Several years ago I was privileged to hear the setting apart blessing of a friend’s husband. In that blessing he was told that as he fulfilled his calling his family, including his wayward son, would be blessed and his son would return to the gospel.
As he filled that calling the blessing was realized. Their family was blessed. Testimonies strengthened and their son, who’s rebellion was legendary, began to change. The son was hired by a young LDS business owner who set a powerful example. Because of that example their son began to ask questions about the gospel and even attended occasionally.
Less than a year ago, we bid farewell to that family as they moved from our area. I saw them in church today and was delighted to visit with my dear friend.
But the visit was filled with tears of sorrow.
Since the move nothing has worked out for them. They are struggling financially when they hoped moving would allow them to pare down and live more simply. Their son fell even further than before and is in jail. At one point she thought her marriage was over. Her husband’s testimony is almost gone and she is struggling spiritually herself.
“I know the Church is true,” she said, “but I’m losing my desire to live it. I feel so empty inside”
I let her talk; praying that the Lord would guide any words I might feel prompted to say to her.
At one point, as we visited, she made an astonishing confession. Just before they moved her husband was being considered for a leadership position in the Church. Fearful of being called he ran. He made the move, she said, because of fear. He wanted to avoid that particular calling.
At that point everything crystallized. I remembered the blessing he had received and saw the effects of what happens when you don’t fill a calling or, worse, run from one.
I thought of Jonah and I realized his situation wasn’t an ancient anomaly. I realized that all around us, in the Church and in our personal lives, there are modern-day Jonahs.
Called by the Lord to cry repentance, Jonah had valid reasons for not wanting to go to the city of Nineveh to preach. Every one of his reasons and fears were defendable. Nineveh was wicked. If Jonah accepted the call persecution was to be expected, torturous death probable. And, in his own battle with doubt, Jonah felt failure was guaranteed. He couldn’t do the job so why not send someone else?
Don’t we often feel that way?
So Jonah ran and every child in Sunday School knows what happened. He was swallowed by a great fish “And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” until Jonah was finally vomited out.
That is so true. You don’t get out of selfish situations like that without getting at least a little of life’s vomit on you.
But what was the real reason Jonah came out of the belly and went to Nineveh? It wasn’t because the fish didn’t like human fillets.
Jonah was released from his living Hell because the Lord heard and accepted Jonah’s prayers and his repentance. “I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed,” Jonah cried.
Jonah was finally willing to do what he feared, finally ready to sacrifice to serve the Lord. He was willing to keep his vows, both those made in mortality and before this life.
Before coming to earth, we all made vows to the Lord. (See Jer. 1:4-5 and others.) If one of those vows was service in His Kingdom here one earth and when faced with that earthly reality we choose to run rather than pay that which was vowed, life swallows us up and we can find ourselves in a belly of bile. Once there our only escape is prayer, returning to our vows, and being vomited out.
My friend’s story made me feel for her family. How great can be the effects if even one person in a family runs from responsibility, especially spiritual responsibility.
But we often forget what happens next.
In the rest of the story, Jonah does keep his vow and goes to Nineveh but he grows angry at the situation. He finally asks the Lord to destroy the city and sits down to wait.
As he sits and does nothing but wait for vengeance, he finds temporary pleasure in a gourd that has grown around him and shaded him from the sun. When the gourd dies, Jonah decides in his anger to give up. Why try anymore? He laments. The Lord doesn’t answer any of my prayers.
(Isn't it interesting that Jonah wasn't really trying at the time of his lament. He wasn't even trying to help the gourd! He is just letting life happen to him and all that are around him. He isn't getting involved.)
Hearing Jonah's angered pronouncement, the Lord lovingly responds that Jonah has been focused on, and finding pleasure with, the wrong thing.
“Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow.” Then, wisely the Lord asks, “should I not spare Nineveh?”
Nineveh, the city of 120,000 people…His children. Children He has labored for and loved. Why fret over a gourd when greater needs are before our eyes?
Jonah’s answer is not given. Have you noticed that?
Maybe that's because it isn’t Jonah’s answer to give but a personal answer we all must make.
Are we laboring for and taking pleasure in the wrong things?
Are we running from true service to the Lord?
If we are we will, eventually, find ourselves in the belly of misery.