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‘I’ll Never Be a Missionary’: Why God Sends the Closed-Hearted

Jonah isn’t just about the prophet’s hard heart—it’s about God’s heart for the hardened.
Missionary work has a high bar.

Most men and women training to serve the Lord in Bible college or seminary desire to ministry in the states, but only a seeming elite few ever end up serving in foreign missions.

But despite our avoidance of cross-cultural missions, we strangely also admire those who go. I’m glad we have people like so-and-so doing this kind of work, we think. But I’ll never be a missionary. I’m called to do ministry here.

Not us. Never us. The idea of moving our whole lives to another country to preach Christ to the lost seems utterly unreasonable to many, if we’re honest.

But God calls those whose hearts are closed toward missionary work. He calls us overseas.

This is nowhere more clear than in the book of Jonah.

God calls him to preach to a people he despises. So, Jonah runs from God: “‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’ But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:2-3).

But God pursued him. And God’s pursuit of Jonah, as he ran from his missionary calling, is instructive for those of us who feel reluctant about investing our ministry gifts into a high-cost, alien, and unfamiliar ministry landscape.

God sends the closed-hearted to teach them that he is God.

Eventually, Jonah reaches rock bottom. After running from God, even the surley sailors on his boat throw him overboard to avoid the wrath of God. But through his suffering, Jonah recognizes that it is better to answer God’s call to missionary work than it is to run from him. We are not safe in disobedience, and a missionary calling—even for those who don’t want it—is a call to obedience.

Completely unraveled, drenched, and possibly dying, Jonah prays to the Lord: “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice” (Jonah 2:1).

We are not safe in disobedience.

Jonah is softened. He doesn’t change forever, and he isn’t much of a saint from there on out, as the rest of the book reveals. But God softens Jonah’s heart to the authority of the Lord. Our lives do not belong to us. They belong to someone greater than us—our Redeemer: “What I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9)

God sends the closed-hearted to save the lost.

One of the major points of the book of Jonah is that God has pity on the lost. It’s easy to think that missionary work is “elective” to the Christian life because we are often not confronted with real lostness. But God sees that lostness, and it moves him: “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?” (Jonah 4:11).

God has pity on the people of Nineveh because he sees their lives. He sees their promiscuity. He sees their idol worship. And he decides to save them—not only from his own wrath, but from their deeply entrenched idolatry and lostness.

Jonah is not simply about Jonah’s heart—it’s about God’s heart for the lost. God cares. And if our reluctance to preach Christ is standing in his way, we won’t be standing for long.

God sends the closed-hearted to reach the closed-hearted.

The sailors who pray to the Lord for mercy and make vows to him are just as important as the people of Nineveh. When they find out that Jonah is fleeing God’s call, they become agents of God’s plan: “So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows” (Jonah 1:15-16).

Jonah is not simply about Jonah’s heart—it’s about God’s heart for the lost.

When we are closed-hearted, God can use us—both in our pride and in our subsequent humility—to serve as both a bad example to awaken the hearts of the closed-minded, and as an example of of softening that can inspire others.

Conclusion

One of the reasons God gave us the book of Jonah is because he knew that he would be calling closed-hearted missionaries forever. If you are training for ministry and telling yourself, “I’ll never be a missionary,” take a sober look at your life and ask God to impress on your heart what he would have for you.

Not everyone is called to be a missionary. But all Christians are called to be ministers of the gospel. Ask God where he would have you, who he would have you minister to, and finally, ask him for the softness of heart and humility to be obedient when he calls.

About the Author

P.C. Maxwell is a writer and theologian. He holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary, and a Bachelor’s in biblical languages from Moody Bible Institute. He resides in the Chicago area with his wife and contributes regularly to ABWE’s blog and communications strategy.

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