God asked Jonah to get up and go to Nineveh and he got up and went in the opposite direction. This disobedient behaviour went way beyond anything I’ve experienced with our boys in their stubborn moments – and let’s hope I can still say that in ten years time! But why did Jonah “flip out” to borrow a line from the boys? Why when called to go one way and do one thing did he flee in the opposite direction? The people of Nineveh respond to his preaching with repentance and when God withholds punishment Jonah himself gives us the reason for his flight:
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. (Jonah 4:1,2 NRSV)
Nineveh represented the enemy to God’s people in Israel so Jonah among others would far rather see the Ninevites receive punishment than have the opportunity of repentance. Jonah was holding a grudge against the Ninevites and if we were in his shoes we likely would too. Perhaps you are in his shoes, so to speak, and are holding a grudge against someone. Perhaps you have an enemy. Perhaps ‘enemy’ would be too strong a word but you have at least someone in your life that has hurt you, wounded you, who has caused you to take offence. If so then you are normal like the rest of us and will benefit from three lessons we can learn along with Jonah.
First, we, along with Jonah, need to make room for God’s sovereign grace. God teaches Jonah a lesson by providing him a bush to shelter him from the hot sun one day then destroying the bush the next. When Jonah gets even grumpier than he already was because of this God says,
“You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:10,11 NRSV)
Jonah’s concerns over the tree are petty compared to God’s concern over people and that is the point. When that day comes in which we behold God’s glory revealed through His glorious salvation, we will find our grudges to be quite petty. It may not feel that way right now and we should not minimize one another’s hurts, but neither can we minimize God’s glory and grace. When God loves those who have hurt you, His grace is abounding just like it does when He loves you. Let us make room for the sovereign grace of the One who said “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19 NRSV).
Second, we, along with Jonah, are called to be instruments of God’s grace. I first heard the expression “instruments of God’s grace” from a colleague, Mel Finlay, and have been found it helpful. In God’s Kingdom work, it is His grace that is poured out, but we are invited to participate and be used as instruments of His grace. What is interesting with Jonah is that he is not asked to love the Ninevites, rather he simply needs to be obedient to God and let God do the loving. There may be people in our lives who will never inspire our having warm fuzzy feelings toward them. But if we are being obedient to God we will be open to His call upon us to be instruments of His grace in their lives.
However, in Jesus Christ we are called to take one step further into the Kingdom of God by actively loving our enemies:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43-35 NRSV)
Loving one’s enemies still does not mean holding warm feelings toward them, but it does mean working for their best. This begins and finds its highest expression in our praying for our enemies, something I can’t imagine Jonah doing. But something we can imagine Jesus doing.
Third, we, along with Jonah, need to watch our attitude toward God. Jonah hits the nail on the head with his description of God found in verse two of chapter four already quoted. In fact Jonah would have aced a Bible Study quiz in his knowledge about God. Where he fell flat, however, was in his attitude toward God as he did not look up to God as his leader, or mentor, or Heavenly Father, or as One whom he aspired to be like. Instead God was to be argued with. Jesus teaches in that same passage about loving our enemies to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 NRSV). This does not mean perfection in the sense of keeping all the rules, though Christian ethics are of course important, but rather it means that we must emulate God Himself, seeing Him as our greatest mentor, guide, leader, and Lord. Just as His perfection is shown in His love toward others, follow His lead and love others too! “But God,” we might yell “you know how deeply I have been hurt by that person you are calling me to love!” Yes He does know, but remembering that He bore your sin and my sin upon the cross methinks God knows all about pain and loving the enemy who inflicted it.
8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. . . For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:8,10 NRSV)
Let’s move from being miffed with God for loving and being gracious our enemies, to joining Him in love and grace. Let’s move from being miffed like Jonah to being gracious like God.