately aware of what he has done (1:12). And this isn’t shocking–remember, Jonah heard God, Jonah knew what God wanted of him. Jonah acknowledges what he has done, how he fled from God’s true desire for him. Oh how we yearn for this clarity ourselves in problematic ministry situations! In times of desolation, we can say “yes, Lord–I’m ready to repent,” yet not have the slightest idea what God had wanted us to be doing in the first place.
How does God respond to Jonah? He sends “a great fish to swallow Jonah” (2:1). This is active voice, God is acting directly in Jonah’s life, creating a space for temporary hardship, challenge, and (if Jonah’s anything like us moderns!) forced introspection (I mean, it’s not like there was reading material in the fish’s internal organs). Early allegorical interpretations of this passage suggested that this time of darkness and testing represented Israel’s exile. Later, Christian allegorical interpretations (spurred by the Gospels themselves, i.e. Matt 12:38–42 and 16:1–4) offer Jesus’ three days in the tomb as a parallel. Yet, the original sense of the passage in and of itself–without any allegory–is very relevant to each of us when we experience problems in ministry. As Walter Brueggemann writes:
It is enough to see the ‘fish’ as a vehicle whereby Jonah is put deeply at risk to the power of chaos (the sea), and is rescued by the power of the Creator (who presides over chaos) through the creature, the fish. Thus the rescue of Jonah is also a demonstration of the power of the Creator who will not have the mission of the prophet thwarted (Introduction to the Old Testament, 231).
The second time God speaks to Jonah, he listens. He acts “in accord” with God, not fighting, going against the grain, or avoiding what he heard from the Lord (3:1). God’s will is done, God’s heart is full as His mercy is extended to the people of Ninevah who turn to the Lord. Jonah has had “success” in his ministry, but still he is not where God wants him to be in his heart and soul. We can find ourselves in these places too–doing the successful thing in ministry, even seeing fruit, yet not truly living the life God has called us to. There’s external fruit, yes–praise the Lord!–but still not the interior conversion God desires of us.
The Lord teaches Jonah this in the final chapter of the book. Here we find Jonah outside the city of Ninevah, sulking about how he knew all along of God’s merciful character, and it was that knowledge that drove him to flee, so that he’d avoid this “awful” predicament he’s in right now. The narrator hints that Jonah is still holding out some “hope” that the mercy extended by God to Ninevah might change, as Jonah builds a dwelling to “to see what would happen to the city” (4:5). As one might guess, it’s pretty hot and sunny out in the desert, so Jonah’s quite happy about a nice shady gourd plant that grows up by his new home (4:6). But then God takes the plant away, and Jonah finally gets it. It’s not about him. It’s not about us when it comes to ministry.
We need to discern and listen where is it God is calling us to, and what it is God wants us to do. We can grow attached to a certain vision of how, when, and where will will serve–but ultimately it’s all a gift from God. A particular ministry or belief isn’t ours to cling to any more than the gourd tree was Jonah’s “possession” when God shows us otherwise. God’s concern is far broader than ours! And, even if we don’t fully understand it in every moment, God’s gracious love for all includes each of us. Always. In every moment.
In the end, through Jonah we see that God’s will is not simply what’s convenient for us, or what we already happen to believe (or want to believe) about the mission field around it. God’s will for us might include people we’ve never thought of before. God’s will might be something more precise or focused than what we currently dream of. Each of us can only know when we begin as Jonah did: hearing the word of the Lord.