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Death To Self-Reliance

Erwin W. Lutzer | January 11, 2004

Selected highlights from this sermon

Jonah ends up in the belly of a fish, and what does he do?  He prays and sings.  His song shows us God’s involvement in Jonah’s situation.  God was listening to Jonah, directing the circumstances, answering Jonah’s cries, and purifying his theology.  Jonah lays down his self-reliance and proclaims the truth, “Salvation comes from the Lord.”  In desperation, Jonah turned to the Lord and confessed his idolatry. 

The fact is this: only desperate people pray.  Are we desperate now, or are we going to wait for God to make us desperate?  Do not let it go that far!  Are you willing to be broken for God’s glory?

Was it not C.S. Lewis who said that he came kicking and screaming into the Kingdom of Heaven? And I know for sure that it was Jesus who said, “No man can come to
Me except the Father, which has sent Me.” Drag him. That’s what the Greek word means. Drag him!

You and I are pretty stubborn, especially when it comes to our relationship with God, and in this series of messages on brokenness, I need to point out that brokenness doesn’t mean that we don’t have a will of our own. It doesn’t mean that we become colorless non-entities. What it means though is that we are committed to living our lives for the glory of God, even at great personal cost, and we are willing to accept the circumstances that He brings into our lives, and we accept those circumstances as the will of God, not always chafing against them and fighting them, and constantly in conflict. Yes, we can improve our lot, but at the end of the day we believe that what has happened in our lives can be used for good, and we accept it as from His hand.

Jonah is the man that we are talking about, and this is Jonah 2. I hope you will be able turn to it in your own Bibles. It’s a difficult book to find because it’s in those Minor Prophets, minor meaning shorter prophets. So you have Jonah, Micah and Nahum. One way to find the book of Jonah is to go to the break between the Old Testament and the New Testament and then just go backwards for a number of pages, and you should find it there.

Last time we left Jonah in the belly of the fish, and it is there in this creative learning center that God prepared for him, that God got his attention. Now just think about the belly of the fish. What can we say about it? Well, first of all, all of the regret of the world can’t change the past. Jonah could have been there and all that he could have done is to think about how terrible it was that he did this, and say, “Oh, if only I had done differently.” No, there’s room for regret, but regret never changes the past. There’s no use praying like the teenager did. “Oh God, I pray that this accident might not have happened.” It’s a wonderful prayer, but the accident has happened and you were driving too fast.

Furthermore, in the belly of the fish Jonah had no future. His future was out of his hands. He couldn’t say, “Well, what I’d really like to do is to talk about my five-year plan.” In the belly of the sea monster you don’t talk about that because your future is out of your hands.

Catch this! He was not able to call an attorney and say, “I’m going to sue God for doing this on me.” There was no possibility. As a matter of fact, he couldn’t even enlarge his living space He wasn’t able to expand his living quarters. He was pretty confined there for 72 hours. And while he was in there 72 hours, he composed a poem. In fact, some people think it was made up later because it’s got snatches from the book of Psalms in it. Well, maybe it’s because Jonah knew the book of Psalms. As a prophet he should have known it, and so he took some of the ideas and pieced them together, but he did make these ideas his own. And remember, he had lots of time. He probably prayed other things too, but this is the summary of his prayer, and he probably went over it a number of times just to get it right, so we have in effect a Psalm birthed in the belly of a sea monster.

Notice the text says in verse 1, “Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.” I love that. He was God’s servant, and now suddenly the man who was running from God, who was saying, “I want to get away from the presence of the Lord,” this man is suddenly now again confronted by God. He was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, and he prays to the Lord, saying, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and He answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.”

Some people think that this means that Jonah actually died. Sheol in the Old Testament generally is the region of the Netherland. It is, what shall we say, that shadowy area where the spirits of the departed went in old times, and some people say that this would be a much better example of Jesus, who later uses this as an example of His own time in the tomb, and His resurrection, but it’s possible that Jonah didn’t actually die. He’s just saying, “I was in the deepest pit that you could possibly imagine. I was in the depths, and I most assuredly thought I was going to die, and yet You preserved me.”

What did Jonah learn about God in the belly of the fish? By the way, most of us don’t like the smell of the outside of a fish. I have no idea what the inside of a fish smells like, but here Jonah was confronted with God. What did he learn? First of all, he learned that God was listening. I already read it there for you in verse 2. “He answered me out of the belly of Sheol when I cried and You heard my voice.” God is not deaf. In fact, frequently in the Psalms it says, “Lord, when I cried unto You, You inclined Your ear.” Now God doesn’t have ears like you and I do. What the Psalmist means is that when I cried to You what happened is You were listening, and You were so fine-tuned that You could even hear the whispers of Sheol, and You most assuredly therefore are able to hear me even though I am confined, and even though I have no future, even in the midst of this dilemma. Oh God, in desperation, I cried to You and You heard my prayer.”

God understands all the different languages of the world. He understands your words. He also understands your heart. He knows what it is that you are thinking, and even in the depths of Sheol remember that in Psalm 139 it says, “If I ascend into heaven Thou art there, and if I make my bed in Sheol (There’s the same word again.) behold Thou art there.” Of necessity, God has to be in Sheol. God even has to be in hell. He’s not communicating with those who are going to be there but He needs to be there because He is everywhere. And so you can’t get away from God. And He listens to you today in your apartment or in your condo or in your home. In the midst of your grief and in the midst of your puzzled life, you cry to God. And God is listening. As a matter of fact, you can contact Him and you can call Him collect. He has free phone service.

Sometime ago I told you about the man who came to the church here and said, “You know, I’ve been trying to reach God but He’s not answering His calls.” Do you know why? He wasn’t using the right area code. You know you get the wrong area code and of course He doesn’t answer. He wasn’t using J.E.S.U.S. That’s the right area code, (applause) and when you use that area code you can call collect. God listens.

Secondly, God was controlling, or we might say directing. God was directing. Notice what the text says. I’m in Jonah 2:3 now. “For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the floods surrounded me; all Your waves and Your billows passed over me.”

You’ll notice the number of things in the book of Jonah that God controls. God controls the wind. It says in Jonah 1:4, “And the Lord hurled a great wind unto the sea.” God spoke, and believe me, it blew, and the waves were high.

And then you have God controlling the dice. Some of you say, “Well, does God control the rotation of the dice? Does He control who wins the lottery?” Well, all that I can do is to point to the text. Always keep your finger on the text. Chapter 1, verse 7 says, “And they said one to another, ‘Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us,’ So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.” So God controlled the dice that the sailors were using.

God also controlled the fish. We learned last time that He appointed a fish to swallow Jonah. God controlled the sailors as they made up their minds as to what to do to throw the cargo into the sea, and what have you. And so God doesn’t have trouble with that. Later on we’re going to find out that God doesn’t have trouble with a worm, and a plant that grows up. But God is having some trouble with a man who will defy Him in a way that the wind doesn’t, the dice don’t and the fish doesn’t, but this man is going to say no to the will of God. And even when he’s there, as God is trying to break him down, you’ll still find out, as we will learn next time that he is a very reluctant learner. Could I be talking today to somebody who is just plain stubborn? It’s possible, but let’s hurry on.

So God was controlling. Today I am speaking to some of you who, because of your own bad decisions, sinful and disobedient decisions, just like Jonah’s decisions, you are today in a difficult spot. But it’s because of the trail you chose. This is just the natural result of you taking the wrong path and insisting that you are going to take the wrong path and making one detour in your life after another. I am speaking to you today. And you say, “Well, can God help me?” Well, did God help Jonah in his distress? And the answer is yes. Wherever you are today, cry to the Lord and He will listen and He will control and direct. And the reason that you can pray with confidence is because He is in charge and He can control and He can direct. That is one of the things that Job had to learn, didn’t he? Where did Job’s trial come from – God or the devil? It’s a trick question. The answer is both. The immediate cause is Satan. The ultimate cause is God.

That’s why Job prays and says, “The Lord gave, the Lord takes away.” How do people die? The immediate cause is cancer, heart attack, and all kinds of other creative ways that people die today. The ultimate cause is God. Blessed are those who can accept that and therefore receive God’s comfort and know that He does all things well.

So Jonah’s theology here is getting very biblical. He understands that it is God who hurled the great wind upon the sea. It’s God who cast him there. The water belongs to God. “It’s Your waves and Your billows passed over me.” “It’s your seaweed that is wrapped around my head,” he’ll say later. God is controlling. God was answering.

Here I pick it up at verse 4. “Then I said I am driven away from Your sight.” I need to pause there for a moment. Isn’t that exactly what Jonah wanted? In chapter 1 he flees from the presence of the Lord, and we learned last time what that meant. He was fleeing from God. He was saying, “I’m resigning.” He says, “I don’t want you in my life. I’m not going to pray.” He didn’t pray in chapter 1 because what he wanted to do was put God on the shelf and then put a tag on the shelf that reads, “To be dealt with later. I am doing my own thing.” Like one woman said. She got into a car and she squealed the tires and shouted out loud, “God, I’ll see you around town,” as she did her own thing, until finally God got her. God can get people.

Now notice he says, “I am cast away from your presence.” Well, Jonah, you should be very happy about that. That’s exactly what you wanted – to be driven away from Your sight. That’s what my translation says – remember, English Standard Version.

It says, “I am driven away from your sight.” Well, Jonah, aren’t you happy? There is no person in this world more miserable than someone who experiences the loss of God. No, it’s not a cause for happiness. You may say, “Well, I’m going to do my own thing and I’m not going to relate to God. I’m not going to seek His direction. I’m not going to seek the counsel of godly people who can help me make decisions. I’m not going to seek the Word of God. I know what I want to do, and I will do it.” Some of you are on the verge of making a decision that could ultimately end up destroying literally the rest of your life because you may trip a series of dominoes and not know where those dominoes are going to end up. So here he is saying, “I was driven away from your sight, and now I’m discovering that that is a life of misery.”

When he says, “I shall look again upon your temple,” in verse 4, it’s probably the temple in Jerusalem. He goes on to describe what he’s going through. “The water closed in over me to take my life.” After all there was a period of time when he was thrown into the water before the fish caught him. “The deep surrounded me. Weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever.” That’s when the fish swallowed him. It’s as if now suddenly he was in this confinement that he couldn’t get out of, and in his dilemma he was crying to God. But I mentioned to you that God was answering. There it is in verse 4, “Yet you brought up my life from the pit, oh Lord, my God.” God answers.

And God was showing him that even in a dilemma over which we have no control, when we are finally brought to the end of manipulation, of self-will, of self-reliance, of dependence upon ourselves, of determination that we are going to change a situation, God kicks all those props out from under us so that suddenly everything that we have been able to control no longer is under our thumb or under our feet. It is then that God meets us and answers us, and it is then that God comes through. So Jonah says that God was answering.

What else was God doing there? He was purifying. There are two aspects to this purification. First of all, you’ll notice he says in verse 7 and following – well let’s look at verse 8. “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.” Why does he throw that in there? It’s because his own will and his own desires he recognized to be an idol. You know there are things that we set up. It says in the book of Ezekiel that these people have set up idols in their own hearts. Our idol can be another person. It can be a vocation. It can be whatever we desire to do. That can be our idol that says, “I want this even above the will and the purposes of God. I want this more than I want the glory of Jesus,” and that’s an idol. So he says those who follow vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. They are not going to get through to God. “But I with a voice of thanksgiving,” he says, “will sacrifice to You. What I have vowed I will pay.”

Isn’t that interesting? He’s saying, “Lord, I made a commitment to You long ago and now I realize that I’m going to fulfill that commitment,” and in the next chapter we can see that part of the commitment was that he does eventually go to Nineveh where he was determined he would not go. And so he says, “Lord, “I’m going to pay my vows.”

I was reading that in the text and I discovered that the pagans in chapter 1, as a result of Jonah’s limp witness, actually ended up believing in God and paying their vows. Do you realize that sometimes a child of God can have a harder heart, a more stubborn will, a more determined personality to blow God off than even pagans who apparently came to know the true God? It’s amazing what Christians have done. Have you ever been surprised at Christians? We shouldn’t be surprised at those who aren’t Christians, but our surprise is people who have been redeemed by God, trying to thwart God’s will, trying to do others in to the very best of their ability with all of their might, trying to thwart what would be the acceptable will of God.

So God says, “Jonah, have you learned something here?” And Jonah says, “Yeah, one thing I’ve learned is no more idols. In fact I’m going to give thanks to You.” And then there’s something else that God purified, and that was Jonah’s theology. He comes out with this marvelous statement. “Salvation belongs to the Lord.”

A well-known preacher in England by the name of Charles Haddon Spurgeon said that Jonah in the belly of the fish went in an Armenian. That is to say that he believed in free will and that we direct things basically, and he came out a Calvinist. Now that word Calvinism some people don’t like. I’m only quoting Spurgeon, you understand. No quote of mine would fit here, but there’s a stress on the sovereignty of God, and he’s saying salvation is of the Lord. He’s talking about his own salvation, his own deliverance. There’s no question about that, but there is a larger statement in Scripture that salvation is of the Lord. That is to say that it is God who redeems us. It is God who initiates us by having Jesus Christ die on the cross. God initiates salvation and then God applies it to the human heart.

Salvation has to be of God. I began this message by quoting the words of Jesus that “No man comes to Me except the Father drags him.” And unless we were dragged into the Kingdom we would go our own way. We would reject Christ. We would see no reason why we should believe, and so God grants us that ability to believe. Isn’t He gracious because from beginning to end, salvation is of the Lord?

By the way, this is another argument as to why Jesus Christ is fully God, and many people believe He’s a lesser God of some sort (There are all kinds of problems with that biblically and theologically.), but just hang on to this for a moment. If Jesus were not fully God, God would have delegated the dirty work of redemption to a created creature, and salvation would not be of the Lord. But from beginning to end, salvation is of God.

Some of you have never trusted Christ as Savior. What you need to do is to open your hearts to Him and realize this, that if God is talking to you, if you sense within you this emptiness that you’d like to have filled, this sense of alienation and sin, don’t turn away from that. That is God getting your attention to realize that salvation is in Him alone. So God was purifying his theology even.

What’s the bottom line? At the end of the day we always want the bottom line. I think that the bottom line is simply this – that only desperate people pray. I omitted it a moment ago, but let’s look at verse 7. “When my life was fainting away I remembered the Lord.” It took that. If you are not desperate you are not going to pray.

Isn’t it interesting? We see this nationally. We have, for example, the 9/11 experience where thousands of people were killed, and the very next Sunday the churches were filled. People came to prayer meeting. They said, “You know, we’re just coming to prayer meeting because we think we need God.” Like the young people say, “Duh!” So it took that.

I remember hearing somebody saying, “You know, things are so bad we are going to have to begin to pray.” Only desperate people pray, but listen to me carefully. If you and I actually saw who we were before God, we’d know that we’re always desperate. It’s just that we don’t know it. We’d be at prayer meeting all the time if we understood our true condition before God, because we’d understand that we are in desperate straits as a nation most assuredly, but also as individuals. We are desperate. And what God is trying to do is to say, “Don’t you see your need?” and the reason that God motivates us to pray is He does it through giving us circumstances that lead us to utter desperation. And then we finally cry out to God and say, “God, it’s over. I lay down the weapons of a rebel. I am desperate. Help me.” And the Bible says, “If you call unto me in the day of trouble, I will answer you.”

I have a little booklet in my study. I think it’s entitled Crying Out to God, and it makes this interesting point. In the Old Testament at least, there is a distinction between just praying and crying out. For example, David will say something like this: “I prayed to the Lord and I cried out to Him.” Now we know that we don’t have to cry out because God knows our thoughts so we can pray silently, but there’s something in Scripture about lifting up our voice in desperation that attracts the attention of God. And over and over again in the Scripture it says, “I cried out to You, and You inclined Your ear to me, and You answered me,” and there are times when we should cry out. You might not want to do it in your apartment if you have thin walls, but maybe you can go somewhere at times and just cry out to God. He loves to hear the voice of His children, and desperate people pray.

I’m interested as I look at the text that Jonah doesn’t even bargain with God. People who are really desperate don’t bargain. He doesn’t say, “God, get me out of here and I’ll be going to Nineveh in a heartbeat. Just get me out of here.” I don’t see that in the text. What he’s doing is he is thanking God for the deliverance that was wrought through the fish, and he’s recognizing that, and he’s giving God praise and his future is entirely in God’s hands.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus in the New Testament used this? One day some people came to Jesus and they said, “Why don’t you give us a sign that we might believe You?” Jesus had given them many signs and many miracles, but He said, “No longer shall a sign be given unto you, but as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth,” and just as God had Jonah expelled from his confinement, in the very same way, on Resurrection morning Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, giving evidence that He was indeed the Son of God, which is an incidental proof also that Jesus believed this story. He believed the story. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to believe anything that Jesus believes. If He believes it, I’m going to believe it too.

So, what does God have to do in your life before you chafe and fight and manipulate and plan for your will to be accomplished? I’ve seen people dragged from one thorn patch to another, to another, to another, and they will not bow and say, “God, help me. Do with me as seems good in Your sight,” because we as humans are so stubborn. Look at what God did to Jonah, and next time we’ll find out that he still had not totally come around. He was a reluctant, angry preacher. He went, but just barely.

I want to quote the words of Martin Luther. There was wisdom when he said, “We must descend into hell before we can ascend into heaven.” What he meant was, if you don’t see your need, you’re not going to call up to God for help. Some people have to descend into the depths of Sheol, the pit, and then they say, “Now God, where are you? You’ve got my attention.” Don’t let it go that far.

You’ve heard me tell the story years ago about the man who called a pastor (a friend of mine) on the phone, and asked him to come over to his office. And the man was just wailing and weeping, and just crying out, but in the midst of tears he could not be understood. And the pastor went over there, thinking that the man’s wife had died, or maybe the man’s child had been in an accident and was killed. And all that he could do there was kind of look at the man, and try to figure out what in the world had happened because the guy was just wailing and crying out to God. So when he got him settled down he asked him, “What is the problem?” And the man said, “God just showed me my heart, and when I saw my heart it was as if I was looking into hell.”

What happened is this": He was a businessman and he had been cheating on expense forms. You know, you go into a hotel and you write down certain expenses that are not valid, and then somehow (I don’t know how.) you get the kickback or the money. Actually in the business world, I think it’s a very common practice. I mean virtually everybody does it. Is that really that big a deal? I mean what’s with it? I mean a little bit of cheating here, a little bit of cheating there. You know, a fellow has to make it. A company makes a lot of money. They owe me a lot more than they are paying me. It’s no big deal until you see God, and suddenly when God points it out to you, it is then that you become desperate. It is then that you call on Him. It is then that you say, “Oh God, whatever it takes, no matter what it’s going to cost me, there’s only one thing that matters now, and that is to be fully right with You, fully in harmony with You and with a clear conscience.” And so we cry to God, “Oh God, forgive me; deliver me,” and we cry up and God finally says, “I’m so thankful that at last after years of this and this and this that I have your attention.”

Samuel Johnson says that nothing focuses the mind like the knowledge that one is to be hanged. Nothing focuses the mind like the knowledge that one has nowhere to go – no future, no hope, nothing except you and God. That’s what Jonah learned in the belly of a sea monster. Where does God have to take you and me before we learn the same thing?

Let’s pray.

As we pray together today there are two categories of people, two major categories of people who have been listening to this message. One is you have never trusted Christ as your Savior. I mentioned earlier that you have to dial the 800 number – J.E.S.U.S. Jesus died for sinners and He rose again as I explained a few moments ago, and if you do not know Christ as Savior, even where you are, you can cry up to Him in your heart. It would be better for you to use your voice, but in this general congregation you can cry up to Him and say, “Jesus, save me.” We often have people who come up later and say, “You know I received Christ a week or two weeks ago during the closing prayer. I accepted Him.”

And then there is another category, and that is that you are a believer and you know that your name is written in heaven, but you also know that you are just struggling with God. It’s not against circumstances. You think it’s circumstances, but it’s God trying to bring you to the end so that your will would be yielded to Him. And so what about you? Are you willing to finally say, “Okay, God, I am willing to be broken, willing to say, ‘Lord Jesus, glorify Yourself in me through circumstances, through heartaches, through events I cannot control. I live only for Your glory,” and lay it all down at His feet.

Father, would you make this a transforming moment for people? If we could see hearts, we’d see people struggling with anxieties and sinful relationships and dishonesty. We’d see a picture, Father, that You see clearly, and it’s a picture that You want to change, and so grant a spirit of yieldedness and repentance and faith to come to Your people.

And now you talk to God.

Father, even as we want to thank You for what You did to get Jonah’s attention, we also want to thank You for what You’ve done to get our attention. We pray, Father, that You might not have to do too much, and that we will say, “Yes, Lord, Your servant hears.” Grant that, oh God, we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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