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Making The Best Of A Bad Decision

When You Run From Responsibility

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | April 23, 2006

Selected highlights from this sermon

Have you ever run from responsibility and followed after your own desires? Jonah, the prophet, did just that. He was supposed to preach to Nineveh, but ran the other way. 

God had other ideas, and after many trials, He led him to repentance by giving Jonah another chance to choose again. This time, Jonah chose to be obedient. 

God offers us a second chance, even though the past can’t be undone. Hope can be found in Jesus Christ.  

When You Run From Responsibility

Have you ever had the experience of coming to a fork in the road of life and making a wrong turn? Maybe you made that wrong turn deliberately; you knew what you were doing but you decided to choose the easy path.

Sometimes, however, the easy path is not always the holy path. Maybe you decided to make the decision you did because of desire, you were desire driven. “I want this.” Maybe it was a matter of greed or lust and you said to yourself, “I want what I want. I’m not even going to ask God because I think I know what He might say if I ask Him.” So, you’ve gone on your way. There is self-absorption, self-will, and the need to protect myself, whatever the decision may be.

How would you like it if the decisions you made were public news? How would you like it if you were a juror on the Ryan trial? You didn’t know that everybody in Illinois would know that you either stole a bicycle or bought a stolen bicycle. You didn’t know that, did you? Now it is all out there.

Today we are going to look at the story of a man who took a wrong path and it is all out there. Millions of people have known about it for hundreds and hundreds of years. His name is Jonah and his story is there for all to read and for all to see. As a matter of fact, I can imagine when we get to heaven and we meet him we will say, “So you’re the guy. What was it like in the belly of the fish?”

Furthermore, the question I want to ask him is not that but, “Did you ever get over your stubbornness?” Because the book ends with him being as stubborn as you can possibly be and there’s no hint that he ever changed. I want to say, “Jonah, tell me, did you change before you died?” What fun we will have when we meet Jonah.

Now God wouldn’t have asked him to go to Nineveh to preach unless he was a well-known and good prophet. And when he said “No,” it wasn’t because of pure bigotry. He was beyond that. It wasn’t because he was a coward, because, actually, he wasn’t a coward. He was willing to die. In fact, he said to the men in the boat, “Please throw me over.” Over and over again he lives with this death wish. “It is better for me to die than to live.” No, no, no.

In fact, his refusal had nationalistic roots. It was the idea that if he were to preach to Nineveh they might repent and God might bless them and they, in turn, might punish Israel. He had high motives for his disobedience.

I hope by now your Bible is open to the book of Jonah. Jonah is among those minor prophets and a little hard to find. It is minor not because it isn’t important but because it’s shorter. “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.’”

God says, “Go to Nineveh,” but Jonah has issues. Jonah says, “I’m not going to go,” and then what unfolds is this story. Now you have to understand that there are some people who find it difficult to swallow the story of Jonah. But Jesus believed it and so do I.

Now let’s look at the lessons that Jonah learned when he was running from God, outside of the will of God. A few years ago I preached a series of four messages on Jonah. Today we are looking at the entire book. We are going to survey the whole book and put it together in one piece.

What were the lessons learned [by] running from God? First of all, he learned that when you run from God and responsibility, God pursues you. Now let’s look at the text. It says in verse three, “But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” Literally the Hebrew is “from the face of God.” He says, “I want to get away from God,” so he is trying to run from before the face of the Lord.

Some of you may be in Chicago because you’re running from the face of the Lord. Well, I’ve got some news for you: God is in Chicago, too. You know that, don’t you? You’ll notice that he [Jonah] found the ship and he paid the fare and it says in verse three that he went down to Joppa. In verse five he goes down into the inner part of the ship, he goes down into the water and eventually down into the belly of the fish. Whenever you run from God you always go down, you never go up.

But how does God pursue Jonah? He pursues him through circumstances. Verse four says, “The Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea,” and it caused the fish to be discombobulated. Fishermen were scrambling to live and the shore was affected by the blast of these waves. But God had something else in mind. There was a disobedient prophet that He was trying to get back into his plan.

God would have been gracious enough if He would have simply said, “Jonah, adiós. I’m through with you and I am going to find something else.” But God pursues him just like God pursues you. Considering the lives that there may be listening to me today, isn’t it amazing that you’re listening to this message? God pursues him through circumstances. There is this huge storm and they take the cargo and they throw it overboard.

What is Jonah doing when all this is happening? This is unbelievable. It says that they throw the cargo out of the ship into the water and Jonah, in verse five, is fast asleep. The captain has to come to him and say, “What do you mean, you sleeper?” Is it possible to have a clear conscience and sleep well in a state of disobedience? The answer is yes. You can talk yourself out of doing God’s will and get a good night’s rest. Jonah could sleep contentedly with all of this going on around him as a rebellious prophet walking away from his responsibility.

It’s interesting, and we say it in passing, that the storm was not brought about by the wicked sailors. The storms in America that we face, the erosion of our freedoms, our moral freefall—it’s easy to blame certain groups. We blame the ACLU, we blame various liberal groups, we blame Hollywood, and all of them, I’m sure, have some blame. But maybe even the storms that we encounter happen not because of the pagans but because of unrighteous people asleep on a boat who should be repenting. Maybe that’s the reason we have encountered so many storms in this country. It is not always because of the pagans. Sometimes it is disobedient Christians. So God uses circumstances and God uses people.

The sailors come and they talk and he tells them in verse ten that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord. It says they knew that he was doing that because he had told them. I can imagine Jonah as he is rationalizing all of this, he’s saying, “Well, at least I’m honest!” Have you met people like that? “Well one thing about me, sure I’m doing a, b, c, d, but at least I’m honest.” Yeah, you’re honest. But you’re also wrong and rebellious, thank you very much.

So Jonah, of course, tells the sailors and then they cast lots and they discover that it is because of Jonah they are having this problem. Jonah, of course, with his desire for suicide, his desire to die says to them, “Throw me over and let me die. I am finding the will of God so distasteful that I would rather die than go to Nineveh and preach to those people.” What a mirror of the human heart. Pretty stubborn, wouldn’t you say? Jonah is a chip off the same block that you and I have in our hearts. So he wants to get away, but God now is getting his attention because God is pursuing them.

There are some people to whom I’m speaking today, you are out of the will of God geographically, and you are running from responsibility geographically. There are many of you who are running from the will of God and from responsibility morally. You are living a lie that God knows all about.

Then there are others that may be running from the will of God relationally. You are pulling back from relationships which you ought to be drawing closer. You’ve ruptured relationships and you don’t have the humility to go and ask people’s forgiveness, and you too are running from responsibility and from God. But God is pursuing you.

That’s why I wanted us to pray at the beginning of this message—because God is pursuing you. He is graciously after you and He has not yet written you off, because you are here and you are listening either by radio or on the internet or here in the sanctuary of [The] Moody Church. So God isn’t through with you.

The second lesson that he learns is that when you repent, God hears you. We all know that if you eat a bad fish that is botulism. I’m not sure there is a word for a fish eating a bad man. But the Lord appoints a great fish and says to the fish, “Do you see that guy over there? That’s your dinner,” and he goes for it.

Now Jonah is in this creative learning center. He cries out to God in his distress. What a marvelous prayer of repentance he prays. Very quickly, in verses three to five he acknowledges God. It says, “For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains.” He went down, wow.

What he’s saying is, “God, you’ve caught me. I was running and you caught me. God, you now have my full attention. All other options are closed doors, needless to say. So Lord, I was drowning,” and some people actually think that he died because he calls out from Sheol. He’s in distress and he’s in desperation and finally he says, “God you caught me.”

May I ask you today, has God caught you yet at this point in the message? Now he says, “God you’ve got me.” He says in verse seven, “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord.”

God says, “Okay fish, he wasn’t your dinner after all.” And the fish vomits him out on the shore. Wow. And then God says to him in chapter three, “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city.’”

Sometimes the impression is given that Jonah arrived in Nineveh with seaweed around his neck and that he looked white from being in the belly of the fish for three days and so forth. That’s not possible. The reason is because Nineveh, which is modern day Iraq, was four hundred miles from the sea. So it was probably weeks and maybe months before he got there.

But, the word of the Lord came to him a second time. God says, “Jonah, I’m taking you back where you got off track. I’m taking you back to that point in the fork in the road where you pursued disobedience and I am coming to you a second time. I am giving you a second chance.” Now mind you his attitude was no better, as we shall see in a moment. But God is the God of the second chance.

Some of you are saying, “Yeah maybe that’s possible, but my problem is I can’t go back to that fork in the road where I got off track. The decision I made was too serious.” Maybe it was a marriage, maybe it was a vocational decision, there are so many decisions that can be made, and now too many years have passed. “Too many ruptured relationships have taken place. There is just no way that I can go back to where I was.” That indeed may be true; you can’t go back to the fork in the road, it’s in your past.

So now what? When we repent, God begins to have a new series of forks in the road. We’ve learned enough in this series of messages, “Making the Best of a Bad Decision,” that God not only doesn’t give up on us, but nor is it true that God can no longer use us. When we are brought to the point of desperation, the point to which Jonah was brought, we are then in a place where God comes along and says, “Now that you’ve repented and finally acknowledged what you should have known, that I am Lord and King and you bow humbly before me every single morning for instruction, I will give you a new series of forks in the road and I will give you an opportunity to choose and to make the right decision from here on out.”

If I may speak very plainly, it is still possible to do the right thing after you’ve done wrong. The word of the Lord comes to you a second time. Oh yes, the past cannot be recalled; it cannot be relived. But here you are opening your life to God and saying, “God, from now on,” and you repent before God and you make things right before man. God says, “I’m giving you a second chance,” and maybe a third and maybe a fourth.

So Jonah is learning that when you run from God, He pursues you, and when you repent, He hears you. Some of you today may be in the belly of the fish, and God says, “I’ve caught you.” Be willing to say, “God you’ve got me.”

The third lesson that he learned was that when you complain, God teaches you. This is a very interesting story. We pick it up in chapter four, verse one. As you know in chapter three, Jonah goes and repents. Even the animals repent. I often say I don’t know of any animals that need to repent, though I do think we had a cat at one time who could have and should have repented. I’m not sure that she ever did, but she should have.

Can you imagine Mayor Daley proclaiming a fast and even saying, “Put sackcloth on animals and let all of Chicago repent?” That’s what’s going on here. It’s the most phenomenal revival in history. Period. The preacher wasn’t that great or that interesting, and he certainly didn’t preach with a good attitude. Isn’t it amazing what God can do? He can override human frailty.

Jonah now learns that when you complain, God teaches you. In chapter four, verse one it says, “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” The Hebrew says these words: “It was evil to Jonah, very great evil.” What was the evil, Jonah? Could you tell us? “Well, I preached and 6,000 people repented.” That was evil to Jonah.

We’re talking about the human heart here, you know? You say, “Well I’ve never met anyone that stubborn.” I wonder if your friends have met someone that stubborn. Think about that if it went past you. Jonah says, “It’s evil and I want to die.” He says in verse three, “Take my life.”

Now the Lord tries therapy in verse four. The Lord says, “Do you well to be angry?” God says, “Let’s talk, Jonah. Let’s have some therapy.” But Jonah won’t stay for the session. It says in verse five, “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.” He was saying, “Even though they repented, I hope God judges it.”

What God does here is so interesting that it really deserves a separate message sometime, and sometime it will be a separate one. What God does here is He holds a mirror up to Jonah so that he can see himself and to see whether he can really see what he looks like.

So God says, “It’s hot out here, Jonah.” Jonah says, “Yeah, it’s hot out here.” “You want to die?” “Yeah, I want to die.” “Well, you know what? I’m going to be gracious to you.” In verse six it says, “The Lord 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.” “Oh, Lord. Thank you for this air conditioning. It is just so wonderful; praise God.”

And then it says in verse seven that the Lord, “appointed a worm.” And God says to the worm, “Worm, do you see that plant over there? I want it down by morning.” Not only that, but Jonah was getting faint. It says in verse eight, “When the sun arose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint.” God says, “I want you to get a taste of some bad weather.”

Nothing will bring out the heart like bad weather. My wife and I live in a condo complex. You can’t just turn on the air conditioner until they tell you it’s on, and it takes a day or two to make the transition. I remember one time it was so hot in April that all these nice, wonderful people—boy, were they steamed.

Notice this: You should underline the word “appoint.” It appears four times in the book of Jonah: the Lord appoints a fish, the Lord appoints a plant, and then the Lord appoints the worm and the east wind. God appoints our comforts, He appoints our discouragements and He appoints our trials. A plant to shade him, a worm to bug him, and God appointed a scorching east wind to exasperate him.

Why? God says, “I’m holding up a mirror, Jonah, so you can see what this is all about.” God comes to him and then Jonah is willing to stay a little longer for the session.

By the way, people think all that you need to do is take somebody who needs to be fixed and get them to the right counselor and they’ll fix them. The counselor here is God, and even He doesn’t seem to be helping Jonah very much at all.

Jonah says again, “It’s better for me to die than to live.” But God says to Jonah in verse nine, “‘Do you do well to be angry for the plant?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.’” Wow. That’s quite a prophet. “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?’” That verse is a reference to the children; the young ones who do not know their right hand from their left.

God says, “Jonah, all that you can see is your air conditioner and your plant. Having the right environment means more to you than having 120,000 children who would perish without a knowledge of God unless you told them about Jehovah. That’s your heart, Jonah.” And then the book ends. We have no idea as to whether Jonah ever got the point or if he responded to it.

You talk about the human heart being hard. It’s possible that our creature comforts can mean more to us than the children of Chicago. When we hear Donnita and Sarah stand up and say that we need tutors for Cabrini-Green, there should be a very, very good reason that God accepts as to why some of us say “No.” It is possible that just the same creature comforts mean more to us than children who need tutors and who need friends and who need help. This is a picture of the human heart.

There are three life-changing lessons for us. First, when we run, our disobedience has wider consequences. The Bible says that Jonah went to Tarshish and down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish and paid the fare. It will cost you to run from God.

But he is not the only one who paid. The sailors paid. They threw their cargo overboard and that was their livelihood. They had no insurance in those days to recoup the loss.

The people in Nineveh also paid. They had to wait a certain number of days and weeks and maybe months before they got the message that should have arrived earlier. There’s no doubt that many of them died and they would have been alive if Jonah had gone when God told him to.

There are some of you today who know exactly that I am talking to you. You are backslidden; you know God, but you’ve drifted away, and you say to yourself, “I can live my life in the way in which I want to and I can do my own thing.”

What you don’t realize is that you affect all the people around you negatively. The positive effect that you were supposed to have in your families and in your ministries is gone. You just don’t sin alone, you are influencing others. It can’t be any other way. “No man lives unto himself and no man dies unto himself.” The meter is always running when we disobey, we always pay. We always pay a whole lot more than we think we will.

Second, follow this carefully: We need to take responsibility for disobedience before we can expect God to take care of getting us back on track. Jonah had to see himself, and he saw himself only partially because he ends up still being rebellious.

What is the most common cause of divorce, of the ruptured human relationships, of all these other things? I would simply say this: It is because we as human beings do not want to own our own stuff, if I may use that expression. We simply refuse to respond to the mirrors that God has put in our path. As a result of that, you can hear sermons and you can sing songs, you can have role models, you can do the whole thing and still be a Jonah. We don’t want to do serious business in God’s presence in repentance and faith.

I think of how many marriages could be saved if husband and wife were to sit down together and say, “You know what? I’m going to own my stuff.” Are you going to be able to own your stuff instead of blaming others, instead of excusing it? We all own our stuff in God’s presence and in the presence of other people. That’s a process—even in my life. Sometimes it is a painful process to own our disobedience and to call it by the right name. God is calling you back today.

It would be very understandable, as I said. Jonah hears the will of God very clearly and God goes through all of this to get the prophet back in God’s will. Nobody wants you back in fellowship more than God. He set up all these things in your life and you don’t pick up on them. In some cases, He drags you from briar patch to briar patch to say, “Don’t you hear me? What is it going to take for you to see yourself?”

There’s a final lesson which is that some opportunities are lost forever. In the twelfth chapter of Matthew, Jesus said, “Just 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.” He said this to people who wanted a sign.

And then He said, “The men of Nineveh shall rise up and judge this generation. They repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” Wow. The men and women of Sodom will rise up because something greater is here.

You think of all the opportunities that we have that the people of Nineveh didn’t have. They didn’t even have a good message. It was just judgment, “Repent or else you’re going to be overthrown.” He didn’t even say, “Repent or else.” He just said, “Nineveh is going to be overthrown.” What a boring message to repeat over and over again. They didn’t have choirs and hymns and radio and Bibles and all these things. The men of that generation will rise up and judge this generation because God is here.

And God is saying to some of you, and there are two categories of people that I am speaking to, “Isn’t it time that you opened your life to what Jesus did on the cross and believe on Him?” He is much greater than Jonah and was obedient where Jonah failed. And then to the rest of you, yeah you know Jesus, but fellowship is so far off. God is saying, “I’m pursuing you and I want to catch you. I want you to be back in fellowship with me.” Are you willing to say today, “Lord I’ve been running and I’m coming home”?

Let’s pray.

Now, Father, what can we say as human beings, so entrenched in what we want? Would you at this moment work in the hearts of all who have listened to this message as you’ve worked in my own heart? May this be for many people a moment of repentance and faith, in Jesus’ name, Amen.”

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