This morning, in continuing our series on ‘Questions’ (looking now at questions God asks us), we looked at the story of Jonah (Jonah 3:6-4:11). The story of the rebellious prophet Jonah is well known (especially when he ended up in the belly of a fish after going to Tarshish instead of Nineveh!), but we sometimes fail to see that even when he finally obeyed God, he was still not happy. Instead of being thrilled that the Ninevites listened to his message and repented and thus the Lord relented from sending calamity, to Jonah, this seemed wrong and he was angry (the Message version speaks of him being furious and yelling at God!) We might find such a response unusual (Luke 15:7,10 gives us the spiritual response to any one sinner who repents and speaks of celebration and rejoicing), but this highlights how our responses are often not what they should be. The Bible is nothing if not honest about God’s people!
Anger is not in itself wrong. God is described as being ‘slow to anger’ (Nahum 1:3, Ex 34:6, Numbers 14:18, Neh 9:17, Ps 103:8), but His anger is aroused by persistent sin and stubborn unbelief (see Ex 4:14, Ezek 7:3, Judges 2:12, Ps 78:21-22); His anger is righteous, caring for justice and fairness. Our anger so often is selfish, fuelled by personal prejudice, fear or unbelief, which is why Paul tells us not to sin in our anger (Eph 4:26) and why James comments, ‘human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.’ (James 1:20)
Jonah’s anger here is against God. Despite knowing God’s nature (‘I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.’ (Jonah 4:2)), this does not translate into his own actions. Grace and mercy may have rescued him from the fish, but he secretly longed for Nineveh to perish. He is so angry with God for who He is and how He acts that he wishes he were dead. (Jonah 4:3)
God’s question probes the morality of Jonah’s response, but at first Jonah is unwilling to face the deeper motivations of his heart. Anger clouds our objectivity and leaves us unable to see beyond the anger itself. Jonah goes to hide, welcoming the shade of a plant, secretly hoping Nineveh will still perish. When the plant is eaten by a worm and his shade removed, God repeats the question about anger and Jonah is forced into understanding that his anger is entirely fuelled by personal pique and selfishness.
God’s final question (Jonah 4:10-11) exposes Jonah’s selfishness, giving him the opportunity to move from selfish anger and a theologically correct but barren understanding of God to a real passion for the lost. God is not only interested in us. We are not the be-all and end-all of everything in life. It’s crucial we know we are important, loved, valued and cared for by God, but that is the launchpad to life, not the final destination. For Jonah’s understanding of God as ‘a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity’ (Jonah 4:2) to be effective, he has to reflect God’s nature. He has to be gracious and compassionate. He has to be slow to anger and abounding in love. He has to be glad that God has relented from sending calamity, because he has to be glad that the 120,000 people in Nineveh now have the same access as he does to God. We need a passion that others have the same access to God’s love that we now enjoy; we need to have God’s heart for the lost.
We don’t know what Jonah’s response to these questions was, just as we don’t know if the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son ever accepted his father’s generosity and joined in the celebrations. I think the reason these stories end like this is because the ending is still being written by our responses as well as by the responses of the protagonists. We are drawn into these stories and invited to look at them through different eyes as we hear God’s questions. ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ (Jonah 4:4) This is a question not only to Jonah, and not only about anger. God is constantly questioning our responses, not because He doesn’t know the answers, but because so often we don’t. Emotions will always affect our actions, whereas in this question, God is bringing us back to basics, back to His right and wrong. Identifying how we feel is one thing; it’s the start of the path to emotional intelligence. But there will always be a moral foundation to our actions and feelings. Is it right for us to react to this situation, whatever ‘this’ is, in the light of who God is and who we are as children of God? Society tells us we can feel whatever we want to feel and act however we want to act, but this is not what we are called to as Christians. We are called to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom 8:29), to actually be God-reflectors. Is it right for us to doubt God’s goodness and justice? Is it right for us to appropriate grace and mercy for ourselves and deny it to everyone else? Is it right to hoard the treasures of God, or should we be seeking to share these with others? Is it right to do God’s will grudgingly and to blame God when things don’t go our way? Only we can answer the piercing questions God asks us. What will our response be?