Chapter 6: The Call to Service
They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. Jonah
The story of Jonah provides a helpful lens to examine our next subject, the call to service. There are several different character traits that are required in order to be able to respond to the call to service: self-discipline, self-denial, and self-awareness. In order to be of service to others we need to be aware of who we are, where our weaknesses lie, and what strengths we have to contribute. Jesus spoke of denying our self, taking up the cross, and following him. Those instructions develop the same character traits of discipline, sacrifice and awareness. Through the context of the gospel we see that the call to service is directed at everyone.
The basic thought that we will begin with is that sacrifice demonstrates an awareness that the future can be altered by sacrificing in the present. This is practiced by either denying ourself of something, or removing something from our life that is a hindrance to a future goal.
The book of Jonah is very informative on the subject of responding to the call of service. Jonah’s experience outlines the extremes to which a person can go while navigating through their own personality in response to the call to service.
Roughly outlined the book of Jonah begins with a spirit of rebellion, then transitions to a spirit of introspection which leads to repentance, followed by a spirit of obedience, and then, unfortunately, it ends with a spirit of resentment. Through the context of the story of Jonah we learn an important truth that balance, once obtained, can be lost. Ultimately, it is responding to the call of service, and embracing the spirit of a servant, that will allow a soul to prosper.
The Call to Service
The story of Jonah provides an example of how responding to a call to service can result in rebellion. Jonah is asked by God to go and deliver a message to the city of Nineveh. Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me (Jonah 1:1-2). Jonah, understandably, refuses: But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord (Jonah 1:3). The message that he has been asked to deliver was so severe that the potential outcome could be the loss of his life at the hands of the citizens of Nineveh, or, as we see towards the end of the story, being perceived as a fool.
Jonah flees to the sea with the hope of escaping this responsibility. In the course of his journey Jonah learns that there is no escape from God, nor from his own conscience. When we hear the call to service our conscience will not set us free nor can it be silenced by avoidance.
The next episode in Jonah’s experience is facing the storm at sea: But the Lord sent out a great wind in the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to broken. Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth wares that were in the ship, to lighten it of them (Jonah 1:4-5). God sends the storm and the lives of all the men on the ship are endangered. It seems as if something in the storm appeared supernatural to the sailors, so supernatural that they searched for an explanation for the origin of the storm. And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause that evil is upon us. So they cast lots and the lot fell upon Jonah. Then said they unto him, Tell us we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us; What is thine occupation? And whence comest thou? What is thy country? And of what people art thou? (Jonah 1:7-8).
Jonah understood the cause for the storm. And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land. Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the Lord, because he told them (Jonah 1:9-10). Jonah’s conscience spoke, and he said: Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you (Jonah 1:12). The sailors began to row harder not willing to sacrifice the life of Jonah, portraying the nobility of humanity, and yet their efforts failed. Wherefore they cried unto the Lord, and said, We beseech thee, O Lord, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O Lord, hast done as it pleased thee. So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging (Jonah 1:14-15).
Three Days in the Deep
After being cast into the sea Jonah was swallowed by a great fish, a temporary habitation provided by God. Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the bell of the fish three days and three nights (Jonah 1:17). For three days and nights Jonah was in isolation and darkness, buried in the depths of the sea. Jonah cried out: I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice (Jonah 2:2).
Jonah had heard the call to service, a call from something outside of himself; it was not his personal choice, and that caused Jonah great internal strife. Am I willing to spend my life serving someone else? It was a call to service, but with the call came the understanding that heeding the call would cost Jonah his own will. The struggle consumed Jonah, the storm at sea embodied the internal struggle of his will: For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compasses me about: all thy billows and waves passed over me (Jonah 2:3). Thy waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head (Jonah 2:5). The mystery of this call to service flooded into Jonah’s soul and bound his thoughts. Jonah spent three days and nights in his own hell, at the end of which he concluded: When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came unto thee, into thine holy temple. They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy (Jonah 2:7-8).
Jonah’s struggle reveals the core of our battle, Do I fight for my individual will, the right to live my life how I choose, or do I submit my life to the call of service? We are free to choose. The snare in absolute individual liberty is that we spend our life serving lying vanities, consequently there will be no mercy extended to us from the collective (society), nor in death from the Judge of all the Earth.
Jonah concluded his prayer, saying: But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9). When we choose to submit our life in service to the collective good (the call of God), it must be done with the clarity of understanding that this is for my own salvation. Acceptance and resolve release us from the hell of our own making. This choice in life is not either/or, it is the blending of an individual understanding that leads us to submission. Without the understanding that the ‘saving power’ in my life is for my good, we cannot nor should not, give our life in service to any collective body.
Carrying the Message
After three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish Jonah is then regurgitated on dry land. God then spoke to Jonah again: Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee. So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord (Jonah 3:2-3). Jonah accepted his mission and he set to work. He preached the message that in forty days Nineveh would be overthrown. Surprisingly the city of Nineveh heard the message, believed God and repented. The King of Nineveh and all his citizens humbled themselves before God, they proclaimed a fast, they covered themselves in sackcloth, and they repented of the evil that they had done. And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way: and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not (Jonah 3:10). Jonah, seeing that God had changed his mind and showed mercy to Nineveh, became angry.
Jonah became so angry that God had changed his mind that he asked God to take his life: Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live (4:3). Jonah felt like a fool. He had come to the city with a message, and now God had altered the plan. Again we see the problem of human pride. Instead of focusing on God’s mercy, Jonah is focused on himself, and not from the healthy perspective of individual salvation, but from the destructive perspective of public opinion.
So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city (Jonah 4:5). Jonah leaves the city, sits down on the east side of the city, and begins to pout. He is waiting to see if perhaps God will change his mind again.
God then prepares a gourd that grows up over Jonah: And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd (Jonah 4:6). The gourd provided shade and gave Jonah relief. The following day God sent a worm and it destroyed the gourd: But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered. And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live (Jonah 4:7-8).
God then started a conversation with Jonah: Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he(Jonah) said, I do well to be angry, even unto death (Jonah 4:9). Then God says: Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not labored, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: and should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more that sixscore thousand(120,000) persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle? (Jonah 4:10-11) And this is how the story ends, with the question from God and no response from Jonah. One would hope that clarity of understanding, once obtained, would never waver, but unfortunately that does not seem to be the case. We often fight the same battles again and again, even when the battle sends us into a hellish experience.
Understanding the Call to Service
The first phase in the process of responding to the call to service is dividing out substance from vanity. Then, we must allow what is substantive to define our individual salvation as well as our commitment to the collective good. The next phase is maintaining the balance. Our environment and our response to it continually produces a force that is trying to tip the scale one way or the other. If the scale tips to far in one direction we lose ourself in the body and we cannot perform our function within the body. We begin to think that the body does not need us, consequently our function to the body is lost, which damages us and damages the body.
If the force tips the scale the other way then our individual will becomes the barometer for right and wrong, meaning: if it serves me it is good.
We all need mercy. As individuals we need mercy when we fail others. Even more so, as an individual before God, we need mercy when we fail to meet the standard of righteousness. As an individual before our own conscience we must show mercy to ourselves, understanding that defeat and failure can be overcome through repentance and forgiveness.
The example of Jonah swings from one end of the spectrum to the other, but fails in achieving equilibrium. The ‘essential’ balance is the harmony of submission to the call to service (the will of God) coupled with the value of our individual salvation.
Denial, Discipline, Awareness
As mentioned earlier, Jesus taught about the need to deny ourself, to take up the cross and follow him. Self-denial and self-discipline cover the first two instructions.
Following requires awareness, awareness of who we are and where we are; and it must be combined with the awareness of who we are following and why we have chosen to follow. The record of Jonah’s experience begins with him rejecting each of these principles. Jonah, when he was called by God into service, rejected the request. Jonah feared the outcome of what it would mean to obey and go to Nineveh. Consequently, Jonah chose his own will over the call to service and fled. Jonah lacked the discipline and the willingness to submit.
Awareness came to Jonah when he was in the belly of the great fish. Jonah worked his way through the consequences of his choices, and he found the place of repentance. Sometimes experiencing the consequences of our wrong choices helps us to see the benefit in submitting to the higher calling. One of the statements made by Jesus that we have previously discussed was his invitation to the burdened: Come unto me all ye who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest (Mt. 11:28). In the experience of hearing the call to service and choosing whether or not to respond, we begin to recognize that our own will is a heavy burden. Submission requires sacrifice, but it also sets us free from the burden of our own will.
Jonah learned that lesson through his experience at sea and in the belly of the great fish. Submission did not seem that difficult of a sacrifice when Jonah found himself in a hell of his own making. Denial, discipline, and awareness come with the price tag of sacrifice, submission and repentance, but their recompense is liberty and peace. The call to service is for our personal benefit.
Jonah’s struggle at the end of the book can be taken as a warning. A warning that the battle with our human nature is ongoing. One victory over our human nature, or even a hundred victories, does not put it to death. Each day brings the responsibility to deny our self, to sacrifice and to follow. Responding to the call to service is ‘essential’.
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