Dr. Peter Marty: Jonah: Changing Course

Love can break chains of dogged certainty, soften calcified heart

Read Jonah 3:1-10

"Do not ask the Lord to guide your footsteps, if you are not willing to move your feet." If you are wondering who first spoke this phrase, her name is Anonymous. I've never met Anonymous, though I'd like to meet her someday since she is responsible for quite a few popular sayings.

In the case of this one, I'm going to venture a guess. Anonymous was the wife of a prophet of the Lord named Jonah.

Jonah surely had many attributes, but an eagerness to listen to the Lord was not among them. He was in love with his own beliefs and opinions. When God first commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh, a city pregnant with evil, and declare that godlessness would only lead to destruction, Jonah went in the opposite direction. He jumped on a boat and sailed as far away from God as he could.

Eventually, Jonah must have caught up with his wife, who informed him that following the Lord requires something of a person. If you're going to ask the Lord to guide your feet, then you have to be willing to move them toward God. Hardening them in the concrete of your own agenda won't take you anywhere faithful.

The second time God ordered Jonah to go to Nineveh, he went. But when the wicked urbanites of that city suddenly started believing in God, Jonah was miffed. More precisely he was furious - less at them than at God.

God had decided to call off the fire and brimstone, electing instead to rain down mercy. God had changed God's mind about a promised wrath. This was too much for Jonah. The whole idea of divine mercy disgusted him. Never mind that he was the recipient of mercy several times himself. He couldn't handle other people benefiting from the same. Worse, he couldn't stomach God showing more flexibility of heart than he had ever demonstrated himself.

That's when Jonah's wife must have set her husband straight again. "Do not ask the Lord to guide your footsteps, if you are not willing to move your feet." In other words, if you are going to be a servant of the Lord, you had better be open to re-examining some of your deepest assumptions. You may think that God favors the very same people you do, and despises the same ones you do. But don't be so sure. There is something called mercy and something else called grace. By God's grace, you get to reconsider your most rigid opinions.

Somewhere along the way we Christians picked up the notion that to change one's mind is a spiritual weakness. How much better, we reason, to stay absolutely consistent and to convince ourselves that we know perfect truth. If one knows the truth, there is no need to admit error or misjudgment. Why alter a perspective when you have all things figured out?

This is when we either need to shop around for a spouse like Jonah's or, better, simply pay attention to the example of God. We think of God as unmovable. We like the steadiness of a fortress mentality governing the mind of God. We equate the constancy of God with divine inflexibility. Yet throughout Hebrew scripture, God appears ready and willing to change God's mind (Exodus 32:14Amos 7:3Jeremiah 18:10Jonah 3:10, etc.).

Why the divine change of mind? 

There can only be one reason - love. Love has a way of breaking the chains of dogged certainty. It can soften the most calcified heart. It can loosen the concrete in which we have planted the feet of our own agenda. If God is love, it stands to reason that God is going to retain the privilege of changing God's mind, especially when mercy is at stake.

Who says we are meant to remain always just as we are? What if a shift of heart and mind can help us develop into the people we have yet to become?

Re-examining old assumptions requires some humility. It asks us to be open to new possibilities. It may even get our feet moving in some fresh directions. On the best days, it will open up whole new worlds of love.

Taken with permission from the May 2012 issue of The Lutheran magazine. Visit their website.