The Jonah Problem

In the Old Testament, we read plenty of accounts in which God was looking for righteous people to stand up against the powers of evil. He called on Noah to build an ark. He commanded Lot to leave Sodom and Gomorrah. Twice Moses pleaded with God and interceded on behalf of His people.

In the book of Ezekiel, we read about the many sins of Israel, and they’re unwillingness to turn and repent. God then speaks of His coming judgement, because there was no one to be found who would take a stand.

“I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one. So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.” (Ezekiel 22:30-31)

2 Chronicles 16:9 reminds us that God is always looking to see who will stand up for righteousness, and against sin. “For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.”

It’s abundantly clear what God is looking for. He wants obedience, and dedication, and people willing to take a stand in His name regardless of the consequences. In fact, the presence of righteousness will spare a nation from destruction (Genesis 18). As Christians, we have the opportunity to prolong life on earth simply by standing up for what’s right.

But in taking such a stand, have we forgotten what else we’ve been commanded to do?

One of the most well-known Bible tales is that of Jonah and the big fish. We all know the story. Jonah ran away from God, got swallowed by a big fish, lived inside its stomach for 3 days, realized the error of his ways and decided to obey. But often overlooked is Jonah’s attitude, which is not exclusive to the famous minor prophet.

God called Jonah to preach to the city of Nineveh, a wicked nation that was far from God. Rather than obey, Jonah fled in the opposite direction (hence his eventual encounter with the fish). Once Jonah came to his senses, God gave him the exact same command, only this time he actually obeyed. When he went to Nineveh to let them know about their coming demise if they don’t repent. They listened, and God spared them.

But Jonah wasn’t too happy about it. Maybe he felt the people in Nineveh weren’t deserving of God’s grace. Maybe he thought he was supposed to warn them, and then God would destroy them anyway. In other words, he did his job, and had no regard for what actually happened to them. But the God we serve is gracious, and compassionate.

Jonah knew God would save the people if they repented, and he didn’t want anything to do with it. He was assuming God would pour out his wrath anyway. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Jonah 3:10. “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.”

How amazing is God’s love, that no matter how bad and evil people are, if they turn from their old ways and follow Him, they’ll be saved. It’s a wonderful truth, one that we easily forget. When Jesus came, he carried on God’s compassion. It didn’t matter who a person was, where they came from or what they did. The only pre-requisite for salvation was to repent and believe. Jonah probably wouldn’t have been Jesus’ biggest fan.

Jesus’ commission to us, his followers, was to share his good news with everybody. To love them, to care for them, and to disciple them. He didn’t alienate anyone. He opened doors and broke down barriers. He offered salvation to absolutely everyone.

As Christians, it’s our job to continue his work. But too many of us are more like Jonah, and less like Jesus. We live righteously, we scoff at sin and evil, and we hate the wickedness that exists in our world. But how many of us are driven to compassion to see people turn and follow Jesus?

God expects us to stand up for Him, but in that standing comes the rest of responsibility. Persecution is coming, but for the most part, Christians in the Western world have it easy. They’re content to have their protests and their boycotts, and believe that’s good enough.

But what about the people of Nineveh? Standing up against sin is only the beginning. In fact, many people don’t even know they’re living in sin, because they have no understanding of God. What message are we sending to a world who has no clue they’re going to hell?

Look at the very last verse of Jonah. God says: “Why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure, this big city of more than 120,000 childlike people who don’t yet know right from wrong?”

Not only do many of us ignore God’s commands to preach His word, but we have a stance that people are somehow undeserving of God’s love. Don’t think you’ve ever been guilty of that? Have you ever been found pointing out evil, mocking, shaking your head, outraged at the immorality, yet all the while doing nothing to help them?

Unfortunately, some Christians have gone the complete opposite way, welcoming everyone in (as they should), but then not teaching them of their need for change, and being wishy-washy on severity of sin. Jesus always addressed sin, but in the same breath afforded everyone the opportunity to confess and be forgiven.

In an effort to keep ourselves clean and sin-free, we’re turning our backs on the very people we’ve been called to reach. Do we truly have compassion on people who don’t know Jesus, or are we simply indignant over their wickedness, and lament the state of their lifestyles from afar?

“During this time period, the Ninevites were not only enemies of the Israelites but had violently oppressed the nation of Israel. God’s command for Jonah, therefore, is not just unreasonable. It’s terrifying—and seemingly impossible.

These cultural realities are most likely a huge part of why Jonah runs from God’s will. He is naturally terrified of the enemy. Maybe he’s also afraid of failure. Proclaiming God’s judgment to an enemy nation is a daunting task. Perhaps Jonah figures the odds of the Ninevites heeding God’s command are too small for him to risk his life and dignity.

At the core of Jonah’s trepidation, though, there is something even deeper at work: fear of triumph. Jonah knows that if he succeeds at winning over the Ninevites to the Lord, they will be shown mercy. That’s just the kind of God Jonah serves: He shows his abundant grace to undeserving people.

Like Jonah, we often have the appropriate and religious words, and even the actions to match those words. But our hearts can be hard, unwilling to extend God’s love to others.” [Bonnie McMaken]

marcy dimichele

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