Lessons from lockdown
The Lord sometimes takes his servants to extreme places to teach them the lessons he wants them to learn. This was true of the most reluctant evangelist in the Bible, Jonah, and it may also be true of us as we emerge from the extreme places that the Lord has taken us during the Covid-19 crisis. I would like to use Jonah’s experience as a mirror to reflect back to us lessons we can learn about prayer and evangelism. Jonah is a good example as he was a reluctant missionary and, at the beginning of the account about his evangelistic endeavours, he was also reluctant in prayer.
These two issues, prayer and evangelism, came to the fore in our churches as we faced the first lockdown in March 2020. We had to ask ourselves two questions that would shape our Christian lives for the next two years and possibly for years to come: How can we meet to pray and how can we continue to proclaim the gospel to unbelievers? We found that the usual structures through which we lived our prayer and evangelistic lives had suddenly been removed. We could no longer meet in person in our church buildings or in one another’s homes for prayer. Parents and toddler groups, youth meetings, Sunday school, children’s clubs, senior citizens and evangelistic courses couldn’t take place. The challenges were great, and we needed to make some quick decisions if we were to do two of the most important things a church does together.
Jonah’s life was turned upside down when he chose to disobey the Lord’s command to go to Nineveh to evangelise the Assyrians. He discovered that the Lord uses unusual situations, and even the disobedience of his servants, to teach them precious lessons and to bring them back to himself as useful children.
Lesson one: A child of God can pray anywhere
As chapter two of the book of Jonah opens, we find him praying; not in a comfortable room amongst other believers, but inside the fish (Jonah 2:1). To say that this was outside Jonah’s comfort zone is to state the obvious. We learn, with him, that when we pray it doesn’t matter where you are or what your surroundings look like, how pleasant or unpleasant you feel. Prayer is the cry of the heart to the Lord, often from deep distress, ‘In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me’ (Jonah 2:2). It is not our outward circumstances that form the most important aspect of prayer; it is our inward condition of heart.
We understand that it is possible to pray anywhere and at any time but let’s not forget that there was a time and a place when Jonah was unable to pray. In the middle of a storm at sea the heathen sailors were crying out to their gods but Jonah was in a deep sleep; he was unable to cry to his God. The captain went to him and said, ‘How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish’ (Jonah 1:6).
Why was Jonah unable to pray? It was because his heart was not right with God. Although it is true that we can pray anywhere and at any time, it is also true that if our heart is not right with God we will not be willing or able to pray at all. Yet, God is gracious and merciful. Jonah was his child and he was determined to bring him back. By the time Jonah arrives in the belly of the great fish, his heart has been softened and he is ready and willing to pray.
We learned the same lesson during lockdown. We could pray on Zoom and on the telephone, we could pray outside in gardens, or on doorsteps. Many of us had to overcome our reluctance to embrace new technology but it was heart-warming to see people who had never used a mobile phone or laptop getting to grips with it just so that they could meet up to pray. We also found that those who would normally be unable to physically join a church prayer meeting were able to ‘meet up’ with brothers and sisters online. Yet the negative lesson from Jonah is also apparent: if we do not have a heart to pray we will not find ways to draw near to God individually or together.
The needs around us are great. The pandemic humbled us and we realised that we had taken our Christian fellowship for granted and needed to repent. Like Jonah, the Lord took us to the depths so that we could learn the lessons we had ignored whilst in our comfortable churches.
Lesson two: Salvation is of the Lord
In the belly of the great fish, Jonah learned that salvation comes from the Lord (Jonah 2:9). Salvation is entirely of the Lord from first to last and it does not depend upon human involvement at all. It is the Lord who planned salvation before the world began; it is he who chooses to save certain people and who accomplished salvation by sending his Son to live a righteous life and then to give that life as a sacrifice for sin, in the place of sinners. It is the Lord who raised Christ Jesus from the dead and commanded that the gospel should be preached to all nations. It is the Lord who brings people to new birth by the work of the Holy Spirit, convicting them of sin and giving them faith in Jesus Christ.
Jonah was unhappy with God’s choice of the Ninevites. He would have preferred to go to his own people rather than this foreign nation who were Israel’s enemies. He knew that the Lord had sent him and therefore his mission would be successful, the people of Nineveh would repent and believe (see Jonah 4:2). In the belly of the fish he finally submitted to God and acknowledged that if the Lord wanted the Ninevites to be saved they would be saved and nothing Jonah could do would prevent that. Jonah needed to be God’s servant, not his advisor.
This is also a lesson we have learned in lockdown: salvation is of the Lord. He doesn’t need our structures, our evangelistic initiatives, our meetings, or our buildings: he can save without them for he is God and nothing can stop him. We have heard of conversions during lockdown. The gospel cannot be chained.
We need to know that it is the Lord who saves. Jonah learned that in evangelism the Lord is looking for willing servants who have big, compassionate hearts for the lost. If we are unwilling to go to the unsaved, as Jonah was, we may find ourselves under the disciplining hand of the Almighty, teaching us that ‘Salvation is of the Lord.’ It is better to say with Isaiah, ‘Here am I, send me!’ However, being a willing servant is not all; we also need compassionate hearts. Even after Jonah has completed the most successful evangelistic campaign in the Old Testament, he still has a lesson to learn. The little book ends with the Lord teaching Jonah that he needs as big a heart as the heart of God. The final words belong to the Lord: ‘Should I not be concerned about that great city?’ (Jonah 4:11).
How concerned are we?