Jonah: When Saintly Hearts Sour

Jean Mazieres, NC-SA
Jean Mazieres, NC-SA

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.

Check Yourself

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

pcstratman, SA
pcstratman, SA

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.

The Preacher and His Preaching

Kent Kanouse, NC
Kent Kanouse, NC

A sage old professor of mine would sometimes say, “God can strike a mighty blow with a crooked stick.” The saying is a rendering of a medieval adage, and it has never left me since hearing it. The apostle Paul explores the notion in his epistle to the Philippians.

As he explains to them that his imprisonment is due to his advancement of the gospel, he draws attention to other preachers who in his absence are attempting to sway the masses with their interpretation of the gospel.

“It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains” (Ph. 1:15-17)

We don’t know these preachers’ agenda; however, we can make a strong case for Judaizers who leaped at the chance to debunk Paul’s preaching now that he was bound and unable to evangelize, shepherd the congregation, and, importantly, oppose them. If you’ll remember, Paul had warned the Ephesian elders that “savage wolves” would appear and devour the flock—“even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30).

These particular Macedonian ministers were much closer to orthodoxy than those John and Jude warned their readers about. Yet their motives were still impure and far from the heart of the gospel. From the little we can deduce in Paul’s words, their purpose didn’t lie in the exaltation of Christ, spiritual transformation, and the care of the soul with grace and godly love. Instead, they were in it for control, indoctrination, and whatever other self-centered, contentious reasons that figure in Paul’s description “envy and rivalry.”

The Diamond in the Ruff

Paul then says something truly remarkable: “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (v. 18).

Geraint Rowland, NC
Geraint Rowland, NC

Given the crooked hearts and devious purposes of these preachers, Paul suggests that there is more than enough gospel and truth about Christ to be learned by their preaching. It was sufficient for those who didn’t know Christ and those needing edification; and, to Paul, this is a splendid thing. God was not limited by the moral character of these persons, but rather served his own purposes with them. In fact, if necessary, he could save one by their preaching and raise him up to condemn their ungodliness!

It should give many of us pause when we chance to pass a vote on a preacher in the cause of Christ that we feel is serving his or her own purposes more than the Lord’s. Something may be wrong about them, but we should nevertheless rejoice that people are hearing the Word of God. Further, we should be responsible and spiritually perceptive enough to pray for the many these ministers lead and influence, that their eyes be fixed on Christ; that God would align that leader’s heart with his own; and that we might see more clearly where we may have only judged incorrectly.