I love reading the Old Testament. It’s so alive with people who, though they live in a very different time and place, they are not so very unlike you and me. Though it describes an age before Jesus Christ and his crucifixion, the Gospel is alive and well throughout. It’s tempting, at times, to sit in judgment on the children of Israel for their many declines into idolatry or on people, like Jonah, for their extreme prejudice. That is, until we fall under the conviction that we are absolutely no different.
Living under grace is not easier than living under the law. We think, that because we don’t have 613 commands to stringently follow, that living under grace comes without expectation and with unlimited justification for our very ungodly behaviors and attitudes. Grace is not a license to sin, it is not justification to commit sin, and it certainly doesn’t make things easier. Under grace lust becomes adultery and harbored anger becomes murder. Grace measures, not just the outward behavior like the law does, but the motive and intention of the heart. It’s there, in the heart, where we run into our own little Jonah syndrome.
Jonah was guilty of extreme prejudice. He hated the people of Nineveh, did not want to see them repent and find mercy and grace in God. Part of that was because they had built a pretty nasty reputation for treating the surrounding nations ruthlessly. They would peel their prisoners of war, defile them…and worse. If anyone deserved God’s wrath, it was the people of Nineveh, right?
Jonah also hated them for the sake of national pride. He was a Jew, and his people had a long relationship with God.; they had the covenant, the Law of Moses, and lived in God’s Promised Land. In spite of all these graces, they were stiff-necked, obstinate, and rebellious. They ignored correction and killed the prophets God sent. If Nineveh received God’s proclamation of judgment and repented and found favor with God – these Gentile sinners – what an indictment against his own people!
We use Jonah as an object lesson for a lesson we refuse to learn. As an example, I offer Iran. When Iran comes up in conversation we are quick to label them as a nation of terrorists, we approve of the government sanctions against them, and often think a good invasion might be in order. What we miss is the very same thing Jonah missed. “Should I (God) not have compassion on the great city of Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 people who cannot distinguish between their right and their left, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:11)
The people of Iran love the U.S. They long to enjoy the freedoms we have and for the most part, try to emulate our culture as best they can under their restrictive government. A group of teenagers recently posted a video of them dancing to a popular western song. These kids were promptly arrested and ordered to recant. The problem was, the girls in the video were dressed like western girls dress – without head coverings of any kind. When we judge a nation based on their politics and the actions of their governing body, but fail to have compassion for the people, we display the very same prejudice that Jonah did. Do the people of Iran deserve to go hungry and without basic essentials while their leaders sit virtually unfazed? Can we just disregard people and neglect their need – temporal and eternal – like that?
This Jonah syndrome is not just limited to nations either. We look at people groups within our own nation: punk rockers, goth teens, homeless, addicts, homosexuals, and more, and we insist that they’re all pushing an agenda or are hard-hearted and unworthy to be saved. Let’s face it, we can all think of people who, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’d rather not spend eternity with. The very sin we identify in Jonah goes unnoticed in our own heart. If we are to really live as sons and daughters of God, we need to pray, as the Psalmist did, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). When we pray such a prayer, we need to be ready for the Spirit of God to show us things in our hearts that we don’t like. We need to trust God and allow the Great Physician to do the necessary surgery that will make us whole, and holy.
Every time a read Jonah, I find myself wishing they’d have included the real end of the story. I wanted to see if Jonah learned his lesson, repented of his sinful pride and prejudice, and learned to have compassion on all God’s people…because all people are God’s. More than that, though, I wonder if we will take a cue from God’s word and learn from what we see in Jonah – a servant of God who still had a long way to go. We need to repent and surrender to the Gospel; we need to learn to love like God loves (and like he had loved us when we were yet sinners). Then we’ll start to see the power of the Gospel of God at work through our lives in ways we can’t possibly imagine.