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Biff messed up his marriage. Later, he genuinely repented, and as you would expect, God forgave him. Now, he asked his wife, Mable, to forgive him. She was unwilling to accommodate. She was still angry at Biff. Then she said she had forgiven him, but it was not true. She used Christian speak to justify her attitude, but the proof was in her actions—she was not actively pursuing the reconciliation and restoration true forgiveness implies. The pinnacle of Christian maturity in a marriage is when the offended party not only forgives the offender but appeals and allows the offender to be part of the restoration process. Think Christ here.
We sinned against the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. You and I were guilty. Because of the gospel, we had the privilege of repenting of our sins, and God released us from all guilt and condemnation (Romans 8:1). We, the accused, were made free, and the Father placed our deserved punishment on Christ. You and I committed the highest crime in the universe, but the offended chose to be part of our redemption. The story is even sweeter. We can now join the formerly offended Christ in the restorative work of the gospel. The offenders—you and I—can now cooperate with the offended (God) so other offenders can hear the same message that set us free. Amazing grace. See Ephesians 5:1; 1 Peter 2:21.
When Paul was Saul, he had Christians put to death because he hated them. Then Saul became a Christian and began to work with those he persecuted. His new friends were nervous about his conversion, but their faith in God was exemplary. They accepted the newly converted Paul and dedicated their lives to partner with him on God’s gospel mission. Their response is what the gospel can do when we want what God wants more than what we want. Imagine if the offended Christians held on to their offenses against Paul. There is such a person in the Bible.
Jonah was a man who struggled with joining God on the mission. It was hard for the prophet to praise God for His work, especially when the Lord’s work brought change to people toward whom Jonah harbored a racist attitude. Isn’t this how it goes when we will not let go of something? It is easy to interfere with the work of the Lord when our attitude toward others is evil. In these situations, we do not desire what God desires. What did Jonah want? He answered that question for us. Jonah did not want the Ninevites to receive God’s favor. He did not like them and was displeased that they had turned to God.
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry (Jonah 4:1).
I am unsure if Jonah was fully aware of this, but his displeasure with God’s work was a commentary about the God that he served. Jonah revealed his practical theology through his dissatisfaction with the Lord’s actions. Sinful anger is a negative commentary about God and an accusation toward God. Sovereign Lord was the one who granted repentance. The king of Nineveh could not experience forgiveness unless God chose to forgive him. God showed favor to the king, but Jonah was displeased with what God did. A person who harbors anger while withholding God’s redemptive purposes for others is at odds with God. The Lord became an obstacle in Jonah’s mind because God was not cooperating with Jonah’s desires. God was redemptively pursuing the Ninevites, while Jonah was rebelliously pursuing Tarshish.
Think about all the times you chose anger over redemptive purposes. Wasn’t it for the same reasons as Jonah? Were you not getting what you wanted? If anger and redemption are our choices, Christians should always think redemptively first because we serve a redeeming, sovereign God. He is in control of all things, even the evil Ninevites. Our job is to pursue redemptive contexts and solutions while leaving wrath and judgment to the only one who can administrate such things righteously and justly. When we choose sinful anger over redemptive purposes, we are no different from the person sinning against us.
There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:12).
When (Christ) was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23).
Note how the same evil that characterized the Ninevites also described Jonah. The literal reading of Jonah 4:1 is, “It was evil to Jonah with a great evil, and it burned within him.” The Ninevites were evil, and Jonah’s sin was equivalent to their evil. The Hebrew writer wanted the readers not to miss the point. Perhaps your spouse has sinned against you. Did you respond in sinful anger? Though your spouse’s sin was heinous against God, your sinful attitude against your spouse was just as appalling against God. Jonah is a mirror for the humble to see themselves clearly. Do you see yourself in Jonah? Biff needs a redemptive environment to continue to mature, which can happen if Mable thinks more about what God is doing to her husband rather than how she would like to punish him.
Mable needs to see how her sin against her husband is no different from his sin against her. “It was evil to Mable with a great evil, and it burned within her.” Who is going to stratify sin as though one’s sin is better than another person’s sin? Wouldn’t that be an odd conversation to have with the Lord? “Dear Jesus, I lied, but I never hurt anyone.” Jonah had that conversation with the Lord, which implies his displeasure when juxtaposed with the gospel. There is a precedent for this kind of self-righteous attitude in the Scriptures. Notice how Luke talked about it.
“God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:11-14).
You could try to make the consequential argument—my sin is less damaging than his sin. That tactic would be self-righteous posturing. I am sure the sin of the Ninevites caused more damage than Jonah’s sin, but the offense against God is the same (Romans 1:29-31; James 2:10). The posturing angry person seeks to justify his anger self-righteously while still hoping to punish someone else because he does not like them. For the record, we are all murderers: the death of Christ was because of us. Self-righteous posturing is an elevated view of self and a low view of God and His gospel. Jonah had a greater-than/better-than attitude. The bottom line was Jonah did not see himself as bad as the Ninevites and was displeased with God.
There can be moments in our lives when God’s love seems wasted. There can be moments in our lives when God’s power seems mishandled. There can be moments in our lives when God’s grace seems cheap. You will know if you’re in a Jonah trap if your displeasure with someone outweighs your redemptive thoughts of them. Jonah would rather have seen God’s judgment fall on the Ninevites than see them restored. At least he was honest with God about his sinful attitude. The complexity is so profound in this passage: his honesty was as striking as it was arrogant. We are on dangerous ground when we are bold enough to tell God how we rationalize our sins and are not making plans to change. Then, like Jonah, we use sound theology to prove our points. Matter-of-factly, Jonah tells God why he ran to Tarshish.
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 (Jonah 4:2-3).
His decision to run was not impulsive. He made a reflective response, a pondered perspective. He did not equivocate with God. He knew what he did and understood why he did it. He did not play the devil made me do it card. He did not like those people and made no bones about it. Are we any different? Every time I get angry at my wife, I hear a voice in my head saying something like, “You better stop. You are a fool. Shut your mouth. You know better than this.” And what do I do? I choose to continue in my anger. In that sin event, I do not want what God wants because I am displeased with her. This positioning is what Jonah was doing. If you were to stop him as he made his way to Tarshish and ask him why he was going to Tarshish, he would have told you, “I don’t like those people, and I’m rebelling against God.”
(Jonah) said to (the mariners), “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you” (Jonah 1:12).
Knowing God as well as Jonah did was not motivating enough for him to stop sinning. You see this as you read how he talked to God about it (Jonah 4:2-3). Jonah’s theology was compelling him to sin. He was right: God is gracious; God is merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, relenting from disaster. Have you ever thought about how the character and attributes of God could work against us as we ignorantly craft the Lord into an image to justify our desires? Every time we get angry, our sound theology is working against us. We choose our way over what we know to be God’s way. We all know God can make a path when there seems to be no way, but sometimes, we do not want God to do that. We choose anger or displeasure. Our sinful choices rise up against what we know God can do.
If Mable would relent from her anger and begin cooperating with God in the restoration process, she would experience what Biff is experiencing—a deepening relationship with God. She knows God can do this for her, but she does not want it, at least not right now. She is choosing to defy her sound theology by holding onto her anger. She is heading into the thick weeds of sin. Jonah was already in the thick weeds (Jonah 2:5). Jonah wanted God to be like him and was frustrated because God would not budge. Jonah would not extend the grace he had received when it was time to give it to those he did not like. Though he was glad to receive mercy from the Lord, he wanted justice.
You can tell when you made God in your image when it turns out He hates all the same people you do. – Anne Lamott
“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 4:3-4).
Jonah was so bothered by it all that he wanted to die, which should bring us to a choice. Will we continue to hold on to our displeasure against others, or will we pursue redemptive solutions? Will we choose spiritual death or spiritual life? If you are struggling with anger or bitterness toward someone, consider this as God’s gentle, loving care for you. Even after all of Jonah’s running, God was there to ask him a self-reflective question: Do you have a good reason to be angry? Though Jonah was not persevering, God was steadfastly hanging with His prophet. God is a wonderful Counselor and a relentless Redeemer. The Lord was working on Jonah, trying to gently provoke his heart awake (Hebrews 4:12-13, 10:25).
God wanted to give him another opportunity to reflect, respond, repent, and rejoice. The same patient love the Lord showed Jonah was the same patient love Jonah should have been teaching the Ninevites. His response was to go outside the city, give God the silent treatment, and sit in his lean-to while remaining convinced that he was justified (Jonah 4:5). Jonah forgot that every day of his life depended on God’s persevering love. Though we were made alive (regenerated), and God is sanctifying us, the fact is we are still living in bodies tempted by sin.
Even as the weeds of sin want to wrap around our hearts, the Spirit works in our lives. God is always operating inside His fallen creatures. He patiently works until He completes what He began (Philippians 1:6). What can you do if you’re sulking in Jonah’s lean-to? Take your displeasure to God. Do not run like the prophet. The solution is to go to Him and express your weaknesses—anger, bitterness, dissatisfaction, and unforgiveness—while seeking His tender mercies. Be honest. Admit you do not understand what He is up to and how He can work. Ask Him to rescue you from yourself. Become more convinced of what God wants than what you want. Let the story of Jonah be a redemptive example for you.
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).