(Note: This article also appeared at RelevantMagazine.com )
Jonah may be one of the oddest books in the Bible. A man lives in the stomach of a fish for days, humongous vegetation grows overnight, a whole city repents simultaneously.
But this verse always struck me as especially strange: “Meanwhile Jonah had gone down to the lowest part of the vessel and had stretched out and fallen into a deep sleep.” (Jon. 1:5b) How could Jonah be sound asleep on a wildly lurching ship during a storm?
Then recently as I read the book, I had a sudden realization: I knew how and why he did that.
Jonah was severely depressed.
If you’ve ever struggled with depression—and I have—you know that sleep is one of your main escapes. In the depths of dejection you might be able to do it any time; mid-morning, late afternoon, an hour after getting up from a nap.
Of course, Jonah may have been susceptible to depression; his extreme reactions to the vine incident at the end of the book indicate that he struggled with emotions and perspective. Brain chemistry and family history certainly contribute to this condition but I’ve also learned from experience that the reluctant prophet would have opened the door to a powerful dose of despair when he resisted his calling. When he denied the very thing that the author of his life designed him for, he was assailing his own soul. That kind of denial and rejection will quickly lead to depression.
Why do people like Jonah—and I, and maybe you sometimes—resist our calling; one of the things that God created us for (Ephesians 2:10), and something that can certainly bring us and others joy? It could be fear, it could be laziness, pride or belief in a lie. Whatever it is, it’s not in line with God’s Word, and it’s probably making you miserable.
Author Elizabeth Gilbert said, “Is it logical that anybody should be expected to be afraid of the work they feel they were put on this earth to do?“ I think not. And as Jonah found out, it’s no way to live.
So how can we learn to embrace our calling instead of resisting it? Here are some things we can do:
Resist checking out and let God speak to your destiny again.
Ask Him to show you even the smallest ways that He is speaking to and through you in a day and respond to them.
It’s easier to escape through distraction, medication or procrastination than thinking about your life’s dreams. Bingeing on cat videos or chasing a daily buzz from your go-to adult beverage may bring temporary relief from the perceived pain of pursuing our calling but like Jonah’s detour, they delay us from discovering our destiny. Instead, resist those unproductive habits and begin going to God for direction on what He may have planned uniquely for you life.
Review what God has called you to do, or ask him to clarify what that is.
Several years ago, as I settled into my annual New Year retreat with God, I realized my life felt profoundly “stuck.” As I got quiet, I felt led to look back through the past year’s journal entries instead of thinking ahead to the coming year. I discovered that there was a common theme God had been highlighting, and I’d been ignoring it.
This opened my eyes to why I felt stuck and reaffirmed the calling I’d been avoiding. What are some markers in your life you can look back on? Can you page through old journals to look for themes of what God has been speaking over your life? Are there people you used to share your life’s dreams with? Maybe it’s time to return to those places and remember what God has been speaking to you over the course of your life, and reaffirm your commitment to it.
Reject fear, laziness, pride or lies that keep you from your goals.
Nelson Mandela said, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” It’s time to take an honest look at how these things are affecting your choices. What choices have you made lately? Odds are, if you’re experiencing depression because of resisting your calling, one or more of these faith-killers are bedeviling you. Don’t let them steal from you anymore. Confess this to God and make deliverance from them a daily petition, like in Jesus’ prayer, “… lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13); in this case the temptation to fear, be lazy or believe the lies that God is not capable to bring about the calling He’s placed over your life.
Choose to collaborate with God to build the future.
Step out in faith and risk a little. Ask Him to show you even the smallest ways that He is speaking to and through you in a day and respond to them. He’ll gently lead you to bigger things and as you continue to follow through your faith will become stronger. If you decide to revise your faulty thinking and commit to trusting His plan, He will reveal steps to take in your calling. Make them a matter of prayer, but take them. More will open up as you move forward but keep moving forward despite your worries.
Ask someone to keep you accountable to pursuing your calling.
The essence of prayer is collaborating with God to release His kingdom in the world. Our lives can be a prayer of collaboration with Him. If we endeavor to trust that He wants to include us in the wonderful work He is doing in the world, life can go from fearful, inert and hopeless to an adventure punctuated with joy. As uncomfortable as it might be, let someone you trust into your struggle of pursuing your calling. Share what holds you back, and invite them to reciprocate. Set goals and check in with each other. Commit to pray for each other when the Holy Spirit brings it to mind.
Realize you don’t have to do everything perfectly.
God works in the imperfections. Stop worrying about getting everything right and trust God to work through your weaknesses. When we recognize our limits and God still works through them, He gets all the glory. And that’s the beauty of it. You were designed specifically for this time and place, and the world needs what you have been called to do. Begin building.
Resisting your calling—especially when you clearly know what it is–will lead to depression. Pursing your calling, under God’s direction and in his time will lead to joy.
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9
J. Scott McElroy is the author of Finding Divine Inspiration (Destiny Image) and The Creative Church Handbook: Releasing the Power of the Arts in Your Congregation (InterVarsity Press). He directs The New Renaissance Arts Movement and blogs at JScottMcElroy.com. Reach him at Scott(at)TheNewR.org
Honestly; thank you so much for this, I’m pretty sure I know what God’s calling for me is and I said I’ll do it but I keep getting so close then fear comes in and I don’t end up doing it. I thought I failed God and this really helped me. I’m not gonna let fear get in the way anymore.
J Scott McElroy
That is so great Neda! You know, one of the enemy’s biggest lies he throws at us is that we have blown it with God. But the reality is that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) That means he forgives us immediately. No penance or delay is needed for him to forgive us. It’s instantaneous, and we can reset and start moving in the right direction right away. So when we get sidetracked or derailed by fear or procrastination, or whatever, we can stop, confess it, ask him to cleanse us, reset and be right back on the path with him. He loves us so much and he just wants us to walk with him and enjoy his presence and plans.
Blessings as you follow him!
The Holy Spirit led me to your article. I had been praying for clarity in my situation and even stepped ahead of God and His plans only to be stonewalled into realizing what I was doing. Your much needed words helped me.Thank you!
J Scott McElroy
SO glad you found it, Linda! Thank you for the encouragement! And blessings on your journey of following God’s call.
thank you! I’m sitting in a library unable to focus on my studies out of fear, and suddenly I come across this article! I’ve known for a long time what my calling is but I keep distracting myself and refusing to try hard enough, out of laziness or fear of inadequacy perhaps, but it’s been killing me slowly for many years and now that I’m finally trying to embrace my potential I’m absolutely terrified! I’m asking God for guidance every day and for him to help me take on the responsibilities he has given me and to strengthen my faith in him and myself.
Thank you for reminding me that it’s ok to feel that, and that perseverance and trusting God is the way to joy because no matter how hard the road is, the destination is definitely worth it.
J Scott McElroy
I’m so grateful that this spoke to you. It is certainly something that I have struggled with mightily. One of my callings it writing and it’s interesting to me–and I would point out to you–that I find even when I write about the struggles in stepping in to my calling God somehow uses that to fuel and fulfill that calling. So I applaud you for being honest about your struggles. Naming them will often help us to overcome them, right? Then there is that quote attributed to Mark Twain, “Courage is not the absence of fear, it is acting in spite of it.”
I pray that God will give you strength through his Spirit to push past fear (over and over again) and take courage in stepping into what he made you for!
Just wanted to drop a line to you and say that I just came across this article and what an answer and confirmation to what I’ve been going through lately. Thanks for sharing
J Scott McElroy
I’m so glad it helped, Charity! Thanks for dropping a line!
Wow, thanks for these un-sticking words. Thanks for seeing and sharing this connection of Jonah’s depression, after his running from God’s purpose and calling.
“When he denied the very thing that the author of his life designed him for, he was assailing his own soul. That kind of denial and rejection will quickly lead to depression.”
Wow. Yep. That’s it.
And thanks for the stepping-through ideas, examples, and prayers. Glory and power and Yes! in Jesus.
J Scott McElroy
You so welcome, Ericka. Great to talk with you on Sunday!
I have been trying to figure out why I could not create any artwork for the past few years. Since leaving school it was fits and starts, but nothing really solid. Reading your article I realive that God has every thing to do with my art as with every other aspect of my life. I knew this in my head but it always takes time to figure it out in my heart. I thank you, because it has been a struggle for so long. I’m currently working on something right now, and hope to share my progress as time goes on.
J Scott McElroy
Kia, That is SO good to hear. I pray that God strengthens and enables you now!
O yes – guilty party here – loving the bullet points
Wonderful! Thank you for this encouragement. Blessings to you.
Terrific words, Scott, that you. I’ve definitely experienced this myself but had never made the connection with Jonah.
J Scott McElroy
Thanks, Luann. God is so faithful and merciful, isn’t he! I hope your transition is going well.