Why do people leave behind everything they ever knew, people they love, security, their entire life? What makes you take such radical steps? Are you not afraid of whatever will happen next?
Of course I was afraid – more than that. I was terrified. Making the decision to leave an entire system of beliefs, relationships and home, without an idea of how life could possibly work, that’s not easy. No one said it was. The question that remains is what could possibly scare you so much that jumping off that cliff into the unknown – without knowing if there was a net to catch you, with the very real possibility that this might end really, really badly – was better than staying and trying to change things slowly.
For me, that was god. It sounds counter-intuitive, but my fear of god made me leave.
When god calls Jonah to be his prophet, Jonah reacts very differently than all the other prophets before him. He doesn’t obey. He doesn’t stay. Instead, Jonah leaves everything behind and boards a ship, with strangers, to a place he doesn’t know. Why did Jonah leave?
Sometimes I think that Jonah and I have a lot in common. Staying meant obeying for both of us. The fear of what god would do to us if we stayed made both of us get on that ship. The fear of what god would do to us. Not the belief that there is no god, the pain caused by relationships, the sad memories. No. The knowledge that god wasn’t done with us yet, and that whatever he had in store for us would not be any good.
Jonah was haunted by god, and god did terrible things to make Jonah return. So Jonah does, and he obeys the lord, and subjects himself to things he doesn’t want to do, things he doesn’t feel are necessary or right. And finally, it turns out that everything Jonah did was just a big game. Nineveh wasn’t destroyed (which is a good thing), but Jonah can’t help but ask why god would do such terrible things to him. God, Jonah says, is compassionate and loving. Jonah knew that God wouldn’t destroy Nineveh. Why was all this necessary? We never find out (yes, you could argue that without Jonah, Nineveh would have been destroyed – but why Jonah? Why not pick a person who would want to do it?). After all things are done and over, Jonah sits outside the city and wishes he was dead. Jonah is empty, angry and has lost all hope. But God isn’t done with him just yet. God let a plant grow for Jonah, so that he could sit in its shadow. And Jonah is happy about that. But then God destroys that plant just to lecture him some more. And Jonah? Well, he is angry, and he still wishes he was dead. We never find out how Jonah’s story continues, but me, I never expected Jonah to jump up and praise the lord. I don’t think he did.
Unlike Jonah, I didn’t return. And god didn’t haunt me (of course, I’m not a prophet). Unlike Jonah, I managed to escape god’s grasp on me. I think that returning would have resulted in similar feelings for me. I believe I would be like Jonah, sitting in my small hut, asking god why I of all people have to be in a situation I really don’t want to be in, why my prayers aren’t being fulfilled (but my husband’s are). I think I too would wish I was dead, angry at god.
Jonah’s life after returning was bleak. Unbearable. Jonah had a choice, though: He could have decided to die that night on the ship, or in the fish. He decided not to. On that night on my ship, I made a different decision: I would rather die than return to whatever god had in store for me.
It’s not about a lack of belief, or about things in the bible that just don’t add up. It’s about a genuine fear of what he would do to me if I obeyed his every word.