As a missionary, I’m often asked to preach when I visit a church, which leads to the usual dilemma of asking myself, “What will I preach?” And so I am often drawn to the book of Jonah. My standard joke is that I love this book because, no matter how badly I fail at being a missionary, Jonah will forever hold the title of “Worst Missionary Ever.”
However, should you be interested in making a run at his crown, here are five simple steps on how to be the worst missionary of all time:
When God calls you to go, run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.
The book of Jonah begins like most of the other books in the Minor Prophets. God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and cry out against it. But rather than go north to Nineveh, Jonah runs south to the coast. He heads in, literally, the exact opposite direction of where the Lord wanted him to go. Although we often have a tendency to ascribe the motives given in chapter 4 to Jonah’s flight in chapter 1, however, if we were to read this story for the first time, I think we would be inclined to assume that Jonah fled his calling, not out of hatred, but out of fear. In Old Testament times, prophets who brought messages of God’s impending judgment were often not treated very well, even in Israel. Even when they went to God’s own people, prophets who brought this sort of message were, at best ignored, and at worst, cut in two. Assyria was, at the time, known as being one of the cruelest nations on earth, and so it would have been reasonable for Jonah to have been afraid of delivering this message to the Ninevites.
I regularly talk with people who tell me that they had thought of doing foreign missions, but didn’t, or wouldn’t, for one reason or another. And while some of their reasons are valid, many times it’s clear that fear is the motivating factor in ignoring a call to missions. “What if it’s too hard to learn a new language or adjusting to a new culture?” “What about my parents as they get older?” “What about my kids?” These are all relevant questions to ask as you consider a call to missions, but to be motivated primarily out of fear is a good first step towards challenging Jonah as the worst missionary of all time.
Miss opportunities to share your faith as you go
To get out of Israel, Jonah hopped aboard a ship, apparently not speaking to anyone before hiding himself away in the depths of the boat to take a nap. It’s clear that the sailors had no idea who Jonah was, or where he was from, before the storm hit the sea. Jonah didn’t say anything about himself until, terrified by this supernatural storm, the sailors press Jonah for his story. To his credit, Jonah does eventually offer up a true confession, but only after it is clear that he has no other choice.
Even as missionaries, it is rare that people come to us specifically asking us about our faith. Our neighbors have never stopped by our house, asking to meet with us sometime to discuss the truths of Christianity. If we waited until someone formally asked us to share our faith, we would be waiting indefinitely. Rather, our calling is to share as we go, wherever we are, and in the midst of whatever we’re doing. Often, these opportunities come at the worst times for us personally: when we’re busy, when tired, when we have no desire to engage in deep conversations (in another language). But Christ reminds us that it is in our going that we are called to make disciples. If you’re interested in being the worst ever, keep your faith to yourself at all times.
Don’t pray until you’re stuck
By the end of chapter 1, Jonah was ready to accept the consequences of his disobedience, even if it meant his death. But he didn’t actually pray until he was stuck in the belly of the great fish. He didn’t pray until he couldn’t do anything else, until he was stuck.
In many ways, prayer is the missionary’s life, the missionary’s work. Our desire is to see men and women turn from their sin, from their idolatry, to serve the true and living God, to see churches planted that will proclaim the Good News of God’s Word for generations to come, to see communities transformed by the saving grace of the Gospel and to see nations pursuing peace and righteousness and justice. None of this can be accomplished through human effort, through the work of our hands. Our work must be preceded and superintended by the Holy Spirit, which means that prayer must be a defining aspect of what we do. And yet life is busy, and the “tyranny of the urgent” can often take the place of time spent in the Bible and prayer. Obviously, if a neighbor stops by for a cup of coffee, or someone in the church community needs a ride to the hospital, it’s not good to turn them aside because it’s “prayer time.” However, as missionaries, we often feel the need to be busy, to be doing things that will make for a good newsletter, and the end result is that time in prayer is left aside. To chase Jonah’s title, you’ll want to make sure to encourage this trend. Only pray when you’ve got no other option.
Be faithful to proclaim God’s Word, but do so with no love for those who hear you
In Jonah Chapter 3, you’ll find one of the least “seeker-sensitive” messages of all time. Jonah spent three days traveling throughout Nineveh proclaiming a message of impending judgment; “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4b) And the text is clear that this is exactly the message the Lord sent Jonah to give, and he didn’t leave anything out. God’s message was harsh, but the people of Nineveh had merited a harsh message.
We could commend Jonah for his fidelity to God’s Word in chapter 3, but it is clear from chapter 4 that Jonah had no love for the hearers of his message. In verse one, we read that Jonah was exceedingly displeased, and angry, over the repentance of Nineveh. Jonah hated the Ninevites, did not want to see them repent, and was so angry with God over his forgiveness that he was ready to die. In short, Jonah did not love the people to whom he preached.
There is a huge need for faithful, biblical preaching on the mission field. People are hungry for it, and there is no substitute for it, as preaching is the God-ordained means by which Christ has promised to draw sinners to himself. However, rigid fidelity to God’s Word, divorced from a love for God’s people, is of little value and will ultimately lead to ruin for the hearers. Yes, Nineveh repented, and we have Christ’s assurance that we will stand with these Ninevites on the great Day of Judgment. But Nineveh’s repentance would be short-lived, and less than 100 years after the days of Jonah, Nineveh would be so completely destroyed that it would be forgotten by the world for millennia. The mission field needs faithful preaching, but it needs it from men who love those who hear it.
Complain about God’s grace
Certainly one of the most striking things about the book of Jonah is Jonah’s prayer in chapter four. Jonah takes God’s character, that he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and uses it as grounds for his complaint against the Lord. These characteristics of God are mankind’s only hope, and yet Jonah saw God’s grace as a serious character flaw. Jonah hated the Assyrians, and so he was completely against their turning to the Lord.
I’m not sure if Jonah’s exact disdain would be found among most missionaries today, even admitting that the seeds of racism and hate run deep in the human heart. A far more common challenge for most missionaries is dealing with the unexpected and often challenging way that grace works in people’s lives. I know of a missionary couple that spent years discipling a husband and wife with the hope that they would become leaders in their church, only to have that family move away. God often works in ways we don’t expect, He changes people in ways we weren’t counting on, and this can easily lead to frustration with God and his planning. If you really want to be the worst missionary you can be, make sure to complain to God every time he doesn’t do what you think he should do, doesn’t act according to your timeframe, or doesn’t change people’s hearts the way you think they should be changed.
So there you have it, five easy steps to challenge Jonah as the worst missionary of all time. I pray you’ll take them to heart whether or not your calling is to consider a life overseas.