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It was a Friday night in mid-winter, and Steve was troubled about a patient. “She’s a sweet woman named Mildred and I think she has but a few days before she faces God. I sent her home today for there’s nothing more medicine can do for her. I’ve gone into her room several times in hopes of sharing Christ with her, but her husband is always there and always talking non-stop.”

“What are you going to do?”

“How would you feel about driving to their farm with me to visit tomorrow?”

“What about the talkative husband?”

“I’ll ask him to show me his barn, and while we’re out at the barn, you can share the gospel with her.”

“Hmmmm,” I said, feeling some Jonah like reluctance.

Steve smiled.

Slowly, I nodded.

He hugged me and prayed God would give us favor.

And so, in the morning, we headed out in the country to visit Mildred and Mike.

When we arrived, Mildred was in the living room on the sofa, wrapped in blankets. Her husband was talking… but Steve interrupted him: “Mike — I’d love for you to give me a tour of your barn!”

“Nah,” he said. “It’s a mess.”

“Oh — I’d still really like to see it.” Steve stood up — ready to go.

“Nah. Not going to show it to you. Come back in the spring. I’m staying right here with you and Mildred.”


Mike never stopped talking. I sat down on the floor next to his wife, took her hand, and tried to have a private conversation. But that dear farmer plopped down right next to me, cause he had things he wanted to tell me about the farming life. I looked at Steve and pled with my eyes. Now what?

He shrugged. After an hour we left. Failure — or so it seemed.

But God had a plan that would not be thwarted. Though Mildred did die a few days later, after the funeral the daughter told Steve that her mother had put her trust in Christ after we left. “She told me she knew why you and your wife had come. After you left, she prayed and asked Jesus to forgive her for her sins.”

I share this with you to encourage you — that God is sovereign, and if He is drawing someone, that even the worst evangelist will succeed.

Jonah was certainly the worst. His life had none of the fragrance of Christ. He hated the Ninevites, didn’t want to share the good news with them, and when he finally did, gave the worst possible presentation in history. Not a word about the love or grace of God. Not a word about their need to repent and trust Him. Only: “Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” Or, as The Message puts it, “Forty days and Ninevah will be smashed.” (Jonah 3:4) Not exactly a winsome gospel presentation.

But the people of Ninevah believed God and were saved.

Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. J. I. Packer has a classic book by that title — and it is a subject we will cover in our study. Whether you call it election or predestination — it’s a thorny issue, but one you can’t avoid if you are going to take a good look at Jonah or Scripture. It is also one that has brought me great peace in evangelism. I know God calls me to share the good news, just as He would call me to share a cure for cancer if I knew it. And I know He calls me to be gentle and humble and honest and to live what I speak. But the results? That’s up to Him. And I must trust Him with my loved ones.

Please don’t think that Jonah’s success gives us a license to be lousy evangelists. God commands us to share with “gentleness and respect.” (See I Peter 3:14-16) And then we leave the results to Him, for in Him is “dominion forever and ever.” (1 Peter 5:11)

One of the characteristics that Steve loved in many of the farmers of Nebraska was their respect for God’s sovereignty. They knew they were completely dependent on Him. They would work hard, plowing their fields, planting their seed, caring for their crops — but they also knew that unless He granted favor with the weather, they would not succeed.” That’s what we are called to do — to sow our seed with love, but then leave the results to Him. That has actually taken enormous pressure off of me. Early in my Christian life, I thought it was up to me, and I would get physically ill out of concern for my parents’ salvation. I truly believe you will be blessed when we look at this doctrine in the context of Jonah.

But we aren’t going there yet. I also want to give you a taste of another truth in Jonah. Jonah’s problem was a heart idol that was blocking  the compassionate Spirit of God. So Jonah is about idolatry — I am seeing, in fact, the whole Bible is about idolatry. Whenever we have a problem, we can discover a heart idol at the root.

Even though I grew up in Wisconsin and then lived 25 years in Nebraska, I don’t know a whole lot about farms. I know more than my New Yorker friend Kathy Troccoli. Whenever she’d visit me in Nebraska she’d have a lot of fun with the farmers. She wanted to meet my friend Keith Johnson, because we wrote about him in Falling in Love with Jesus — painting him as a contemporary Boaz, who married a contemporary Ruth (my friend Jill.)  When Steve had cancer, we all made a visit to Keith and Jill’s farm. Here is Kathy on what she kept calling “a concubine.”

Kathy Troccoli on combine with "Boaz" in Nebraska

In the great free message you will listen to this week from Keller on Jonah and Idolatry, he uses a farming metaphor I didn’t understand. I had to write my sister Bonnie’s husband, because he grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, and I knew he would understand. Keller quoted Martin Luther who was fond of this metaphor, and said that when you talk to someone about sin, they stare at you “like a cow stares at a new gate.” I asked Jim, “What does that mean?”

Like a cow stares at a new gate

Jim explained: A cow’s life is based on certainty–trods the same paths every day. A new gate will stop it in its hoofs.

I get it. When you talk to someone about sin, especially today (and no doubt, especially in New York) they stare at you, not comprehending. “A sinner? The wrath of God?” Where did you come from, they think, Nebraska?

But when you talk to them about idols of the heart, you get a different reaction. They no longer stare at you like a cow stares at a new gate.  As Keller say, “You get traction.” Keller explains that while many New Yorkers don’t think of themselves as sinners, they often can identify what they feel they have to have for life to be meaningful. Keller may not use the word idol right away, but he does show them why that overwhelming desire cannot be their Solid Rock, and is leading to all kinds of misery… He’ll touch on it in this week’s sermon, and come back in future sermons.

I am in a secular book club in Wisconsin with women who the world might think “have it all.” I could never talk to them about sin — they would think I was saying they were sinful and I was not. They would be offended and angry. It would be a train wreck.

But I have had a few conversations with them about my heart idols (and I did use the word) and they did listen. I told them about why seeing these invisible idols is a more effective way to change than to attack the symptom. They listened — even had searching questions.

So this is another topic we will consider when we consider Jonah. A fresh approach to evangelism.

For those of you who might like to do some additional reading, I have a suggestion:

Sinclair Ferguson is a well-known and gifted Presbyterian pastor —

from Scotland, South Carolina, and now Texas. This is a brief but very

readable and insightful commentary on Jonah. I read half it on the

plane yesterday. Optional — but I recommend it.

Ferguson said he thought a good title for Jonah would be

“Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.”



A couple of personal notes:

Last week when I told you why Rebecca had come to the blog, I then asked: “Why are you here?” Your answers warmed me, surprised me, and showed me why this is such an amazing gathering. Your vulnerability, your honesty, and your longings make me so thankful to have you here and to be privileged to mentor women like you. I thank God for you.

I also want to tell you something so you can share in our joy. My manager, David, is expanding his website business and has wanted to take a piece out of his job with me: the handling of retreats. I felt anxiety, for David has been so good, and I don’t worry about things going wrong technically at a retreat. But God is truly showing me (chip by chip on my control idol) that I can trust Him to be in control. I began to pray, and our own Rebecca came to mind. She lives right here in Kansas City, where I am. Her passion for God and the talents He has given her drew me to her for this position. Last week you watched her testimony. David has been training her and now she is on her own — she has done all the work for my engagement in Augusta tonight (if you are reading this on Sunday — please pray for tonight — quickening, and that the tech part will go well). Rebecca’s not traveling with me, but is making sure everything is set up and running before I get there. Please pray for Rebecca and for the ministry. I thank God for her.

Rebecca Dority


Rebecca is already proving to me such a wonderful help. She found this great link to sermons I was going to make you buy — but here they are free. You will have to buy some sermons during this study — but not yet. Go to this link.

Gospel Realization:


It’s a wonderful message — and just a prelude to the journey we are beginning on Jonah!

Finally, I’m scheduled to speak in Augusta tonight but my plane was cancelled in Charlotte and I am still here. Am scheduled to try again to fly out this morning. Had several mix-ups and a short night. I need God’s quickening more than ever. Thanks so much for praying for that — and for my travel. I am so thankful for your friendship.


Sunday/Monday: Ice-breakers

1. What stands out to you from the above and why?


2. Do you have any comments on the following two topics we will be considerng in our Jonah journey? If so, comment.

A. Election and Evangelism


B. A fresh approach to evangelism, using idols of the heart


Tuesday/Wednesday: Bible Study

Jonah is only four chapters. Read two a day and write down a few things that stand out to you. (Remember, if a verse becomes radioactive, stop, for God is talking to you.) And for those of you who have just studied Jonah, remember you need to read a Scriptural book about one hundred times before you begin to get it. 🙂 I’m also seeing the fact that several of you have just studied Jonah or are in the midst as God’s sovereignty — for you can bring fresh water to our spring.


Thursday/Friday: Listen to the Keller sermon entitled Gospel Realization — here’s the link again:

Gospel Realization:


Then answer:

1. What was Keller’s experience with talking to New Yorkers about sin — and then — about idolatry? Why, do you think?


2. What is the supreme irony in the book of Jonah?


3. Keller says that before you can be an effective evangelist, you need to deal with the idol in your own heart.

Share your reflections on this.


4. A sign of a heart idol is when you don’t want to go on if it is taken from you. Keller tells a story he’s told before of two women married to difficult husbands. One was able to forgive her husband and the other was not. Why? Do you relate to this in any way?


5. Keller said the Lord has to become your “Rachel.” What did he mean? How are you doing with this?


6. What else stood out to you from this message and why?



7. What’s your take-a-way and why?


Leave a Comment

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  1. Dee, I had a wonderful opportunity to recommend you and Idol Lies for our women’s retreat next year. I would love prayer for this. It is for Chapel Hill Bible Church.

  2. Rebecca thanks for the link for the sermon. I could not get the other one to work for me.

  3. Tuesday/Wednesday: Bible Study

    Write down a few things that stand out to you from Jonah.

    I’ve decided that understanding the book of Jonah happens when you read the whole thing. So many questions I had in the first chapter were answered in the last. Like, why did Jonah run away from God?

    Chapter 1

    Jonah runs away from God. Really?!! I find Jonah to be a very intriguing character. Did he really think he could hide from the eyes of the Lord? It seems he tried to hide even further by going below deck and sleeping while on the ship. Oh, I can do that. Escape through just going to sleep; it aids me in avoiding dealing with things. I love the simple acceptance of the sailors when they hear that Jonah’s God is the One who made the sea and the land. That terrifies them, more than the storm. They now see the “hand” behind the weather. They are afraid to offend this God by throwing Jonah overboard.

    Chapter 2

    Lots of water images…”all Your waves and breakers swept over me”. Jonah is near death,drowning. But he remembers the Lord. He seems ready to obey the Lord, having repented. I think he repented of his behavior (the near-sin), but not of his idol.

    Chapter 3 and 4

    I love the contrast between the Ninevites and Jonah. The Ninevites put all their hope in the compassion of the Lord to turn His anger away and to spare them. They love this attribute of God! Jonah, on the other hand, hates this attribute of God! He doesn’t want
    God to be compassionate, at least not toward Ninevah.
    The way it ends, it leaves you wondering if Jonah ever changed his heart.

    1. Susan, this is a good point about Jonah repenting of the near sin but not dealing with the deeper issue of idolatry.

  4. The Sermon

    1. When Keller talked to New Yorkers about sin, they looked at him like a cow stares at a new gate. When he talked about idols, he got traction. I think people can relate to idols in that if you ask them what are you really living for, or what could you not live without, everyone has an answer. They don’t realize, of course, that this is sin, but it gets the conversation going.

    2. The irony is that Jonah is being sent to preach to pagan idolators, but he himself must first be confronted with his own idolatry.

    3. Keller said idolatry, in a sense, helps us “be” something before we can “do” something. I think that “be” is that we see our idols, and we see we ourselves are not understanding and applying the gospel in our own lives, and we begin to repent – we have to be repentant, humble people before we can tell others of how Jesus changes lives. It ends the superior attitude toward unbelievers.

    4. I have now heard the story of these two women several times through Keller’s sermons. Yes, I can overwhelmingly relate, to the woman who struggled to forgive. She said she believed that Jesus loved her, but she made an idol out of her son because this was what she really had to have to make her happy and to feel significant. I have, through this study, come to understand the idolatry in my life concerning my children, and how they had become my ultimate in giving me meaning, significance, love, companionship. I am still working through this. Yet, like the example of the other woman he gave, whose psychologist told her to replace men with a career, I know my marriage needs so much work, yet I don’t want to transfer my making my children my idols to focusing on having a better marriage so that I can make my husband my new idol who will meet all my needs.
    I need to be willing, like Rebecca said, to even sit in pain for a time, and wait on the Lord, and deepen my relationship with Him, and to expect from Him what only He can give.

    5. The Lord can become my “Rachel” when I look deeply at how I was His “Rachel”. Jesus didn’t just give up 7 years for me, He gave His life. How am I doing with this? This is a new idea for me this week. Jacob worked those 7 years and to him, they were like nothing. I need to look at my attitudes in spending time with God, reading His word, praying and talking to Him, replacing idols with Him. How do I feel about it? Is it like hard drudgery? It is hard with the idols b/c they always seem to crop back up, but I do like to spend time with God.

    6. I like the Coke machine example, of pounding the “gospel pennies”. I need a good whack on the head! I like the application Keller gives. When I see my heart moving into fear, or anger, or some other sin produced by an idol, I have to look at Jesus and what He did for me “on the spot”. I have to ask myself, right now, what am I not believing about the gospel?

  5. I went to our women’s retreat this weekend. Throughout our time there they drew names for prizes. The last drawing was at the end. I wasn’t paying attention and my name was drawn for a book. As they handed it to me my world paused and I wondered if God was calling. Also I had the sense that they had prayed over this book and were waiting to see where it went. It is by Verna Birkey, Women Connecting With Women:Equipping Women For Friend-to-Friend Support and Mentoring. If God is opening a ministry door it certainly will be by His power. I am greatly lacking in the gift of hospitality and making people feel comfortable and it seems to me that these would be a requirement. In fact something happened at the beginning of the retreat that highlighted a bit of callousness in my heart. It was a bit of the old Anne that showed up. I don’t know but I see a bit of God’s personality and humor in this. Its like He is saying ‘of course you can’t do it but I can’.

  6. The Coke machine analogy will stick with me, not everyones coins drop at the same rate, somehow I felt hopeful hearing that bit.
    I worked about 22 hours in the past two days, I am so grateful for the day off today and tomorrow. I have had very bad headaches and other physical symptoms this week, I sense it is from my emotional state. I prayed that whatever is frozen up inside of me will break free.
    One of the parties I took care of yesterday was a 65 wedding anniversary for the great grandparents of one of Daniels classmates. She had written a poem that we asked her to read at Daniels memorial service. She lives out of state, but last fall sent me this message on facebook;
    I haven’t been sure if I should tell you this, and I really hope you forgive me if I shouldn’t have.
    I don’t know why, but I’d always thought that I shouldn’t have spoken at Dan’s service. It tore me apart because it should have been a closer friend (we weren’t too terribly close), or another family member. I wasn’t even sure if Dan considered me as a friend. Maybe it was the grieving, but I tore myself up over that.

    Anyway, I wasn’t paying attention to the date at the time, but a couple months ago I had this dream, only it was absurdly real feeling, and intricately detailed. I was walking down the beach in Madison, where I saw Dan last, and there was this beautiful sunset. Breathtaking, like nothing I’ve ever actually seen over any body of water. Anyway, when walking, I saw Dan dressed in white. So I walked up to him, and I was so sad and felt so guilty, but couldn’t bring myself to express any of it.

    Oh all the things he could have said, he said “what’s up.” I was so caught off guard by something so casual that I just started talking. I told him about our mutual friends, that _____ was in the air force, that ______ was getting married, just the really big events with people we both knew well. We had this whole conversation, and I knew somehow that he had to go soon, so I just blurted out how sorry I was.

    He laughed it off. He didn’t give me a speech or whatever on how it comforted people or any of that, he just kind of chuckled and said don’t worry about it.

    The sunset got brighter, but not white, just like the colors started to surround everything, and my normal dreams kicked in like usual. It wasn’t until I woke up that I realized it was the morning of August 17th (2011). I almost forgot because I never watch the calendar.

    Anyway, I do hope you forgive me if I shouldn’t have said anything, but he looked so… at peace, I guess. And it was so real feeling, and I hope it was real, because I’ve felt so much better since it happened, both knowing that he’s not mad at me and that he’s still there. I really really hope this hasn’t bothered you that I’ve said this, and again, forgive me if it has.

    1. I asked her if it was okay if I shared her dream with others, and told her that it reminded me of these scriptures:
      “Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. Revelation 10:1

      And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. Revelation 4:3

      Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking. Ezekiel 1:28”

      I reassured & thanked her & spoke to the hope of heaven. She lists herself as an atheiest on facebook.

      Perhaps you all might pray for her, her name is Alex.