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Lessons From Jonah: A Bible Study About Embracing Change

Any lasting change starts with a change of heart.
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Upon getting married and returning from our honeymoon, I envisioned my marriage would be nothing short of smooth sailing. 

Little did I know that although everything on the outside had changed for myself and my wife—where we lived, the wedding rings we wore, and sharing our meals—my heart had a long way to go. 

I had to change from having a heart of self-importance and being primarily concerned with my own interest, to a selfless heart that was passionate to seek my wife’s best interests. 

This change involved first becoming aware of my heart and then developing the faith to take action to love my wife.

Am I resisting or responding to the call for change?

Why is change necessary? Because it’s essential for building any relationship of depth and to develop the character necessary to fulfill God’s purpose and destiny for our lives (Romans 5:3-4). 

If we are going to answer God’s call to change not only our lives but to change the world (Matthew 28:19-20), we must begin with having a faith that compels us to be “crazy enough” to respond to God’s call to change rather than resisting it.

Podcast: How to Get Churches More Comfortable with Change

The impact of real change is not limited just to ourselves but also inspires and changes the lives of others. 

“The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones that do.” 

Steve Jobs, co-founder, Apple Computer

This was the change that God had in mind for a prophet named Jonah— to go and care for an entire multitude of people in the city of Nineveh to help them change their ways. 

Who is Jonah in the Bible?

Jonah was a prophet from Gath-Hepher (2 Kings 14:23-27), a small border town in ancient Israel (Galilee). He was a well-known prophet during the reign of the Israelite King Jeroboam of the northern kingdom of Israel (c. 786-746 BCE). 

Jonah prophesied about the great success God was going to give King Jeroboam in restoring Israel’s borders from Lebo-Hamath (in modern Syria) down to the Dead Sea. Despite King Jeroboam’s disobedience to God during his reign, God’s heart was set on saving the Israelites from their troubles and enslavement by providing victories through King Jeroboam. 

With this same heart of care and mercy, God called on Jonah to go to a city called Nineveh. God wanted Jonah to go to the Ninevites to help them change and avert future destruction.

Why the story of Jonah matters to us

Rather than responding to God’s call, Jonah’s heart resisted it. 

1 The Lord spoke to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Nineveh is a big city. I have heard about the many evil things the people are doing there. So go there and tell them to stop doing such evil things.” 3 But Jonah tried to run away from the Lord. He went to Joppa and found a boat that was going to the faraway city of Tarshish. Jonah paid money for the trip and went on the boat. He wanted to travel with the people on this boat to Tarshish and run away from the Lord.

Jonah 1:1-3 ERV 

God’s concern for the people of Nineveh is revealed by his intricate awareness of their lives, their spiritual condition, and especially the evil the people were doing. As long as the people continued on their decadent trajectory, it was going to lead to their demise, which God wanted to avert.

By calling Jonah, God was essentially communicating to him how much he cared about the Ninevites. He wanted Jonah to help them change, so they wouldn’t come to a fateful end as a consequence of their destructive evils. 

Yet Jonah chose to run rather than have the faith to get unified with God about caring for the Ninevites the way God did. Instead of changing his heart, running away seemed easier. Jonah was trying to avoid the challenge of personal change. 

Why did Jonah run and resist God’s call to care for the people of Nineveh? Jonah was a Hebrew of Jewish descent while the Ninevites were Assyrians. Historically they were complete enemies with significant racial and cultural animosity. Yet God cared about them too.

Imagine what was going on in Jonah’s heart: “Nineveh, God?” “You don’t really mean them – the capital city of the Assyrians? The center of Israel’s worst Gentile enemy?”… “They deserve to be condemned, let them destroy each other… why would I go to help them change their ways?!” To preach to the Ninevites, Jonah would have to change his heart about them.

Similarly, we can be filled with doubt, unbelief or cynicism when it comes to personal changes God is calling us to embrace, such as:

  • Building close friendships with those we view as difficult or different from us.
  • Taking initiative to serve and make an impact in our community despite our inexperience.
  • Learning something completely new to help others, despite our own lack of familiarity with it.
  • Choosing to forgive those we struggle to give our hearts to, despite past disappointment.

Instead of responding to God, Jonah resisted and ran as far away as he could from God and from Nineveh. He went in the direct opposite direction on a boat to Tarshish (modern-day Spain).

Reflection questions

  • Is there anyone you’d rather ignore than love, avoid rather than engage, or critique rather than serve? 
  • How is God calling you to change and exercise the faith to love others who you’ve considered difficult to love? 
  • How can you change and take action to care for people the way God cares? 

Faith changes how we love

For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior:  faith expressed in love.

Galatians 5:6 MSG

A heart of faith is evidenced in how deeply we love and give our hearts to others. It’s faith in God that inspires within us a willingness to change and to trust. Rather than holding onto resentment or resistance, faith chooses to learn to love others the way God loves us and believes in others. 

This was the faith God was calling Jonah to have. Our resistance to changing how we love has very little to do with whether we have enough time, experience, or commonality with others.

Rather, it has everything to do with whether or not we’re willing to exercise the faith to believe in and apply God’s Word to learn how to love deeply.

Jonah chose to ignore God’s call to love. This seemed to be the easier choice, but turned out to be a futile choice in the long run. God was determined to pursue Jonah, compelled by his love for him and the Ninevites. 

Reflection questions

  • What resentments in past relationships does God want you to personally change and reconcile? 
  • Is there any particular relationship you are running from and avoiding? How do you think God is calling you to run to and exercise the faith to give your heart to that person? 

Choosing the path of change over convenience

When we choose the path of convenience rather than the path of change, our capacity to love is stunted, and our faith withers. God allows us to go through challenges in life because it’s only through these that we can develop a deep reliance on God.

It reminds me of a quote by author and fitness expert Fred DeVito in regard to how challenge is necessary for any real change to occur:

“If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.”

Fred DeVito

What we may view as a loathsome challenge, God views as the opportunity and only pathway for real change. 

This is especially true when it comes to challenging relationships, through which we can learn to deeply love others if we embrace the opportunity to learn from and rely on God through the Scriptures. 

“What reward do you deserve if you only love the loveable? Don’t even the tax collectors do that? 47 How are you any different from others if you limit your kindness only to your friends? Don’t even the ungodly do that?”

Matthew 5:46-47 TPT

In the face of the challenge to love those he considered enemies, Jonah bought a one-way ticket to Tarshish. While on the voyage, he took a nap in an effort to ignore the fact that he was running away from God and his challenge to love. 

Meanwhile, the crew of the boat encountered a serious storm sent by God to get Jonah’s attention and awaken his heart. The sailors began questioning him:

8 Then they grilled him: “Confess. Why this disaster? What is your work? Where do you come from? What country? What family?” 9 He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.) 11 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”

12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

Jonah 1:9-12 NLT

Jonah knew all along that he was the catalyst for the storm. Even more so, he knew God’s heart and how God was calling him to change. 

God wasn’t going to give up on Jonah nor the Ninevites, because God is passionate and determined to pursue us until we change our hearts to share his heart for others. The challenge for us is to imitate the faith and vision God has for us, by choosing to love others more than our own convenience. 

Instead of running away, Jonah could have leaned into God’s call. He could have developed the faith to care about the Ninevites by choosing to understand God’s heart and purpose behind why he was asking Jonah to love those he considered unlovable. 

There have been many times in my life where I didn’t want to hear specific truths from spiritual friends who were trying to help me change for my own good. When we don’t want to listen to or embrace God’s Word, we will not be able to develop the faith to change. Hearing and applying truth from the Scriptures enables us to change when we are stuck. 

So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

Romans 10:17 NKJV

Do we view listening to and making the effort to understand God’s Word as inconvenient, or rather illuminating? 

Instead of choosing to be spiritually influenced by God, Jonah chose not to be inconvenienced, which prevented him from having his faith built. Humility would be key for Jonah’s eventual change, which we’ll see God leading him into next.

Reflection questions

  • Do you choose the path of convenience over change, when faced with taking on a weakness?
  • What outcome does this choice have when it comes to the quality of your relationships? 

Humility fuels heart change

God allows us to go through storms to shape our hearts and develop our character so we can become the person he destined us to be. 

It’s through these storms that our true colors and hearts are revealed. And it’s in those humbling moments when we are faced with our own limits and needs that we start seeing our need for God and friends, and surrender our prideful resistance to our destiny.

After Jonah advised the boat crew to throw him overboard to calm the sea, the crew reluctantly obliged. Then God sent a big fish to swallow up Jonah, saving him from drowning. 

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from inside the fish. 2 He said, “I cried out to the Lord in my great trouble, and he answered me. I called to you from the land of the dead, and Lord, you heard me! 7 As my life was slipping away,  I remembered the Lord. And my earnest prayer went out to you in your holy Temple.

Jonah 2:1-2, 7 NLT

Through the storm, Jonah stopped running away from God and found himself running to God in prayer.

Imagine how humbling this was. One minute he was taking a nap on a boat to Spain, the next he was inside the belly of a fish, and the only thing he could do was pray. 

It was in this humbling moment that Jonah’s heart changed through prayer. 

Reflection questions

  • What storms are you experiencing in your life or relationships?  
  • How are you growing in your humility and reliance on God through these storms and challenges? 
  • How do you think God may be working through these storms to develop humility in you?

Prayer changes hearts to love

8 “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them. 9 But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’” 10 And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

Jonah 2:8-10 NIV

After being humbled by the storm, Jonah became aware of the idols of comfort, convenience, and criticalness that he was holding onto towards the Ninevites. These not only made him resistant to change but also led him to turning away from God’s love for him. It’s only through prayer that he developed the humility to be grateful for God.

Once Jonah humbled himself and prayed, God immediately answered and set Jonah back on dry land with a new start and opportunity to change.

It’s only through prayer that we develop a heart of faith compelled to love. When we pray, reflect, and believe in God and his love for us, we’ll be compelled to have a heart of faith that loves others.

Reflection questions

  • Are you allowing troubles and challenges in your life to drive you to God in prayer?
  • What idols are you clinging to that are turning you away from God’s love and destiny for you?

A heart of faith multiplies change

Jonah’s heart changed and his faith was evidenced in how he obeyed without hesitation or reluctance the second time God asked him to go to Nineveh to save the people: 

1-2 Then the Lord spoke to Jonah again: “Go to that great city, Nineveh,” he said, “and warn them of their doom, as I told you to before!” 3 So Jonah obeyed and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city with many villages around it—so large that it would take three days to walk through it. 4-5 But the very first day when Jonah entered the city and began to preach, the people repented.

Jonah 3:1-4 TLB

Having a heart of faith and getting unified with God about caring for people the way he does leads to change in others.

Jonah’s renewed faith in God’s purpose and personal change of heart multiplied, leading to the king of Nineveh humbling himself and turning to God. 

Moreover, this moved and changed God’s mind about Nineveh, sparing the city from disaster and the consequences of their decadence (Jonah 3:5-10). 

This was God’s whole purpose and desire all along – to turn as many people away from darkness and the destruction of their lives back to him to discover his love and purpose.

Reflection questions

  • Whose life is God wanting to impact and change through your personal change? 
  • Who do you think you could inspire to pursue God through your personal example of faith and change?

When we embrace change rather than run from it and humble our hearts in prayer, we will begin to share God’s heart and concern for others. Just as God worked through Jonah’s change to multiply a change of heart in an entire city, when we live with hearts full of faith expressed in loving others, God is able to multiply changed lives through the relationships and communities around us.

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