January 24, 2010

When We Don’t Like God’s Character

“It was evil to Jonah, a great evil, and it burned to him.” We finally come to the end of our story this morning. And what an auspicious start to the last installment of this mini-saga. What exactly was the “it” here that was so “evil to Jonah” and “burned to him”? We need only look a single verse back for our answer. The last verse of chapter three states: “Then God saw their actions—that they had turned from their evil ways—so God relented from the disaster He had threatened to do to them. And He did not do it.” That.s right: God.s pardoning of the Ninevites because of their genuine spirit of repentance for their evil ways was too much for Jonah to handle. We.ll talk about some more details of this a bit later, but let.s ask the more relevant question first: has God ever done or let happen anything you didn.t particularly like? I doubt quite seriously that any of us can honestly answer that question with anything other than a resounding, “Yes.” Here.s the reality: God is good. God is good and God is sovereign over His creation. Everything God does is good and He doesn.t allow anything to happen through which He does not plan to work some good. Now, note very well that I did not say that everything that happens is good, because it.s not. Here.s the further reality: We live in a broken world that includes a lot of things happening which seem awfully bad to us. Some of them are objectively bad. Some of them, however, only seem so to us. When things happen that fit squarely within this latter aspect of reality, it.s pretty hard to believe, much less see, the former. If God really is good, it sure would be nice if His goodness played out in our favor more often. I think we can all agree that God showing mercy to an entire city full of people was a good thing and yet the text is pretty black and white on Jonah.s reaction: “It was evil to Jonah, a great evil, and it burned to him.” The translations you are looking at probably say something more along the lines of: “But Jonah was greatly displeased and became furious,” but the text literally says it was evil to him and burned to him. As the next thing Jonah says reveals, it.s not like he just doesn.t understand God.s character. He has a decent understanding of this. The problem is that at least for the moment he doesn.t like it. So what do we do when we don.t like God.s character? Perhaps more importantly, how does God respond to us in those times? How does God respond when we don’t like His character?

Okay, let.s back up just a minute. How.d we get here? As a matter of review, let.s take a minute and look at the path Jonah has taken to get to this place where he is so angry at God. It all began when he received a word from the Lord to get up and go to Nineveh in order to preach against the evil city. Jonah gets up and goes, but instead of going to Nineveh he makes to run to the other side of the world. And if you.ll recall, we aren.t told why. Well, Jonah may be through with God, but God.s not through with Jonah. He sends a storm to stop the ship Jonah.s taking to Tarshish in its tracks. After much consternation on the part of the sailors, the reality of the situation is finally made clear and Jonah is tossed overboard. Jonah makes clear that this was the only way to stop the storm, but as a matter of hypothesizing, what if he.d simply told the sailors to turn the boat around? God wanted him to go back to Israel so that he could go to Nineveh. I seriously doubt that Jonah expected God to send a fish to swallow him. He fully expected to drown in the water. In other words, Jonah preferred death to obedience. In any event, instead of drowning Jonah gets a three-day, three-night, all-expenses-paid seafood retreat at Casa Del Fish.s Gut (they tell me the atmosphere.s great, but the patrons complain of seasickness pretty often). While in the fish, Jonah finally breaks down and repents of his sinful running. When he does, God responds by commanding the fish to spit him out on the shore. The next time God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, he goes. He goes, but instead of proclaiming the full message of judgment and salvation that the text seems to point to God having sent him to proclaim, he just tells them they.re all going to die in 40 days. Well, instead of laughing him off or simply offing him (which you have to think he was at least sort of hoping for so he could give God a big “I told you so”), the whole city responds by repenting and begging God.s forgiveness for their evil, violent lifestyle. Not only that but they commit themselves to changing their ways to be more pleasing to God. Moved by their genuine repentance, God responds by doing just what they asked Him to do: He accepts their repentance, forgives them, and decides to not destroy them. For all of that Jonah is angry with Him. And this isn.t just your run-of-the-mill anger. There.s a reason the text literally says that it “burned to him.” Jonah is so mad he can.t even see straight. Picture him standing out in the desert screaming at God. He has experienced God.s goodness and mercy in every way and he.s not happy. He doesn.t like God.s character in this moment. How does God respond when we don’t like His character?

Well, before we answer that, let.s hear from Jonah exactly why he.s angry. Turn to Jonah chapter four if you haven.t yet and find the second verse. It starts by saying: “He prayed to the Lord,” but I have the sneaking suspicion this wasn.t quite like we generally conceive of prayer. It.s called a prayer because it.s directed at God. My suspicion is that instead of getting down on his knees and quietly talking to God with his hands folded reverently Jonah is a bit more animated. From the rest of v. 2: “Please, Lord, isn.t this what I said while I was still in my own country? That.s why I fled toward Tarshish in the first place. I knew that You are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to become angry, rich in faithful love, and One who relents from sending disaster.” I.ll let you take that in a minute. Here we finally get the reason that Jonah ran to Tarshish in the first place. Jonah wasn.t afraid for his life as we have assumed a couple of times. Jonah knows God.s character. That.s the problem. He was so horrified by the idea that God might show mercy to this people if they repented that he tried to run to the other side of the world to keep that from happening. He knew God.s character was one that preferred mercy over wrath and so he knew that he couldn.t risk giving this people an opportunity to repent. Jonah wasn.t totally ignorant of God.s character. The problem was that he didn.t like God.s character in this moment.

His anger is burning so hotly that in v. 3 he exclaims: “And now, Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” That.s some pretty intense anger. Have any of you ever been that angry? Angry enough to ask God to take your life because you would rather be dead than alive? But why? Why would the idea of Nineveh repenting be so horrifying to Jonah? One thought is that he knew his career as a prophet would be over because he spoke a prophesy that didn.t come true. But this falls short when we look at the wording of his prophecy. He said that Nineveh would be overthrown. Well, had they not repented God would have overthrown the city. When they did repent, however, their former way of life was overthrown. His prophecy was right on the money (in spite of himself), we just don.t often think far enough to see all the possibilities of a prophecy. Another thought is that as a loyal Israelite he naturally didn.t want to see non-Israelites receive the mercy from God that should belong to Israel. This too falls short, though, due to a lack of evidence and also the fact that we really don.t see such an attitude in any other Old Testament figure. A third proposal is found in extrapolating from 2:8. There Jonah proclaims that “those who cling to worthless idols forsake faithful love.” So why should this people who worshiped a host of these “worthless idols” receive the very faithful love they had previously forsaken? It seems like that would be a cause for a bout of the “not-fairs,” but not the selfish temper-tantrum Jonah is throwing here. Indeed, Jonah still hasn.t overcome his selfishness from the prayer in the fish.s belly. In vv. 2-3 Jonah makes reference to himself nine times. Jonah can.t get past himself to see the glorious character of God for what it really is. But is this just as simple as that? Jonah merely has a case of the “me-firsts,” and needs to get his focus on something grander than himself? When we don.t like God.s character is it always just us being selfish humans? Can we ever have righteous anger with God?

Let.s get the full story before we just write Jonah off as a selfish jerk. One of the prophets contemporary to Jonah was a guy by the name of Amos. If you turn back a few pages in your Bibles to Amos 5 you.ll find the following words: “„Woe to you who long for the Day of the Lord! What will the Day of the Lord be for you? It will be darkness and not light. It will be like a man who flees from a lion only to have a bear confront him. He goes home and rests his hand against the wall only to have a snake bite him. Won.t the Day of the Lord be darkness rather than light, even gloom without any brightness in it? I hate, I despise your feasts! I can.t stand the stench of your solemn assemblies. Even if you offer Me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; I will have no regard for your fellowship offerings of fattened cattle. Take away from Me the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice flow like water and righteousness, like an unfailing stream. House of Israel, was it sacrifices and grain offerings that you presented to Me during the 40 years in the wilderness? But you have taken up Sakkuth your king and Kaiwan your star god, images you have made for yourselves. So I will send you into exile beyond Damascus.. Yahweh, the God of Hosts, is His name. He has spoken.” That.s a long passage, but I wanted you to get the full context. Israel isn.t exactly doing great at the time Jonah is doing his prophetic work. In fact they are doing so badly that God threatens to send them into exile beyond Damascus. When you went beyond Damascus in the ancient world you were in Assyrian territory. Get that. We can.t say with 100% factual certainty that Amos prophesied before Jonah, but there.s at least a reasonable chance it. And furthermore, there.s a reasonable chance then that Jonah had heard this prophecy of Amos given that he was also a prophet in Israel. In other words, when God told Jonah to go and proclaim a message of judgment and hope to the Ninevites, he knew this was the people who would at some point in the future conquer Israel. As we mentioned last week, conquered by the Assyrians wasn.t exactly something that little nations hoped to be someday. Perhaps Jonah was furious with God because He had sent him to preach the message that led to this future enemy being spared a premature end. On Jonah.s preaching God had spared the parents or grandparents of the people who would later massacre thousands of Israelites…maybe his own kids and grandkids. All of a sudden Jonah.s anger, his reaction to God.s character, and really the entire book has taken on a new light.

When I was in college there was a girl who got involved with the campus ministry I was in. When she started coming she just barely masked her antagonism to the faith. Over time, though, God worked on her heart through the folks in the ministry there and she became a believer. A few months later she gave her testimony to the group and talked about her biggest hang up to becoming a believer. She knew that she was no candidate for person of the year, but when she was growing up she had been sexually abused by her dad and some other men in her life. When she came to the point of faith, however, she understood that if God could forgive and accept her then He could do the same thing for them. She wasn.t willing to accept that and so kept God at arm.s length as if by refusing Him He would equally refuse her dad. Had her dad sincerely repented, God would have accepted him, but she wouldn.t have liked it. In the same way, God has acted consistently with His character—mercy over wrath for all who seek it—and Jonah doesn.t like it. That said, I don.t know that we can blame him. If you had the opportunity to take the life of someone who.s descendent you somehow knew would take the life of one of your descendents, would you? What if God instead called you to proclaim the Gospel to them? Imagine if one of Jeffrey Dahmer.s victims. parents had known what he would become and had the opportunity to kill Dahmer.s parents before he was born. Yet if the reports are true, Dahmer became a Christian before his execution. Could we meet Jeffrey Dahmer in Heaven? Are God.s mercy and grace cheapened when they.re offered to people who “don.t deserve” them? How does God respond when we don’t like His character?

In this case God reaches out to Jonah. In v. 4 God poses an important question to him: “Is it right for you to be angry?” In other words, “Is your anger causing anything good?” Does our anger with God when we don.t like His character accomplish anything positive? Jonah ignores Him. He ignores Him and marches out into the desert in order to watch the fireworks—he still hasn.t gotten past his hope that somehow God will change His mind and destroy the city. So God decides to give him an object lesson. From vv. 5 and following: “Jonah left the city and sat down east of it. He made himself a shelter there and sat in its shade to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God appointed a plant, and it grew up to provide shade over Jonah.s head to ease his discomfort. Jonah was greatly pleased with the plant. When dawn came the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, and it withered. As the sun was rising, God appointed [That.s the fourth time we see that word demonstrating God.s sovereignty over His creation. He also appointed the fish that swallowed Jonah.] a scorching east wind. The sun beat down on Jonah.s head so that he almost fainted, and he wanted to die. He said, „It.s better for me to die than to live..” From an archaeological standpoint, the wind may have been the sirocco that blows in the Near East. “It contains „constant hot air so full of positive ions that it affects the levels of serotonin and other brain neurotransmitters, causing exhaustion, depression, feelings of unreality, and occasionally, bizarre behavior..”1 God.s trying to get Jonah.s attention and teach him a lesson. He didn.t have to send the plant. Yet Jonah doesn.t say a word to God through any f this. He.s pleased with the plant, but ignores the God who made it. He.s like a pouting child. He refuses to see the good in front of him for the what-he-perceives-as-evil behind him.

1Frank S. Page, “Jonah,” in Amos, Obadiah, and Jonah (NAC), Billy K. Smith and Frank S. Page (Nashville: Broadman &
Holman, 1995), 279-80.

But wait! we want to protest. If God really did lead him to save the people who would later kill his own he has every right to be mad at God. Does he? God next asks Jonah the question He asked before, but with a slight twist: “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” As before, in other words: “Is this doing you any good?” Unlike before Jonah finally responds: “Yes. It is right. I.m angry enough to die!” You see, Jonah keeps holding his ground. He thinks God is unjust. Ever had that thought? He didn.t destroy the Ninevites who deserved to be destroyed. On the other hand, He.s making Jonah miserable through the killing of the plant and the scorching east wind when he had done nothing to deserve such treatment. Ever been there? Simply put: Jonah didn.t like God.s character. He wanted God to explain Himself for doing the very thing Jonah dreaded most. No matter what we might think God didn.t owe Jonah an explanation. He.s not accountable to us. But in His abundant grace God does shed some light on things for Jonah. Look with me starting in v. 10: “So the Lord said, „You cared about the plant, which you did not labor over and did not grow. It appeared in a night and perished in a night. Should I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 people who cannot distinguish between their right and their left, as well as many animals?.” Let.s talk reality again. We have plans for this world. There are certain ways we want to see some things go and we.re pretty attached to those ways. More than that, we.re awfully attached to the things of this world. Let.s go even one step further and state that we.re pretty attached to this world in general. I know Scripture tells us not to be over and over and over (maybe there.s a reason for that?), but we do it anyway. When we make these attachments, our character suffers for it. Because every time we hook ourselves to something in this world, we remove a hook from God. When God, then, comes in with His plans for this world and for us and those plans don.t fit with ours, we get pretty angry with Him. The problem in this instance isn.t with God.s character, it.s with ours. When we don’t like God’s character, He challenges us to check our own.

This is exactly what He.s doing with Jonah here. Jonah had this strong attachment and concern for something in which he had no part in making. Even when talking about our descendents as we were a bit ago, apart from the direct working of God we wouldn.t have those descendents. The rightness or wrongness of those attachments aside for a moment, though, should not the very fact that we care for the things of this world—most of which we had no part in making—allow God to be concerned for the people He created and built up from nothing? When we take the step of dictating to God how things should be we put ourselves in His place. That.s dangerous ground to tread. Remember: reality is that God is good. Everything He actively does is good and everything He allows to happen is for the purpose of working something good. When we don’t like God’s character, He challenges us to check our own. You see, God knows us far better than we know ourselves and is willing to bear with us in spite of our faults and failings. He was patient with Jonah as he struggled to get it and He will be patient with us. When God allows things to happen that are clearly bad let us remember that we don.t know the whole story. Our challenge is to make sure that our concerns are the same as God.s. His are going to be met and when ours are not in line with His we set ourselves up for all kinds of heartache. God prefers compassion to judgment; patience to punishment. He would rather bless than curse; forgive than condemn. Would we as well? Let us make sure that we love others and love to see God.s plans for mercy go forward as much as we love ourselves and seeing our plans go forward. When we don’t like God’s character, He challenges us to check our own. His concerns and plans are the ones that matter. He alone is good. Any goodness in us comes directly from His image being reflected in us. In fact, if we somehow could do any good on our own we would be tempted to think we don.t need Him. As a great song by the band Caedmon.s Call goes, “I.m so thankful that I.m incapable of doing any good on my own.” If God has acted in some way and we would see it changed, we can be sure that we would only make it worse.

So yes, Jonah is angry with God. That.s okay. We can get angry with God. Jonah.s anger came because he wanted things to turn out a certain way and they didn.t. His sense of justice was offended by what God did. Jonah.s real problem, though, was that his sense of justice wasn.t in tune with God.s. Every single thing God does or allows to happen is with the purpose in mind of seeing His kingdom expand. If Jonah was angry, perhaps he should have been angry with his own people for getting so far off base that God needed to use drastic measures like being conquered by the Assyrians to get their attention and invite them back into His kingdom. When we don’t like God’s character, He challenges us to check our own. May we have the faith we need to trust in God.s character even when it doesn.t make sense and make sure that ours matches His. For fidelity to His brings life. Whereas our own only brings death.