Was God’s concern for heathen Nineveh too much for narrow-minded Jonah to take? Was the prophet alarmed at the prospect of preaching his uncomfortable message to the heathen? Whatever he felt, he ran. God had plans for Jonah, ‘but Jonah ran …’ (Jonah 1:3). I wonder how often this is the case with us. God had plans for Mike, but Mike ran … God had plans for Anne, but Anne ran …
Jonah ran from the presence of the Lord. Many people wonder if it is possible to run from God’s presence. I think the answer is both yes and no. ‘No’. David declares in Psalm 139: ‘Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there’ (vv. 7, 8). ‘I cannot run away from you’ he says. ‘It doesn’t matter where I go, I cannot escape from your presence.’ ‘Yes,’ he says in Psalm 51: ‘Do not cast me from your presence’ (v. 11).
Some Christians would simply quote the doctrine that God is omnipresent. Therefore, since God is everywhere, it is impossible to flee from his presence. So when they hear someone say enthusiastically, ‘We really felt the presence of God in the meeting this morning,’ they react matter-of-factly, ‘Well, he’s always there.’ Such dry application of doctrine provides a snare for the evangelical church, robbing us as it does of the anticipation of feeling God’s presence.
The mystery is that we can experience both God’s closeness and His withdrawal. One of Jesus’ names is Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’, but he didn’t say, ‘You will always feel my presence.’ He promised simply, ‘I am with you always’ (Matt. 28:20, NKJV).
Moses said to God, ‘If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here’ (Ex. 33:15). He wasn’t careless about the presence of God. He didn’t put his confidence in a passionless statement, ‘God is everywhere.’ In fact, God had just said that he would go with the people (33:14). But Moses wanted God to know how determined he was that his presence be manifest among them.
When Jonah fled from the presence of the Lord, he was escaping from the revealed will of God and was forsaking the enjoyment of his fellowship.
The prophet went down to Joppa in search of a ship bound for Tarshish. On finding one he probably thought, ‘It was meant for me. What an extraordinary coincidence! What proof that I’m not off course after all.’ After paying his fare he went aboard. He failed to realise that the devil could have supplied a whole fleet of ships headed for Tarshish.
If Jonah had been listening to his conscience, he would have heard the words, ‘You shouldn’t be going this way.’ But he chose instead to take note of circumstances, and they seemed to suggest that he wasn’t on such a perilous course at all.
When you’re determined to go your own way, not only do you turn your back on the revealed will of God, you also become vulnerable to putting significance in coincidences. ‘I know my girlfriend isn’t a Christian yet,’ you say, ‘but look at how we were thrown together. We were obviously meant for each other.’ ‘My boss wants me involved in that business deal. I know it’s shady, but it’s come across my path in such an amazing way.’
Unlike Jonah, Paul was determined to do the will of God and therefore experienced his guidance. On one occasion he wanted to preach in Asia, but the Holy Spirit stopped him (Acts 16:6). A little later he tried to enter Bithynia, but again the Spirit said no (Acts 16:7) and drew him back into God’s will.
Rather than say naively, ‘It just opened up to me,’ begin to listen attentively to your conscience. Learn to detect the voice that says, ‘Keep away from that place,’ ‘Avoid a relationship with that person,’ ‘Don’t get into that,’ ‘The Spirit isn’t leading you there.’ Beware of ‘finding a ship’. It’ll only take you on a journey that you’ll later regret.
‘The conscience is at the core of what it means to be human, as opposed to being an animal. What distinguishes human beings and animals is self-consciousness; that is the ability of the soul to reflect upon itself. Humans are the only creatures in the material world who can think about their thoughts, who can contemplate why they think the way they think, who can understand their motives, who can make moral self-evaluations. And that is a God-given gift, the innate ability to sense what is right and wrong,’
John MacArthur, Cauterizing the Conscience