What I’ve been learning over the last several years of having a medically fragile child is that, in order for me to have sustenance for this journey, I need to allow God to nurture me. This is true for many of us who are in situations that require long-suffering.
The word “nurture” doesn’t appear many times in Scripture. In fact, I only found it once in the King James Version of Ephesians 6:4, which says:
“…bring [your children] up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”
It is used in the context of a parent/child relationship. I want to explore this word, nurture, in the relationship we have with God as our Father and us as his children. Because, even though the word nurture isn’t used much, we see examples of it throughout the Bible.
Over and over, we see how God nurtures His people. We see not only how God cares for, provides, encourages, and delights in His people, but also their responses to His nurture — specifically in the responses of two Old Testament prophets.
How to Rejoice in Suffering
We will go to great lengths to avoid hard things, or suffering.
Two prophets God nurtured in their suffering — Jonah and Elijah
One of the prophets is Jonah, who many of you know as the prophet who was swallowed by a whale — well, actually it was a big fish, but we will get to that in a minute. But did you know that Jonah was an angry, reluctant prophet? The other is Elijah, a prophet who was tired and beat down. So, one is mad at God and one is extremely exhausted and at the end of his rope.
Now, the job of a prophet was not an easy one. A prophet was given a message from God to then give to people who were resistant to receiving that message. The purpose of a prophet’s God-given role was to lead the people of God back toward Him. They were to lead the people in repentance. In other words, they were to turn away from their selfish, sinful ways and turn toward God instead.
Jonah and the big fish
Let’s start with Jonah. Jonah was given a job he didn’t want to do. God told him to go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it because its people had become wicked. But he ran away from God. He hopped on a boat headed for Tarshish, which was going the opposite direction. He was trying to outsmart God.
Jonah was asked to do something he didn’t want to do.
I can already relate to this story!
Right after Nathan was born, I dropped to my knees and said, “Oh God, you have picked the wrong person. I don’t want to parent a child with a disability. I don’t know how to do this. I don’t like it. I don’t like it for Nathan. I don’t like it for myself. I don’t like it for the rest of my family.” If there had been an easy out, or somewhere to run, I would have. I get Jonah on some level.
So, Jonah hops aboard a ship going the opposite direction of Nineveh. He thinks he found a way out of his calling. But, the LORD sent a storm. Jonah gets thrown overboard. He doesn’t drown. That’s not his way out. No, God provides a great big fish to swallow him.
For three days and three nights, he’s inside the fish praying for God to save him. He’s repentant in the belly of this beast and prays this big long prayer, or poem, for God to rescue him. And God commands the fish to vomit Jonah onto dry land.
Okay, this is unbelievable. It’s comical, if you really think about it. Biblical scholars debate over how much of this is truly a historical narrative and how much is a satire to illustrate a greater message. I believe it’s both. The imagery is over the top. But I want to focus not on all the details, but on Jonah’s response to what happens next.
God gives Jonah a second chance to obey. And this time he does.
Would you believe it? When Jonah spoke, the Ninevites believed God. Even the king believed and made a decree saying that everyone should call urgently on God.
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, He relented and did not bring on them the destruction He had threatened. (Jonah 3:10, NIV)
So, Jonah’s reluctant obedience resulted in great compassion from God — not only for Jonah but for a whole group of people.
That’s pretty darn amazing that God can take Jonah’s rebellious, bad attitude and turn people away from evil and toward Himself.
God enabled Jonah to accomplish a great work of love toward an unloving people because of the appointment He gave him in life. Jonah was appointed a prophet. His was a hard job. He didn’t want to do it.
You are appointed to do something hard too. You may not even want to do it.
Jonah just had this huge victory for God, and what was his response?
But Jonah was greatly displeased and became furious. He prayed to the Lord: “Please, Lord, isn’t this what I said while I was still in my own country? That’s why I fled toward Tarshish in the first place. I knew that You are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to become angry, rich in faithful love, and One who relents from sending disaster. And now, Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:1–3, HCSB)
What? Does this even make sense? Why is he so mad? This amazing thing just happened. All these people, 120,000 of them, repented of sin and found love and compassion and grace in God. The Scripture says that he was mad because he knew God would save those people from disaster. The LORD is a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love. And Jonah, in his own limited judgment of the people, did not think they were worth saving.
Jonah didn’t like the mission God gave him. He thought the people of Nineveh were too evil to be loved and rescued. He essentially tells God, “I told you so!” And God provides Jonah a vine to shade him from the sun.
Then the LORD God appointed a plant, and it grew up to provide shade over Jonah’s head to ease his discomfort. Jonah was greatly pleased with the plant. (Jonah 4:6, HCSB)
Here is another glimpse of God’s character — God’s provision of shade. God still cares for Jonah in his anger. Jonah’s anger doesn’t push God away.
But Jonah cares more about his comfort than God’s compassion. He is more focused on the thing that eases his discomfort, more than for God and His greater purpose.
I don’t know about you, but I am all over this story. I’m a Jonah in my own time because I don’t particularly love the call on my life to be a parent of a child with disabilities. I’ve gotten angry about things that have happened and even turned out for God’s glory, and I still wish that Nathan didn’t have his disabilities.
I want comfort more than I want to administer another cath or tube feeding. My back hurts from lifting my child who can’t walk. I spend endless hours, energy, and money trying to figure out how to extinguish his strange and inappropriate behaviors. And, oh, if I could just get him to talk! I am way more focused on these things than I am God.
Sadly, the story doesn’t end there. The next day God sends a worm to eat the vine that offered protection for Jonah. And he makes the sun rise high and hot with a scorching east wind. Again, Jonah says,
…It would be better for me to die than to live. (Jonah 4:8, NIV)
God’s response? Oh, Jonah, You’ve been so concerned about getting shade and protection under this vine. You are concerned about your comfort and what you want.
So the Lord said, “You cared about the plant, which you did not labor over and did not grow. It appeared in a night and perished in a night. Should I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 people who cannot distinguish between their right and their left, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:10–11, HCSB)
God’s purposes are so much greater than ours. His ways are higher than ours, and His thoughts are deeper. Oftentimes our concern for comfort and our agendas don’t match His. I know mine don’t come anywhere near close most days.
Does this mean God doesn’t care about us?
No. It’s because He cares that He is patient with us. He is:
a merciful and compassionate God, slow to become angry, rich in faithful love, and One who relents from sending disaster (Jonah 4:2, HCSB)
He gives us second chances to turn back — to repent. Even if we make mistakes in our attitudes toward God and other people, He gives us a chance to obey again.
I don’t believe that God wanted Jonah to die. The text says that He provided for Jonah. He provided for him again and again. He provided a fish to rescue him. A way out of the fish onto dry land. A mission and a purpose to save the people of a whole, entire nation. He provided a vine.
And when Jonah stayed stuck in his bitterness and anger, God cared for him enough to develop his character. God never wavered in His mission and purpose to the people of Nineveh and what He asked Jonah to do. He was and is faithful to His people.
And God is faithful to you
God is faithful to nurture you in your circumstances. Even if you don’t like them. Even if you are angry. But don’t stay stuck in your anger like Jonah. Let these Scriptures be a loving warning to you. Don’t constantly look for a way out like Jonah. Look to God. Pray for God to change your heart, to strengthen you, and fulfill the mission He has given you.