For a long time, whenever I read the story of Jonah, I thought it was all about Jonah’s lack of obedience in following God’s instructions. I often compared my own situation to his, but always got tripped up by the ending of the story. So what did it mean that God spared the people of Ninevah and Jonah was upset about a tree? I’ve read it over and over and today, it finally occurred to me that the significance of Jonah’s disgust was all about his inability to be merciful to others even when he witnessed God’s mercy firsthand. Is it possible to not rejoice in another’s blessing and still be considered a good Christian?
Maybe Jonah was suffering from some sort of “caregiver fatigue,” some kind of “prophet burnout,” or something like that. After all, the burden of being the informer had been weighing rather heavily on him. To the extent that he had tried to run the other way when God initially tapped him to go to Ninevah. Why had he wanted their destruction more than their salvation? As someone who attempts ministry on a regular basis, I can understand Jonah’s dilemma. Probably more than I should admit. It’s so hard to minister to others when so many have the wrong idea about what it means to be a Christian. So many have already been indoctrinated to either an ultra-conservative “embrace holiness, shun sinners” mentality or to a very loose “love everyone even to the point of condoning their sin” mindset. All of this is wrong and has nothing to do with the message of Jesus. These extremes have more to do with making ourselves feel special or making ourselves popular without ever actually ministering any sort of gospel to people other than the one we have created in our heads.
Imagine going to the doctor and having them check you for a disease. Then instead of offering you treatment or any sort of explanation for your symptoms, the doctor simply says to you, “Yep, you’re sick. I really want you to feel better and I’ll pray that you do real soon.” Aside from the prayer part, would the rest of that really help? No, probably not. You might feel a little better for about five minutes, but the symptoms would still be there and you’ve gotten no real guidance for how to address them.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe in praying for healing. And I believe that when you pray for guidance, God will usually show you what you need to do. Whether or not you listen or understand what He said depends on any number of things. How loudly does He have to speak to get your attention? How many times does He have to tell you something before you actually listen? And when you do what He says, do you do it happily or with a fake smile plastered on your face? Even more important, are you truly following His instruction or are you just following what others are telling you He said? That last question is very important. I mean, people are watching and you wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about how strong your faith is, would you?
Jonah didn’t seem concerned with whether or not anyone questioned his faith in God. He ran, he grumbled, he wallowed…yet, God still spoke to him. Even though Jonah seemed to have the absolute wrong idea about what it means to minister to others, God still trusted him to carry a very important message to some people who were messing up in a big way. He didn’t have to like it. He didn’t have to believe that it would do any good to tell them, he just had to do it. And eventually, he would think back on the whole thing and recall that he had been less than gracious. He might even take a moment to think about why he had been more worried about some withering tree than he was about a whole community of people. And that might be his turning point…that might be where he figures out that even though he’s been completely ridiculous for most of his life, God still didn’t stop showing him how to show mercy. What if that’s the message of the story of Jonah…and that it’s not just that we should always follow God’s instructions when He gives them?
But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
~Jonah 4:4 (NIV)~