I prefer the children’s version of Jonah.
I prefer the version of the Jonah story that is contained in Children’s story books, and is mainly centered around the amazing story of Jonah being stuck inside a whale for three days. That’s, simply, just a fun story to share.
I prefer the version of the Jonah story that ends with Ninevah’s unparalleled repentance. An evil city doomed to destruction that from the first moment of preaching repents with sackcloth and fasting. A city where from the least to the greatest, they turn to God begging for forgiveness.
That’s a good way to tell the story. I much prefer to hear the story that way.
I don’t like the Jonah story that contains chapter four. I don’t like knowing it takes Jonah only one chapter to move from hero to scoundrel. I don’t like that this prophet of God finds it evil for God to forgive Ninevah; that in essence Jonah would rather die than be included in the same family with the Ninevites. I don’t like knowing that Jonah ran away not because he was fearful for his own life, but that he feared Ninevah would repent and then they wouldn’t get what they deserved. Jonah ran because he wanted them to be punished and die. I don’t like the Jonah story with chapter four, because the story gets messy, and starts to hit a little too close to home.
I don’t like the true Jonah story because it makes me wrestle with some issues I don’t want to consider. The true story challenges me to love and forgive people who I don’t think deserve forgiveness. It challenges me to never give up, to keep speaking truth in love. It challenges me to say it’s not alright to hold a grudge. I have to forgive. I have to love, even the most despicable among us. And quite frankly, there are some people I want to hate. There are some people who I feel justified in hating, and I want to continue because they don’t deserve love. Sure, intellectually I know it’s great if they find Jesus, but what I really want is for them to suffer in Hell for what they’ve done. Child abusers, mass murders, rapists, terrorists…I really want them all to be punished. I want to know that God will punish them for their sins, and there’s a part of me that doesn’t like admitting that I need to tell them about Jesus because maybe they could be saved.
At times, I want to hate people, and Jonah, the true Jonah story, won’t let me do it.
That’s part of what makes the story so hard to digest. We can’t read chapter four without getting disgusted at Jonah. Jonah is more frustrated with a plant growing out of the ground than 120,000 inhabitants of Ninevah! Jonah is downright evil in chapter four, and we want to hate Jonah for being so evil. Yet, at the same time we are confronted with the reality that we are Jonah; I a Jonah.
We struggle because we’ve experienced moments of great loss; moments of great pain. The hurt is real from the wrongs committed against us which are so grievous. How do we learn to move from hatred to love and forgiveness? Learning to love again doesn’t ignore the wrong, acting as if it didn’t happen, or even erase the pain. But we must find a way to love, because whether we want to admit it or not, God still loves them. God doesn’t condone their actions, but God still loves them and is concerned with their eternal destiny.
It’s interesting, everyone in the story of Jonah acts godly except the very one who should be godly, the prophet Jonah. The pagan sailors worship God. As the storm rages they ask for help, and when the storm is calmed they offer sacrifices and make vows to God. The evil Ninevites worship God. At the first sound of Jonah’s preaching they turn from their wickedness and repent with fasting and prayer. Everyone in the book turns to God, except Jonah. Jonah runs away from God, wishes the Ninevites destroyed, waits in anxious anticipation for the Ninevites to mess up so God will destroy them, is full of anger and hate, and claims he would rather die than consider the Ninevites as loved by God.
It’s a reminder of what happens when we hold on to hate. No matter the wrong, the hate and anger inside of us will only destroy our lives. Learning to love and forgive doesn’t justify the wrong, or pretend it didn’t happen. Reconciliation, punishment, retribution: all of those things may still need to take place. But if God can learn to love the one who is evil (like us), who are we to act as if we too aren’t called to love and forgive the one we want to label as evil.
The story of Jonah is troubling, because like Jonah, there are some people I want to hate, and see punished. Yet, if I’m going to be godlike then I have to be like God, and if God can learn to love the enemy, maybe I can too.