Recently, I rewrote and posted a series of thoughts on the Book of Jonah that I had used in ministry and published on another blog.
But I realized something about those posts. I’ve never really dealt with the last chapter.
Now, I know that I did it a couple of times in sermons. It’s just that I’ve never really reflected on it and what it means for me and for others. So, this is my chance to give it a shot.
The story of Jonah goes something like this: God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and give the people there the message that God is pretty unhappy with what they’ve been doing. Nineveh is located near current-day Mosul, Iraq. (So imagine your reaction if God said for you to go there today.) Jonah didn’t want to do it so he got on a ship and headed in the opposite direction. A huge storm hits at sea, sailors are scared and Jonah tells them to throw him into the sea to stop the storm. Jonah hits the water, the storm stops and the crew that worshiped idols is now worshiping God.
Jonah, meanwhile, gets picked up by the ancient world’s first submarine (a great fish) and is vomited up on the beach near Nineveh. God tells him to go again, Jonah goes reluctantly, goes only a day into the city (that is a three-day journey across) and gives one of the shortest sermons in Scripture. And, God goes to work and Nineveh repents.
Jonah, meanwhile, goes back to the beach, pulls up a seat and waits for God to drop a bomb from heaven and obliterate Nineveh. It doesn’t happen and, in Chapter 4, Jonah is just so angry that he wishes he would die.
God asks him this question in Scripture: The Lord said, “Do you have good reason to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4)
Jonah says he does have a reason and that he wishes God would just go ahead and take his life. In an object lesson on anger and rights, God gives Jonah a plant for shade and then takes it away. Then, God sends a scorching wind. Jonah is even angrier and continues to throw his hissy fit on the beach.
In the end, God asks him again whether he has a right to be angry. Then God makes the statement, really a rhetorical question, that shouldn’t God be concerned with the children and animals of Nineveh.
Jonah is not a book with a happy ending. Maybe, that’s the part of it that I’ve wrestled with for so long. There’s not a moment where Jonah gets back up, walks into Nineveh and starts helping those there in their walk to repentance. Jonah doesn’t apologize to God, say he’s sorry or try to see it from God’s perspective.
Jonah is just angry — so angry that he wishes he would die. He’s so angry that he misses seeing the incredible thing that God is doing in Nineveh.
When I heard a sermon on this one recently at the church I attend now, I was forced to wrestle with it. Have I been the one sitting on the beach, too angry about things that have happened and too resistant to realize that God is still at work?
Andy Stanley, in his book, Enemies of the Heart, says this: “The root of anger is the perception that something has been taken. Something is owed you, and now a debt to debtor relationship has been established.”
Jonah’s anger is rooted in many things. His life was changed and uprooted for the benefit of one of Israel’s greatest enemies. Jonah really doesn’t get a “thank you” from the Ninevites for his sacrifice. There’s no parade in Jonah’s honor. Jonah’s source of shade and comfort was taken away. He’s hot and miserable and he smiles like a fish stomach. He’s too miserable to see what God is doing.
He’s stuck on the beach. He’s stuck just outside the action of what God is doing. He’s built a barrier between himself and God’s grace. He’s built a barrier between himself and the others around him.
We don’t want to be like Jonah — especially in this way. We can be angry over family, relationships, work, church, other people, over where we’ve been and where we’re going. We can be angry at the way we’ve been treated or count the number of times that we’ve been hurt. We can be angry at the people who walked away when things got tough. We can be angry at the church for not being representative of the Kingdom of God. We can be angry at ourselves.
We can spend a whole lot of time holding onto grudges and shaking our fists at God.
We can get stuck on the beach.
I don’t want to spend the rest of my life stuck on the beach. In some ways, wrestling with Jonah helps me to get back up and to make the walk back, even so slowly, to the place where I can see what God is doing.
Are you stuck on the beach as well? Is your anger and your hurt keeping you from seeing what God has done, what God is up to and what God will do? Do you also get more wrapped up in what you have lost and less concerned about what you have been given?
The book of Jonah was never really about Jonah. It’s really a book about the way that God works. God is concerned with the things that our anger prevents us from seeing. God is at work despite our anger towards others and the pain that we experience.
And in the middle of it all, God prods us with the question: “Do you have a right to be angry?”
Maybe the way we answer that question gives us the difference between spending time sulking on the beach or experiencing the miracle of what God can do.
It’s really my choice — your choice — to make. It’s time to get off the beach.
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