God had told Jonah, ‘Go to Nineveh.’ Jonah responded, ‘Not likely! I’m off to Tarshish.’ Having secured his passage, he went below deck and promptly fell asleep.
Refuge in sleep
Tiredness can be perfectly wholesome, the natural result of hard work. At the end of a particularly demanding day, we fall into bed and sleep. That’s good and healthy. But we can also experience a tiredness that is not healthy, a sleep that says, ‘I can’t face reality any more. I can’t cope with the responsibility.’ Jonah had already run away physically. Now he was running away mentally. He lost all sense of purpose and along with it all sense of urgency. Dejected and weary, he crawled below deck and fell asleep.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told the disciples to watch and pray, but they fell asleep. Probably they had simply had enough. Jesus had warned them about his death, and now the pressures were mounting. They must have thought, ‘we’re weary of all this. What’s the point? If Jesus dies what’s going to happen to us? It’s just too much for us to cope with.’ So they switched off and fell asleep.
There’s a tiredness which is based on escapism, one which turns on the television and says, ‘I don’t care what rubbish is on. I can’t bear facing reality.’ And when the head hits the pillow at night there’s a big sigh of relief: ‘I can turn my back on it! I can sleep!’
How many Christians suffer from lethargy and general aimlessness? We have a glorious commission – to tell the world about Jesus – but how often do we give the impression of having a vital sense of destiny? Forgetting God’s command to reach the nations, we simply adopt our own plans. We soon lose our sense of direction, get bored and ‘fall asleep’. So the world regards Christians as sleepy and irrelevant rather than provocative or prophetic.
Suddenly a violent storm engulfed Jonah’s ship. Panic gripped the terrified sailors, who cried out to their gods to save them. Fearing that they would capsize in the gigantic waves, all hands were ordered on deck, and cargo was frantically thrown overboard.
Today the world is confronted by many terrible storms: moral storms, economic storms, ecological storms. People are tossed about by countless fears and countless social needs scream out for answers. Though modern man is better educated and informed than ever, he still feels overwhelmed by the enormity of the world’s problems. Just as Jonah’s companions called on their various gods, so society cries out to humanism, secularism, materialism. But, once tried, they are all found wanting. Now some are turning to occult or eastern religions – Islam, Hinduism, Hare Krishna, spiritualism, and so on. Not knowing who has the answer, each calls on his own ‘god’ for help.
Jonah’s shipmates didn’t realise it, but the one man who knew how to stop the storm was asleep. ‘How can you sleep?’ the ship’s captain asked him. ‘Get up and call on your god.’ Everybody else was doing what they could – praying to their gods, bailing out water, discarding cargo – but Jonah only slept. ‘Why don’t you join us in what we are doing?’ Backslidden Christians are often faced with the same sort of question by well-meaning friends and colleagues, but it’s pointless trying to ‘bail out the water’ when you, like Jonah, know the reason for the storm.
The moment Jonah was cornered he knew more about the weather conditions in the Mediterranean than the entire meteorological office of his day! The sailors may have calculated that certain winds had reacted with high and low pressure areas, and the result was a storm. But this backslider knew exactly what was happening. ‘It’s me,’ he told them. ‘I’m the cause.’
Backsliders who’ve been apprehended by God often know more about the situation than anyone else, whatever the specialists may say. The backslider on the verge of bankruptcy can call in an expert to help him save his business. The man might suggest, ‘Well, you should enlarge here and develop there, and you should work at cash flow. Then you’ll probably break through.’ Or to help save his crumbling marriage, he may consult a marriage guidance counsellor, who suggests, ‘If you stop doing this and do that instead, you’ll have a far better chance of pulling your marriage together.’ But in his heart the backslider thinks, ‘No. It isn’t any of that. God is after me.’
God has a heart for backsliders. He closes in on them, whispering through the storms, ‘I’m after you. You’ve run away from me, but I love you and I haven’t finished with you. I want you back with me again.’
‘Taking it easy is often the prelude to backsliding. Comfort precedes collapse.’