The Ship To Tarshish

This is the transcript of a discourse given during a Sunday worship service of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Pleasant Grove, Utah.

In the Old Testament we read the following account: Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah…saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.” But Jonah rose up to flee…from the presence of the Lord…and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them…from the presence of the Lord.

But the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken. Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god…But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep. So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, “What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not.” And [Jonah] said unto them, “I am an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land.” Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, “Why hast thou done this?” For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. Wherefore they cried unto the Lord, and said, “We beseech thee, O Lord, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O Lord, hast done as it pleased thee.” So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging.

Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish’s belly and said, “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head…yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God. When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord. But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord.” And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.” So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast. And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not. (Jonah)

I want to take a few minutes today to testify and expound upon the truths that are taught in this scripture story. It’s a story many of us recall learning about in Primary, but today I wanted to examine it a bit more than what most of us are probably used to doing in the Old Testament. The topic at hand is about having a relationship with the Savior. Naturally I took some time in my studies to ponder about my own personal relationship with Christ, and in so doing I can honestly say that it has been strengthened. There are so many different approaches to this topic, so I pray that we all might relate to the avenue I’ve chosen. Now for those of you that know what happened to Jonah in the end know that it wasn’t the happiest ending to a missionary story. But all of that aside I want to talk about his experience and how it relates to all of us coming closer to God and also how we often follow a unique pattern on that journey. With that let’s go ahead and dive in.

The first part of that pattern, as brilliantly demonstrated in the Bible story, is resistance. Jonah received a call from the Lord, an assignment, a prompting, and thought that he might avoid it if he went somewhere else. Think about yourselves in similar situations. Consider the assignments and calls that we have been given. Specific things like formal church callings apply of course, but also more casual things like coming on a weeknight to clean the meetinghouse when asked to do so, picking up chairs when the meetings are over, young men collecting fast offerings, temple service assignments, volunteering in Church welfare initiatives, home and visiting teaching responsibilities, and Young Womanhood Recognition and Duty to God programs to name a few and the list could go on and on. Not to mention the myriad of personal promptings that each one of us might receive to do or say something. They might be for our own good, or to call an entire city to repentance, as was the case for Jonah. How are we doing in answering these callings and assignments?

The key question at hand goes something like this: In what ways do we board ships to Tarshish and flee from God’s presence? What mute buttons do we use when God sends us celestial messages? If you have any ideas occurring to you in your minds right now, those are how we resist coming closer to God. We don’t need to relish in them, but they need to be acknowledged. The point is the following: We need to understand the means by which God tries to build a relationship with us. I testify that when we turn and run from His outstretched hand in our lives, be it an assignment from a Church leader, a devastating challenge, a wonderful blessing, or the subtle prompting to get your affairs in order and serve the Lord full time, we are behaving no differently than when Jonah bought that ticket and boarded the ship to Tarshish. It is safe to say that in those moments, Jonah’s as well as our relationship with God and the Savior Jesus Christ are very weak.

Fortunately, for most of us, the consequences of turning away as often as we do are not as severe as a raging climatological tempest threatening our physical safety. But each of us might be able to recall times when we felt the Lord straightening us out when we needed it. Sometimes I’m asked what the most impactful thing I learned from being in the mission field was. Rarely do I hesitate to mention what I learned from the fear I felt upon seeing the lives of once faithful members and leaders of the Church that had turned away from God and suffered intense temporal and spiritual consequences. I saw family struggles, easier yields to temptation, and economic downturn happen to people and even they recognized and attributed them to aban-doning the Gospel. When people stop studying the scriptures, praying and attending church meetings, paying tithing, and giving service to others, their relationships with God are weakened. Just as Jonah “feared the Lord” on that ship, sometimes a little bit of fear is necessary to help us learn and recognize the true blessings that come from living the Gospel.

People often make the comment saying the basis of the Atonement is that Jesus Christ has already come a lot of the way, all we have to do is go the rest and we’re doing alright. What if I told you that I support an idea even more extreme?: Jesus Christ has already come the entire way. I bear testimony that what is required of us to turn to him in our lives and form that essential heavenly relationship is infinitesimally small compared to the atoning sacrifice completed by Christ in order to come unto us. When we sleep on the ship to Tarshish, spiritual tempests will rage and our light and happiness will dwindle. Eventually we will be cast into the depths of a sea of despair and only in those times of darkness is when we have nothing to do but cry out, and submit.

Compassed about by the waters of the sea, trapped in the belly of a fish, Jonah experienced the second stage of the pattern of mortal discipleship and was awakened unto God. I am glad that he was, because I’m not sure what thing more extreme could turn a soul to God than…well…that. His words and prayer at that moment are so prolific and were so impactful to me that to this day I have not forgotten that moment I really studied them for the first time. Again I read Jonah’s words. “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God. When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord. But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord.”

That is Jonah’s testimony to all. You see, if we turn to God when our relationship is weak, when we suffer from torment, we will see that He has never turned away from us. He will bless us and deliver us, and from that what was once a coward bound for Tarshish was converted into a disciple of Christ and valiant missionary crying repentance and bearing testimony of the saving power of Jesus. That being said, it is important that we know that testimony is not a result, but a process. It is a process by which we come to know the Savior better and become like Him. Even after Jonah cried repentance to Nineveh, he still went to the wilderness and wanted to die. I don’t believe there is an end to our spiritual development, much less our testimonies. Even the Apostles of the Lord on the earth today have to work to strengthen their faith.

The third phase we experience in our efforts to have a relationship with God is that of making the necessary choices to follow him. After we are delivered from the belly of the whale, what is it that we do? How are we really different? In the Book of Mormon, we can learn from the example of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies when we read, “And now it came to pass that when the king had made an end of these sayings, and all the people were assembled together, they took their swords, and all the weapons which were used for the shedding of man’s blood, and they did bury them up deep in the earth. And this they did, it being in their view a testimony to God, and also to men, that they never would use weapons again for the shedding of man’s blood; and this they did, vouching and covenanting with God, that rather than shed the blood of their brethren they would give up their own lives; and rather than take away from a brother they would give unto him; and rather than spend their days in idleness they would labor abundantly with their hands. And thus we see that, when these Lamanites were brought to believe and to know the truth, they were firm, and would suffer even unto death rather than commit sin; and thus we see that they buried their weapons of peace, or they buried the weapons of war, for peace.

I love the example of faith of these people, willing to suffer death rather than turn away from God again. This is part of testimony, this is part of conversion, and that is what strengthens our relationship with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. As we strive to continually bury our weapons of war in the earth and turn away from sin and turn to God, our lives will improve. Hard things will become easy and we will come to know more truth. Our relationship with God will improve and we will become people of Christ. Elder Neal A. Maxwell, said the following in a General Conference address in April 1975:

“…’the man of Christ’ sees with ‘an eye of faith.’ He knows that ‘the gate of heaven is open unto all.’ The disciple worships an unchanging God, and proclaims that the good tidings are brought anew; for the gospel is not merely a gospel for one age, for one people, or for one place—it is a gospel for the galaxies! He knows, for instance, that true law enforcement depends on the policing of one’s self. The ‘man of Christ’ knows that the collapse of systems is always preceded by the collapse of individuals. He sees prevention, especially through good families, as a superior life-style. Parents, therefore, should stay at their posts. As ‘the man of Christ’ looks realistically at life in the Church, he sees and feels still other things. He knows that while the Church’s doctrines are constant and perfect, its people are not, so he seeks to learn from mistakes rather than brooding over them, and he will help others to do the same.

He testifies with his time as well as with tithing; he witnesses with works as well as with words; he expects perspiration to precede inspiration. He marvels not, therefore, when customized challenges and temptations come his way—but endured well, yield experience which shapes all eternity! He remembers Gethsemane and senses that, sometimes, when a righteous individual is in agony, seemingly alone, he, too, is companied by celestial friends who are nearby, but not so near as to interfere. For the surrender which is underway is also a victory!

He knows that having put his hand to the plow he must not look back, because when we are looking back, we are also holding back. He sees much Martha-like anxiety around him in lives cratered with concerns, but can testify that those craters are best filled and smoothed by the soil of service. He understands that faith, hope, and charity qualify one for the work, not a craving for clout. He expects a variety of assignments in the Church; some carry the thrills of making a beachhead landing deep in enemy territory, and others involve ‘minding the store’ back home. When he sings, ‘I’ll go where you want me to go, dear Lord’ (Hymns, no. 75), it is not only a promise to go to a Nineveh, but it is also a pledge to stay at his present post.

He quickly puts his ‘shoulder to the wheel’ (Hymns, no. 206) rather than calling for a tow truck. He knows that just as God has promised us, individually, that we will not be overwhelmed by temptations or challenges we cannot manage, that neither will the Lord allow his church to be overwhelmed by the challenges it faces. (Ensign, May 1975)

When Jonah was expelled from the belly of the whale, notice how it wasn’t long before the call came yet again from the Lord. This time though, Jonah knew and he “arose” and “went.” Just as Nephi of old would “go” and “do” the things the Lord commanded, Christ’s initial invitation to the Nephites during His visit to the Americas used some similar verbiage, “Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world” (3 Nephi 11:14).

I leave you my testimony that Jesus is the Christ and the Savior of the world. I know this because I have been on the ship to Tarshish and have been pulled from the depths of the sea. And as part of this mortal life, it is likely that shortly I and many of you will be boarding that ship yet again. But know that Christ never turns away from us, His love is infinite, and he wants nothing more than to have a relationship with us. May we bury our weapons of war, find the path of testimony, and arise and go do the things that we know will bring us closer to Him, that we might know Him, know that He is the God of the whole earth and strengthen our relationship with Him – is my prayer in His holy name, even Jesus Christ, amen.

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