I found myself envious of that innocence that is captured in the heart of a child. During my first winter camp of the season, I paused to reflect upon those years that seem so long ago. What ever happened to our stick figures drawn with colorful chalk on the sidewalks? Where are the forts that we once built? And what about the trails that kicked up dirt behind us as we raced our bikes upon them?
“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love…” (Jonah 4:2). As I taught the book of Jonah to a group of 4th-6th grade students, I thought about their perception of God in lieu of their childlike innocence. Our lives are a narrative held together by the bookends of our existence; we are born, we die. How we respond to the pages that make up our individual stories in between is the greatest responsibility we have to God and to humanity. We are people who God doesn’t need, but nonetheless we are a people that He relentlessly pursues. My sole desire was to speak from this concept, simplifying it into four small lessons that these students could understand.
Whenever the book of Jonah is taught, I oftentimes hear about punishment and the stern consequences for disobeying. Yet could we also be overlooking the greatest message of all? Could the book of Jonah really be a message about hope, God’s pursuit of us, and His desire to use everyday common people to carry out His Glory despite our sin? I want children to appropriately be fearful of the magnitude of God and not be pathologically afraid of who He is. We worship God who abounds in an unconditional love so that we cease to disobey, instead of making our relationship with God into a religion that is based upon scare tactics. But do children truly understand the magnificence of such love?
“Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). Jonah ran away from God’s command and ended up being swallowed by a great fish. I ask the question, why was he swallowed? Why didn’t he just drown? God got fed up, end of story. But whether it is a fish or it is a whale that swallowed Jonah, the debate doesn’t matter because God spared his life in favor of death and He used the sea creature as a vehicle for His pursuit of Jonah. By God’s grace, He wanted Jonah for a specific purpose, spitting him out of a belly to exemplify compassion to a people who were his enemies.
Jonah was God’s man and God wanted him to understand that. Jonah got angry because all along he knew God’s character and that the people of Nineveh would be saved. God did the same thing when Jesus died on the cross for each one of us. While our deeds deserved death, the severity of His sacrifice brought us life. It was God’s voice. It was God’s love. Our sin cannot stand up to the Holiness of God. My own filth is the gavel swinging down in judgment upon me declaring my destruction, but instead God’s abounding love in Christ is what sets me free.
“And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25). God doesn’t need us. God didn’t need Jonah. Yet God desires to use us, and for whatever reason, He wants a relationship with us. The book of Jonah is an example of this because oftentimes we run in the other direction from God, yet instead of the story ending, our narrative continues by showing us God’s Providence. Like Jonah, may we be spit out of the belly of our own woes so that we can be used for what He has graciously purposed for us. I thank God that He did not give up on me!
I miss the innocence that comes with being a child. Looking back, I now have a responsibility as an adult to speak Christ by accurately portraying both God as judge and as God of love. God’s pursuit of each one of us leaves me dumfounded. We are stick figures, and no doubt are intricately and wonderfully made, but our Maker does not need us. We worship God simply because of that abounding love that nobody can fathom. My hope is that these 4th-6th students walked away from winter camp with the ability to experience God in some revolutionary way. God loves the faith of a child.