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Death To Self-Will

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | January 4, 2004

Selected highlights from this sermon

Self-willed Christians who defy the will of God are treading on dangerous ground.  The story of Jonah illustrates how God goes with us, disciplines us, and confronts us when we attempt to run.  God wants to break us in order that we will finally say yes to Him. 

About two weeks ago it was discovered that a friend of ours, who was a Christian leader and who enjoyed spending a lot of time out on the road out of town, had a friendship with a woman who was not his wife. And that was the reason why he wanted to be out of town so much. It’s interesting that when another friend, a Christian, confronted him, the man admitted to the relationship. He said that he knew it was wrong, but also said that he was not ready to change, to go back to his wife, to repent and to heal their marriage.

I wonder how long it is going to take for God to get him to say yes, and to be obedient. I have no doubt that at some point he will, but maybe at that point he will have destroyed his marriage permanently and impacted his children, which is an ongoing event that is obviously happening. And perhaps by the time he says yes, the ruin will be much greater than it is even now.

Also, you know there are stories that come to us like the Christian who had a pattern of deceit, admitting only what needed to be admitted, but hiding a great deal of things regarding financial matters and other kinds of matters, and unwilling to say yes to God – oh “kind of say yes,” but not really yes.

How does God handle self-willed Christians with their self-exaltation and with their great penchant for self-protection? How does God get us to break and to say yes?

Through marriage I am related to someone who likes to tell the story about himself, so he wouldn’t mind if I were to tell it to you, that when he was a boy he was being spanked for taking chocolate that he was not supposed to take. And there he was across his father’s knee. That’s the way it used to be done. And while he was across his father’s knee getting the spanking, he reached out and took another chocolate. (laughter)

How does God deal with defiant children? That’s the topic that we are going to be speaking about. This is the beginning of a series of four messages on the book of Jonah entitled Brokenness – What God Does to Get Us to Say “Yes!”
And we’ll discover that even Jonah never really does (in the book) say, “Yes, yes.” When we get to chapter 4 we’re going to see his full-blown narcissism come to the surface as God tries to deal with a prophet who will do everything that he possibly can to obstruct the will of God.

Jonah lived about 750 years before the time of Christ. And what happened was there were two other prophets who were prophesying at that time – Hosea and Amos – and they made predictions that God was going to use the Assyrian Empire (and the capital was Nineveh), this wicked nation. And those Assyrians, unlike the Assyrians that we know today, were wicked. (I won’t even tell you about the atrocities that they committed.) And they predicted that God was going to allow them to come to Israel, and there in Israel God would let them take people captive because of the disobedience of the people of Israel. And Jonah was not happy with God’s arrangement.

I’m beginning to read here in Jonah. I know it’s difficult to find it in your Bibles. Some of you may have to use the Table of Contents, but it’s in what are called the Minor Prophets because they are short and not because they are unimportant. It’s Jonah, Micah and Nahum as you get near the end of the Old Testament. That’s where you’ll find it. I’m reading today from a translation called the English Standard Version, and some of the reasons why I’m reading from it will become clear even as we go through the text. But keep that in mind – English Standard Version.

Beginning in Jonah 1 it says, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before Me.’(Could anything be clearer than that word from God?) But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.” He was going in the opposite direction.

What burr was in his saddle, we might say? Sometimes people say, “Well, you know, he was just a bigoted man, and he didn’t care about the salvation of others. That’s not quite right because when he’s there on the boat he cares about the salvation of the pagans that he’s with. In fact, apparently he leads them to faith in Jehovah.

Some people say, “Well, he was afraid to die. He thought he might get killed in Nineveh.” No way! This guy wanted to die in Nineveh. You’ve got to have a deathwatch on this guy. He’s constantly complaining about “Why aren’t you striking me dead? It is better for me to die,” when you get to the fourth chapter. He’s wanting to die. No, no, no, his rebellion was more noble than all that. He was a nationalist, loving the nation Israel, and he says, “If I go to Nineveh, and if I cry against the city, God may choose to forgive them, and that would only strengthen them, and then they’d come against us.” That was his problem.

Most often our rebellion is because of petty issues that we hang on to. Some of you, God bless you, live with people who have issues, and they don’t want to give up those issues. Those issues are precious to them. They’ve had them for so long. They’re not going to give them up. And most of the time it is petty issues. Sometimes it is very noble issues. That’s what is going on here in the text. He has noble issues with God.

Later on he explains in chapter 4 why he didn’t go. He says, “You’re merciful, You’re gracious, and I thought that You might show mercy on this city. That’s why I fled,” he tells us. What he’s saying is, “I’m a lover of Israel. You expect me to go to these pagans who in turn are going to be persecuting us.”

Now, you need to know that when you run from God, as he does, you don’t stay home, because whenever you run, running from God is never static. And that’s why he flees from the presence of the Lord. It’s because he doesn’t want to just stay home and rebel. He’s got to run to cover his conscience and give the illusion of him doing something worthwhile. So he is running.

It would be like a Christian Jewish man – a Messianic Jew – being sent to Berlin (say in 1942) to preach to the Nazis a message that God might actually forgive them and strengthen them as a result of it, and so because of his intense nationalism, his hatred toward those evil Ninevites (and they were evil), Jonah said, “No.”

It’s interesting that three times in chapter 1 you have the word down mentioned. It says in verse 3 that he went down to Joppa and found the ship going to Tarshish. Then later on in verse 5 it says, “He went down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down (the translation I have says he slept down),” and then he gets thrown into the water down into the depths of the sea. Whenever you run from God (Listen carefully.) you always go down. You never go up. Down, down, down!

He also used the circumstances, I am sure, to justify his own will. The Scripture says that he went down to Joppa and he found a ship going to Tarshish. There weren’t ships leaving for Tarshish every day you know. But you know, isn’t that wonderful? There’s a ship. “Do you have room for one more passenger?” “Yes, we have room for one more passenger.” “Do you have money?” they asked him. “Oh yes, yes!” and he pays the fare thereof, and he says to himself, “Surely God must be blessing me in my disobedience. Look at this confluence of events and the way in which things are working out. There’s a ship. I’ve got the money. I’m on my way. God is affirming my disobedience.” And so he pays the fare thereof.

Now, one of the things we’re going to learn is that he’s not the only one who is going to have to pay for this. However many shekels it cost him to go outside of the will of God I can assure you of one thing, and that is this. It’s going to cost him a whole lot more and it’s even going to cost the sailors something because you don’t go outside of the will of God without paying the fare thereof.

All that by way of introduction! Three lessons come to mind, and then three or four further lessons. We want to make sure that you get your money’s worth today. First of all, one of the things we learn is that when we run, God goes with us. He wanted to flee from the presence of the Lord. It says that twice in verse 3. “He rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship to Tarshish and paid the fare and went on board away from the presence of the Lord.”

Now, you say, “Did he honestly think that God was localized?” You know, in those days you had local deities. You know, you had a god that was in Israel, and it was believed that once you left Israel then there were other gods in other countries.

One day I had a long ride with an air traffic controller who told me that a plane leaving some part of the world might actually go into the air space of several different countries. And one air traffic controller hands it off to the other country, and then the other country hands it off to the next country. And in the very same way there were people who said, “Well, you know that God is the god of Israel, and there’s a different god once you get out of Israel. You have to worship another god.”

Now that is true historically. That is what was believed, but Jonah knows better than that. He’s a prophet of God. You’ll notice in verse 9 he tells the sailors, “I am a Hebrew and I fear the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.” He knew that he could not escape the presence of the Lord as such. What he’s saying is, “I resign. I’m finished. And as far as God is concerned, what I am going to do is I’m going to take all these issues of my relationship with Him and I’m going to put them on a shelf. And on that shelf I’m going to put a label that is going to say, ‘To be dealt with later.’ For now, God isn’t a part of the picture.”

That’s what happens, you know, to backslidden Christians. Oh, they still say grace. Yes, they pray at mealtimes, and they say nice words, but basically if you ask them about their relationship with God, that is being postponed until another time. God is on the back burner and not the front burner. And so there they are. They are running from God. They are resigning.

But you can’t run from the presence of the Lord. Psalm 139 says, “Where shall I go from Your Spirit, or where shall I flee from Your presence? If I go to heaven, You are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, behold You are there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell on the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Your hand lead me, and Your right hand hold me. If I say, ‘Oh, surely the darkness shall cover me,’ then even the night shall be light about me, for the darkness hides not from Thee. The night shines as the day. The darkness and the light are both alike to You.” You run from God and God is with you. You can’t run from the presence of the Lord. You can’t even hide from God in a big city like Chicago. You can’t hide from Him.

The second lesson is that when we run God disciplines us. You’ll notice the text now. It says in verse 3, “But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” Verse 4: “But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea.” Jonah and God are going to “but” one another now, and you’ll notice it says that the Lord hurled a great wind. The NIV says He sent a great wind. He just didn’t send it. The Hebrew text says that He purposely hurled a great wind into the sea. And the sailors in turn hurled their cargo into the sea. God hurls this great wind into the sea.

Now the wind has numerous different effects most assuredly. The wind causes the fish to recongregate and causes confusion. It may have done some damage along the shoreline. Maybe the wind was able to even destroy other vessels that were in the area. So the wind here is really blowing. It sweeps the coast, but its express purpose in God’s sovereignty is to get to a man who is running away from the express will of God. God is trying to get to Jonah. That’s the purpose of all of this.

Now, notice that the storm was not caused by the pagans. Sometimes we say, “Oh, you know, America has so many different problems,” and we blame it on the radical liberals, their agenda, our losses and our freedoms. And we say to ourselves, “Look at the storm that we are in.” Well, yes, we are in a storm morally and spiritually and our freedoms are in jeopardy. But listen carefully. Maybe the storm is not because of the pagans that we love to talk about. The storm may be there because of believers who are not walking with Almighty God. That could be the purpose of the storm. The storm is for the people of God. At least in this context it is.

Now notice what Jonah is doing in the middle of this storm. Well, it says that he went down into the inner part of the ship. I’m in verse 5. And he had lain down and was fast asleep. Don’t tell me that it’s not possible to have peace outside of the will of God. You can run from God and you can say, “I have my peace. This is what I want to do and I’ve decided to do it and I’m at peace with myself.” And so Jonah is sleeping. The other sailors, of course, are absolutely desperate, but Jonah is asleep in the bottom of the ship. And so it’s the pagans who come to Jonah and say, “Jonah, we’re all calling on our own god. Why don’t you call on yours?” They cast lots and God controlled the lot and it fell on Jonah. And then Jonah becomes very honest with them and says, “Well, you know I’m running from the presence of the Lord and this great storm happened because of me.” And so he gives them some insight into this meteorological phenomenon of the storm. And he says, “It’s my fault,” and then he says, “Cast me into the sea.” They say, “Oh no, we don’t want to do that. We’ve cast the cargo into the sea but we don’t want to do that.” And they are praying and saying, “We don’t want to toss him overboard.” And Jonah says, “Toss me overboard. Let me die. I’m not going to go to those Ninevites.” We’re talking about stubbornness here, and so eventually they say, “Alright! We have no option or else all of us are going to drown.” So they cast him into the sea.

And now we come to a third lesson that we learn. When we run, God confronts us. The Bible says in Jonah 1:17, “And the Lord appointed; not just prepared, but appointed. This is God appointing a fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. We don’t know what kind of fish it was. We as Christians don’t have to measure the gullet of a whale to see whether a man can get in, and I’m not sorry that I have to say this, but I’m sorry for you if you don’t believe the story because Jesus apparently did. But what happens in the text here is God says to this big fish, “Do you see that man over there? Go swallow him.”

Now when a man swallows a bad fish, I think it’s called botulism. But I don’t know what word to use when a fish swallows a bad man. I’m not sure exactly what the word is, but God finally says to Jonah, “Jonah, guess what! You and I are going to meet and I’m preparing a meeting place, and we’re going to get this business of your rebellion ironed out, and I now have your undivided attention,” as we shall see in the message next week.

But lest you think that the sermon is over (“He only preached 15 or 20 minutes today,”) no, it’s not quite over because I have some additional lessons. First I began with two, then I had three, then I had four, then I had five. I said, “Lord, if you keep showing me things in the text here, these people are going to be here for a long, long time. So I’ve reduced them to four.

Here are some additional lessons today. First of all, you cannot permanently obstruct God’s will. God intended that the Ninevites repent, and God said, “That’s going to happen even if you are rebellious, Jonah. I’m going to get you back on track, and if I can’t use you and if eventually you go out into the night being incredibly stubborn, I’ll choose somebody else. But those Ninevites are going to repent.” You can’t permanently obstruct God’s will. For a time Jonah obstructed it because the Ninevites should have really repented earlier I suppose, but you can’t permanently fight against God and think that His purposes are going to collapse because of your disobedience. They won’t.

I have a friend who was fired from a church. It’s a big church in another state, and he was fired from the church over a disagreement, and the church had its version of the story. He had his version of the story, and he was absolutely convinced he had been done an injustice. He told me that when he left the church he literally stomped the dust on his shoes from the step of the church, condemning it to God’s judgment. And then he also told me 15 years after this event that since he left, God has done nothing but cause this church to flourish. It’s got more staff, more money, and more ministries than it ever had before. That should wake you up, shouldn’t it? You think that your petty little injustice is going to thwart the will and the purposes of the sovereign God who intends that people be saved and that ministries be blessed?

Now, of course, we should be straightening out these things if we can. Sometimes we can’t. But the simple fact is that the purposes of God are bigger than our own rebellion. God has so many options to accomplish His will that if we’re not going to become a part of His will, His will will be accomplished one way or another. Isn’t that wonderful? (applause) I hope that those of you who didn’t clap also agree. So that’s the first summary lesson here. It’s that we cannot permanently obstruct God’s will.

Second, God’s will is a living relationship. You know, some people think that the will of God is so difficult to find, that should you ever slide off on one side or another, everything is lost. It’s entirely hopeless because all that you need to do is to try to find this elusive needle in a haystack, and people are seeking it when, in point of fact, there may not even be a needle in the haystack.

Listen, here’s a prophet who heard God’s Word clearly. Wouldn’t you love to hear from heaven and be told to do A, B and C? I mean, could it be any clearer? “Go to Nineveh and cry against the city.” What we wouldn’t give for that kind of guidance, and in the face of that kind of guidance you have a prophet who rebels against God and goes in the opposite direction. You’d think God would say, “Enough of that, and I’m done with you.” Here God works with him.

If God is willing to take a rebellious prophet who knew His will exactly, how much is He willing to work with those of us who really do desire His will? As we lay out our lives before Him, He will guide us because He’s interested in where we end up, and He’s also interested in us getting to where we are supposed to go if we lay our plans before Him. He’s in the guiding process. In fact, what’s interesting in the text is (and don’t make too much of this now) that God even used a rebellious backslidden prophet in His backslidden state. God used him in the lives of these sailors. And when things went bad and the storm came, the Bible says that each began to call upon his god. There were as many different gods represented as there were sailors. “I belong to this god,” “I belong to that god.” “You know this is my god over here.” “Well, everybody holler to your own God. Okay?”

Well, after Jonah explains to them the living and the true God, it says in verse 14, “Therefore they called out to the Lord, ‘Oh Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for You, oh Lord, have done as it pleased You.’ So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.” Maybe these pagans are going to be in heaven because they came to know the true God through a backslidden prophet who was running as fast as he could from God’s will. Isn’t God great? Isn’t that wonderful? (applause)

So don’t ever think that you have to be put on the shelf because somewhere along the line you made a bad move. First of all, if you desire to seek God’s will, that’s a different story, but even in our rebellion sometimes God will actually use us. I mean He is so incredibly gracious that it’s almost hard to comprehend it. So that’s the second lesson.

A third lesson is that our disobedience has wider consequences. Our disobedience always has wider consequences. When Jonah left he thought to himself, “Well, you know this is all just about me. I’m going to be rebellious against God but it’s not going to affect anybody else.” Oh yes, it did affect other people. These pagans, for one thing, threw their cargo overboard. Listen, the cargo was their livelihood. It was everything they owned. Jonah paid his fare to go to Tarshish – a couple of shekels. Listen, these sailors paid a much higher fare for his disobedience, because whenever you and I disobey, we’re always taking other people with us. Our impact is such that it is not possible for us to simply say, “Well, this is just about me.” No, it’s about your family. It’s about your church. It’s about other people. It’s about the impact that God has in your life and intends to have. I mean, it’s got repercussions here.

The man that I began this message talking about can say, “Well, this is just about me,” having found this other woman. Yes, it’s just about you, but look at your family that’s being destroyed. Look at your testimony that’s being destroyed. I mean you can’t tell me that you can somehow just be disobedient in a narrow kind of way and not take others in your disobedience. Listen, the issues that you have in your life (and there are many ways to run from God, as I’ll be explaining in another message), are issues that, if you do not give them up, will affect other people. It will have a negative effect in terms of your attitude and in terms of your actions and what you have, and you can’t just disobey alone.

The Ninevites were affected by Jonah’s disobedience. The sailors were. The Ninevites were affected by his disobedience, too, because supposedly they should have been repenting a lot sooner. So Jonah teaches us that our disobedience always has wider consequences.

But there’s a fourth lesson, and that is that it’s always best to hurry back to the Father. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if, instead of telling the sailors, “Throw me into the sea,” Jonah had said, “Yes, I’m running from the presence of God. God sent this storm. He has my attention. I repent right now, and I’m going to take the first ship I can back because as soon as I get back I’m going to actually go and begin to minister to the Ninevites. And I’m going to do it with joy because God has broken me and my stubborn self-will.” Wouldn’t that have been wonderful? But he doesn’t do that. Oh no! He’s harder than that. He’s more stubborn than that, and so what he says is, “I’m guilty but just throw me in the sea, and I’d rather drown than do this distasteful thing called the will of God.”

It is always better that we hurry back to the Father. Always better, because the fare that we’re going to pay will only increase. We will only keep going down, down, down, down the longer we put off repentance and obedience. The longer we deceive, the longer we muscle God’s will and say, “I will not do it.” It’s always better to hurry back to the Father.

And for those of you who have never trusted Christ as Savior, it’s always better for you to come to Him quickly. As the Holy Spirit of God speaks to you about your need for a Savior, it is always better for you to be quick to say, “I will obey. I will do God’s will. I will come and I will accept Christ.” It is always better to do it quickly than to just prolong the agony as God continues to work and obstruct us, and make it difficult for us, and create fish for us, so that eventually He bends us and brings us right down to the dust and says, “Now, will you do My will?” And finally at the end of a person’s life sometimes people finally say, “Well, now that I am about ready to die and I’ve done all the damage, yes, now I’m willing to obey.” How God gets us to say yes!

So what issues do you have in your life? How are you running from God? For those of us who are believers we quote Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” I go on that cross, and in faith I’ve been crucified with Christ. I have no future. I have no plans except to die to self-will that Christ might live.

Let’s pray.

So, where are you right now spiritually? What ship are you taking to God knows where? And what resistance of the blessed Holy Spirit have you been able to muster because you find God’s will so distasteful? You talk to God right now, because He’s listening.

Father, there are some people who are listening who need hours, not moments, to come into Your presence and finally lay down the weapons of a rebel, and to say, “I give it all to You, everything, all the issues, all the self-justification, all the noble reasons and all the petty reasons. I just give them to You and say, “Father, take them.”

Work mightily to bring that about, Father, because we are so helpless, and so stubborn that we will not give up until You corner us. Teach us, Father. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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