But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?”Jonah 4:1-4
Anger. There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of anger in the world today. In fact, it seems that everywhere you turn in social media, news, and even the occasional televangelist we are inundated with messages of unrelenting anger. Be it anger over political differences, anger over social constructs and perceived injustices – either real or imagined, anger over the past and its impact on the present, anger over differences in religion and theology.
Even within the church we are not immune to expressions of anger and discontent between our own perceptions of how things ought to be within the body of Christ as contrasted to the reality of how things are. Believers become angry with one another over doctrinal differences or some perceived slight because a pastor or prominent member of the congregation didn’t shake their hand or greet them “properly”. Anger over gossip or refusal to forgive “minor” indescretions. Anger over a refusal to make allowances for spiritual compromises.
Unchecked anger is a cancer and it can spread quickly if allowed to remain out of control. I’ve often said that anger is nothing more than an emotional response to unmet expectations. The question then becomes a matter of managing our expectations. If our expectations are reasonable and righteous, in accordance with God’s Word, then our anger can indeed be righteous – so long as we do not allow it to control us to the point of giving opportunity for sin. If our expectations are not reasonable or in accordance with God’s word, then it is our responsibility to adjust our expectations to align with His word and our attitudes to align with a humble heart of repentance.
“But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” (Jonah 4:1) Anger and displeasure are two different emotions. We can dislike a result or circumstance without becoming angry about it. However, the word “displeased” used in this verse is not what you might think. The Hebrew word used here is very often translated to equate with evil and wickedness – selfish desires of the heart. In fact, the primary Hebrew definition for this word is to spoil, by breaking into pieces.
Remember, the Kingdom of Israel has been harassed by the Assyrians for decades and Jonah, in his nationalistic fervor was not keen on seeing God have mercy on the tormentors of his people. In his own selfishness, Jonah wanted to see the Ninevites of the Assyrian Empire destroyed. And honestly, who in their own mind would blame him? Following the events of 9/11, our entire country was in an angry uproar over the Muslim perpetrators of the attack on the World Trade Center. This fear and anger spread quickly and eventually gave rise to xenophobic attacks on Middle Eastern Americans, regardless of their religious or non-religious backgrounds. Eventually conspiracy theorists arose and tried to deflect these attacks on to our own government for “allowing” the attacks to occur in the first place.
Even in my own youth, I felt a sense of anger towards the perpetrators of these attacks and the ideology of Islam that cries out “Death to the infidels!” and “Death to America!”. But I was very quickly reminded of God’s desire to see these same people repent of their sin. A couple of days later at a prayer service, I was called upon to pray for a team of German missionaries that were being held hostage in Afghanistan. And it struck me. This group of a dozen believers voluntarily went into hostile territory to declare the gospel of Jesus and call the people to repentance, knowing full well that they could lose their lives for the sake of the Kingdom.
Yes, I was angry at the ones who perpetrated the attack on our country. Yes, my anger extended to the ideology that fueled that attack. But my heart was broken for the people who were held captive to this ideology and blind to the reality of the gospel that sets men and women free from the bondage of sin and degradation. And I was ashamed of my own anger that gave way to momentary hatred in the midst of fear.
“O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (Jonah 4:2) Jonah knew. He expected God to be merciful in the face of repentance. Which is why he ran the opposite direction to begin with. He didn’t want to see the people repent because he knew that if they heard the full message from God, they would repent and God would have mercy on them. He made the assumption that if ran the other way, the Ninevites would not get the message and therefore not repent, and consequently be destroyed as God commanded.
This is why I believe the prophet Jonah edited the message of God to remove any hint of hope. He didn’t want the Ninevites to have any hope of mercy because he wanted God’s judgment to rain down. But the Father had other plans. The message of impending doom for a superstitious and pagan people was taken as an omen, but the king inferred a sense of hope because “Who knows?! Maybe God will turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish!” (Jonah 3:9)
But Jonah knew. And we, who have been forgiven so much in our own lives, know as well. We know the mercy that our Father has bestowed upon us for our repentance. And we know that is why we are commanded to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19) Yet, how many of us actually go? How many of us actually try to go and make disciples? Has God spoken to you about reaching out to your annoying neighbor with the gospel? Has God spoken to you about reaching out to that irritating co-worker about the grace of our Father? Has God spoken to you about going to another city, state, or even country – including a country that is hostile to your faith – to present the message of repentance to a lost and dying generation? If so, and you haven’t been obedience, I ask you – why are you letting your fear and anger quench the spirit of God?
“And the Lord said ‘Do you do well to be angry?'” (Jonah 4:4) I imagine this verse, within its proper context, can probably be read as a rhetorical question. God already knew why Jonah was angry, but rather He wanted to Jonah to sit and think about why he was angry. To think about the implications of his own words. To paraphrase, “If you knew that I would be merciful to those who would repent, why are you so angry about it?”
If a new believer demonstrates genuine repentance, why are there some people who still want them to pay for their sin with their shame? I’ve been in congregations in my lifetime where someone would actually come to faith in Christ and then I would hear whispers of judgment and doubt from the same pew. If there is much rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents, ought there not be as much rejoicing from our pews within our sanctuaries?
Why do we think that when we go to our activist events, waving pictures of aborted babies with anger in eyes and hearts, or scream from the steps of our local government buildings over injustice crying for judgment, that anyone should take those words and expect anyone to repent? Anger and fear do not inspire repentance. Only love and the Spirit of God can do that.
Judgment begets defensive measures. The Ninevites assumed a defensive posture with their repentance. Unfortunately for them, their repentance was short lived. Eventually their emotional repentance gave way to a return to their sin of violence and they ended up conquering Israel and carrying off thousands into exile. And eventually, judgment came in the form of the Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar who again carried off the Israelite captives to Babylon.
The heart of the Father is a heart that seeks repentance in His children and obedience in the heart of His children. We can be obedient with a begrudged heart and it will not please the Father. We can give money in our tithe with bitterness towards a brother, but God will not honor that offering. The Father longs to see all of His creation bow to Him in adoration and worship with a heart that mirrors His for the nations. We must love our neighbor enough to tell them the truth of the gospel. We must love our colleagues enough to speak the truth of His grace. We must love the nations enough to be willing to go where the Father leads us, even if it’s right into the lion’s mouth.
And if they do indeed repent, we must have a heart that is willing to walk with them, teach them, love them, and grow them so that they might celebrate with us at the throne of grace.