Jonah may be the most surprising person in the Bible to me. This prophet of God receives an order to preach repentance to Nineveh; instead, he opposes God’s mandate and foolishly attempts to avoid him. Then, after God mercifully delivers him and Jonah carries out his mission, he becomes furious with God for showing mercy to the penitent city.
I’m left wanting more each time I read the Book of Jonah. Its four chapters stir up so many topics. Moreover, Jonah demonstrates what happens when the godly disregard the significance of grace.
A calling to preach or the desire to share God’s message is generally established on the hope of presenting people the truth of God’s reality and eventually converting them. And that’s usually rooted in the desire to share his love and amazing grace that freely pardons—enacted in the love by which we ourselves have been changed.
Now, where did Jonah lose some or all of this?
And having deliberately sinned, how was he so quick to forget the mercy shown to him? Yet when Nineveh repents, he explains, “That is why I ran away…I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God…You are eager to turn back from destroying people” (4:2). This is what happens when grace ceases being a mercy shown to us and becomes a right deserved.
That attitude expresses itself in many ways. When we devalue the grace of God, we’ll forsake examining our hearts and motives. Jonah seems to have lost his purpose for preaching; it lands him in the same sinful reproach as the people of Nineveh, yet feeling superior to them. But preaching for preaching’s sake means nothing. This is not about us; this is God’s mission. Further, we must pray earnestly for the lost. There is no way to do that before God and not be forced to have a right attitude about oneself, their need, and God’s heart for them.
I Am Nothing
We also encounter problems when we attempt to vindicate God or our own righteousness. I am too small—and full of hubris—to even think that I can be God’s protector. God can fight for himself and sinful defiance of him in the culture is no worry to him; and we shouldn’t worry about it either.
A bigger problem is to erect our own importance in the sight of God. Grace is God’s stage and we can sometimes forget that none of us deserves his kindness. So, forgetting that it’s a gift, we take it for granted. If we’re not careful our hearts will fume: “Well who are they? They’re not better than me.” “I deserve it more!” “If it were me, I wouldn’t tolerate…”
Like Jonah, we can follow God and be caught up in our own hype. We can wear an essential clergy collar in public, from home to work to play, and still make God and church feed our own image. And we’ll view ourselves as better than others—those for whom we should be praying to see the light and escape perdition. Instead, we take audacity and rail at God for being merciful to them.
God of Mercies
Jonah goes outside the city and builds a shelter. God causes a palm-like tree to grow and provide him shade. It is another act of mercy shown to Jonah. The next day, however, the Lord sends a worm to gnaw the plant down while causing a scorching wind to buffet Jonah. On cue, Jonah fumes.
The Lord says to him, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness…Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” (4:10-11).
It is a profound statement. God makes it clear that mercy will come—and go—at his command despite what we may think of it. But lest we lose sight of grace and grow self-righteous, we will do better to see how much we are all, saint and sinner alike, in the same condition rather than to make ourselves the exception.