09 October 2012

Lessons from a Fish Story

Our pastors have been preaching through the book of Jonah for the last 8 weeks. (They've been excellent messages, and are well worth the listen!) I've learned many things, but the biggest has been a new understanding of Jonah's attitude. I always thought that his attitude went like this: Chapter 1--Jonah didn't want to obey God (because the people of Ninevah were scary!); Chapter 2--Jonah repents of his sin (inside the belly of the fish); Chapter 3--Jonah obeys God (and goes to Ninevah); Chapter 4--Jonah relapses? Chapter 4 always confused me. It seems like Jonah goes from obeying God to being unhappy with God. Didn't he learn anything from the storm and the fish? Now, admittedly, I tend to yo-yo in my obedience as well (sometimes suffering victory and defeat all in the same day!), but the book still always seemed very disjointed to me. Through the last few weeks I've come to a better understanding of the book, and it makes a lot more sense now! Here are two things in particular that I've learned.

First of all, Jonah wasn't afraid to go to Ninevah because of the scary Ninevites (although they were pretty scary!). He explains his reasons for fleeing in Jonah 4:2, "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 hated the Ninevites and wanted them destroyed. This is a somewhat understandable attitude; the Ninevites were committing war crimes all over the Middle East, and just a few years down the road, they would carry the nation of Israel into captivity. But God's plan for the world wasn't just aimed at Israel. In fact, he gave Israel the job of spreading his Name to the nations around them (beginning in Genesis 12:2-3)! Jonah, however, didn't have the heart for people that God has. He thought that only "God's Chosen People" deserved forgiveness.

Secondly, Jonah's attitude never changes. There is no mention of Jonah's repenting. In the storm, he simply takes credit for the calamity that came upon them. He asks to be thrown overboard, perhaps even to further thwart God's plan by committing suicide! In the fish, he thanks God for saving him, but doesn't repent of his sin. Then, in chapter 3, God again tells Jonah to go to Ninevah, repeating the same command he gave Jonah in chapter 1. This time Jonah goes, which I had always interpreted to mean that he had repented. However, our pastor pointed out that "compliance is not repentance." Jonah went to Ninevah and preached to them, but his message shows the condition of his heart: "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" (3:4). His message is unlike most of the other prophets in the Old Testament. He doesn't tell them what their sins are, and he doesn't give them any hope of forgiveness. It's like he was trying to do the minimum requirements to keep from getting in trouble with God again. Our pastor likened it to a child who does a household chore like laundry, but purposefully does a bad job so that his mom won't ask him again! This understanding of Jonah's "obedience" explains why he was so upset in chapter 4. When God graciously intervened and worked in the Ninevites lives to bring them to repentance, Jonah doesn't have a "relapse." He had always been hoping to see them all destroyed (4:5)!

Learning about Jonah has caused me to evaluate my own heart. Do I love people like God does? Or do I only love the people that are nice to me or like me? I don't think I really have anyone in my life that I actually want destroyed, but there are definitely some that I'd rather not get too involved with! I need God's heart for people. And I need to listen to the Holy Spirit when he calls me to take his message to those I'd rather not have contact with.


Meg said...

We need to write a new children's book about Jonah!

Rachel said...

Yes, whenever I read our son's Jonah storybook to him, I always do lots of editing!