What my frustration with Jonah taught me about my own charisms

I’m sure you’re familiar with the Book of Jonah. If you aren’t, I’ll catch you up to speed: A dude with the charism of prophecy shirks his gift, gets eaten by a whale, (some scholars believe …) comes back to life, then reluctantly shares his gift with Nineveh and waits outside hoping to watch the city burn. It ends in the middle of the story, with Jonah whining by a dead tree, with no closure for our protagonist or any further information on the people to whom he was sent to proselytize. It’s infuriating.

Now, there are plenty of Old Testament stories I find weird, many of which I accept that I won’t understand on this side of heaven. But none have sat with me like Jonah. I can’t seem to write him off, and the more I read the story of Jonah, the more confused and frustrated I get.

He has been given an incredible gift, one it’s pretty apparent he’s supposed to share. We, as the readers, know that if he would just share the message with the people of Nineveh, he would feel peace; he would accomplish the mission God gave him and would be able to rest. But he is reluctant at every turn, down to the last bit of dialogue. At the very end of the story, Jonah even admits he is angry because of God’s abounding mercy. He says:

“O Lord, is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? This is why I fled at first toward Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of punishment. So now, Lord, please take my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jon 4:2-4).

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This is a man who knows the true nature of God but doesn’t want anything to do with it. He would rather die than live in a world created by a God who is as merciful as ours. The more I get into it, into this bizarre “man swallowed by a fish” story, the more I see that my judgment of Jonah is really just a mirror that shows me all the parts I hate about myself.

Now, before you get excited, I don’t have the gift of prophecy and Jesus hasn’t told me to sail to a heathen city to spread the Good News of God’s mercy. In fact, telling the marginalized and overlooked that Jesus loves them makes me pretty giddy. My familiarity with Jonah is not about the particular gift or the particular message; it’s about my own unwillingness to accept the plans God has for me and the generous gifts he’s given to me. Sometimes I’d rather just sit outside the city throwing a pity party.

Even though I don’t have Jonah’s particular gifts, I have been given something for the good of the world — not just for myself, or my own desires, or even my own enjoyment. I have been given gifts that need to be shared, and when I sit on those gifts, when I refuse to answer God’s call because it makes me uncomfortable, I will be more and more like Jonah — angry at a God who gives such generous gifts to others because I can’t get my head out of the sand long enough to realize he’s given them to me as well.

Despite this knowledge, I often find myself too familiar with this satirical prophet. Maybe I’m not sitting outside the city of Nineveh, hoping to watch God’s vengeance enacted, but there are too many times I’m sitting in a hell of my own making, angry and bitter at a God who only has good gifts for me. What’s surprising to me, still, is how quickly I forget that.

In this conversation about giftedness, there is such a temptation to limit ourselves by whatever “season” we are in. Instead of approaching ourselves with curiosity, we say, “I’m a young mom, so this isn’t my season to participate in parish life.” I don’t want to rag too much on seasons; I’ve found a lot of peace in the promise of a new tomorrow, especially when today can be so painful. The framework of seasons can be helpful in finding peace right where we are, but sometimes these conversations fall short of challenging us as baptized followers of Christ to go where he is asking. Jesus might be asking you to find him in the dishes right now, and I can appreciate the solace many women find in that kind of reflection, but there are many of us who feel a legitimate pull on our heart to use the gifts God has given us not just in our homes, but also out in our communities.

When the word “season” becomes an excuse for exclusivity and comfort seeking, we’ve missed the point. Unless you are a cloistered nun, your vocation extends beyond your front porch. Yes, even in this season. We need diversity in our ministries and our studies, our small groups and our homes; we need the unique gifts and perspectives we all bring to the table.

I’m still in the process of discerning what my charisms are and how to use them for the kingdom of God, so I am by no means an expert, but one thing I have learned so far, is this: When God gives you a true gift, you will not find rest until you use it. So, my prayer for those of us aware of our giftedness but too stubborn to give it to the world, is that we get out from under the shade of the fig tree, walk down the hill and join the rest of the city. May we be like Nineveh, humble enough to realize we’re still learning how to love and thankful for a God who will not be outdone in generosity.

Note: If you don’t know what your gifts are, I highly recommend the Called and Gifted workshop through the Catherine of Sienna Institute. Called and Gifted is a program that helps you discern your charisms, the gifts God has given particularly to you in baptism, to give back to the world as a channel of his grace. Everyone has unique expressions of their charisms, all of which are invaluable to the kingdom of God.

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