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Running with Jonah

Tim Keesee / June 2, 2014
Running with Jonah

“Not called,” did you say?

“Not heard the call,” I think you should say. Put your ear down to the Bible, and hear him bid you go and pull sinners out of the fire of sin. Put your ear down to the burden, agonized heart of humanity, and listen to its pitiful wail for help. Go stand by the gates of hell, and hear the damned entreat you to go to their father’s house and bid their brothers and sisters and servants and masters not to come there. Then look Christ in the face — whose mercy you have professed to obey — and tell him whether you will join heart and soul and body and circumstances in the march to publish his mercy to the world.

Two things have always struck me about the famous quote from William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. First is his politically incorrect preaching. His references to “pulling sinners out of the fire,” “hell,” and “the damned” have the smell of sulfur about them. True, it might be a bit outdated now, but each of those descriptors could come with a Bible reference. Yet Booth’s words are not filled with anger and arrogance — his words run with tears, not unlike his Savior who wept over dark Jerusalem.

The second thing that’s striking to me is that over a century ago Christians were waiting for “the call” before venturing out for the sake of the gospel. Not much has changed. We continue to add so much mystery to “the call” that it must be accompanied by a bolt of lightning, a voice from heaven, or multiple fleeces drenched with dew. No use moving from our comfortable, cul-de-sac Christianity if it’s not necessary, if it’s not clear, if we aren’t “called.”

Jesus says, “If anyone will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). So we already have a clear calling to begin with, and the specifics of what that looks like will follow in the path of radical obedience. God leads us in motion. In few other areas of life do we add such prerequisites to action.

The Cost of Calvary Love

Not long ago, when I was in gospel-destitute northern Iraq, I remembered a man, an Old Testament prophet, who had been there earlier. He, too, struggled with God’s calling. Here is what I wrote in my journal:

On the plains of Nineveh
Erbil, Northern Iraq

I feel a bit like Jonah — only instead of a great gourd, I have found a gnarly old poplar to shade me from the scorching noon-high sun while I scribble a few lines. From the citadel of Erbil, I have a commanding view of the plains of Nineveh, which in some ways seems to have changed little since Jonah dragged his briny sandals through here on his way to a late appointment in nearby Nineveh.

From my vantage, it is just sand-brown houses, a vast jumble of mud-brick boxes that tumble out for miles until they disappear into the desert. Here and there the flatness is spiked with minarets and drilling rigs — oil and Islam, the two power centers in Iraq. The citadel here rises to an impressive height — in part, because it has been built and rebuilt on its own rubble. Ancient Erbil has seen more than 50 centuries pass — and has traded owners at least as many times. These battlements are layered with the bones of great empires. Even today the citadel walls shelter only the latest round of ruin.

The people here have a knack for making ruins. With al Qaeda back on the rise, car bombs and suicide bombers have shattered streets and shops, killing hundreds in multiple cities across Iraq this year alone — another sorry, bloody layer of ruin.

Yet, when I think of Jonah’s journey here, it reminds me that Christ has long set his love on these people — people who have seen and made so much bloodshed. God loved to show grace to his enemies, even when Jonah didn’t. Jonah didn’t want to come here — it took a miracle to move him. Little has changed. On the flight here yesterday from Abu Dhabi, the plane was filled with Russians, Chinese, Turks, and Arabs — all looking to do business, and the country seems ready to receive them. Billboards line the roads offering happiness in a cell phone, a car, a bucket of KFC, or a Coca-Cola — and I am pretty happy with the Coke I’m drinking now, a definite improvement since Jonah was here! I wonder, though, if more people in the world know the name “Coca-Cola” than the name of Jesus Christ.

I’m staying at a brand-new hotel in Erbil, built and managed by Chinese, although the staff come from all over. This morning at breakfast I chatted with Ilda, a young waitress from the Philippines. She came here on a two-year contract to wait tables and wash dishes. She has the promise of visiting her family once during that time. Promises like that don’t always come true, but it’s a risk a poor village girl from Mindanao will take for the chance to make money. Ilda is a long, long way from home — vulnerable and alone in the bleakness of northern Iraq, but hunger and hope outweigh such risks.

As I sit here looking out over the plains of Nineveh, I think of Ilda — her bright eyes, winning smile, and the unknowing rebuke she is to me simply because she is here. Her motivation is certainly compelling, but shouldn’t the gospel, shouldn’t the King’s command, be even more compelling? Too often I have run with Jonah, away from the risks that Calvary Love demands.


More from Desiring God on the missionary call:

“Genitalia Are Not Destiny” — But Are They Design?

John Piper / June 1, 2014
“Genitalia Are Not Destiny” — But Are They Design?

Riding in the wake of the cultural speedboat of the destigmatization of same-sex intercourse is the mainstreaming of “gender non-conformists.” Witness the June 9 issue of Time. Laverne Cox, born a boy, is on the front page, in his chosen female identity.

Cox, the star of the Netflix drama Orange Is the New Black, gives a lengthy and illuminating online interview with Time reporter Katy Steinmetz. It is a sad story of a very painful childhood, an absent father, an emotionally disconnected mother, an attempted suicide, and a marginally significant church.

Up until the third grade, Cox says, “I just thought that I was a girl and that there was no difference between girls and boys. I think in my imagination I thought that I would hit puberty and I would start turning into a girl.” He had one twin brother. No sisters.

The supreme treasure Cox longed for was fame. “I wanted to be famous, I wanted to perform. Those things I really, really wanted more than anything else.”

“My mother just had an inability to fully emotionally connect. . . . I never knew my father. He was never married to my mother, he was never a part of my life.”

Today Cox is “touring the country giving a stump speech titled ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ When Cox says it, that refrain is not a question.” Cox claims, “I’m happy that I am myself and I couldn’t imagine my life if I were still in denial or lying, pretending to be a boy. That seems ridiculous to me. That seems crazy at this point. . . . It’s nice to be done with transitioning.”

Are Genitalia Destiny?

The subtitle of the interview reads: “On politics, happiness, and why genitalia isn’t destiny.” That’s the question I want to deal with.

Is gender set by a preference of the individual, or a providence of God? Or to put it another way: Is my sex determined by my decision in my mind, or by God’s design in my nature?

To find God’s instruction about this, we turn to Romans 1:19–28.

In a stunning way, the apostle Paul draws a parallel between the way nature teaches about God and the way nature teaches about male and female sexuality. And the point is this: Nature is one of God’s methods of revealing what we should prefer, even if we don’t.

In other words, Paul shows that preference is to be guided by God’s design in nature. It’s not independent, as though you can simply choose your essence.

But Laverne Cox maintains the exact opposite:

Folks want to believe that genitals and biology are like destiny! All these designations are based on a penis, . . . and then a vagina. And that’s supposed to say all these different things about who people are. When you think about it, it’s kind of ridiculous. People need to be willing to let go of what they think they know about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. Because that doesn’t necessarily mean anything inherently.

Without God, this reasoning is compelling. If there is no God telling me what is wise and good, then my own preference will assume that role. It will seem “ridiculous” to say “biology is destiny.” The modern man thinks otherwise, as William Ernest Henley says, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

But in Paul’s mind, the issue is not what nature says “inherently,” but what it says as God’s revelation of his design for male and female. God, the wise, loving, purposeful creator and designer of human life is the one who connects biological nature and sexual identity.

Let’s watch him do it.

Nature Revealing the Will of God

Romans 1:19–20 says that “what can be known about God is plain, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, . . . in the things that have been made.”

In other words, God’s divine nature is revealed in the physical, material universe. So much so that verse 20 says, “So they are without excuse” when they “exchange the glory of God for the glory of the creature” (verse 23), or when they “exchange the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator” (verse 25).

Paul is saying that the material, physical universe reveals God’s true nature, and his design for humans to worship him.

Then Paul draws the parallel with human sexuality. Just as physical nature reveals the truth about God, so physical nature reveals truth about sexual identity. Whom we should worship is not left to our preferences, and who we are sexually is not left to our preferences. Both are dictated by God’s revelation in nature.

Thus in Romans 1:26–27 Paul says, “Their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men.”

The parallel Paul is making is this: On the one hand, cosmology is designed by God to reveal truth about God’s identity (as powerful and divine); on the other hand, biology (anatomy) is designed by God to reveal truth about our identity (as male and female). This truth is so plain, Paul says, that we are “without excuse” if we don’t see it and agree with it.

So if a human looks at the world and chooses to worship a creature rather than the Creator, he is without excuse. And if a man looks at his own body and chooses to play the part of a woman, or a woman looks at her own body and chooses to play the part of a man, they are without excuse.

Because in both cases (in divine worship and in human sexuality) God has given nature (cosmological and biological) as a revelation of his will: Humans should worship God, males should act like men, females should act like women.

God has not left us without guidance in these matters. His declaration in Romans 1 and his design in nature intersect to make clear: A biological male who gives himself over to his passion to act like a female is acting against God’s revealed will (Romans 1:27). The passion does not make it natural. The biology makes the passion unnatural.

God Knows Best

Now we can see why the subtitle of the Cox interview — “Genitalia isn’t destiny” — is misleading. That is true: Laverne Cox has created another destiny contrary to his genitalia. But it is not the whole truth. Here is a greater truth: “Genitalia is a revelation of God’s design.”

God knows what is best for humanity. He also knows the painful disordering of our sexual desires that came with the fall. We are all disordered in some measure in different ways. He promises to help us with our disordered loves so that we can enjoy measures of contentment in the midst of our necessary self-denial (for example, Hebrews 13:5–6).

He also sent his Son to die for our sins, so that, even if we have spent the last twenty years of our lives trying to be a man when God gave us the body of a woman, or trying to be a woman when God gave us the body of a man, God will forgive us if we turn to Christ for mercy and embrace him in repentance as our supreme treasure.

It will not be easy — certainly not for Laverne Cox — but it is possible. For all things are possible with God (Matthew 19:26).