Your participation in ministry opens new ways for God to speak to your soul.
When does a church begin to die? You’d think it’s when the members are all above a certain age, and there are more leprechauns in the building than children. Maybe it’s when attendance mysteriously melts away.
But neither of these is probably the case. The death of a church begins when the typical member stops thinking of himself or herself as being on mission with God, when outreach and discipleship are no longer their driving concern, nor even their interest.
That’s when members begin to obsess upon certain internal, self-serving elements. I read about one church-going family that had a habit of sitting in the same place in the sanctuary every Sunday morning. During one service, visitors showed up and unknowingly sat in their spot. When the long-time members arrived and saw these “squatters,” they turned around and went home in a flurry of offense.
When it comes to our attitudes about people, we are often in gross misalignment with God. It’s like driving a new car. After a while you notice it pulls to the right or the left. It’s out of alignment, but you decide to wait on doing anything about it. Before long you have to fight the steering wheel to keep your car going straight. This too often is the church.
How does God address our misaligned condition? He works to continually realign you through your life of outreach to people.
God’s mission is often God’s tool of correction.
Consider Jonah’s state after an entire city repented at his preaching: “Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Simple dislike of those people (the Ninevites) had triggered this acute bitterness. He had secretly wished for their destruction at the hands of a wrathful God. And so God asks him, “Do you do well to be angry?” (v. 4). God looked at more than the numbers involved in Jonah’s successful ministry. He was concerned about the prophet’s personal condition.
He asked, “Do you do well?” as if to reason with a pouting child, for it is not only the outcome of activity that God cares about, but the condition of his servants. The rest of us stand in awe of the fantastic success of Nineveh, and are satisfied with it. Not quite the Lord. He wants more than external victory for Jonah; He desires spiritual health.
Jesus taught in John chapter 15, that your ministry to other people is linked to spiritual health. In verse 8, He said, “By this my father is glorified, that you bear much fruit.” Fruit includes, but is not limited to the spiritual development described in Galatians 5. It also involves our influence upon those around us, how the Christ living in you becomes the Christ living in them.
Other people are integral to our Christian lives. That’s why we’re careful about reliance on programs and “ministries.” While flipping the switches and pulling the levers of administrative tasks, we might actually succeed in insulating ourselves from living, breathing people.
Jesus continues in verses 9-10, saying, “As the Father has loved me so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” The people we are bearing as fruit in verse 8, we are loving in verse 9-10 by abiding in Christ.
This brings us to verse 11, where Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy your joy may be full.” That same joy then drives us to more people. The whole thing–people, love, and joy is a self-reinforcing cycle. This is what it means for a believer to “do well.”
So we return to the question asked of Jonah: “Do you do well?” No he didn’t. He had a 120,000 person success in his ministry, but no love, and therefore no joy. He was learning through his hollow experience with outreach, how far out of alignment he was with God.
While you’re alone, or only surrounded by the people you like, everything seems fine— “God’s in His heaven and all’s well with the world.” But that condition can be utterly false. Sometimes entire churches happily become ingrown, feeling like outsiders are too much trouble, that the unchurched, undiscipled, and unsaved bring too many headaches with them.
The church stops being a church and becomes a club. It never realizes how far off it has strayed. But add back into the picture a few outsiders, and the challenges that creates will force many of our hidden attitudes to the surface.
While you’re trying to bring people to Christ, He will align you much, because the Lord will be there with you, like He promised in Matthew 28:20: “Behold, I am with you all the days, even to the end of the age.” We’ll learn how to act when somebody makes a frustrating decision that takes them two steps backward from God, and the Lord asks, “Do you do well to wish something bad would happen to them?” Or when somebody challenges us, and the Lord asks, “Do you do well to want to beat them in an argument and humiliate them?” Or when your prayers for them aren’t quickly answered, and God asks you, “Do you do well to give up?”
The Lord may also ask, “Do you do well?” and call attention to the fact that you are doing well. You’ll realize it’s because you’ve been drawn into the crosshairs of God’s work together with him; He has invited you into His field of human souls. And as you’re involved with those souls, God has been working not only in them, but mightily in you as well.
God also works in you through appointed circumstances He allows, or even engineers related to other people. At this point in chapter 4, Jonah is personally at a different place than he was at the start of the book. Don’t think he hadn’t made progress. Back in chapter 1 he had felt the right to disagree with God’s word—gross misalignment. That’s when God hurled a storm (1:4), and later, appointed a fish to swallow Jonah (1:17). Both of those experiences seemed to have moved the man into a greater place of alignment with God. At least Jonah was no longer saying “I’m not going to Nineveh.”
However, he still had an attitude discordant with God. And so in 4:6, it says “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.” It was the first positive note since Nineveh had been saved—“Look, I got an umbrella!”
But just as quickly as God gave this token blessing, He took it away. Verse 7 tells us, “when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered,” and worse, in verse 8, “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.’” Note the two appointments of plant and worm, signifying the deliberate design of God. Mark them well, because this is where Jonah’s advanced learning commences.
In verse 9 God again asks Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” Then comes the prophet’s belligerent and stubborn response—“Yes I do well to be angry, angry enough to die!” So God tells him, “You pity the plant for which you didn’t labor, which came into being in a night and perished in a night.” You pity this simple, transient creature comfort. “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?” (v. 11). You pity a plant. I pity Nineveh.
It was a moment of learning beyond anything Jonah had ever experienced, and it was all related to his valuation of human beings.
On the way back from Africa recently, something happened in the Kampala airport that rubbed me the wrong way. A girl started to sing and dance for all of us who were seated in the lobby. Amidst travel-weary passengers, the whole thing felt contrived, like a bad musical number that happened to break out, as musicals do, in unlikely locations. The girl seemed to want attention badly, and although she was talented, I instantly disliked her, wouldn’t even look in her direction.
A general boarding call interrupted her “performance,” and we started to enter the aircraft. I was hoping for an empty row of seats so I could put the armrests up and turn them into a mattress. I was exceedingly glad when I got one of those rows. The plane was only three-quarters loaded with people still filing in, but I had my fingers crossed.
Well, there’s a God in this universe. And the girl who annoyed me so badly got on board and made a beeline straight to my row. And so there we were, just the two of us. She was four empty seats away, but with a personality like hers, that was still sitting in the splash zone. Then I got exceedingly angry.
At that moment, while I was fuming, the Lord seemed to say, “Do you do well? Do you do well to be angry about My seating arrangement?” Well, the girl ended up occupied with one of her friends the whole trip, anyway, and it wasn’t like I was going to pursue a long conversation with a young single woman I didn’t know. But the principle was clear. I’ve worked in the Lord’s field with Him for many years, yet I’m still unlike Him in too many ways. Small. Stingy. Irritable. It usually becomes clear when I’m tested with situations involving other human beings.
Think about the things that make us giddy with delight, or that aggravate and grieve us. Most are related to personal pleasures, likes and dislikes, conveniences and comforts that have nothing to do with the truly high stakes, like a neighborhood or a city full of lost people. Or one young, insecure girl in an airport.
A vast difference often exists between what we pity and what God pities. And that’s where the Book of Jonah abruptly ends, right after God makes that point.
For New Testament readers, this final truncated conversation wraps back around to chapter 1 verse 1, where God says, “Go.” Don’t wait around to be a better person. Go. You know those five people you’re praying for? At some point in your prayer you’ll begin to sense that it’s time to send that email or time to drop in, or have coffee. It’ll be time to “Go.”
As this happens, God’s work in them and His work in you will continue.