“God does His greatest work through frail people. He helps us become the people we are meant to be.”
That’s one of the observations that author and Happy Catholic blogger Julie Davis makes in her latest book “Thus Sayeth the Lord: A Fresh Take on the Prophets” – and it’s a realization she came to after her Catholic women’s book club piqued her interest in the prophets of the Bible.
During a “Christopher Closeup” interview (podcast below), Julie noted that the Hebrew word for prophet means “mouth,” so these figures are sharing words from God Himself. Sometimes they tell you things you want to hear, but often the message is challenging both to the prophet and society at large. That was certainly the case with the first prophet Julie studied – Jonah – whose story seems especially relevant to modern audiences.
God tells Jonah to go and preach repentance to the Ninevites, whose acts of wickedness were horrific. If they don’t turn from their evil ways, says God, they will be destroyed. But Jonah wants no part in delivering this message. In that sense, notes Julie, he’s like those of us who sometimes resist God’s direction in our lives.
Jonah jumps on a ship headed in the opposite direction from Nineveh. God, however, doesn’t let Jonah off the hook, so He raises a storm that threatens to wreck the ship.
When the sailors discover their misfortune is caused by Jonah, he tells them to throw him overboard and spare themselves. But the sailors resist. They are compassionate enough that they try to save his life by rowing the ship back to dry land. Only when it doesn’t work do they grant Jonah’s wish and toss him into the sea, where he is swallowed by a large fish, inside which he reflects on his actions and agrees to do what the Lord commanded.
After Jonah shares God’s message with the Ninevites, they actually repent, so God relents in the punishment He had planned. Julie explains, “For them to have this conversion of heart is amazing! But Jonah’s not happy at all. We think he should be thrilled. He [followed] God’s word, and it worked. But he hates these people so much!”
Jonah resents the vastness of God’s mercy. He wanted to see the Ninevites punished, but becomes angry that God lets them off the hook. God explains to Jonah that He cares for all of His creation and that their evil was based in ignorance. Why shouldn’t He offer them His mercy since they repented?
Julie observes, “That’s a powerful lesson for us today. We have many enemies around the world, people who don’t like us. And then we also have our own political system and people who don’t think the same way we do about social issues. It’s a big deal.” We have to remember that God extends His mercy to everyone equally if they turn to Him, no matter what they’ve done in the past.
Our dislike – or even hatred – of those who don’t think like we do plays a role in the prophet Daniel’s life as well. He teaches us about living with faith in a culture that’s hostile to faith. And interestingly, he doesn’t do it by lashing out in anger, but by responding rationally and civilly, with kindness, love and faith.
For instance, when Daniel refuses to eat the food given to him by the king, preferring to adhere to his faith’s dietary laws, he proposes an evidence-based test. Daniel tells the palace master, “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations, and deal with your servants according to what you observe.”
Daniel expressed no anger in this proposal – and he was willing to suffer the punishment if his way was proven insufficient. Instead, Daniel was found to be in better shape after 10 days than those who ate the king’s rations.
Julie explained that with Daniel’s approach, “You’re not lashing out or just going, ‘Okay, but here’s how we look at it.’…You’re showing them something new, and that’s an attractive thing a lot of the time. And the whole book of Daniel is full of stuff like that.”
Though these stories are thousands of years old, Julie reiterates that they can apply to our lives today. She says, “These prophets were people just like us. We all are dealing with the Lord. What does He want us to do? Where are we God’s mouth, so to speak? These people were put in extraordinary circumstances and they had to really step it up. They were called to do big things, but in our own everyday lives, we’re called to do extraordinary things. They’re just not against the king. They’re with our next door neighbor, with our in-laws, with our children or our coworkers.”
Julie goes on to pose the question, “Why does God use human help so much?”
She concluded, “It starts with Adam. We were meant to be helpers all along. When Adam is first created, God says, ‘Help till the land. Help this garden become greater.’ So that was always our destiny. Then personally, for each of us, we’re helping not because [God] needs us. He doesn’t need anything. But we need it. It’s both fulfilling and creatively satisfying when you’re doing what you’re created to do. And not as a puppet, but with full cooperation and thought. Also as we try and fail and try again, that’s how we learn.”
That was certainly the case with Moses who went into exile after killing an Egyptian. Julie notes, “He had to go off for 40 more years and learn who he is before God even speaks to him and sends him back. So at 80 years old, he’s got every excuse in the book [to decline serving as God’s mouth]…’I can’t really speak very well. I don’t know your name.’ All these things and God still [responds], ‘Go do it. It’s fine. I’m with you.’ These are all the things we understand. We have all fallen. We are all sinful. We all have to get back up, learn who we are, and keep trying. And the thing with Moses is that even when he’s done what God wants, his story arc shows that he keeps growing as a person. So if we keep doing all this, we also can follow his example and learn more who we are, grow a relationship with God, and become more the people we’re supposed to be.”
(To listen to my full interview with Julie Davis, click the podcast link):