Jonah’s importance in the bible is well known: in the story, Jonah, tries to run away from God and ends up on a ship in a storm. He is thrown overboard, swallowed by a Whale and cries out to God for help. God answers and the whale spits him back up onto shore. Jonah then goes ahead and delivers the message of God to Nineveh, fulfilling the act he was previously running away from.
Recently, I decided to study Jonah in depth and try to find the importance of Jonah as a biblical text. Looking beyond the ‘children’s version’ that we so often hear, I searched out commentaries and worked my way through the entire book. I began to see Jonah’s importance with new eyes and realised how so often, the ‘whale moment’ takes centre stage; I had missed out on so much of the importance of Jonah in the rest of the story.
‘This whaley got me!’
Jonah consists of four chapters. The well known story of Jonah’s encounter happens in the first two chapters. In chapter 3, Jonah goes to Ninevah, and in chapter 4, things get a little confusing. Why don’t you take a read?
I recommend you pause to take a look at Jonah in the bible, particular Chapter 4.
I had never even noticed that this part of the story existed. Jonah ends up sitting outside of the city, distressed and angry. We witness Jonah and God converse and see an encounter enfold: Jonah angrily questions why God would forgive the people of Ninevah, and God answers, ‘do you have a right to be angry?’
The passage is full of rhetorical questions as Jonah gets angry, and even says, ‘I wish I were dead!’ The book ends with a similarly strange happening: God makes a plant grow to shade Jonah and then it withers the next day, making Jonah angry again. God answers: ‘You were concerned about this plant even though you didn’t make it grow. Should I not be concerned for Ninevah?’ (Paraphrased.)
And just like that, the book ends! What?! Did the writers just give up and leave it unfinished? Has someone fallen asleep and not recorded a conclusion to the story? And what on earth is that plant section about? Weird!
If you’re just as confused as me, then do not worry. Stick with me, and we can go on a journey together to discover some deeper truths and unpack the meaning of this biblical encounter between Jonah and God.
Unpacking Jonah’s Importance
The book of Jonah makes up part of a collection of Old Testament prophets, all whom deliver a message from God to his people. Uniquely, the book of Jonah tells us more about Jonah’s life and journey in delivering the message, than it does about the actual message. The author evidently felt that the life of Jonah had more importance than the message to the Ninevites: the importance of Jonah as a book, is to tell us about Jonah’s journey and God’s compassion for Ninevah.
We can let Jonah’s life point us to God and teach us some lessons.
A four-chapter account of Jonah’s story ends, as mentioned, in a slightly strange and abrupt set of questions posed by God to Jonah.
The rhetorical ending
Ever posed a rhetorical question? In our literary culture and language, rhetorical questions and writings commonly exist. The art of rhetoric is a clever and well known method of posing questions, not to be answered, but to either make a statement, produce effect or imply an underlying truth. As a collection of God-inspired writings (stories, accounts, poetry…), the bible also uses literary devices and in Jonah, we see rhetoric.
Yes, the book of Jonah really does end abruptly. The important questions that God poses are rhetoric: ‘Do you have the right to be angry at me?’ ‘Should I not have compassion or concern for Ninevah?’ God poses these to imply that He alone is God. They imply that God can do as He likes, and that we really shouldn’t get angry at God. As the book ends on these questions, we as readers become more engaged – the rhetoric goes unanswered, which draws us into the conversation.
God is actively laying the question before us: who do we think God is? We are invited to explore and ponder the deep questions of Jonah for ourselves.
With that in mind, let’s explore more of Jonah’s story…
Patterns of Grace
(Read Jonah 4:1-11 for reference)
When Jonah gets angry, he admits a faulty motive. At the start of chapter 4, Jonah confesses that the reason he ran away in the first place, was because he didn’t want God to forgive Ninevah. Jonah literally decided that they weren’t worthy of grace and intentionally wanted to stop God from being compassionate. This is a huge issue in itself. But even after Jonah survives the whale and decides to go to Ninevah, he gets angry at God.
Jonah doesn’t just overstep, he reveals that all along, his heart was against God’s. He lacks reverence for who God is. More so, he actually says, ‘I wish I were dead,’ without acknowledging that God could take his life away in that moment – be careful what you wish for Jonah! Yet, at every moment, God patiently offers grace. God doesn’t strike Jonah down, or condemn him. God patiently offers gentle rhetorical questions and in the mean time, provides comforting shade from the sun by making a plant grow beside him.
Each time Jonah steps out of line or his motives attempt to care more for his glory than God’s, God simply offers grace. This is the importance of Jonah’s angry encounter: we see a God who is slow to anger, full of grace and patiently loving. Jonah fails, God is gracious.
Fuelled by blessing more than God himself
So Jonah fails, and God graciously offers compassion and rhetorical questions to gently remind him of who He is. God provides a shady plant to comfort him. Jonah is ‘very happy’ about this. Isn’t that lovely?
But, the next day, this plant withers and Jonah gets angry again. The blessing Jonah had has disappeared – so where is God? Why has God given him something and then taken it away again? How is that loving or kind?
I definitely relate to this. I think we all at times in our lives can become angry or frustrated when life seems to be full of blessings which suddenly seem to disappear overnight. It’s so easy to question God and like Jonah, grow angry…
The problem is this: I think Jonah was more fuelled and focused on the blessing, than on God himself. He was more happy about the plant, than about the fact that God was caring for him. The plant was the means of God’s care, not the care itself. The plant withered, but God’s love and faithfulness remained present. Jonah didn’t quite see that, and he got angry.
Jonah’s Importance: the struggle
(You may wish to briefly scan Jonah 2:1-10 to accompany this overview)
Similarly, in Chapter 2, whilst in the whale, Jonah cries out to God in desperation. God miraculously moves and rescues him, causing the whale to spit him out onto dry ground. Jonah comes to realise how greatly God has rescued him, which then propels him to go to Ninevah after all.
In the miraculous whale moment, Jonah realises that he mustn’t turn away from God or seek out his own plans. He makes a vow to follow God. We read of this great salvation moment, when Jonah decides to follow God, because of how He has delivered him! How exciting?!
In chapter 3, Jonah goes to Ninevah and delivers a message of warning, that if the people of Ninevah continue in wickedness, they will experience God’s judgement. But, the Ninevites turn back to God and God is gracious and forgives them, giving compassion in place of judgement.
This throws Jonah. The word that Jonah spoke in faith and in power, is not fulfilled – judgement doesn’t come. God moves in a better way and Jonah doesn’t like it. It’s no longer about Jonah’s message but about God. In fact, Jonah is left looking a little silly and unpopular, so he runs away from the city to the outskirts – to sulk!
When we don’t see the fruit
Jonah doesn’t see the fruit that he expected in his ministry. Suddenly, it’s not about Jonah and his message. Jonah is out of the equation and instead, it’s about God’s grace for Ninevah.
Jonah, who was miraculously caught up in an incredible whale-based encounter with God, had probably expected that this power and miraculous work would continue as he went to Ninevah. Jonah probably believed that God would tangibly work through his message, and perhaps, he would become a ‘feared’ prophet. When God does the unexpected, by deciding not to do what Jonah’s message predicted (in showing compassion instead of judgement), Jonah is confused.
Jonah falls into the temptation of forgetting the real good news in his earlier miraculous whale moment: God’s grace saved him.
Jonah was so focused and propelled by the power, miracle and blessing of his testimony itself, that He forgets to trust in God, just for being God.
Jonah is living fuelled on the blessings of God rather than on God himself. Jonah is more worried about how his ministry turned out for his own glory, than about surrendering to God’s higher and often unexpected ways.
God’s answer in rhetoric could be interpreted as this: ‘Who is God? Me or you?’
Jonah should follow God because He is God – not just because of the blessings he can receive from God. Jonah didn’t quite grasp this when he made his vow after the whale encounter.
Additionally, we see how even Jonah, who experienced God in such a powerful whale moment, still messed up. The story doesn’t end with Jonah on dry land, saved and living obediently as we so often hear when it’s retold. We get to see how Jonah wrestled with questions, with unexpected plans, mistakes, temptations… And we witness God’s incredible grace and compassion. I find that so encouraging! We see what it is to be human in Jonah and how God lovingly corrects and challenges us, in place of condemning.
Jonah’s importance in the bible prompts us to look at our own lives. Jonah needed a heart check, and we to can ask ourselves the hearty questions:
- Am I fuelled by the blessings that God graciously provides, or by faith in God himself? Have I become more dependent on prosperity with God, instead of depending on God himself who is faithful and good?
- When God doesn’t move in the way that we expect, will we acknowledge that He owns the glory and has determined best?
- Have I been angry about a situation in my life? Can I let go, repent and trust in God’s grace again today?
Graduating University throws big decisions at us. How are we to navigate the next path?
How do I know what path to take?
Isaiah 30:21 says, ”Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘this is the way,’ walk in it.”
But is it really that simple?
Fate or Feat?
It seems many sit on one of two sides. A) We have absolutely no control over our path, but rather, fate evolves from sequential circumstances that create our unique paths. B) Our path is ours to choose, whether by actively progressing, making decisions or attempting to control/prevent future disadvantage by our own means.
Neither of those options work. If we have no control, then the sum of our interests, pursuits and efforts is nil. We may as well sit back and truth be told, we become prisoners to a pathway we did not choose. We are unable to ‘opt out’ and find a better, more life-giving career/relationship/venture, unless fate affords the chance. Yet in reverse, when we view our journey as the sum of our making, we instantly come under a huge burden: I must fix my personal life; I must work harder to win my dream job; If life turns sour, I only have myself and my past naive decisions to blame.
Neither option truly grants freedom.
So, are we simply lost in slavery and floating between two dilemmas? Stuck trying to figure out what to do with our lives? At 23, I Know all too well the reality of half feeling like I must make more of myself, or better decisions, and half wishing for things to fall naturally into place for me.
We can’t win! Perhaps, you also, are being pulled backwards and forwards between the two? Maybe, you’ve never really stopped to think about the path you’re on? Thirdly, you could be confused or curious about how exactly, you can know that the decision you do make is the right one? I am very much a number three!
Finding a Better Way
Fortunately, I have found and I know a better option: to trust in God. God is our Father and creator who is close and interested in our lives. He is not a distant Christmas, bearded figure. For thousands of years, many writings about him have been passed down that are just as true today. This particular one recalls a promise that God spoke:
“For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11
God really does have a perfect, unique plan for each one of us! We can step into that, learning to place the control and our path in his hands.
Story Time – My Big Decision
As an illustration, I’ll use my own story. Earlier this year I was faced with a huge decision: stay in Bath with all my friends and study on, or, move to Edinburgh to start completely afresh and study in a new place. How on earth could I decide that alone? How would I ever really know which would really be best and live without the FOMO whenever I looked back on the option I didn’t choose?
In faith I remembered: My God has the perfect plan for me and I can ask him to show me which way to go. As the Isaiah verse says, we can literally look to God, ask him to show us which path to take, and He will answer.
Wait?! God speaks?
God showed me that this time, the path to take was one of uprooting and moving to Edinburgh. Did He come down from the clouds in a booming voice that said, ‘Ye shall move!’? No. God is much more diverse, creative and personal. He speaks in different ways to different people, and gradually, gentle whispers turned into louder prompts and an invitation to trust. I decided to hold my future open handedly, deciding I would trust whichever way God revealed because He knows best.
I began to find that the name, ‘Edinburgh,’ came up in conversation a lot, with many different people. As I read my bible and prayed, things jumped out at me about not staying comfortable and being ready to say, ‘I will go.’ I explored more about the city and felt so excited , really coming alive by my first impression. I applied to the University to test waters and prayed, ‘Ok, if this is right, let it be. If not, God, would you please close the door?’ 6 days later I received an acceptance letter – much earlier than typical waiting times! If that wasn’t enough, from then on, every time I began to doubt, God graciously gave me signs of his provision: A miraculous house find; Financial help to purchase a car; Dreams in which I saw myself living there; Friends and connections beginning to develop before I’d even left Bath…
Perhaps, all this may sound like coincidence. But when you are inundated with so many things, then truly, it can only be God! He is orchestrating all things to unfold in his good purposes. It just takes faith and courage to believe and trust. Hear it from me, yes, it is daunting and sad to leave all the good I had in my life in Bath. But, I can freely rest, knowing that I’m in Gods hands – not the hands of fate, or worse, my own hands. I don’t depend on chance or my own, and often, inability to make good decisions.
I am already experiencing the blessings of a new season, because God is so unbelievably good and He will never abandon us!
Will you take fate, feat, or try God?
What path are you on? What decisions are ahead? Try asking God to come alongside you, and to help you recognise his whispers of loving guidance. May you know the God who has a perfect and prosperous plan for your life.
If this is the first time you open up to the possibility of there being a God out there, then, welcome! I pray that you will come to have your eyes opened to the wonders of his love and guidance at work in your life.
Got questions? Send them here and let’s chat!
Want to join the conversation? Post your comments below. How have you noticed God guiding you lately?
These four walls… One with the palm tree wallpaper and host to my scratch map, marking the territories I have and mostly have yet to travel. This 3 by 4 meter cell has played with creativity, held dreams, been a place for passionate song writing. It has been a retreat witnessing both beautiful and complex seasons of delight, tears and wrestling.
My bedroom is an adventurous retreat and now that my parents happen to be moving to a new place, I’m prompted to write about such a concept. What exactly is retreat? Is it really necessary? Can it ever be enjoyable or adventurous?
Inside the box?
It is worth the mention that one can spend time alone with god anywhere however for me, some of the most profound encounters with God have taken place inside my humble box bedroom. Many people often have places that help them to ‘feel’ or ‘hear’ God more clearly and for me, it has always been cross-legged on the carpet of my bedroom. Strangely, not my student room, but the northern four corners of my late teen – early twenties parental home.
Lack-lustre or exhilarating?
Retreat sounds like time spent alone. However, I have learnt the hard way that this is not always the case. We are not all built to be introverts and prolonged enforced solitude will only lead to a deep isolation. Rather, retreat is about withdrawing willingly from pressure, people, schedule and habitual activity in order to be with God. At times, we feel a pull on the strings of our hearts to withdraw and sit at Jesus’ feet. Other times, it requires chosen discipline to turn off the TV, say good night to our friends and come to listen.
But my friend, it’s always worth it.
Three elements of retreat
I’ve lately been reading a book* all about the different architectural spaces within traditional monasticism and how the principles of such spaces can be applied to our contemporary lives. Cell, the monk’s bedroom, was the place for private prayer – the place to retreat, in order to be with God. In short, the bedroom was the essential daily place to commune with God in three ways:
- To confront your inabilities and encounter a rich delightful grace in the love of Jesus
- To wrestle openly and honestly
- To silence the raging wars around you
At times, I have knelt against my bed aware of my own selfishness or pride, and most often my rash anger in haste reaction to stressful events. Sometimes, I have been less passionate and zealous, simply sipping coffee with casual thoughts such as: ‘I’m not that great;’ ‘there are other Christians out there doing a much better job than I am;’ ‘I wonder what Jesus would really say if He returned right now because I’m not exactly radically changing the world with his love this morning…’ Yet as I have retreated, sought silence or opened my bible, God has met me there. His words of love and grace are spoken. The truth of his grace sinks in: I am saved by grace, not works. Because of Jesus, I am washed clean and God is well pleased with me.
Honest wrestling seems to have been the crux of my bedroom conversations over the past couple of years. These walls have heard my questioning and frustrating pleas to God: why won’t you heal that friend? Why not restore their life? I see this big controversial question and I’m struggling to understand what your word says about it, or if you really care? You made me an extrovert so why am I stuck here for a season with no-one around to talk to? I am faced with a housing & financial decision and I have no idea what to do – Lord what should I do? I feel incredibly low, Lord would you show me your love and also show me what may be the cause that I need to pray and practically work through?
The list could go on. All of these are things I have genuinely wrestled with in various seasons. In every season, I have shut my door, scribbled the questions in a journal and prayerfully invited Jesus to start to answer. One time, God answered so profoundly and quickly that I was stumped, able to write down the answer, pray through it and be so incredibly moved by his goodness, that I worshiped zealously until all I had left was speechless stillness. That was incredible and I remember such moments vividly.
However, more often than not, I crawl under the covers of my bed, trusting that the answer will work itself out in the small sustainable everyday as I continue to read scripture, experience ordinary life and live alongside others; most often, the answer comes in hindsight later on and I come before God in thankfulness. Retreat is possible because God is a relational God. That same God knows our hearts and so honesty is warranted. He loves a curious heart and He will always give the answers. Those answers may come tomorrow, in a years time, or maybe on the other side of eternity. But in the waiting, God offers his profound peace, his love and the genuineness of his presence. Be encouraged.
Finally, in cell we escape the wars of seeing, hearing and thinking – one scholar’s take on this idea of withdrawing in solitude to be with God. The one battle that remains is the battle of the heart which we’ve discussed already (number one). Retreating with God allows us to escape the waging wars and principalities of the world that can so easily entangle us: stress, identity, broken relationships, worry…
So many things try to spiritually form us: culture, media, social norms, the latest science around health & wellbeing… The reality is that none of these will ever attain fulfilment or a happiness that lasts longer than a moment. We live in the world but are not of the world. We have a deep desire to be with our creator and as we retreat to spend time with God, we are spiritually formed by him, coming into the fullness of who we are made to be in Christ.
I recall one night, about a year ago. I had been studying hard for an assignment, whilst applying for placement opportunities, and due to the pandemic just generally found myself drowning in pressure. And so, yet again, I pressed play on a Jonathan Ogden playlist (highly recommend), pulled out the journal and invited Jesus to a two-way conversation. As I exhaled, listened, voiced my worries and opened scripture, the Holy Spirit eventually broke through in this back-and-forth rhythm of my posing a question or a worry, and him revealing a glimpse: a picture, or a word.
God completely upended my understanding: ‘you have let your reputation as a high achiever and academic define you. Let go of this and be free to fail. I define you.’ Suddenly as I escaped this identity war and allowed Jesus to form me, I was freed to enjoy creative pursuits and beautiful relationships without pressure or worry for how I may be perceived. The effect on my life was astounding – God is good and gracious and will lead us in the way everlasting.
God’s word is a lamp unto our feet and we can bring anything to him. He will speak, both through scripture, through others and also tangibly in the whispers of our thoughts. Perhaps, you’ve never encountered this? Do not be discouraged. Invite God to speak and have faith – has a thought popped into your head? Believe it and ask God to confirm if it was him. He will, and he will teach you to recognise him step by step. For me, it’s often a picture or a thought that then develops and is backed up with Scripture as I pray on it more. Regardless, Jesus will always speak love and direct us in the way we should go – the way of his inclusive, freeing and loving kingdom. If it’s not loving or encouraging, it’s probably not coming from God.
Find your adventure cabin
Retreat is wonderful and a discipline to be honed. As I write this for myself, as a prompt to continue in this as I move to prepare to move to new horizons, I encourage you to discover the act of ‘Cell.’ There is something profound about defining a cell space for your own. It does not mean that God will always speak there, nor that he won’t ordain an encounter elsewhere – He very much will! However, it helpfully creates a centre to retreat to, becoming a ‘porthole’ for you to connect with your loving creator.
Finally, retreat with God is relational quality time, where we don’t just rattle off prayer lists or follow a prayer prompt. It’s authentic, open, spontaneous and as genuine as a coffee with your best friend. Retreat can be still but it can also be exciting, full of laughter or even movement. It does not replace bible study or prayers for the world and for those around us, nor does it replace much needed time in social settings such as small groups and church. But rather, it’s an additional and essential part of spiritual life.
I have never regretted any moment of withdrawing. No time spent with God in this adventure cabin of a bedroom has ever been dull, difficult or come from a place of trying to be a good Christian. Sometimes, I’ve had to just stick on some worship music, or google, ‘prayers for when…’ That’s ok and often incredibly helpful! Every time I’ve come to sit cross legged in this small bedroom of mine, I have met with God, found his love and known that He hears me. My Creator exists, and He wants to spend time with me. So I say, better is one day in his presence than a thousand elsewhere. I will retreat, to find him, to gaze upon his wonders, to wrestle with my heart and to be moulded by the potter.
God is love, God is good and God will answer all who call on him, showing them great and mighty things that they do not yet know.
Be encouraged, retreat and keep adventuring with Jesus.
*Seven Sacred Spaces – can be found here. The chapter on ‘Cell’ expands on this theme of retreat and withdrawal with God.
Recent writings from Eleanor:
Bonfire night is approaching and I am a lover of fireworks.
Two months ago, I was out walking with my wonderful mentor and church ‘mum.’ I had just moved back to Bath after a wonderful but isolated 7 months living at home. I was thriving, back living with my best friends and being in community. Life was planned out and about to unfold.
Out on Victoria’s front door step, we began to pray. On the driveway, we surrendered all my dreams and relationships to God, open-handedly. As she prayed, she asked God to ‘take my black and white knowledge of God and transform it into a technicolour season of beholding the glory of the Lord in a new season.’
What did I imagine? Fireworks, of course!
Little did I know that this ‘technicolour season’ of fireworks would look incredibly like a bomb site for a while. Two weeks later, the guy I thought I’d spend the rest of my life with abruptly walked out of it. Suddenly my hopes and dreams for the future were shaken. I don’t need to share details other than that it was a beautiful relationship and journey I am grateful for.
Besides the grief and heartbreak, I became confused and angry. Somehow, I found the strength to pursue a good closure and to forgive. But, I didn’t understand why God would strip everything away when life had just started to be rose-tinted. It’s still painful and writing this alone requires a shear audacity, but in it, I’ve realised something.
He takes away to establish.
God will never allow any situation to compromise the prosperous plan he has for each one of us. Because he loves us.
I surrendered all to God open handed and let me tell you, that’s a dangerous prayer. Done that, got the t-shirt – without even noticing there was a t-shirt on offer.
I only see in part right now, but I choose to trust that He is good – and He is!
I’ve cried and I’ve been comforted. I have been discouraged and I’ve also been carried by my friends in the most incredible way. I’ve had to make decisions about my future during this strange time and God has placed so many great people around me to remind me of who I am; they to call out my gifts and encourage me to dream for God’s plan.
The season I had was beautiful and the season I am in is also beautiful.
My life looks completely different today. I could be angry or overwhelmed by this. I may try to fill my life up with one hundred things, complain or go about pretending that life couldn’t be better; I often build a false sense of ownership over my life. But time and time again, I have been reminded, comforted, and humbled by the fact that Jesus did not own his life – he gave it.
The Perfect Plan?
All the stuff we hold onto, is nothing but wooden furniture in the glorious throne room of the creator of the universe. What does it profit to gain the whole world but miss out on the perfectly ordained life Jesus wants to offer you? Believe me – Jesus offers hope in life eternal and fullness of life in this world for today.
Through it all, God has been my deliverer. In it all, God has been my first love and even on stubborn days, He is patient. I am believing and seeing that God’s plan is good and he is faithful.
I’m beginning to see in technicolour. You see, God will never compromise the prosperous and perfect plan that He has for you just so that you can feel comfortable in the present. Fruitful plants must be pruned before they blossom.
Over the past month, God has opened so many doors. As I’ve put my hope in God, he’s placed new and old dreams on my heart. The future-decisions I’m facing are more exciting, open and promising. New and old friendships have unfolded. Despite my circumstances, I have known unbounding joy (which does not mean I haven’t shed many tears) and Christ’s grace has been sufficient always. In it all, I’ve come back to the heart of God, knowing that I am outrageously loved and that He has so much more for me!
I have learnt that we do not get a guaranteed comfort in life, nor should we expect it. But, we do have a saviour who himself sacrificed his comfort to save us and it is a privilege to be uncomfortable yet comforted by God – to further grasp and understand Jesus in a new light.
I’m not writing this for my own comfort, or for testimony or affirmation. I’m writing it because I want you to know that God is good. I want you to realise that life with God is the best it can be! I want you to know that God loves you and has a hope and a future for you. Don’t be discouraged just because you can’t see it.
Sometimes we have to let go of our own black and white idea of ‘prosperity,’ face the uncertain or uncomfortable and step into the technicolour life God wants to lead us into.
If you’re facing a decision or a new venture that involves leaving a comfort zone, or letting go of something, be encouraged. Run to the God of all comfort. Kneel in the glorious throne room, dearly loved and wonderfully made for more. Just as Jesus openly gave his life for yours, may you trust that your open-handed surrender will be anointed by the God who can do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine. And may you know that in all things, it is the Lord who completely satisfies our hearts – nothing and no one else but him.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, “Ephesians 3:20
Holy Spirit, help me to trust you. Jesus, thank you that you gave everything so that I may have life and know the outrageous love that God has for me. I’m sorry for when I grip so tightly to my comfort, that I don’t step into your incredible plans. Help me to discern your plans for me and open my eyes to see in technicolour. Amen.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Hindsight teaches wonderful lessons.
I’m coming to the end of a season. As usual I find myself reflecting on the season. Hoping that it will help somebody some day, I’m sharing some raw lessons learnt.
I have come to realise that life can often exist of two elements that are in tension with one another. Thankfulness and disappointment take the form of a yoyo, fighting for attention. Similar pairs exist: contentment and desire; trust and entitlement; humility and selfishness…
My season has been filled with grace, community, laughter, provision and goodness. Yet, there has also been loneliness, disappointment and stubbornness on my part. That is normal. We are human. Life, yes, does have some sad and mundane aspects. We can’t be winning gold or climbing a mountain every day. But, what I have learned, is that if we dwell on these and remember only the bad, or only the good, we become blind sighted.
In my case, I became grumpy and cynical (more on that one here).
As I sat down tonight to ask God to reveal the fruit he has been growing in this time, I picked up my journal and found so many wonderful lessons that have been woven into this season.
1. I am NOT my season:
My season has less friends but I am not friendless.
My season may be less outwardly exciting but I am still outgoing.
My season may be quiet but I am not unfulfilled.
My season may involve future-figuring but I am not the figure of my future – God is!
My season may be in architecture but I am not wholly for architecture.
2. True Vocation and Trust
“I was made for Jesus. I was made for heaven.”
When everything is stripped away, including our vocation, we have nothing left to do but to sit and wait. This is different to our known, organised waiting that always prepares ahead of time. It involves resting and listening to God quietly and gradually, loosing our agenda completely. True trust is to wait and not plan; not chasing the next option or even knocking on a door. I have learnt that what matters is the slow private life we live when no-one or nothing grabs our attention. I am loved and my gifts were made holy by Jesus. My gifts themselves are not my purpose or holiness, but the means by which God chooses to display my holiness. Each day is God’s day and plan. I will sit at his feet and dwell with him with nothing left to give other than my heart and my soul.
15 year old me dreamed of leaving home, heading to a beach town and spending time hanging out with Jesus. This was of course envisioned as an exotic adventure. 7 years later, a pandemic forces me home. One day I stubbornly headed to the beach for a walk in boredom and started listening to the bible on a podcast. Eureka! I am literally living my dream. God has graciously and unexpectedly (North Sea wild swimming style) answered that prayer. The lesson? May I never let my future or present desires take away the gratitude for what He has already done!
I am not a failure. I am not worthless. I am the prodigal daughter deemed worthy of celebration as I stumble back into the loving arms of my heavenely Father…
In haste as the world began to go back to normal, I found myself off in pursuit of adventure, friendship and pleasure. Yet, as is normal in this life, I faced disappointments. I ventured off for wild reunions and returned exhausted, realising that the adventures I’d chased just weren’t as good or fulfilling as I had imagined or remembered.
Yes, they were still joyful! But, by taking my control and rushing off, I had left behind the restful status of being God’s child. I had gone astray, forgetting to spend time with my creator.
I choose to return and surrender. I choose to stumble back to him with my negative mindset, tiredness and imperfection. I come, accused by the enemy who tells me I’m worthless and ungrateful. From a distance, God pulls me into an embrace, places a robe on me and calls for a celebration.
A New Season Awaits
God is faithful and I know the next season will continue to be full of lessons and joys! Yet, if anything, this season has taught me that I am not entitled to constant fun, happiness or ease. One day, heaven will be like that with no pain. But until then, I must acknowledge that what I have in Jesus is enough and I must learn to desire nothing more than to know him. Every time that I have fixated on all the dreams, pleasures and adventures that I desire, I have only found myself restless, disappointed and missing something. That something, I find in Jesus when I stop to thank him in the naturally unfolding goodness and devote my heart to him.
What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? Matthew 16:26
Thanks for reading, I hope it teaches you something.
What lessons have you been learning in this season?
In our worship and gratitude, we pour out an alabaster jar of perfume over Jesus, and we see his kingdom reviving as we do so. It is our duty and privilege to worship.
“Rejoice always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances, for this is what God wants from you in your life in union with Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians. 5:16-18
What happens when the world is crashing down, or life is fragile? What happens when we are just waiting and waiting for answers? When worship is hard, how do we respond?
Just over a month ago, the beautiful Hannah, suffered a bleed on the brain and was given just 2 days to live. Such a crisis is devastating. Within days, Hannah’s story had gone viral and hundreds were joining her family on zoom to both worship and pray.
There is something profound about joining in worship together in crisis. We found God meeting us, granting strength and reviving faith.
Amazingly, Hannah began to breathe. She began to move and respond to stimuli. Despite the doctors doubting any possible recovery, we are still meeting today, witnessing small miracle after small miracle. Hallelujah! We fully believe Hannah will wake up and be completely healed.
Joining this community daily has been an honour. We have learnt what it is to fully entrust all things to Jesus, who has daily provided supernatural miracles. Most profoundly, we have seen the power of worship. As we come and pour out our hearts in praise for who God is (even in the beginning when we couldn’t see it), we are corporately pouring out the alabaster jar of perfume as God’s presence overflows.
As we worship, we also cry out and God hears us. We see God do great things and break chains.
Lately, in my own life, I’ve struggled to worship. We are still in a pandemic and I’d hoped that it would be over by now. However, I find myself in a season of complete waiting, at home, with no plan.
I didn’t quite expect ‘flexibility’ to mean just sitting and waiting.
Don’t get me wrong, this waiting season has been wonderful. I’ve been able to join the Hannah zooms. I’ve found space and time to be creative. I’m developing who I am made to be and rejoicing in that.
I have so much to be thankful for but daily, I wake up feeling hopeless. Yet each morning, as I lay down my agenda, open the bible and start to rejoice in who God says He is, I find the truest hope of all.
We have a perfect God who has freed every broken heart to know love. We have a God who does answer prayer – He has and will do great things.
As the days go by, I find myself surrounded by online communities, unexpected mail from friends, testimonies of miracles, joy and laughter… God is good!
I’m learning that the reality of living in God’s Hesed, is surrendering day by day, to his new mercies.
Resting in God’s Hesed love, means completely entrusting ourselves to him. It also means believing that we lack nothing where we are, and therefore, rejoicing.
It’s important to acknowledge that life is not always easy. It’s ok to feel burdened or down in such a difficult pandemic. Feeling this way is not wrong! Worship is a duty, but it’s not a burden. Rejoicing is a discipline that benefits us.
I have felt ashamed and disappointed in myself for failing to feel joyful. But God simply gives me his love. As I trust who He is, I can sit at his feet. Some days I’m full of praise, and others, I simply just pray a single bible verse over and over. At times I simply just have to remember ‘God is faithful.’
Every time, Jesus welcomes me closely.
In our gratitude and worship we are pouring out an alabaster jar. Whilst worshipping, God gave me this sweet image: as I poured out an alabaster jar of perfume over Jesus in my worship, Jesus simultaneously poured his living water slowly, down over my head, smoothing down my hair. I felt the weight of it slowly pouring, renewing me with love and care.
God is not a passive God who just soaks up our worship from a distance. As we pour out our thanksgiving, Jesus pours out his love, kindness and grace.
“Those who are weary, those who are burdened, be still. He’s singing over you… Those who are hurting, come with abandon. Lose the agenda, you are all He needs.” Bekah Sarah
We don’t need to hide away our weariness. Worship is not about staying positive. We offer our whole heart and choose to declare the (sometimes unseen) goodness that the bible tells us is truth. Worship is counting our blessings (practically, through gratitude journals and other disciplines) in all circumstances and seasons. As we erupt in this worship, we encounter Jesus.
Listen to Bekah’s song – I found it beautifully sums up what I’m trying to say.
We are still in a pandemic. We may not understand, but we can still be thankful. The grass probably is much greener on the other side, but don’t discredit the good and faithful God who is at work today! Open your heart to that and let Jesus comfort you in the lows.
Rejoice always – but also, pray at all times. Cry out. Then thank him for all the times he’s answered before.
2020 was the year of ‘hesed,’ and so is 2021.
Hesed is a Hebrew word for which we have no English equivalent. Hesed is a corporate, loyal, faithful, steadfast, tender covenant love. Hesed is more than a feeling. Hesed is an active loyalty, blessing and expression God’s covenant with us. It has power and backbone.
God shows his hesed to thousands of generations. (Exodus 20:5-6)
Reflecting on 2020, I can see parallels with Ruth’s story in the bible. And I can see God’s hesed.
Flexibility in a U-turn Disaster
The story of Ruth is about a loyal foreigner who in disaster, turned to God despite it being against all common sense. In God, Ruth finds blessing, love and faithfulness.
Ruth’s husband dies and so does her father-in-law and brother-in-law. The story is set way back in history, so to lose your husband was to lose your livelihood, identity, worth and status. In such a disaster, Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, decided to move back to her original homeland, Judah.
Ruth was from Moab and so Naomi encouraged her to stay where she was. For Ruth, the most ‘sensible’ option was to stay put, ‘deal with the disaster’ and strive to make her life better by finding a new husband. This was the easy, common sense option.
However, Ruth does not choose the easy option. She says to Namoi, ‘No, I will come with you. I will keep you company. I will live wherever you choose to live. I will stay where you stay. Your God will be my God.”
Ruth showed loyal hesed to Naomi. Moving to Judah would make Ruth a foreigner as well as a desperate widow – even worse! There was no imaginable way that moving to Judah would solve the disaster.
Ruth was flexible in the uncertainty. She was obedient and surrendered control over her disaster. Stepping into a life that may even cause more disaster, Ruth was flexible to God’s unseen plan.
Eventually, after moving and searching for employment, things get better. Spoiler alert: Ruth even finds a new husband and becomes an ancestor to Jesus! Ruth encounters God’s hesed and we can trace it back through the story.
I am inspired by Ruth and her flexibiltiy
Ruth’s willingness to obey Jesus, even when she couldn’t see the vision, led to living out God’s perfect plan for her. It led to her encountering God’s hesed. Obedience for Ruth was simple – one step at a time, going where the door opened, and ‘staying home’ when it didn’t.
‘I never want to be so in control of my life that I am inflexible to the perfect plan of God
Personally, 2020 has seen so many plans fail. I’ve had to give up all control but that has been beautiful. Looking back, I can see blessings, new relationships, memories and God’s hesed. I’ve learnt to stay put, I’ve learnt that my plan failing just means the better plan is being lived out.
2021 – Hesed
We are heading into a new year. For me, it seems trivial to do the usual setting goals, assuming that the arrival of 2021 will magically solve the world’s disasters; a bit of human common sense and willing can’t fix everything.
Of course, it’s still important to aspire to live better, but no matter what time of year, we can often expect to face the unexpected.
New year means new vision but again, if 2020 taught me anything, it was to surrender all my dreams and plans. As I look ahead, I’m about to finish a university semester, move house (currently I don’t even know where) and hopefully find a job. Yes I have dreams and thoughts about where God may be leading me, but I also have the humility to acknowledge that God’s plan may be in the unexpected. I have to be flexible to that.
Whatever your vision for 2021 is, may you know God’s continuing, everlasting hesed.
If your vision seems unpredictable or impossible, then pray for a flexible heart that’s willing to trust and rest in God’s hesed.
If you thought life was heading one way, yet suddenly are facing a U-turn or are in the middle of disaster, then may you know God’s unfailing hesed.
May you be encouraged to trust that God works all things for good. May you be flexible to surrender control and instead joyfully anticipate God’s hesed to be lavished upon you this year, just as Ruth did!
Mental health issues today seem to be as easy to catch as the common cold. We are living in this deeply sad reality of a broken world, where our even own minds cause us harm.
2020 in particular has seen a rise in the level of mental health related problems in people. Trials, uncertainty and pain take their toll.
‘I don’t think I can cope with much more’
Covid-19 is not going away any time soon. If that makes you feel a drowning sense of dread, then I’m sorry and I hope you know that you are probably not alone in feeling that. One year seems like too long. But we can look back to a time when a national trial lasted a lot longer, to find some encouragement…
WW2 lasted 6 years. As much as we can learn from this season, there was an exile that lasted 40. In the bible we read time and time again about the Israelites being freed from slavery in Egypt and walking for 40 years through a desert to reach their promised land. 40 years!
I certainly do not have the mental capacity to live in an unknown state of wandering dependancy for a year, never mind 40.
Spolier: they make it! However things aren’t perfect and the Israelites struggle time and time again. They get disheartened. They do bad things. They find themselves fighting wars. At one point, they end up exiled and by this point, they pretty much come to the conclusion that God isn’t good. They conclude that God has neglected them.
Life wasn’t wasn’t meant to be like this. We live in a broken world, where there is broken hope, broken bodies, and broken desires. So we struggle. But God is loving. He doesn’t promise that everything will be easy. But he does promise to be with us, to give us what we need to get through today, and to lead us in caring for our well-being.
God doesn’t neglect:
In this particular exile (midway through the book of Isaiah) it was easy to struggle mentally to the point at which the Israelites feel abandoned. The Israelites weren’t looking to God and had got lost in ‘broken desires,’ attempting to find satisfaction in other things, including other gods and cultural worship. When they walk through the exile, they assume that God just doesn’t love them anymore and instead is pointing the finger for their brokenness.
God doesn’t point the finger. Instead He leads them out of the exile, but firstly he speaks to them:
‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.‘ Isaiah 43:1-2
God promises not a lack of trial, but his faithful presence amongst them all. He doesn’t neglect when fires, seas, wars, Covid or grief rise. That’s just not part of his character. God is a loyal friend and father, always with us, giving comfort. He is with you in your mental and emotional struggles today.
God speaks about well-being:
A bit later on in this season, God speaks again and this time it’s about well-being. He speaks about peace.
We could all use some peace – whether we are struggling mentally or not.
God reminds us that he created the whole earth. He is the creator, and we therefore are his creation; we are a subservient, dependent creation, existing in him. We are weak yet He is strong.
We come to God in our vulnerable, weak, struggling manner and God expects nothing more – He embraces that! Living in this dependency leads us to trust in God’s higher understanding and God promises to lead us: ‘I am the lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you and directs you in the way you should go.’ Isaiah 48:17
Wouldn’t we all love a personal life councillor, planner, advisor, and ‘parent’ to tell us what to do? To tell us what decisions to make? Well, in God, we can have just that!
If we come to God with our vulnerbility and mess, He embraces us and directs us. And then, if we actually follow as He leads and nudges us to make gradual good steps, then we can attain peace and good well-being! In fact, God tells the Israelites, ‘You didn’t do what I instructed you to do, or obey me. If you had, you could have had peace like a river and well-being like waves of the sea.’ (Isaiah 48:18 paraphrased)
God has not neglected you. If the water is up to your neck, God promises not to give you anything that you can’t overcome – it won’t come over your head. In it, He is with you and his loving presence will comfort you.
You won’t understand why you’re struggling and that’s ok. But God is inviting you to call out to him again, to rest in his loving arms, and to listen to his small voice leading you. He wishes to use people, things, and situations to gently lead you along the right path and to make the right decisions.
One day, this broken world will be renewed. But until then, God is the provider of good well-being. That doesn’t mean that you don’t seek practical help – God often uses people, medication, sleep, exercise, therapy to help his people. But it does mean that you know He hasn’t neglected you.
I hope this brings you some encouragement whatever struggles you’re facing.
You’re not alone. Try praying if you don’t already. God is love and He will lead you on a journey towards good well-being. The mental health issues won’t go away overnight but I promise that in the midst of them, you will grow to know a deep comfort and peace within as you battle with your mind.
If you’d like to chat, then fill in a contact form here. All is kept confidential. Unfortunately, anonymous responses can’t be replied to, but I will be thinking and praying for you.
The UK church has grown so greatly over the past few years. It has been my joy to see this and reflect upon what God is doing in our nation. Yet I have noticed a huge trend over the past year or so, in singing worship songs that speak against struggles, fear and hardship.
“I raise a hallelujah in the presence of my enemies.”
“This is how I fight my battles.”
“Jesus you make the darkness tremble.”
It is a beautiful thing when the church comes together to worship. Worship is a weapon and falling so deeply into the presence of God, where all fear is cast out, realigns us with God’s heart. We wage war with the words we believe as we sing. It is a powerful and wonderful thing that the church is acknowledging struggles and fears, bringing them to God and also declaring the our Mighty God has victory over them.
This idea of worshiping through a battle can be found in the ancient example of King David. It’s no new thing. However, when we look at King David, we may see how our attitudes to just soaking up on worship and ‘raising a hallelujah’ every week, to rid of our own fear and fuel a dream, is a very limited glimpse of reality!
David’s Architectural Calling
King David in the bible was a warrior, worshipper and also an architect. Before David, God’s presence was refined to a tent due to the Israelites (God’s people) constantly moving from place to place.
David however had this huge dream to build a permanent temple – the first ever temple! But this was no ordinary desire. David had a supernatural, crazy gifting to envision such a complex temple. He was able to understand and draw (in his mind) plans, elevations, and details to the most bespoke level. God gave him the ability to design this temple – He was periodically called to be an architect. (1 Chronicles 28:2&19)
Every architect has a dream design. The temple was David’s. All he lived for was to oversee the construction of his design.
Like Gaudi, David didn’t get to see the incredible temple. God told him that He had chosen his son Solomon instead to construct the building. Imagine having the biggest dream of yours taken away. Yet David’s response is not anger or disappointment.
David raises a hallelujah – he worships God for simply using him and he surrenders his desire to God’s will.
Wholehearted and willing
David hands all of his plans over to Solomon and he leaves him with some incredible advice. Our worshipping warrior, has just surrendered his dreams and then says: “have wholehearted devotion and a willing mind. Seek God, don’t forsake him.” (1 Chronicles 28:9)
Solomon was being called to a huge construction project that was to last years and involve hundreds of contractors. He was to be project manager – that’s a heavy task!
It required devotion of the heart: a heart that worships God always, but also the kind of heart that surrendered all dreams. Wholehearted devotion was about being fully satisfied in God, not in the dreams or success we are singing victory over. It also required a willing mind: a discipline of prayer where we share our thoughts and emotions with a God who cares for them.
Do the work – the REAL hallelujah
Finally, David instructs Solomon, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work.” (1 Chronicles 28:20)
We sing “I raise a hallelujah” and we fight our battles with God, equipped with courage from God. But we also do the work. We also have to persevere, project manage, work strange shifts and chase after people with love. We sing and fill ourselves with courage, but not just to feel good. No, we raise a hallelujah that says “God you satisfy my heart, I surrender my dreams, make be bold, so I can go and roll our your justice.”
Yes our weapon is a melody. Yes fear loses its hold on us because of God’s victory. But we also are each called to work and build God’s kingdom in some way. We are each required to look beyond ourselves and serve those around us whether by designing houses, supporting friends, being doctors, campaigning for social justice, striving to live plastic-free, combatting modern day slavery or blessing friends with mental health issues.
Whatever God puts before you.
- If like David, your dream just isn’t coming to fruition, or perhaps has been stripped during lockdown, then take heart. Surrender that desire and worship anyway – for we can not be satisfied by our dreams.
- Perhaps you have been stirred lately for an issue, or person, or calling. Whatever that is, be disciplined in prayer and give Jesus your wholehearted devotion.
- Maybe right now there is a mountain of stress on your desk, or a friend who just isn’t going away. Perhaps you ended up working crazy hours whilst everyone was furloughed. Whatever it is, trust that it’s your calling, sing your hallelujah, use worship as your weapon but most importantly, just keep doing the work. Persevere! You are doing incredibly and God will use it for his kingdom!
Who do you relate to most: David or Solomon? How do you need to respond, and what is the work set before you?
‘I’m proud of you.’
We all dream dreams. Each one of us is working towards a goal or ambition. All people require boldness and courage to see various dreams come to fruition. Often, the road to these dreams is a rocky trail path. Cue curiosity.
There is this vision/picture I’ve been living by for a couple of years now. It involves a pair of trainers, some narrow woodland trails and a huge mountain climb.
In the morning (metaphorically) I get down and lace up my shoes. With purpose and ambition I set out to run the day’s race. Not knowing where the path leads, my curiosity leads me through woodlands, over rocky paths, winding through tree covered areas or passing by streams of water. In some places the road gets uneven. At other points it’s muddy or I can’t really see where it is going. But one thing I know – I have to keep running.
As the day goes on the path opens up to wide green hills and pastures. The view lengthens and I can see more clearly but the terrain also increases in elevation. Yet my heart just wants to keep running and breathing – it’s what I’m made for. Every step although difficult is freeing and I know that I am made for running. Running up mountains.
As the sun begins to set, I reach the peak of the mountain. In the golden hour of the day I am met by God himself who embraces me in a Fatherly hug. There we stand, me in his loving arms, looking back over the path I followed. From up high on this mountain I can see every part of the path and where it was leading. I trace it with my eyes, remembering how unknown and unclear it felt. I stand blessed and thankful that in each of those moments, God was in it and saw me where I was.
Finally as the sun is seconds from disappearing, we stand and I worship my God. And as soon as the sun sets, my curiosity is revived.
‘Where next?’ I ask.
‘You’ll see tomorrow Eleanor. Just stay curious.’
This dream, picture or vision (whatever you wish to call it) has always been close to my heart. It has reminded me in unclear times to trust God. During tired days I have been encouraged by such promise. In the mountain top good moments, it has led me to worship God and be curious to learn more about who God is. In the rocky ankle-twisting times it has spurred me on to keep running and trusting, being curious to see what will come on the other side when I embrace God at the end of the day – if not in the moment.
Running is my favourite thing to do. I love how God uses this to encourage and speak to me. Quite literally, I ran my first half marathon today and the whole way I found challenges staring me down. But at every little corner there were friends and family cheering me on, reminding me to keep going. As I sprint finished I was met by my earthly Father who so selflessly gave up his weekend to cheer me on, hand me a warm jumper and feed me afterwards.
There was a time when I thought I was never going to run again. Yet looking back I know that season of injury was one for realigning and realising why I run – for Jesus, not to prove myself or to maintain a physical weight or health. That season was vital and stirred by my hope in God as well as curiosity to see how God was going to move in it.
Today I didn’t just fulfil a long awaited dream. I smashed my goal. I ran with Jesus. I was blessed by so many friends who stood out in the pouring rain to cheer me on. I saw God multiply my efforts and raise an incredible amount of money for charity. God did immeasurably more than all I could ever ask or imagine!
Yet it is not all of this that really hit my heart today. As I stand on the mountain with God tonight I am struck by these 5 words:
‘I am proud of you.’
Deep and profound, these words are not often spoken.
Last week an old BMS colleague visited and spoke these words when I filled him in on the trials of last year and how this year things are so much greater. Earlier in the week a work colleague randomly blessed me with the same words. This morning my cheerleader squad of girls spurted it out in Cafe Nero and on the race course for the whole world to hear.
Looking back, clearly God has been whispering. I never really let it sink in or even realised it until this evening. As I sat in church with Dad, Tim came over to introduce himself. Tim turned around, looked at my Dad, then turned to me and simply said, ‘well done, I am so proud of you.’
It finally dropped.
I am loved. I am seen. All the running (literal and metaphorical) has purpose but even if not, I am still God’s child and He will always embrace me. God loves all of his children and is proud of each one of us, wherever we are on our journey.
And so as I sat in an ice cream parlour with Dad tonight, having a traditional ‘last night on holiday’ ice cream, I counted my blessings. But mostly, I sat thankful for the journey. I remain thankful for God who has love for all of us.
In these days our world is shaking and everything is unknown. The path is rocky and not so clear. But we run anyway. We hope in God and we trust that at the end of everyday we can return to the embrace of God. We remain curious to wonder excitedly at just what exactly God will do with today’s events.
For He is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine. He is faithful and He has loved us with an everlasting love. All those who look to him and trust in him can run the race, confident that we will see glory.
Stay curious. Enjoy the adventure. Know that He is so proud of you.