This week we’re continuing our look at the story of Jonah and how the story of an ancient prophet swallowed by a whale is somehow very much relative in this time of a global pandemic.
God is pretty amazing, isn’t He?
Anyway, when last we left Jonah, he had been vomited out of the belly of the fish and given a second chance at the assignment God had commanded of him: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” (Jonah 3:2)
This time, unsurprisingly, Jonah obeys. He traveled to Ninevah–by land this time, I’m guessing–and canvassed the city for three days, proclaiming the message the Lord had given him: “Forty more days and Ninevah will be overturned.” (Jonah 3:4b) And the Ninevites–those wicked, corrupt, evil people, against whom God’s wrath was set–“believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.” (Jonah 3:5-6)
And “when God saw that they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.” (Jonah 3:10)
It seems like the perfect ending. Jonah learned his lesson, the mission was successful, and the Ninevites repented. The mercy and love of God was on full display. The end.
Only, the Book of Jonah doesn’t end there.
Instead, the story continues in chapter 4 with this sentence: “But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.”
Jonah, a prophet of God, a man who had just not only witnessed but been a PART of a miracle, surviving a storm AND being eaten by a giant fish, was mad. Jonah was disobedient and sinful, running away from God’s commands, and was disciplined, yes, but also received the full measure of God’s mercy. He was not only spared; he was given a second chance.
And now he was mad at God for offering the same thing to a group of people he didn’t think deserved it.
Isn’t that so much like us? How quick are we to forget the goodness God has shown us when He does something we don’t like?
Like a global pandemic.
Jonah was angry because God’s plan to offer the Ninevites mercy didn’t fit into his understanding of fairness or goodness or justice. He wanted it for himself, of course, but extending that same compassion to his enemies was unacceptable. God was not acting in the way he thought He should.
And can I be honest? I’ve had some of those moments. Especially during these last few weeks of chaos and loss, I’ve struggled with anger because God is not acting in the ways I think He should. If He’s so powerful, why doesn’t he just wipe this virus from the earth? If He’s so good, why is He letting so many suffer and die?
And, on a more personal level, why is putting me in this position of almost unbearable stress and fatigue? I’m planning a move. I’m working on a book deadline. I’m homeschooling my kids. I’m missing my friends, mourning my routine, feeling absolutely pushed to my limit of no personal space!
God is not acting like I thought He should. His actions are not fitting into my understanding of fairness or goodness or justice. And, much like Jonah, I’ve thrown a few temper tantrums because of it.
But then I read God’s question to Jonah: “Have you any right to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4)
And again, the sinfulness of my heart rears its ugly head. Yes, I want to cry! Yes, I do have a right to be angry! I’m stressed out, overburdened, overwhelmed, under-socialized, afraid, uncertain…..I feel pretty confident in saying a global pandemic gives me every right to be angry.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that God asks Jonah a second time if he has any right to be angry (Jonah 4:9). Because, much like the prophet, after my initial knee-jerk reaction of YES, God’s repetition of the question gives me pause, and something deeper springs forth.
Conviction because of the realization that my anger comes from a place of deep selfishness. Like Jonah, I’m angry about the ways the pandemic is affecting me….not stopping to give thought that God’s plan for this outbreak might have something much bigger than my comfort at stake. What might be a time of inconvenience for me could be a time of renewal, repentance, discovery, and ultimately salvation for many (including myself, if I allow it).
And we’re seeing it already. The earth is rebounding. Many who would never have stepped foot in a church are watching online services. Dusty bibles are being opened. Prayers are being lifted for the first time. Hardship is being experienced, grief is being poured out on us like rain…and yet good is still flourishing all around if only we pause long enough to look.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think God’s questions to Jonah–or to us–are meant to shame or condemn us in any way (see Romans 8:1). He created us as emotional beings, and He’s big enough to handle whatever emotions we need to share with Him. In this time of chaos and confusion, it’s understandable to feel sadness or anger at our circumstances, at all the things and people we’ve lost. Things are hard, in both big ways and small, and God sees it. He understands it, and He feels our pain deeply.
But I do believe God’s questions were meant to give us pause. A chance to step back from these very real, very expected emotions, back into logic and faith.
What’s happening in our present world doesn’t look good. It doesn’t feel good. People out there are hurting and dying. I claim to know God, but right now, He’s not acting the way I think He should. The box I’ve tried to put Him in is busted.
Because He’s bigger than that. He’s bigger than my understanding of good or fair or just. He’s bigger than what my sinful, broken heart can feel, what my limited vision can see. God is not restricted to who I think He should be. And just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean He isn’t still who He has always been.
He is the same God who forgave Jonah and brought him out of the belly of a whale. He’s the same God who spared the Ninevites after they turned from their wicked ways. And He’s the same God who died on a cross for you and for me, saving us because He knew we could not save ourselves.
This same God has allowed a pandemic to sweep our globe. We don’t have to like it. We may never understand it. But, if we pause long enough to remember who He is–the God of the highs and lows, who has numbered even the hairs on your head–it may give us a respite from the discord in our souls. Every life lost to this virus, every person affected–in whatever way–they are not outside of the mighty hand of God. They are not going un-noticed.
And neither are you.
God sees. God hears. God understands. And, if we take who He is and put it next to the words He speaks to Jonah, instead of condemnation, they can instead bring peace and clarity to this difficult time.
So, again, He asks: “Do you have any right to be angry?”