When the Sleep of Jonah Is Not Passive but Abusive (Part 1)

Victor Chininin Buele

This third installment of this series will focus on a certain counterfeit of Reformed teaching and preaching that creates and fosters cultures of shame and abuse, of self-protection and inward focus. And not just within the church but within the homes of those who sit under such teaching. In the first post of the series, I argued that the sleep of Jonah was in part the result of a hardened heart that was actually able to be sound asleep in the midst of a storm of unprecedented proportions. Abuse in the church is a storm that continues mostly undeterred. In the last post, preaching from the sleep of Jonah is what I described as the dangers of a certain counterfeit of Reformed teaching and preaching that lacks specificity and tangible application, that showcases brilliant application that is about somebody else, or about a group that is to be excluded, or it asks us to turn our eyes outwardly to others and away from our own need for Christ, or overemphasizes grace or law, or trivializes our sin (everybody sins, we are imperfect, all pastors fall short of 1 Timothy 3/Titus 1). And just in case you think this is about finger pointing, fully aware that when I do so, three fingers point at myself, the last post features the analysis of a critical sermon I preached. This is not only about somebody else.

The communication of such things, of course, is hardly ever explicit. That would be flat out heresy that nobody in these elderships, or boards of deacons, or congregations could ever affirm explicitly. It is all subtle. I have come more and more to appreciate the title of David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen’s book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.

This preaching is subtle. I do not know if the people preaching these sermons are that evil. They could be. And some must be. I do not know if they just believe their own tales. They just might. Or maybe they are that good at faking sincerity and transparency. Or something along in the spectrum. Diane Langberg’s writing has helped me break free from the intellectual desire to try to understand these preachers. If Satan is the father of lies, which is true, we cannot possibly expect to make complete and perfect sense out of a worldview of lies, built upon lies, and sustained by lies.

I cried when I heard one of my pastors preach late last year. It had been rainwater in a long walk through the desert. My daughter knew. She just knew. This was different. When a seven-year-old who does not profess Christ hears and knows and articulates the difference, that’s something that caught my spiritual and intellectual curiosity.

I’m going to make four points about this counterfeit of real, Reformed preaching, though far more could and must be said.

This kind of preaching: (1) breeds doubt in yourself and in everyone else but complete confidence in the mediator preaching, (2) teaches that silence is grace and that grace is silence, (3) demonizes doubt and challenge, and (4) praises and commends homes that reflect this culture.

This installment focuses on the first characteristic of this reprehensible counterfeit.

Counterfeit Preaching Breeds the Wrong Kinds of Doubt and Confidence

A key element of this preaching that sounds so biblical and commendable is the breeding of doubt. There is a Scripture for that: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV).

A frame of reference gets built upon this that grows and grows over time: I must doubt myself. If I’m thinking x, I must account for the fact that my heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick. And this line of thinking gets plenty of traction because that is precisely what we must do in Christ. In Reformed preaching, this is consistent cognitively with the doctrine of the radical depravity of humankind. We know experientially that we are not inherently good; otherwise, there would be no need for so much money and efforts and work spent in trying to persuade ourselves that we are good.

So, you get a group of people who are aware of their sinfulness and proclivity towards sin. And they may even be fully committed in an Owen-like sense to kill sin before it kills them. You add the admonition to not trust the heart. There is no “follow your heart” philosophies here. It sounds right.

But over time, doubt is planted: You are unreliable. Your reasoning is unreliable. Your interpretation of your reading is unreliable. Your understanding of Scripture is unreliable. Your emotions are unreliable. Your gut feelings are unreliable. Your motives are suspect. Your affections are unreliable.

And not just in particular circumstances but always. Your first instinct is going to be to assume you are wrong. And being wrong is taken to mean that you are sinning.

This completely ignores a critical point: while the Christian has not been fully glorified yet, the Holy Spirit indwells the believer already. Yes, the believer can sin, have sinful emotions, foul reasoning, sinful reactions. Absolutely. The heart must be tested. But is it always sinful? Not always! Not every thought, deed, impression, or emotion of the believer is to be considered unreliable. Radical depravity does not mean that everything I do is depraved. Even if I were not a believer. God restrains the worst of all of us through His common grace.

This also ignores another critical point, equally important: the believer has Spirit-empowered understanding of God’s clear, true, unchanging, unimpeachable Word. We can check our thoughts, emotions, reasoning, impressions, or gut feelings against the Scriptures. If I have a suspicion that something is not right, I must go to the Scriptures, in prayer, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to my community, check with my fellow brothers and sisters, ask questions, keep asking, keep going back to the Word.

This preaching thrives because we are golden calf makers. We will make an idol out of anything. God’s good blessings turn into our counterfeit gods all the time. Gifted communicators are no exception.

At some point, cultures where I am always assumed to be wrong and sinful will need to have one way to discern the voice of God. And the gifted communicator becomes our man, our north, our hope, our ruler, our mediator, our golden calf. We want it easy: We want to know what God says about this or that. And we doubt our ability to come up with God’s answers on our own. Should I move? Should I marry this girl? Should I buy this house or rent? Should I move to a country in the 10/40 window? Should I eat at KC Joe’s? Should I shop at Target or not? Should I wear a mask or not? Should I vote for Trump or for Biden?

And when the gifted communicator seems to be right most of the time, we make a beeline past the Scriptures and straight to him. Because he is almost always right, I will just go ask him.

And our doubt becomes full confidence in the mediator.

In my former denomination there is a practice of congregational participation, and there is a microphone open for it during the service. Because the denomination is continuationist (it believes in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our day), it is assumed that from time to time, the Holy Spirit will impress upon somebody in the congregation the gift of a word of encouragement (or prophecy since this was once called the prophecy mic and still may be in some local churches). The catch is that somehow there has to be a sifting of what’s from the Spirit and what’s not from the Spirit. And the senior pastor is usually the one who hears the impression/prophecy first and then allows or disallows the participation. Since we are golden calf makers, it becomes very easy to equate this gatekeeper with the mediator. And we start assuming that because this person said something was right, it is. Or worse yet, it is from God.

I say that to illustrate the extreme example of something that happens far more subtly in other local churches. You may not have a participation mic, or you may believe certain gifts ceased with the apostles, but pastors get questions all the time–people come and present “theoretical” scenarios or sometimes will even own up that it is from them sometimes. People come and ask us how far is too far in a relationship before marriage, or about a certain ethical dilemma, or if they should move in together (after they’ve done it), or about their addictions and secrets, or about the morality of their choices or purchases. They know that their choice was/is sinful, but what they want (what we want, I should say) is to get the “man of God” to tell us that we are in the up and up. That we are accepted. That we are justified. Even if we won’t stop doing what we want to do.

To tidy up: this first mark, so to speak, of the counterfeit preaching that leads to abuse is this:

We end up mistrusting everything that comes from us but trusting completely everything that comes from the gifted communicator. We end up doubting the work of the Holy Spirit of God in our life, but trusting it completely and unquestionably in the life of somebody who may not be indwelled by the Spirit at all.

Does this sound to you like a straw man argument? I’m sure it could. Especially if you are deep in the middle of it. And if in your situation it is not extreme (yet) but are just somewhere along the spectrum, it still doesn’t make it right. This is not to caricaturize anyone, but this is to help the church see these areas where we are vulnerable. We try to uphold right doctrine, but wolves can thrive inside precisely because of this commitment to the doctrine of the radical depravity of man.

That is, yes, our hearts can lead us astray and our thoughts are not only not always right but can be sinful. We must be aware of that. Jeremiah 17:6 is true. I must be aware of my propensity to sin. I must be aware of the part of my nature that is still prone to wander to sin. But this does not mean I must doubt everything: every thought, every emotion, every impression, every gut feeling, every concern, every joy, every affirmation I want to give to somebody.

For that we have the Holy Spirit. Trust in God, pray boldly, search the Scriptures, dialog with your church family inside and outside of the local church. Remember that the Spirit dwells in you and is transforming you daily. Remember that you have a Spirit-empowered understanding of God’s Word that is actually renewing your mind daily. And you are not alone. He placed you in a family with other brothers and sisters in Christ, and your family transcends the four walls of a church building or a given neighborhood or city.

Preaching the Sleep of Jonah

Victor Chininin Buele

The last post argued that the sleep of Jonah in chapter 1 was in part the result of a hardened heart that was actually able to be sound asleep in the midst of a storm of unprecedented proportions. It left the reader with the question: Are we asleep? Who has God called you to reach that you would rather, and literally, see burn in hell?

Today I want to try to wake up the Reformed preacher from the sleep of Jonah.

One very challenging question I have been considering for the better part of three years is this–how can it be that the resurgence of “Reformed” preaching has not decreased, but perhaps even increased, abuse inside of the church?

I had thought this was a problem of antinomianism, that is, in its most comically tragic form, a “let’s do whatever we please because we are saved” attitude. I figured legalism was far from it because legalism would be such a strict outward observance of Biblical principles (even if the heart is not engaged or willing or delighting in God) that it could not possibly be part of the equation. Sinclair Ferguson cleared that up for me in The Whole Christ showing that both antinomianism and legalism have the same root: a belief in the lie of Eden that God is not good, he is not loving, he cannot be trusted, and he is not for us. Some choose to go super strict about it–I will not even touch the tree so that I won’t be able to eat the fruit if I don’t touch it! Some choose to go super liberal about it and say, “What’s wrong about it? Go eat all the fruit you can. What’s the worst that can happen? Diabetes? Nah! There’s grace/insuline for that!”

One of the first reasons I started to ponder this question was because I had the task to restart the exposition of the book of Luke at a church that had gone through the horror of seeing her senior pastor’s sin of sexual immorality exposed. I needed to pick up the exposition in Luke 17:11-37. So I went and read Luke 1-17, but I also went and listened to the last sermon that was preached in the series and a few others.

I had preached at that church a few months earlier a sermon about the law from the book of James. I remember that the pastor cleaned up after me, so to speak, and took off the edge I purposely left hanging in there. He added grace and gospel to my message. It’s not that I didn’t preach the gospel or that I didn’t speak about grace. But the text was about the law, so there was a certain edge there that was unfortunately flattened. I told my wife about it. I felt frustrated that my point was undone, but it was not my church. Life moved on. I didn’t really ask why!

So, there I was, listening to the man’s sermons. Expository sermons. In the Reformed world, we place a big emphasis on expository preaching–preaching “straight” from the Bible where the message of the sermon is the message of the text. We even go through long series going through the same book of the Bible, verse by verse, to not miss anything. If there is a subject I normally wouldn’t want to talk about, preaching this way will force me to deal with it and not skip it. In theory, there is no way for this to fail. The preacher is to submit to the Word, find its authorial intent (divine and human), find a way to communicate it effectively and apply it faithfully.

This man preached almost 17 chapters of Luke while living in gross sin. And a number of other books prior to that.

How did this happen?

I noticed that the sermons didn’t have skin in them. The applications didn’t get to the heart. Yet, they sounded like terrific expositions of Scripture. I do not recall finding any technical exegetical errors or excursions into La La Land. I could see how a people could listen to years of that and walk away every Sunday being absolutely thankful to God for the sermon and feeling edified. I do not recall hearing of any conversions at the church from the preaching, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were. The Bible shines through as it is living and active, and it is not restrained by the sin of the mouthpiece.

But that doesn’t give us an excuse to not ask anything or, worse yet, to make this key mistake of justifying gross sin or explaining it away because of what we perceive to be the fruit of a ministry or the gifts of the minister.

These sermons did not get to the hard confrontation of calling the human being, made in the image of God, to own his sin, to name it, to reject it fully, to turn from it specifically and completely, and to live for God. In the condition of this man’s heart, there is no way in the world he could have asked these kinds of questions without being laid bare himself at the pulpit. So, he didn’t. And every Sunday, things got worse. And the church, who called him to minister to them, was asleep. Asleep comfortably in the sleep of Jonah.

When application is about somebody else, or it asks us to turn our eyes outwardly to others and away from our own need for Christ, or overemphasizes grace or law (that is, it asks us to believe the lie of Eden that God is not good, trustworthy, and loving), or trivializes our sin (everybody sins, we are imperfect, all pastors fall short of 1 Timothy 3/Titus 1), we need to pay attention. Not to the application, though. Something is wrong. Ask questions. Pray boldly. Speak frankly. Fear God and not man.

Preaching like this is a counterfeit. Allow me to illustrate:

The title of my sermon restarting the Luke series was “In the Midst of You”, and I made three larger points, three signs of the Kingdom: (1) The Kingdom enters a time of complacency and ingratitude, (2) the Kingdom brings in the outsider and shows some of the insiders to have been false sons, and (3) the Kingdom means the end of the law for righteousness. My application, very much guilty of the same style of preaching that I am describing, was this: (1) be thankful, (2) seek to identify God’s miraculous power as you go about your daily life, and (3) guard your heart against relying on the law for your righteousness.

Abstract. Abstract. Abstract.

Can you see how you could have walked away from my sermon (which in essence was no different than the previous sermon by the man preaching while living in sin) and be thankful for the teaching and inspired by the application? And yet, my application does almost nothing for you.

It doesn’t confront you with anything. Be thankful! Great. Does it actually confront my lack of thankfulness? Am I complacent and ungrateful? What specific event or presence or lack of a gift from God showed me to be unthankful or complacent? What sin is behind my response? What am I doing to hide it? This application has a point–thankfulness is the antidote to complacency. But the complacency has to be exposed and understood, confronted and challenged. I have to let the text confront me and call me to repentance. And repent! There is a way this application sounds right but does absolutely nothing for my soul. I can write down “Be thankful” in my notes and maybe say an extra prayer before a meal throughout the week but let it do nothing more in my heart. Sin loves to hide there.

Seek to identify God’s miraculous power as you go about your daily life sounds wise and deep, practical and life-changing. I even quoted Chesterton for good effect. It lacks specificity again. It does very little. And in reading the text again, I think the connection between the exegesis and this application is very thin–there was a miracle in the text; therefore, appreciate miracles.

And then, this exhortation to guard the heart against relying on the law for your righteousness also falls short. The congregation was about to start fleshing out the consequences of sexual sin that hid for a long time in their midst. It was hidden. Lies had to be told and believed. Deception took a root in people’s lives. And this application completely missed the point in light of that. A person hiding gross sin was reminded that no person can save himself by doing the right works of the law and by not doing what the law forbids. Hear: GRACE! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to translate this exhortation to: “I may be indulging in ungodly sexual pleasure, hiding it from my wife, hiding it from the men who are supposedly walking with me, but I’m good because Scripture says there is no one righteous, not even one. Praise Jesus for His grace for such a wretch as me!” This sermon completely missed the point of the text for this people in that particular day in those particular circumstances.

Preaching like this allows sin to hide and thrive. It doesn’t call us to do anything. It redefines repentance and results in such a rejection of any application that requires costly obedience and honest discipleship, that anyone who calls you to repentance turns into a Pharisee, and we know what Jesus had to say to the Pharisees! So, you can continue to walk down the wide, open road of sin, whistling and singing Amazing Grace, even receiving praise for your sermons and receiving praise from the sermons for your sinful behavior. Not explicitly, of course. That would be heretical. And when the mouthpiece in the pulpit is the one hiding the sin, manipulation and spiritual maneuvers can be very hard to identify. It is the water in which you swim.

I saw in the Twitter world something last week that summarizes the point very well: “Want to know if you have a healthy pastor? Disagree with them.”

Try it sometime, Biblically of course, it may expose what needs to be exposed.

Fellow preachers–we must repent of preaching that hides and empowers abuse. These are misrepresentations of the character of God who compassionately sent His Son Jesus to die for all our sins, past, present, and future and raised Him up from the dead to sit at His right hand and intercede for us, who sent us the Spirit that we may have life and live out the good works prepared beforehand by Him. They do not edify the sheep.

This is preaching from the sleep of Jonah. We are fast asleep in the deep, safe recesses of a study in the middle of a church that is trying to weather a storm of cosmic proportions. Wake up, fellow Jonah. Who has God called you to reach that you would rather, and literally, see burn in hell? It may look like having to get ahold of yourself, own your sin, repent of it publicly, and let somebody else preach. It may look like having to turn back on your fear of losing the congregation or not be liked by them and actually give them real and concrete applications that will help them kill sin and delight in Jesus.

Next time, I will venture a bit into another flavor of preaching from the sleep of Jonah that redefines respect and submission in ways that foster and empower abuse to be perpetuated and never opposed.

The Sleep of Jonah

Victor Chininin Buele

Thanks to the saints of the Congregación Cristiana Dios es Amor in Loja, Ecuador, I had the opportunity to prepare to study the book of Jonah with them through Zoom. A musician somewhat recently wrote in a song, “Zoom, zoom, se activó la colmena” (Zoom, zoom, the hive was activated) and speaks to the truth that one of the ways in which these times of Zoom have uniquely shown the goodness and the power of God is in activating a powerful force for the gospel not limited to physical buildings that may have been sitting empty. The gospel proclamation is advancing. The hive was activated indeed.

One of the good effects of studying the book of Jonah with the saints in Loja was that we were able to see the sovereign purpose of God in a story that is often the target and source of jokes in our secularized days. Interacting with one astute sister in the study one night, we were fleshing out the following line of reasoning from Jonah, chapter 1:

Essentially, these experienced seafarers were staring in the eye of something like nothing they’ve ever seen before. And they had seen plenty of storms in their lives. Clearly, something greater than themselves had brought this upon the sea and their ship and was threatening their very lives. This was not normal. In this display of pluralism, everybody worshiping their own gods in their own ways, they are all trying their best to appease them. Nothing works. The storm does not relent. Their fear led them to worship, to begging to their gods. These false gods proved false and failed. So, they took matters into their own hands and started throwing everything off the ship–better to starve than to die! But the ship was still going down. Death is certainly ahead. Fear is rampant.

And there is good old Jonah. Sleeping. “Fast asleep” (5).

In the study, she then asked something along these lines: Do you mean to say that God has brought about this pandemic of global proportions, like nothing we or any doctor has ever seen before, in a time of rampant pluralism, secularism, and atheism, and that we may be asleep? And that the unbelievers may actually be more engaged in calling out to their gods than us, the Christian children of God?

Are we asleep?

From the text what we do know is that Jonah was asleep, fast asleep, in the inner part of the ship that was in the worst of a storm of mythical proportions (5).

What could be the possible intended effect that the author of the book of Jonah has for us as we read the story? How are we to think about this? What are we to feel? What’s going on here?

We see in the text that God calls Jonah to rise up and go to Nineveh, a great and sinful city that Jonah has no desire to see saved. For all he cares, he wants them to perish without any opportunity to repent. His emotions and actions testify to that. So, what did he do? He got up and went not just in the other direction, but he paid the fare to go to Tarshish, the end of the known world in the other direction. He wanted to go as far as possible from those who needed to hear God’s call to repent.

The mariners want to know who is to blame for this because something greater than themselves is at play, so they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. They asked him to identify himself. His first response was that he was a Hebrew. This may be a clue that Jonah was seeing his identity as primarily national and ethnic. Secondly, he described himself as one who fears the LORD, the God of heaven. At that point, these experts in pluralism and the equal validity of all their false gods, “knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them” (10). They were even afraid to throw him overboard because they feared the LORD counting his death upon them and not rescuing them out of the storm. “They called out to the LORD, ‘O LORD, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you” (14).

The pagans were far more eager to obey the LORD than the prophet of the LORD was. The pagan pluralists were far more fearful of the LORD than the one who self-described as one who fears the LORD.

I heard a sermon not so long ago where the preacher reflected on Jonah choosing to rather sleep than to face the storm. Yes, we are in the realm of speculation. After all, we are looking at narrative not synthesized doctrine.

Yet, I don’t think from the look we have taken together at chapter 1 of this story, that this is the point. From the text, we don’t get a real answer as to the heart of Jonah. We are left with a lot of questions. We don’t know if he truly repented, or if that repentance was genuine. We could take 2:8-9 as a potential sign of repentance, but then we have his anger and exceedingly great displeasure in 4:1 at the compassion of the Lord Yahweh.

I think what we are seeing here is somebody whose original disobedience from the LORD came from deep passion against the people of Nineveh. I can almost hear him say, “I rather watch them burn in hell…” When we choose to disobey God, we are hardening our heart. We are starting to bring in the bricks and concrete to build up a wall. We know how Americans feel about walls, right? Some of the ones who want them built to keep others out don’t realize the walls they’ve themselves built around their hearts to block what God calls them to do, and some of those who don’t want them built to keep others out don’t realize that they’ve themselves been building walls around their hearts to keep God out. We can sound so righteous in both camps! Meanwhile, the wall of bricks around the heart keeps getting built. Higher and higher.

Jonah’s actions show us this. He cares a lot about the Ninevites. It’s not that he doesn’t care for them. He cares so much about them that he will go to the end of the world to avoid preaching to them, to avoid caring for them, to avoid loving them. And loving here requires a sharp rebuke. God is not telling him to go give them an encouraging, Hallmark card. God is calling him to “call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (2). One could imagine that somebody who despises the Ninevites would want to go and let it rip… But it is not so. Jonah knows that God is merciful. So, as far as he is concerned, and as far as it involves him, he will not even crack the door so that light maybe, maybe could come in. God had not guaranteed compassion upon Nineveh to Jonah. But Jonah knows that God is able to save, and that in His love and mercy, He can save anyone.

The sleep of Jonah, therefore, I propose, is the sleep of a man who has seared his conscience through hate and disobedience to such an extent that he does not care about the eternal future of the Ninevites, about their earthly good, about his ship sinking, about the storm raging. It is not that he doesn’t want to face the storm. It’s that he believes that he is sleeping in safety behind the hard wall he built around his heart. Even as the storm rages and destroys outside. He is fast asleep. Every sinful choice added a brick to the wall. It is not like Jonah just happened to be at the sea port and happened to pay the fare to the end of the world. You know how it works. You start driving by that forbidden place, you circle around, you drive away, you come back, you make an excuse to be nearby, you start lingering, you park, you turn off your location on the phone, you get cash, and then you do it. You built a wall around the heart, step by step, action by action.

Are we asleep? Who has God called you to reach that you would rather, and literally, see burn in hell?

We may not know where Jonah’s story ended. But you have a say on where your story ends. You have the choice to get up and go.

Do you want to be the one who hardened his heart against the one to whom God called you to love and show compassion?

Wake up. It’s time.