So, Will We Change?

And so we come to the end of the story of Jonah. Many of you have told us how much this little book has surprised you. The story of an obviously flawed man -- running and returning, petulant and pouting -- has provided for many of us an imaginative way to understand our own lives before God. There is more to Jonah’s story than we first realized. The way the story ends both intrigues and baffles us, and that is because nothing here is neat and tidy. Instead, the curtain comes down with Jonah in a major sulk, a chaotic and unfinished soul. The hopeful piece is that he is still in dialogue with God, but there is no mistaking that he is upset with this God who offends the conscience when his grace is too gracious. The idea that God would relent on his threat to Nineveh is too much for him; so there he sits with his anger, apparently lonely, and obviously conflicted.

The story ends with an open question. God asks: “should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh?” (Jonah 4:11). He waits for Jonah’s response which we never hear. Perhaps we are to help Jonah with the answer. Perhaps we are to hear God’s inquiry from where we sit, realizing that there is a way the church must answer God, but realizing too that we answer from our own incompleteness and personal challenge. God’s question (should I not have concern for the ones who hurt and offend you) is not an easy one. But perhaps by answering the question in the way we know we must, we too can deeply learn what it means to be human beings before God.

For the past few years I have wanted to pursue a deeper engagement with the idea of spiritual change. In my musings, I was brought again to reconsider John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, the work which remains definitive for not only English Christian spirituality but for English literature as well. Imagine a book being a bestseller for 250 years! Bunyan’s book is the epitome of an English classic.

But what interests me is the idea of spiritual change (the older word is conversion) which Bunyan worked out for us. Perhaps because of the spiritual paradigm he grew up in, perhaps because of his own personality and bent, Bunyan was a rather tortured soul, a man full of doubt, guilt and fear.  Simply put, he was unsure of himself and his place before God.

But despite those challenges, Bunyan did find a deeper joy, a sense of contentment and peace with God.  In other words, he experienced deep and profound spiritual change.  The older word for this change was the word conversion.

W.R. Owens makes this comment about Bunyan:

In an important sense all of Bunyan's works, including The Pilgrim's Progress, are about the same single theme: his conversion.  Conversion, according to Bunyan's view of it (unlike that of some later evangelicals) was no instantaneous event or abrupt redirection of the spiritual life but a long and arduous progression.  When the burden falls from Christian's back near the beginning of The Pilgrim's Progress, far from marking the end of his troubles, the drama of conversion has just begun.

This is a meaningful statement for us as we envision what it means to follow Jesus, and what it means to be a human being before God, which we have taken as the story of Jonah.  While I am one who believes it is Biblical to speak of God's grace coming to us in moments of powerful and transformative experience, I also believe that we are transformed through the process of living out the full progression of this life, facing the questions, and answering God from where we sit.  We change and grow -- we are converted -- as we continue the dialogue with God through the entirety of our journey.

And maybe that is the best thing we can say about Jonah, the most enduring lesson of his life. To be a real human being is to do everything before God, as we have said repeatedly. Jonah disobeyed, hid, yielded himself, prayed, preached, pouted, and faced the question -- all before God. There was no part of his life cut off from that reality.

If you ever get the chance, read John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress. In Bunyan’s imaginative telling, we are not "air-lifted" to what God intends for us, but we come to the heavenly city by walking the long road.  Change comes through the continual application of grace to the life we actually live.

This Sunday we wrap up the story of Jonah with a live conversation in all of our weekend celebrations. We will try to answer some of your questions. We call these moments Deep Dive Live.

Bob Osborne