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Salvation is a good start but not a total solution for a life on earth that wants to live well and spread God’s fame. We are tenaciously loyal to ourselves and will fight vigorously, though mostly in subtle ways, to retain ownership of our thrones upon which we can prop our lives. One of the ways you will see the game of thrones acted out is when sin entangles someone. As odd as it may sound, being caught in or confronted with sin is not always enough to motivate a person to relinquish his perceived right to the throne of his life. Paul conveyed this tension when he wrote to the Corinthians. Though he was calling them on the carpet for their sin, he was fully aware of the Corinthian’s tenacious loyalty to themselves. He said it this way:
For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Jonah was such a man who struggled with the tension of godly and worldly sorrow. The Corinthians, Jonah, and I are all similar. God gave Jonah a clear directive, but he refused to obey (Jonah 1:1-3). The Lord mercifully sent a storm into his life to get his attention (Jonah 1:4-16). To further punctuate the need for Jonah to come to his senses (Luke 15:17), the Lord prepared a big fish to swallow him (Jonah 1:17). After these three appointed events from the Lord, it seems like Jonah would have repented. It does appear he did turn from his foolishness (Jonah 2:1-10). However, as you continue the narrative, you see Jonah being spit out of a fish and booking it toward Nineveh.
But the questions are, has Jonah changed, and is he heading in the right direction? When he finally gets to where God wants him to go, he utters one of the shortest calls to repentance in the Bible (Jonah 3:4). If you read the passage in context while factoring in how the other prophets typically blared out God’s call to repentance to their demographic, Jonah did a poor job. He was broken, but not broken. He repented but did not repent, which raises two critical questions for us to ponder as we reflect on our acts of repentance. Is it possible to be grateful to God for rescuing us from our sins, but we do not change? Have you ever had a close call: God got your attention, but you drifted back to your old paths soon after the crisis? Jonah changed his behavior but did not change his mind about those nasty Ninevites. We know this because of what happened in chapter four.
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).
As you read this passage, you sense the feeling that these are not the words of a man whom God successfully broke to the point where he had a heart for a pagan people or their city. I’m not suggesting we bash Jonah. How could I? I see myself in him. There have been many times in my life when God got my attention, but as the crisis abated, I reverted to my old paths. Repentance has to go much deeper than personal awareness of sin and our desire to be extricated from our problems. Perhaps you have heard the illustration regarding temporal repentance. It goes like this: The airplane was going down, and everyone onboard cried out to God. After the tragedy was averted, the people returned to their old ways. I am not bashing those airplane-confessing people either because I am like them, too. The truth is, I can be a temporary repenter.
In times of anguish and disappointment, our impulse is to reach out to God, but when the crisis ends, we climb back on our thrones. There can be a deception to helplessness that we all can play. This technique is not repentance but a mind game to gaslight the other side, hoping to avert discipline. It is a method of repenting to get what we want without a genuine heart change. This problem is even more complex when we think our repentance is sincere. If you have children, you likely have seen the deception of helplessness in action. When a child perceives the threat of personal suffering—the dad threatens to discipline them if they do not change—they can appear to be helpless and show a willingness to change.
They give you their most effective mopey face, a response learned through ill-motive and much practice, hoping you relent from disciplining them. Once the crisis is over, the child cautiously reverts to what they were doing before the storm showed up in their room. The stakes are higher as we age, and the consequences are more severe. It is no longer about manipulating our parents to get more play time or to get out of taking a bath. Adult throne games can have generational and even eternal consequences. Here are three scenarios where I have seen these games played.
Although Jonah did not have a heart change, God accomplished His purposes despite His prophet. Jonah arrived in Nineveh, gave an eight-word message (Jonah 3:4), and some of the most brutal people on the face of the earth repented. This passage is phenomenal. It would take three days for a person to cover the entire city of Nineveh. Jonah only went a day’s journey and preached a short message. But his half-hearted efforts did not stop God. Jonah preached to the king of Nineveh with a more concise message than the most succinct social media blurb. The conviction from the Lord was so profound and compelling that the king was motivated to repent.
So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now, Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them (Jonah 3:3-5).
The contrast between what the Lord brought into Jonah’s life and what He brought into the king’s life is striking. Neither the wind, the waves, nor a whale could bring genuine repentance to Jonah, but the king barely caught a half-hearted, half-baked message and was devastated by the Sovereign Lord. The king broke down and biblically repented, which should bring you hope. It is not true that you have to be devastated by a catastrophe to change. Jonah met destruction and did not repent. The king heard the equivalent of a whisper and was a broken man. God can be in the thunder (Job 26:14), and he can be in a still small voice (1 Kings 19:11-13). It is up to you to be a player or a repenter.
The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes (Jonah 3:6).
If you want to understand how repentance works, clarifying what the king of Nineveh did would be instructive. He was the king. He had a throne. A king sits on his throne. It is rare for a king to get off his throne in public. It is even more extraordinary he would take off his robe in society. If that were not enough, it is shocking he would descend from his throne and sit in an ash heap. That is mind-boggling. It is impressive humility. It is an echo of what we see in the story of the prodigal son. The king went further than personal repentance. He decreed that all the people and all the animals should repent, too. Though animals cannot repent, the point is clear: the king was serious about repentance, as seen in the Bible’s most extreme caricature of repentance.
I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants (Luke 15:19).
Personal repentance should not be questionable. Everyone should perceive it in you. If your husband comes home in sackcloth, sits in an ash heap, and decrees that the dog, the cat, and the goldfish must repent, too, you are probably looking at a broken man. Unfortunately, too many times, we do not see radical repentance. We experience lukewarm apologies. Radical repentance will compel you to relinquish your throne by standing up from your throne, stepping off your throne, and sitting in ashes. Like the prodigal after him, the king did not want to stay on his throne any longer. He was for real. If he had refused to hear the Word from the Lord and not repented, his life would have continued down a path of destruction. Staying on your throne is the path to ruin.
The first thing Jonah needed to do was repent of his repentance. Semi-repentance or half-hearted repentance is not repentance. This kind of repentance is damage control or image preservation, but not biblical repentance. One of the most common ways you will experience half-hearted repentance is in the expression, “I’m sorry.” The wicked king is still on the throne when repentance is watered down to an apology. Let me illustrate. Biff sins against his wife, Mable; he gets angry at her. Mable is upset, and after an extended argument, Biff tells Mable he is sorry. Mable accepts his apology, and there is faux peace in the home. The problem with this scenario is there was no repentance. Biff did not step down from his throne. He, indeed, did not disrobe or sit in an ash heap. He smoothed things over.
In these types of repentance scenarios, the person rarely asks God for forgiveness (1 John 1:9). At best, it is watered-down, horizontal peace-making. Biff navigated his marriage back to its pre-existing condition. There is a temporary peace, but Biff does not change, and his marriage does not experience restoration. Mable is glad Biff is no longer yelling, and she is willing to accept the peace treaty over godly repentance. Biff will not step off his throne because he is addicted to his ego and desires. He also loves his image and reputation. The first thing he needs to do is repent of his repentance. If Biff does this, maybe God will change him. Biff’s story is not about how the king thought about repentance. He took it seriously and pulled out all of the stops. He believed if he genuinely repented, maybe God would repent, too. Perhaps God would turn His wrath away from him and his city.
Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish (Jonah 3:9).
This text is fascinating. The king is saying God may turn, relent, turn. The Hebrew words are shuv, naham, shuv. Shuv is the picture word for repentance, but naham is the actual word for repentance. As we know, God’s repentance is different from ours. God is holy. He does not sin to where He needs to repent of wrong actions, but He can change His mind. He does this all the time. It works like this: God decrees you will pay for [that sin] when you do it. If you repent, God will change His mind and not punish you. The text says God may turn, repent, and turn. The hope we see in this passage is the interaction between what people do and what God will do. When people turn from their evil way, God will repent of the evil He said He would bring them. When it comes to God’s eternal decrees—His promise to keep His covenant—He will not relent or repent, but in some situations, God will change His mind. You see this clearly in Jeremiah.
If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it (Jeremiah 18:7-10).
This concept is amazingly hopeful for us. God will not make us pay for our sins if we will genuinely repent. Though He is Sovereign and in total control of all things, He responds to the choices people make, which can determine the direction history will take. An illustration of this was God’s covenant promise to His people, the Israelites. He promised Abraham the land of Canaan. However, some of the people did not see that promise fulfilled because of the choices they made. God kept His sovereign promise, but human responsibility was allowed to factor into the course of history. God is the author of His sovereignty, meaning He is free to respond and interact with people’s choices, but that does not alter the predetermined ends He has decreed.
The point of Jonah 3 is we serve an amazing God, and we should be impressed by Him. We live with the Sovereign God of the universe, who will bring all things to a predetermined end, yet He will change His mind if you repent. He is responsive to His people, and He always works in ways that are for our good and His glory. He will be receptive to you, too. It is your choice. You can play the game of thrones or repent of your half-hearted repentance and do legitimate business with God. If you play a game, God will not change His mind. You will incur His disfavor. If you get up, step down, disrobe, sit in ashes, and ask the goldfish to repent, God will change His mind, and you will experience His amazing grace.
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).