I was walking with a dear friend this week and discussing the struggle to understand the concept of God’s will and plan. Like me, she’s endured the painful process of divorce and the wreckage in the family that follows. Was it God’s will for her to marry her husband, or did she hear him wrong? Did God always know that it would end in divorce? Did she need to go through this devastating situation to be refined into the image of Jesus? Was that God’s plan all along? And what of her ex-husband, a former youth pastor who walked away from the church and his family? Did God give up on him? Or maybe more honestly, the question is, why is his life not in total ruin while my friend’s life feels so painful and difficult? Why does it seem he’s enjoying the good life while my friend struggles?
What about you? What part of your story do you wrestle with God over? Where do you ask that painful question, “Was this your will?” It’s particularly difficult when your question about God’s plan includes the painful consequences of someone else’s poor choices, where their sin becomes your problem.
As I prayed later that evening, I reflected on my story. Did God know my marriage was not going to last? Was this the only way he could truly reach my heart and turn my head and heart towards him entirely? And in that moment, God brought Jonah to mind—a man who audibly heard God’s will for him and turned the other way. With fresh eyes the following day, I revisited the book of Jonah and realized that I had played the role of every character in the story…except one.
Wickedness Won’t Win
God asked Jonah to “get up and go to the great city of Nineveh. Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are” (Jonah 1:2). And there lies the first thing I needed reminding of. God sees wickedness, and he isn’t a fan. He sees the husband who has an affair, the abuser who took your innocence, the injustice that is still unresolved, and he wants it to stop. I can rest in knowing that God sees my pain and the impact of someone else’s poor choices. He has a plan to call it out.
I have been like Jonah – turning my back, running away from God, and causing others in my wake to experience the consequences of my choices and justifying my actions. And being angry in the process about what God’s asking me. It feels unfair. I am confident that I can forge my path while exercising and abusing my free will.
“But Jonah got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the Lord” (Jonah 1:3). God’s plan was for Jonah to go to Nineveh. Jonah planned to get out of town and as far away from Nineveh as possible. Jonah’s free will turned him in that direction. As a result, a whole boat full of innocent bystanders was thrown overboard into the storm of the century. Chaos ensued. They reaped the consequences of Jonah’s disobedience.
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Wave
“But all this time Jonah was sound asleep down in the hold.” (Jonah 1:5)
I’ve been the passenger on a boat tossed in the waves of someone else’s chaos. The seasickness kept me unable to eat or sleep. I threw every ounce of energy at the storm to try and fix it while the person who caused the chaos seemed to sleep right through it. Was that God’s plan for me? To be refined in the fire of someone else’s poor choices? As I look back at God’s originally stated command, it wasn’t for the passengers of a ship to be tossed at sea. But Jonah’s free will brought it to the deck of their boat. “The sailors were terrified when they heard this, for he had already told them he was running away from the Lord” (Jonah 1:10). How do you contend with the Lord whose plan seems to cause chaos at your expense? The sailor’s first response was to “row even harder to get the ship to the land” Jonah 1:13). The proverbial “I can fix this” that so many of us have struggled with. Seeing the wave of destruction coming at us, we put our heads down and exhaust ourselves while trying to improve it. And some of us will do that for years, sacrificing our bodies to save someone asleep.
Will You Save Me?
Eventually, they realized that in their own power, they would never make it out of this alive. “Then they cried out to the Lord, Jonah’s God. Oh Lord, they pleaded, Don’t make us die for this man’s sin. And don’t hold us responsible for his death. Oh Lord, you have sent this storm upon him for your own good reasons.” (Jonah 1:14)
They threw him off of the ship.
The storm stopped at once. And it’s important to note that even though the storm stopped at once, the impact of the storm remained. I have to believe that the PTSD from that experience lasted a lifetime for many of those on the crew. There was a financial impact from throwing the cargo overboard. The boat most likely had damage that needed repair. When they arrived at their destination, I imagine some crew members decided to give up shipping altogether and find work on dry land. But also, “the sailors were awestruck by the Lord’s great power, and they offered him a sacrifice and vowed to serve him” (Jonah 1:6). Out of Jonah’s free will choice, outside of God’s original plan, out of the chaos, came a saving belief in God.
Calm Seas and Chaos
Jonah is tossed off the boat into a calm sea. Did you catch that? “The storm stopped at once” (1:15) means that Jonah, who caused all the chaos, was welcomed into a calm sea. I picture him floating peacefully into the water, almost relieved to be off the boat where the pain of his choices was so evident. I picture the husband who moves out of the family home into his own quiet place, away from the demands of parenting and the tears streaming down the face of the woman he betrayed. And I’m angry at Jonah, and God, if I’m honest. Because while I’m dealing with the storm’s aftermath, he’s tucked into the belly of a whale, safe and sound, with no responsibilities and visible consequences. From the ship’s deck, I can no longer see what’s going on below the surface, giving me plenty of room to create a narrative that makes me feel like I’m getting the raw end of the deal.
Imagine if that’s where the story ended. How would we feel about God’s plan for our life? In my journey with the Lord, I confess that I find myself stuck in this very place, returning to the deck of that ship. I look at the destruction caused by someone else’s choices and find myself angry. In those moments, it’s important to know that regardless of what happens to the person thrown into the sea, God sees my pain and meets me there. The answer to whether this was God’s plan for me or the result of someone else’s disobedience is no longer my focus. What’s important is God saved me from a storm. I am in awe of his power. And I choose to serve him. No matter how devastating the storm is, God can stop it immediately.
Waking Up in a Whale
Remarkably, God also extends mercy to the man who ran away. Apparently, the calm waters visible from the sea’s surface were not as relaxing as I assumed. Inside the belly of a whale, Jonah has a change of heart. I imagine that Jonah had moments of incredible terror and extreme loneliness, leading him to contemplate his own slow death. Perhaps for Jonah, his disobedience caused him to come face to face with the knowledge of just how much he needed the Lord. Was that God’s plan all along? I can’t answer that question for Jonah any more than I can for myself. But I know the outcome in Jonah’s case; he cried out, “Those who worship false gods turn their backs on all God’s mercies. But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise, and I will fulfill all my vows” (Jonah 2:8-9).
As a woman whose husband left, I can not tell you how I longed to hear those words directed toward me – for my husband to repent and accept God’s mercy for him. But that isn’t my story. And I confess I’m sometimes frustrated that God didn’t change his heart. It makes me sad for all the other women I know who are single moms, not by choice but because their spouse chose to walk away.
In a still, small voice, I heard God say, “Sometimes you’re the whale.” Sometimes, God brings into your life a person who needs shelter from a storm they created for themselves. “Now the Lord had arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah” (1:17). The whale didn’t do the work to change Jonah’s heart. The whale was simply the safe harbor protecting Jonah from the depths while he reconnected his heart to God.
Have you ever thought about being the whale? Who or what served as a whale in your own life? What safe harbor allowed you to repent and receive God’s mercy?
Walking Toward the Wicked
Jonah’s experience landed him on the beach, where he faced a choice. Do I go to Nineveh or try to escape another way? Confession: I’ve been left on a beach facing a similar decision and decided to walk the other way. I’ve experienced God’s mercy for me, thrown up my hands in praise, and vowed to follow him. But when I headed towards Nineveh and saw that evil still existed, a wave of pain still stored in my body from the years of chaos overwhelmed me. My anger (maybe fear) flared again, and I began my return to the boat.
But Jonah did what God asked him to do. He went and declared, “40 days from now Nineveh will be destroyed” (3:4). I can feel the tightness of my jaw just thinking about the justified rage Jonah felt. You evil people are going to get what you deserve. God’s plan is for your destruction. It’s about time! Their whale had arrived.
In contrast to Jonah’s songs of praise, the people of Nineveh “declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow” (3:5). Their king implored them “to turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us” (3:8-9). And God changed His mind. He changed His plan. He didn’t carry out the destruction He had threatened. I’m left again to contemplate whether this was God’s plan all along. Or, in their free will, did Nineveh, do I, change God’s mind?
Jonah is angry again. This time for the very thing he praised God for in the belly of the whale: “I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. Just kill me now, Lord. I’d rather be dead….” (4:3). “The Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?” (4:4).
Is it right for me to be angry that God’s plan and will is entirely out of my control? To raise hands of praise when his mercy falls on me but question God’s faithfulness when it falls on someone I don’t think deserving? To create a narrative where I’m the victim while ignoring that He saved me from the storm? I am Jonah. I am the crew member on the boat. I am the whale. I am Nineveh.
The only character in the story I am not is God. And therein lies the genesis of the question my friend and I contemplated on that sunny afternoon walk. What is God’s plan? What is his will? And if the seas of my life are stormy, does that mean God’s plan was for me to weather a storm? When the person who caused our chaos is in calm waters, is our anger toward them justified? If God sees fit to withhold destruction from the very one who caused my pain, do I assume his plan is unfair?
A still, small voice inside me responds to my questions with compassion, mercy, and unfailing love.
You are like Jonah; sometimes you’ll follow my lead, and sometimes you’ll run away. My plan covers whatever choice you make. You are mine.
You are a passenger on the boat, negatively impacted by someone else’s choice to run away from me. My plan covers whatever choice they make. You are mine.
You are a whale providing a safe harbor, and you have been sheltered in the belly of a whale. My plan covers whatever choice you make. You are mine.
You are the recipient of the message that your choices bring destruction into your life and the lives of those around you. My plan covers you and those around you. You are mine.
What is God’s will and plan? I don’t know. And I do know. It’s to extend his compassion, mercy, and unfailing love to all of us. To stir up the storm, to calm the storm, to shelter in the storm, and to deposit us on the beach.
What’s my plan in response? It is to remember that I am every character in the story except God. I can extend compassion, mercy, and unfailing love to others (and to myself) while trusting that God is in control. Remember that God sees the evil, the destruction, and the way to calm the storm. And when necessary, to return to the question as I walk alongside others in my life who also struggle with it. To rest in the knowledge that I’m not alone in the questioning. And when I hit the beach, I breathe in the air, look out over the horizon, and thank God that his plan for me always leads me to Him.
About the Author: Amy Oliver is a divorced single mom of two teenage girls who is passionate about helping women heal and rebuild life after divorce. She is a realtor in the state of Oregon, a writer/speaker, and the founder of Healing House Solutions, an organization that provides women with financial guidance and advocacy during the divorce process. Amy is a certified divorce financial analyst and trauma informed leader. She brings a wealth of personal experience having done the hard work to heal and rebuild her own life after her 20 year marriage ended. Amy attends A Jesus Church in Tigard, Oregon.