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Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all (Romans 12:14-18).
Paul, a direct disciple of Jesus, provided his perspective about interacting with people who do not rise to our expectations and preferences. Paul did not pull this “bless those who persecute you” cliche out of thin air so we could stick it to our rear bumpers. God inspired him to write those words that cut against the grain of proud hearts. Loving difficult people is the way of Jesus. Peter, another direct disciple, shares a similar but more acute thought about how to respond to difficult people. He had firsthand knowledge of how Christ dealt with sinful people. His evidence is overwhelming and should have a humbling effect on us. Listen to his sobering words.
For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:19-21).
May I make this personal by extracting it from the old book and planting it in our modern hearts? Will you think about an annoying person in your life—someone who gets under your skin? What are your thoughts about them? How do you choose to associate with them? Would you rather avoid them or pursue them? Your responses will test your understanding of and faithfulness to the gospel—the redemptive work of Christ. God is a relentless pursuer whose goal for all Christians goes beyond our salvation. He wants us transformed into the likeness of His Son. I’m speaking of our maturity post-salvation.
Perhaps you have a spouse who challenges every fiber of your being when it comes to loving like Jesus. Maybe one of your children has disappointed you one too many times; you have weak resistance, and your desire for redemptive parenting has waned. What about that church member who tempts you to sin each time you think of them? How about your extended family members? What about people groups in your culture? Gays? Abortionists? Democrats? Republicans? What about lazy people? Obese people? How about women drivers? You could clump all your annoying people into one broad category: people who do not do things your way. Wouldn’t that be true? What if we invert the thought? How many people in your life agree with you, but you’re annoyed with them? That is rare. Typically, the people who annoy us the most are those who do things differently from us. Regardless of who they are or what they do, God’s call is the same: He wants us to partner with Him to carry the gospel to them.
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD (Jonah 1:1-3).
The primary purpose of the Book of Jonah was God’s call for him to go to a people group who were not like him and to tell them about the Lord. Their primary differences were their ethnicity and their religion: they were Ninevites. Jonah’s problem would be similar to asking an American Christian to go to an Afghanistan Muslim to tell him about Jesus. When Jonah received the call from God to go to these people, he reacted by running in the opposite direction from where God was calling him to go. He went to Tarshish, like being in Columbus, OH, and God calls you to New York City, but you choose to run to Seattle, WA. Rather than going 500 miles northeast to Nineveh, he decided to go 2300 miles west, in the opposite direction.
I find it difficult to be hard on Jonah because of this log that projects from my eye, influencing how I think about my running friend (Matthew 7:3-5). Though God has not called me to go to an uncomfortable culture, He has called me to interact with uncomfortable people. How about you? The individual or demographic the Spirit of God has brought to your mind is likely your disappointing person or people group. It’s that annoying person in your life that you would rather avoid than respond to redemptively. Jonah physically ran from the Lord, which is something you probably have not done. But I suspect, if you are like me, you have run from the Lord in your mind—a mental runner!
You do this by pretending the problems between you and the other person are not a big deal or that the person or the problem does not exist. The silent treatment is a classic example of this, treating the person as though they do not exist. Minimally, we can be mental runners who avoid challenging contexts or potential conflicts. Our culture calls it “fight or flight.” I don’t like this terminology because it lacks the gospel ingredients necessary to soften proud hearts. It would be better to say that we redeem or resist. The solution is not to pick a fight or run from the situation but to attempt to redeem an individual or a relationship—an act that would put God on display.
Of course, we could resist God by mentally running, but that’s for futile minds. As someone anonymously said, “Trying to run from the presence of God is as futile as shoveling smoke with a rake.” If Jonah had decided to redeem rather than run, he would have experienced great things with God. Though you may not be excited about entering a potential redemptive opportunity, God is, and He will not only be with you; He will help you succeed at what He has called you to do (Philippians 1:6). The type of mental running that we do happens because we forget that we are living in the presence of God, which is a severe doctrinal, amnestic mistake. After all, our omnipresent Lord is everywhere. “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence” (Psalm 139:7)?
And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Hebrews 4:13).
Imagine if our theology were better than Jonah’s because we have a full transcript of God’s Word. Imagine being more aware of who the Lord is and how He works. How would this change the way we interact with others? How would this change how we think about others? We know that we cannot run from God, physically or mentally. God is with us. He is always there, persuading, appealing, wooing, and searching. At the moment of God’s call on Jonah’s life, none of this mattered to this marathon man. He acted as though he had theological amnesia. Minimally, his theology was not driving his actions. His sinful biases and preferences motivated him to run from God’s clear directive. When I read the first chapter of Jonah, several questions popped into my mind. Perhaps you can work through these with me. Let this be your call to action as you process God’s call to do all that depends on you to live at peace with others (Romans 12:18).
If Jonah knew anything close to what we know about God, he undoubtedly pretended as though he was ignorant of those things. He acted as though God did not exist. He was pressing the truth of God from his life (Romans 1:18). Imagine if he had a Bible like you and me. Think about all the sermons we’ve heard, read, discussed, and applied. How many blurbs have we “liked” on social media? How much of that dopamine courses through our veins daily? Yet, we can dismiss God as though He does not exist. No, we’re not running to Seattle, but we can run while sitting still. We can run in our silence. I most certainly have done these. I have been a pretender, though the foolishness of pretending does not change the truth that God is always there and He is a relentless pursuer, especially of those who pretend to ignore Him.
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” (Jonah 4:2).
Jonah knew God was a relentless pursuer, which was part of the problem. He knew God might bless the Ninevites if he cooperated with the call. In the book’s last chapter, we learn this through Jonah’s painful but honest confession. Jonah’s problem was far more profound than just running. He had hatred in his heart toward the people God was pursuing to redeem. But it gets worse. Jonah was criticizing God for being God. Jonah was doing all he could to withhold the grace of God from the Ninevites. Jonah knew that if he relented and did it God’s way, the Lord might save the Ninevites, which was unacceptable. Rather than doing what God told him to do, he ran.
His response was a profound act of a man who is a prophet of God—a Christian. Imagine it! It is sobering for us to take note of it and to examine our thoughts and motives regarding others. Is there someone or some people group in your life you hope would receive God’s judgment rather than His forgiveness? Is there someone you would withhold God’s grace from rather than extend God’s grace to them? Maybe the problem is not about differences in personal preferences; perhaps the person you’re considering has harmed you in some way. The question would be similar: Though they have done wrong to you, do you long to see the efficacious grace of God operating in their lives? Are you praying, hoping, and seeking ways in which you can be a messenger of this blessing to your offenders?
The irony in this story is that God’s child was trying to run the furthest from God. All too often, this is the case. Religious people can be some of the most deceptive people. It is easy to hide under the shroud of religion while having a heart that actively works against God. This religious game is our temptation. We can create a wide gap between who we profess to be and the life we have. Jonah had a gap in his life that God revealed, and then the Lord called him to respond redemptively. A person God requests to do a complicated thing may want to run rather than pursue redemptive possibilities. Jonah ran because he did not have the heart of God, and the Lord wanted to expose Jonah’s heart. The Lord knew Jonah had a blind spot. He desired to wake His prophet up and turn him around. Jonah had pockets of un-discernible disobedience, which would only manifest when challenged to respond to God. In this ironic sense, he was no different from the Ninevites.
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).
When we refuse to respond to the call of God to help another person, there are two people in need of help—us and the person God is asking us to help. The Book of Jonah is not about the Ninevites. It is about God and His relationship with His prophet. The remainder of the book demonstrates that God is a relentless Redeemer and the lengths He will go to help His children love Him and love others (Matthew 22:36-40). If Jonah’s temptation tempts you today, you are only a prayer away from God’s lavish grace. God’s call on our lives requires change because He wants to save us from ourselves.
He is not trying to ruin our lives by asking us to act redemptively toward others. The good Lord knows the more redemptive we are, the more we will have a heart like Him. We can stop. We can turn around. We can run back to God—if we are runners. The big idea in view here is biblical repentance. We can run boldly to the throne of grace, asking the Father for a fresh work of His grace in our lives. If you’re a runner, stop pursuing hidden idolatries. Turn to Him in faith, and you will experience the redemptive activity He wants you to lavish on others.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).