In recent weeks, I’ve been feeling a lot like the prophet Jonah. You may remember him chiefly for being held captive inside a large fish for three days. That’s certainly the part I remember from Sunday School all those years ago. But that’s not the part I’m thinking about.
If you remember the story, God instructs Jonah to go to Nineveh to declare God’s punishment on them. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, which had subdued Israel, and now ruled them as a client state. We can think of it today in terms of being asked by God to travel to an ISIS camp to declare God’s judgment upon them. Jonah, of course, wants nothing to do with this, and so he takes a ship bound in the opposite direction. Why?
We have to wait for the end of the book to find out. In Jonah 4:2-3, the prophet explains himself. While the mission would seem to be an Israelite’s dream, Jonah knows better. God isn’t going to smite the Assyrians, He is going to have mercy on them. And Jonah won’t abide that. He pouts indignantly. It’s not clear what he hates more, God’s mercy itself, or his own role as an agent of that mercy.
God is nothing if not patient. Previously, He had Jonah swallowed by a great fish in the face of a terrific storm. Jonah was saved from certain drowning, and after repenting of his desire to flee God’s call, Jonah was released to obey that call. He could appear before the Ninevites as living proof of God’s mercy. Since Jonah remained recalcitrant, God tried yet again.
While Jonah kept his watch over the city, God caused a gourd vine to rise up to shelter Jonah from the fierceness of the sun (4:6). The next day, God took the vine away, sending a worm to eat it. As if that were not enough, God then sent a hot wind off the desert and a blazing sun. Jonah was scorched, so he pouted, again.
At this point, God chooses to confront Jonah directly. Why is Jonah so upset? He has done nothing to help the vine grow or preserve it from pests. Yet Jonah is so distressed about its fate that he wants to die. But what, then, of the city of Nineveh, teeming with humans made in the image of God, or the many animals within its limits? Does God not have the right to be upset about their fate? Does He not have the right to show mercy?
For the past several years, I have felt increasingly out of touch with the church I attend. Most of the people I have known, and consider friends, have left. I do not have much in common with those who remain. I would much rather be somewhere else, and yet there I remain, and Elder of the church.
Is my discomfort a sign that I should leave, or a sign that God wishes stretch me?
Jonah was clearly stretched. It amazes me that having received such an extraordinary demonstration of God’s mercy, he could not extend that grace to others. But am I all that different? I struggle to extend grace. I get hung up on others’ sinfulness. I don’t want to be seen condoning it. So how do you hate the sin, yet love the sinner?
If I am to serve them, I must love them. But if that does not come naturally, what then? Only God’s love and love them, and He can only love pour that love through me if I yield to it. We make it sound the simplest thing to do, yet I am finding it so hard. It’s the funny thing, we all yearn to be used of God, but we rarely give a thought as to how He might choose to use us.