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Cover image via Michael Nicholson.
Jonah 1-4, Micah 2; Micah 4-7
More Than Huge Fish and Fast-growing Gourd Plants
What do you think of when you hear or read the Bible prophet Jonah’s name? Professor David Rolph Seely has insightfully remarked, “It is ironic that the profound message of the book of Jonah is often swallowed up in the speculations about the great fish, dwarfed by the debates about the size of Nineveh, ignored because of the image of fasting beasts draped in sackcloth, or diminished by the dramatic growth of a gourd plant.”
Instead, Dr. Seely recommends that we not let these peripherals interfere with the ultimate and eloquent message. He continues, “The medium of the message is most often ironythat is, a constant incongruity between what is expected and what actually occurs. But just as the props are not the play, neither is the medium the message; it is only a means to the end. The book of Jonah teaches in its four short chapters much about the nature of God and man and ultimately has something profound to say about relationships, specifically that the relationship between a man and his Maker has profound implications for a man’s relationship with his fellow humans. Because we recognize ourselves in Jonah, we initially smile at his humanness but by the end we are sobered, as we, like Jonah, are humbled by the grace of God and come to recognize our own hidden duplicities.” (David Rolph Seely, Studies in Scripture, Vol. 4: 1 Kings to Malachi [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1993], 46).
Allowing For All of God’s Children Our Brother’s and Sisters
Though we are “cut off” from God’s presence, all human beings are nevertheless literally spirit children of Heavenly Father. The core of Jonah’s problemwhich was not only his running away from a challenging calling like preaching to the dangerous Ninevites, but also and most deeply was his seeming disapproval and disappointment that God accepted their repentanceseems to be Jonah’s forgetting or dismissing the fact that all people are our Father’s children.* Just as any caring parent, Heavenly Father is hopeful that we will all prepare appropriately for our return to himthis time to stay and “go no more out” (Helaman 3:30). Hence, Jonah’s struggle is not merely with being scared, but more significantly with the sin of spiritual stinginess.
*We must note that the ancient inhabitants of Assyria (Ninevah, one of its principal cities) were infamous for their vicious warfare. Being one of Israel’s bitter enemies, we can empathize with any feelings Jonah may have had with not wanting them to be forgiven by the Lord. Yet, we gather from the Lord’s statement in Jonah 4:11 that they may have been partly guilty of their crimes because they “cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand.”
This reminds me of Elder Robert C. Oaks’ great metaphor in a recent General Conference of the Church. “Consider that you are invited to a friend’s house for breakfast. On the table you see a large pitcher of freshly squeezed orange juice from which your host fills his glass. But he offers you none. Finally, you ask, “Could I have a glass of orange juice?” He replies, “Oh, I am sorry. I was afraid you might not like orange juice, and I didn’t want to offend you by offering you something you didn’t desire.” Now, that sounds absurd, but it is not too different from the way we hesitate to offer up something far sweeter than orange juice. I have often worried how I would answer some friend about my hesitancy when I meet him beyond the veil. (Robert C. Oaks, “Sharing the Gospel,” Ensign, Nov. 2000, 81).
The fears of losing or altering relationships negatively when seeking to share the Gospel are real and are most effectively addressed through sincere prayer. The Lord knows those we are in contact better than we do, of course. Our humble and submissive prayers access this precious information and render it useful to us by revelation. We should never underestimate how people can change through the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The scriptures are replete with examples, including those at Nineveh. Much of what we need in securing our courage and determination is an increased trust in the Lord. He will enable us to do whatever work He would have us do in assisting Him to change those we know into true celestial candidatessomething we are all capable of becoming (see Helaman 3:27).
Example of the Power to Change in the Gospel
I had an experience during my stay in Japan that has always impressed me about the Lord’s ability to change people. One day my 6’4” blond companion from California and I (6’0” and when I had hair it was nearly blond) were visiting houses in hopes of distributing Book of Mormons for people to read and ponder.
One door slid open to reveal a tiny and extremely shy young lady. She appeared unusually unkempt and awkward. At the sight of us she frozeunable to look at us, talk to us, or even run away! My younger companion slipped a Book of Mormon into one of her hands and mentioned to her that we would be holding a free English class every week and that she could return the book to us there. She didn’t say a word and though she took the book, I was sure it was just a gesture to get us to go away.
Due to her obvious fears, as well as her appearance, I didn’t think much about her until she showed up several weeks later to the church where we were holding our English classes. She quickly handed me the book and tried to exit immediately. When I asked her if she had read any of the Book of Mormon, she mumbled something I could not understandher Japanese seemed poor compared to others her age.
My first reaction was to just let her go, kindly releasing her from what was undoubtedly an uncomfortable situation. Yet, I felt a strong desire to help her. She was turning to leave after several more unsuccessful attempts on my part to communicate with her when I said something that caught her attention. I asked if she would like to meet a Japanese sister missionary. She looked ever so slightly interested. I quickly found the sister missionaries and was pleased to see the young lady was willing to visit. Without dragging out the account, this young lady was baptized several weeks later and though I had transferred from that area I was invited and allowed to attend her baptism. It was a nice ceremony and meeting and I left feeling great about being even so small a part of her acceptance of the gospel.
It is not the baptism of this young lady that is instructive, though that was wonderful. About eight months later I was on a train in Osaka when a young lady kept staring at me. This is very unusual behavior for Japanese people in general, let alone a female teenager. Even more surprising was that she approached me and introduced herself as the same young woman mentioned above. As we visited I marveled at the changes that had taken placeshe was very neat in her clothes, she was confident and cheerful, and her countenance seemed to be alive.
She related that she was holding three callings in her understaffed ward and that she loved the gospel more and more in her life. I couldn’t get over her amazing growth in just a few months. Words can’t capture the obvious differences in this young sister. The Spirit bore strong witness to me that day, both with my natural eyes and with the eyes of my understanding, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is powerful in changing lives for good. I was so thrilled for her and have marveled in my heart over the years about hers and other’s experiences I’ve later witnessed (including my own!) for good because they were extended the chance to accept the gospel.
Considering these types of miraculous life changes available through the gospel, “why don’t we do better in providing referrals? It is not laziness, because Latter-day Saints are not lazy people. I believe that the fear of rejection or the fear of hurting a friendship is the more common restraint to sharing the gospel. But are these fears valid? When you extend to a friend an invitation to meet with the missionaries, you are offering to share something that is most valuable and cherished. Is that offensive? Sister Oaks and I have not found this to be the case. In fact, we have found that when we offer to share the gospel, friendships are strengthened, even though the friends may not embrace the gospel message” (Robert C. Oaks, “Sharing the Gospel,” Ensign, Nov. 2000, 81).
It was Elder Dallin H. Oaks who also recently commented that the depth of our own conversion can be partly measured in terms of our willingness to share the gospel. “From our testimony of the truth and importance of the restored gospel, we understand the value of what we have been given. From our love of God and our fellowmen, we acquire our desire to share that great gift with everyone. The intensity of our desire to share the gospel is a great indicator of the extent of our personal conversion (Dallin H. Oaks, “Sharing the Gospel,” Ensign, Nov. 2001, 7).
Reality of the Coming Calamity
As illustrated in the life of Jonah, the attitude with which we preach and teach the gospel is significant. Throughout the history of the world, the Lord has both invited and warned the world to come unto Him. While wondrous blessings are promised for accepting, there can be no soft-pedaling the consequences for rejecting God’s counsel (see D&C 3:4; Moses 5:25). In the Kirtland Temple dedicatory prayer, recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, we read that “thou hast spoken by the mouth of thy prophets terrible things concerning the wicked, in the last daysthat thou wilt pour out thy judgments, without measure” (D&C 109:45).
The Lord taught the Saints in an earlier day that it is not through prayers alone that His just judgments can be turned away. “Behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, that the people in Ohio call upon me in much faith, thinking, I will stay my hand in judgment upon the nations, but I cannot deny my word. Wherefore [instead of simply praying] lay to with your might and call faithful laborers into my vineyard, that it may be pruned for the last time. And inasmuch as they do repent and receive the fulness of my gospel, and become sanctified, I will stay my hand in judgment. Wherefore, go forth, crying with a loud voice. Go forth baptizing with water, preparing the way before my face for the time of my coming” (D&C 39:16-20; emphasis added).
Knowing that “terrible things” await our brothers and sisters if they do not have the gospel’s directive to repent, “shall we not go on in so great a cause”?! (D&C 128:22). Shall we not offer to them the precious gift of knowing, tasting, and participating in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ? I know that I can do better and must, if I am to please the Lord and be prepared to enter into His kingdom one day with all those for whom I have been instrumental in sharing His gospel.