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.

You’re Gonna Hear Me Roar: A Plea for a Hymnody to Open Eyes

Victor Chininin Buele

Every Sunday morning, I scan through the local radio stations on my way to church.  Sometimes, it’s oldies that catch me; sometimes it’s our Mexican radio station; other times it’s NPR; most often it’s random stuff, even boy bands from the 90’s.  If you know me at all, you would know I have a bit of an aversion for the Christian radio stations and you would also know why and why I’m trying to actually listen to them from time to time.  Suffice it to say that part of it is because I often need only two or three chords to realize I am listening to the Christian radio station.  And yes, it’s stereotypical, and it paints with a very broad brush the efforts of Christian men and women throughout the world to reach the world, but that’s not what I’m writing about today.  That will be for another time.

Last Sunday morning, a song came up twice:

I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter
Dancing through the fire
‘Cause I am the champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar
Louder, louder than a lion
‘Cause I am a champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar!

I realized why I was so attracted to the song.  This was a hymn.  A very religious song.  A song very much like the ones I was driving to go play to lead the congregation of the saints to sing.  This post is not about or against feminism or women’s rights or anything remotely close to that.  That may be another time.

And immediately my heart broke.  I could picture a girl, driving away on a Sunday morning, getting on the same interstate on which I was driving.  But she would be leaving a strange bed, perhaps not even a decent bed, broken and betrayed, once again empty and without the affirmation and the affection she craved for the night before.  Or the months before.

I could picture a girl, desperate and afraid, ashamed of what’s to come.  I could picture another girl, determined to make it to the top and fully persuaded that she was making the right choice.  I could picture them both on a different day driving to our local Planed Parenthood.

I could picture these girls listening to this song.  I could see this song’s power to pump them up, to affirm their choices, to transcend their circumstances, and to tell them that they are the roaring champion.

We are all broken.

I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything

This is the line.  It’s not the hook.  This is the line.

Where were we, Christian musicians?
Where were we, when this poor broken woman was led to realize that she stood for nothing and fell for everything?
Where were we, that we were not able to minister to this poor woman, pushed to the breaking point?
Where were we, to give aid to this woman, held down for a long time?
Where were we, that we missed the moment when she was brought to her knees and realized she’s had enough, enough of the nonsense?
Where were we, to tell her a different story?  Don’t we know the true Champion?
Where were we, to point her to the Maker of the thunder?  To the Avenger and Protector of the tired and broken?
Where were we, to point her to true freedom that transcends floating like a butterfly because of the stripes of a Savior who died so that she wouldn’t have to deal with the heartache and pain of attempting to be her own hero?
Where were we, like C. S. Lewis, to give her the story of the Roaring Lion?

The Lord Jesus spoke to Paul, and we have the account of that in Acts 26:12-ff.  Pay close attention to verses 17-18.  Jim Wilson makes the point in his excellent book Taking Men Alive: Evangelism on the Front Lines that Jesus told Paul that he must do three things: 1) open their eyes, 2) turn them from darkness to light, and 3) turn them from the power of Satan to God.   He gives the analogy of a dark room where a person is with her eyes closed.  She cannot see.  What happens if you turn the light on? Nothing! Because “light does not cause sight.”  What if she opens her eyes while the light is still off?  “Open eyes do not cause sight, either.”  “When we have our eyes closed, we naturally want darkness.  But if we are in a dark room with our eyes wide open, we long for light.  Closed eyes want darkness.  Open eyes want light.  Open eyes are hungry for light” (p.13, ff)

Why are we not writing a hymnody to open eyes?

Listen, there is a ton of explicitly Christian music for us to use on a Sunday morning service.  Too much, perhaps.  Only a fraction of the songs that are produced today will endure the test of time.  Just because we have a guitar or a piano and thirty minutes on a Saturday, that doesn’t create the next In Christ Alone.  What are we using our talent and resources to produce?

Don’t you see?  Katy Perry would not make a dime unless there were broken women who opened their eyes in a dark room.  They are hungry for light.  And instead of Light they are given cheap fireworks that will last only but a second and will not even give that good of a bang.

The opportunity is there, will we be content writing average or even below-average songs that will do nothing but pad our ego?  Most likely, you are not Beethoven, Stuart Townend, Bob Kauflin, Mozart, or Taylor Swift or her cowriters.  But know this, the opportunity is there, and we are missing the jeep to take us on the safari to see the Great Lion, who as that wise man once said, isn’t safe, but He is good.  “He is the King, I tell you.”

You Might Be More Like a Jehovah’s Witness That You Would Like to Admit

Victor Chininin Buele

It’s Saturday.  I’m up in my office reading through Galatians 1, agonizing to see if this is the right section of scripture to share with a dear friend today to encourage him, to point him to Jesus. I’m questioning for the fifth time the song choices for tomorrow’s service. Will these songs help the congregation acknowledge their need for God and allow them to freely show that they love Him?

It’s also the day when I have a higher probability of being interrupted by that typical knock at the door.  Knock, knock.  Who’s there?  Are you ready for Armageddon? Oh, my dear friends, come in, come in…  And I do let them in.  It is both a hoot and the saddest thing.  The Holy Spirit confirms that I love Jesus, and I do love Jehovah.  And I am supposed to be a witness of what God has done for my soul.  So, why not?

My purpose with this is to show you how might be more like a Jehovah’s Witness than you would like to admit.

Who Says?

You know it.  You hate that knock on the door.  You practice your best line.  You open the door naked (well, maybe not).  It can become quite the fun game, “How to get rid of the Jehovah’s Witness?”  A few years ago, a dear friend of ours in Loja answered the door.  She came in after quickly dismissing our visitors.  I asked, lifting my head from the production problem of the moment, “Who was it?” “Oh, some people talking about how to have a better family,” she said.  I answered, “Who says what?”  And two things simultaneously hit me:

  1. It’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses!  Open the door, I must go chase them and talk to them.
  2. This is the one issue that matters for the whole Jehovah’s Witness system of thought–“Who says what?”

Allow me to explain.  The Watchtower Society is the only way one can understand what the Bible says.  That key statement is the most important belief in their system of logic.  It really summarizes it all.  They believe that nobody can ever understand the Bible without somebody from the organization explaining it to them, or at the very least, without using one of the officially-sanctioned publications available to you as a gift from them right there on the spot or available online in more than N number of languages.

The Christian needs not to tangle in heavy theological arguments about whether birthdays can be celebrated, whether Jesus is God, whether the Trinity is an invention of men, whether blood transfusions are allowed, whether we should vote for president. It all breaks if this key principle is false.  The entire Watchtower “theology” hinges on the belief that you are incapable of finding out the truth of the Bible without help.

How, then, might I be more like the Jehovah’s Witnesses than I would like to admit?

This is not an article about the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Books could be written about that.  The focus here is on ourselves.  How are you like the Jehovah’s Witnesses?  I want to leave you with these questions/points to consider:

Why do you actually believe what you believe? (Don’t say you don’t believe in anything, please, because you do.  You truly do.  Even if it is “I don’t believe in anything.”)  Do you believe because others tell you?  How do you go about confirming or denying what somebody tells you?  As Abraham Lincoln said, “Don’t believe everything you see on the Internet.”

Let’s take a perhaps controversial example–

Let’s say that you believe that the economy is recovering because of the numbers you hear on the media about unemployment and GDP growth.  How do you go about knowing if that’s true?  I remember that in my first economics class in graduate school, the professor kindly asked if we really understood what unemployment figures really mean.  Very few of the students knew what I had learned from my father’s books-that the number is based on the number of people actually actively engaged in the economy.  So, if you quit looking, you’re no longer counted.  That’s skewed.  (And so are all statistics to one degree or another).  Has the number improved?  Yes, but asking why is very important.

The other day I drove through Hazelwood, MO, home of the once vital St. Louis Mills Mall, an outlet mall.  The area surrounding the mall is dead, economically speaking.  Last week I was at the Chesterfield St. Louis Premium Outlet Malls.  I thought to myself, “Hey! That’s where everything went!”  So, aren’t we going to report that they numbers look great for the region because perhaps the gain in Chesterfield surpasses the loss in the other region? Does it matter what kinds of jobs are being added?  Do you actually call it a recovery if we see a larger percentage of retail jobs being added compared to high tech jobs?  How do you know if I’m messing with you, like I did with the Lincoln “quote” above?  How do you discern truth?

Because if you aren’t watching you may just be believing something because you heard your favorite talking head say it.  Or because you read it on the Internet.

And you are doing the same level of proselytizing that the Witnesses do:

– Fritanga is a great restaurant.  We were just there last night!
– My company is a great place to work.  You must join us.
– My children are great, like our picture on Facebook.
– Stay out of my body.  It’s my choice!
– Defend the sanctity of human life
– Keep your hands off my guns
– Protect the vulnerable children of schools from gun violence
– Don’t bully
– Friends don’t let friends vote for Trump
– Down with Crooked Hillary
– and on, and on and on…

We are evangelists by nature.  It matters what our message is.  It matters how we know it’s true because we will be passionate about telling others about it.  It’s in our design.