A friend once shared with me about how her and her accountant husband wrote up a 5 and 10 year plan, looking at their personal, family and financial goals and steps they wanted to take to reach those goals. As we talked through this life plan, I was both excited and nervous- for them and for what that meant for me. I asked where God was in all of this planning, and she said that you have to be prepared for God to work in and through your plan, as well as planning in the flexibility to see God make changes. As we read in Proverbs, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”(16:9) We both nodded and the conversation moved on. But this conversation remained with me.
As a planner, I thrive on having goals, dates, to-do lists. I loved the idea of a 5 year plan and a 10 year plan. I wondered when Dave and I could get planning. Even the other day an acquaintance commented on my plethora of apps (not all get used regularly), but the majority of them attest to my love for planning and whatever I desired to plan at the time of downloading the app. I plan meals, recipes, lists, meetings, holidays all of which have an associated app.
So, come the end of 2019, I was surprised when selling the business I’d spent three and a half years growing and moving back into teaching temporarily seemed to be where God was leading. However, these were in line with the larger direction Dave and I felt our family was heading, which was towards Dave pastoring full-time and me eventually entering ministry with him.
However, 2020 was a year of surprising and stretching. The largest challenge wasn’t just moving into Primary teaching, it then saw COVID forcing me to learn how to teach online. It saw me learn how to teach my class whilst also teach my own children. Yet, for my family God had bigger surprises.
In the midst of COVID, we started going through the process of Dave applying for Lead Pastor and things turned out differently than what we were expecting. He had been being trained by the retiring pastor, with the aim of seeing a smooth transition to Lead Pastor. We had seen God work wonderfully, calling families back to himself and his church. We had seen growth and a community begin to develop. We saw these things and felt A+B=C. However, this wasn’t the smooth transition we were expecting, nor was it the way the majority of the church were expecting. There were bumps and these bumps ended up becoming boulders. The process was painful and at one point, or a few actually, when people asked how we were coping, I shared that it seemed like we were going through a meat grinder. Afterwards, came confusion and pain and I found comfort in the fact that we go through seasons of grieving and seasons of hurt and then there are seasons of recognising life may simple suck, plans may fail but God is still God and in spite of our decisions and decisions of others, God is bringing about his purposes for those who love him. There were months I had to hang on to this with all that I had; thankful that God was holding me tighter.
Towards the end of 2020, a series of sermons on Jonah came onto a podcast app I have. I tuned in. I was fairly confident that I grasped the main parts of the Jonah story as it is one of those classic Bible stories told to children. God tells Jonah to go, he says ‘no’ and tries to run away. God sends a storm and then a fish to eat Jonah and after 3 days spits him up onto dry land. It paints a picture of God’s sovereignty and points us to Jesus. Just as Jonah was in the fish for three days, and then he comes back into life after three days; Jesus spends three days in the tomb and comes back to life, exiting the tomb after three days.
The bit though, that I’ve always been a bit judgy towards Jonah, comes after Jonah’s missionary journey to Nineveh. I felt he has a massive tantrum and isn’t the type of Prophet God should really want. Yet, as the sermon series developed, I felt challenged- that type of conviction of sin and a widening of my judgemental mind.
In Jonah 3:4-10, we read:
“Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.”
In these verses, we see post-fish-experience, that Jonah goes to Nineveh and seems obedient to God. He is announcing God’s judgement on an enemy city. However, when we look closer at what is written, we see that Jonah only goes a day’s journey, (not very far into Nineveh) and in an extremely brief way calls the people to repentance. Some may think that Jonah is very astute in his evangelism, however it appears from Jonah’s behaviour that follows that rescuing the Ninevites was not in Jonah’s plans.
In what may be one of the great testimonies of a movement of God, we see that Jonah’s pithy attempt of reaching the Ninevites doesn’t limit God. The word reached the king of Nineveh and proclaims that everyone should cover themselves with sackcloth and call out mightily to God. And they do. God then relents. Here, is an amazing story of repentance by a Gentile city- the Assyrians in Nineveh, enemies of the Jewish nation- turn Godward and seek forgiveness and reconciliation after Jonah’s feeble attempt at evangelism.
So, where is Jonah? Is he celebrating and leading them in prayer? No, not really. Instead, he is overcome with anger. He whines that he would have preferred death over seeing his enemies repent and he argues that it was precisely for this reason that he didn’t want to come to Nineveh in the first place. He knew God relents from disaster and is abounding in steadfast love and Jonah didn’t want the Ninevites to see this side of God. Jonah had done his part and he expected God to do the rest. But he wanted God to do according to Jonah’s will, not according to God’s.
As we read in Jonah 4:1-4:
“But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?”
In his anger, Jonah leaves the city and builds himself a booth. All the while, hoping that God may actually come around to his way of thinking and smite this godless nation. In the following verses though, we see God’s exceeding compassion extending towards Jonah. God lovingly appoints a plant to grow and covers Jonah so that he has shade and isn’t uncomfortable. However, God has some stretching in store for Jonah:
“Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
Did you see that? God appoints a worm to attack the plant so it withers. He shows that he gives and he takes away. He prefers our righteousness over our comfort and sometimes that means letting us go through painful experiences to help us grow.
This story of Jonah showed me that often I am like Jonah- I plan my steps, I work hard at what I’m doing, I expect God to then show up and do the rest according to my plan. I can then wallow when life is a bit of a struggle and whinge about why God is not allowing things to go my way.
Yet, the pain and lack of knowing a nicely laid out future last year, meant that I had to wrestle with God, I had to surrender to God and I had to recognise the control I place confidence in is actually a false belief. Unfortunately, these lessons aren’t fully complete yet.
As God would have it, Dave preached on control one Sunday towards the end of 2020. He shared how the bleeding woman and Jairus in Mark 5 both wanted to control their situation, yet Jesus steps in to show them he is in control and that as Dave said, “control is where faith goes to die.” We are called to not fear, but believe; to not control but trust. Dave shared how just as “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). Sometimes, in our 5 and 10 year plans, we can be expecting that if we tick boxes A and B, God will tick box C. However more often than not, God chooses to show us a work of the Spirit and he calls us to not fear the future but believe in him. He calls us to not try and contain him in our neatly constructed boxes, but allow him to blow the box apart; even if it hurts.
So, as I think back on my crazy 2020, I think this aptly describes the fact that we had spent 18 months, building a plan that we thought would come about. That plan was blown apart, yet we are called to believe. I have found such delight in returning to teaching and love that the whole family is in the one place together. I have seen the ease with which I can get angry with God when things hurt. I also see that there is wisdom in the fact the God of the universe has ways that are so far above mine and I’m praying through the fact that I want to live a life of belief rather than desiring control.
As a final image in his sermon, Dave shared this picture- he said often the Holy Spirit wants to make things windy; yet in our control we run around trying to shut all the windows. God did amazing things through a reluctant Jonah and actually in spite of him. The year of 2020 showed me how grateful I am that God is in control, even when it hurts. It also showed me that I want to be a window-opener, allowing God to work where he will, even if I’m reluctant at times.
Image: Jonathan Meyer