Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Jonah Complex

by Julia Reynolds

Pastor Joe Naw drove in silence after the evening board meeting at one of the churches he pastors in Vermont. He sighed, partly from fatigue and partly from sheer frustration, as the wipers swished away the falling snow. He wondered out loud, “Lord, why did you send me to this cold tundra where the people can be as cold as the weather?” He had only made a suggestion in the meeting, but had been shot down with a comment that had misconstrued his motives entirely, and had undermined his leadership in the church. He tried to explain his thoughts, but found the more he said, the deeper the chasm of misunderstanding grew. Joe even began to question his calling as a minister—he felt angry and struggled with bitterness. His life of ministry felt like drudgery to him, yet he had a family to support and he felt he must press on.

Once home, Joe felt a bit warmed by the fire. He shared with his wife Joan the events of the evening. She sympathized and said, “Well, dear, Christ too was misunderstood by the people He came to save; ministry can be hard at times.” He retorted angrily, “Yes, and look what they did to Christ. They crucified Him and I don’t care to share the same.” And who can blame him?

Can it be that at some time in most of our ministries, if we are honest, we too can share Pastor Joe Naw’s feelings? Ministry does not deliver the Utopian package perhaps we once dreamed of. Can ministry demand too high a price? How far, honestly, is the Shepherd willing to go in sacrificing His life for the sheep?

Two brothers were fighting over a toy. The mother came into the room and said, “What would Jesus do?” The older brother said to the younger, “Okay, you be Jesus.” Do we feel this way at times? Jonah did.

“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me” (Jonah 1:1-2).[1] God called Jonah to go to Nineveh to preach repentance or else the city would be destroyed. But the story goes that Jonah resisted the call to ministry and sailed away in a ship headed for Tarshish. Eventually, Jonah (after much persuasion from God) obeyed and went to Nineveh. His was one of the most successful evangelistic crusades in ancient and modern history, for we read in Jonah 3:10, 4:1, “Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it. . . . But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry.”

The question must be asked, “Why was Jonah angry?” Certainly God used him to bring about the revival of a whole city! Jonah himself admits why he was angry. We read in Jonah 4:2, “Ah Lord, was this not what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness, One who relents from doing harm.” We can see from this passage that Jonah was advanced in his understanding of the character of God. He had a clearer picture than many—even in modern ministry—have of who God is. He had a deep understanding of the love and mercy of God, but clearly Jonah was lacking in these same attributes. His pride and self-love stole from him the highest aspirations of ministry. Without an honest-hearted agape love for those he was sent to save, he failed to be like the God he was to represent.

When self is still on the throne, like Jonah, it is natural to become bitter and angry when something threatens to de-throne self. Could there be a Jonah in all of us? Do we all struggle against our own self-interests? Could it be that we are called to such a radical life of selflessness and agape love? Could this be the answer to success in ministry? Could it be that we are to prefer others above ourselves as we read in Philippians 2:3, “ Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” Is this the key to successful ministry—to love as Jesus loved? I believe it is. If we find ourselves suffering from the Jonah complex, and we all do from time to time, then we are to cast ourselves upon Christ and plead for Him to give to us His love, lest we, too, be bitter and angry in spirit.

What about healthy self-care, setting boundaries and balance? Does the Lord call us to minister till we slip into a premature grave from overwork and stress? The text in Philippians 2:3 affirms that we have “our own interests that need to be looked into.” Even Christ in His humanity left the crowds to recharge his batteries. He needed to be alone for rest and prayer with his Heavenly Father. Yet, the truth of Scripture will answer the greater question of how to avoid the Jonah complex.

John 10:11 tells us that, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd; and I know my sheep, and am known by my own . . . and I lay down my life for the sheep.” Are we called to do the same as the good shepherd?

“Shepherd the flock of God . . . and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive that crown of glory that does not fade away” (1Peter 5: 2, 4). All believers are called to shepherd the flock. You may be a pastor with a congregation or a mother with a flock of children or a doctor with a group of patients or coworkers. Every believer has a flock of sheep to shepherd. But how do we shepherd our flock?

Love must be sincere (see Romans 12:9). If we have the Jonah complex and our love is not genuine for the sheep, then we are merely “the hired hand,” and will eventually run away when wolves come into the camp. The hireling did not care for the sheep as did the Good Shepherd. Are we more like the hireling or the good Shepherd? Do we flee when times get tough? You can be certain wolves will indeed come and our sincerity will be tested! Friends, we are in a great controversy. Satan is marshalling his troops against the people of God. The battle is fierce and getting fiercer, and if you haven’t noticed, wolves are already among us (see Matthew 10:16). Only those who lock in with Christ and share His love for fallen humanity will weather the coming storm. Only those, who with God’s grace, can shed themselves of the Jonah complex, will stand in the last great battle. Like Jonah, we may have some measure of success, but in the end, “without love, we are nothing” (see 1Corinthians 13:2).

So how do we shed ourselves of the Jonah complex? How do we become more like the Good Shepherd and not the hired hand, who, like Jonah, cared nothing for the sheep? The unconditional selfless agape love of the Good Shepherd is not achieved by trying hard to mimic Him. But when we fall helpless upon Christ, realizing our selfish condition, we are made righteous by something He puts into us—“Having made us righteous through the imputed righteousness of Christ.”[2] We read in Christ Our Righteousness by Bill Lehman, “So it is not a mere following after a pattern. It is something that happens to us that He causes. We must be born again. In other words, we must receive new hearts that ‘are created in righteousness and true holiness.’ Ephesians 4:24. When I get a new heart things are different. Righteousness is of the heart.”[3]

We see that, according to Ellen White, “Righteousness is love.”[4] Righteousness is being right as Christ was right in His agape love. It’s not self-exalting like Jonah, but self-sacrificing like Christ. It’s not being on a high throne reaching down; it’s going down as Christ came down for His sheep (see Philippians 2:7-9). Man seeks to exalt self above others—this Jonah complex is like the tower of Babel reaching higher to protect and exalt self. But Babylon the Great has fallen—it cannot stand. Simply put: to exalt self or go up is to go down—as in Babylon. To go down—in self sacrificing agape—is to go up! If Jesus is in the heart, that love will come through. As Ellen White says,

When Christ dwells in the heart, the soul will be so filled with His love . . . that it will cleave to Him; and in the contemplation of Him, self will be forgotten. Love to Christ will be the spring of action. Those who feel the constraining love of God, do not ask how little may be given to meet the requirements of God . . . but aim at perfect conformity to the will of the Redeemer. With earnest desire they yield all, and manifest an interest proportionate to the value of the object they seek. A profession of Christ without this deep love, is mere talk, dry formality, and heavy drudgery.[5]

When Christ comes into the heart, the heart is filled with His love. If, like Pastor Joe Naw, our ministry is becoming, “mere talk, dry formality or even heavy drudgery,” then we can be encouraged to cast ourselves upon the merciful Good Shepherd and be renewed in His Spirit and His likeness. Even in the face of our own unbelief in being able to follow Him as we should, He steps in and has faith in us through His own faith (see Romans 3: 3,4, 22-26). God’s end-time people who are victorious will not have the Jonah complex, but, instead, will have the faith of Jesus working by love (see Revelation 14: 12).

We are called to radical Christianity, which means radical agape love and commitment. In this we make ourselves vulnerable as He did. Like Christ, we are not called to be the hired hand which cares nothing for the sheep, but instead the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. Will we respond to His call?

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, texts are taken from the New King James Version.

[2] Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1980), 394.

[3] J.W. “Bill” Lehman, Christ Our Righteousness (2003), 84.

[4] White, Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1955), 18.

[5] Idem., Steps to Christ (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1956), 44, 45.

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