The story of Jonah is fascinating for so many reasons, and not least among them because of the way the story ends. After all that Jonah goes through -- his run away from God, the big storm, his prayer from inside the fish, his eventual reluctant journey to Nineveh -- we find this story surprisingly incomplete. Jonah appears to be stuck inside a feeling that he can’t shake. The story ends with a contrast. On the one hand there is the surprising way Nineveh connects to divine grace. But, paradoxically for Jonah, he becomes the example of dis-connection to grace. And because of this, Jonah has what can only be described as a major league sulking pout. Angry at God for his grace towards Nineveh, Jonah becomes the mirror of the older brother in the prodigal son story (Luke 15): angry at those he resents, he refuses to enter into the grace that he needs for himself.
Jonah is an emotional wreck. The text says it succinctly: “Jonah was greatly displeased” (4:1).
And all of this is his reaction to God’s compassion on evil Nineveh. Nineveh repented, and Jonah got mad. From the beginning of the story, Jonah suggested he would rather die in the sea than ask the sailors to turn the boat around and head back towards Nineveh. He wanted nothing good for them. And now, as Jonah realizes all that has transpired, his emotions run hot. The Hebrew verb translated anger can also be translated “inflamed”.
So God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4). Its sort of like a Dr. Phil moment: how is that working for you? Jonah does not answer God but simply walks away from the conversation. Apparently Jonah is not ready to talk about it yet.
What is anger? Perhaps we could say that anger signals that we are on to something that really matters. And there are things that matter. Anger alerts us that we are moving into the realm of what “ought to be”.
But what anger doesn’t tell us is whether our sense of what ought to be is properly grounded. Anger doesn’t always tell us whether our emotional reactions are properly connected to the deepest truths about the world. And further, it doesn’t tell us whether the wrong is inside of us or outside of us. If the wrong is inside of us, an intense emotional reaction could actually be quite deceptive. Jonah was angry, but God asked him if it was right for him to be angry.
Jonathan Edwards, the famous 18th century American intellect, wrote about what he called the “religious affections”. By affections he meant human emotions that were grounded and connected to what we think and choose. It was a holistic view of human inner life: human beings think, choose, feel. What Edwards unequivocally asserted was that no real change can ever take place in us unless this center within us was moved somehow. To change necessarily meant that what we thought, chose, and felt was also changed. He saw this as a kind of law and famously wrote: “if the great things of religion [of faith] are rightly understood, they will affect the heart”.
Reflecting on the life of Jonah, we could say that while he knew of God’s grace, he didn’t emotionally connect to it -- not at all. Jonah didn’t follow Micah’s call to “love mercy” (Micah 6:8). Instead, there was something disconnected inside of him. But, as we see in the final chapter of his story, God doesn’t leave Jonah alone. The hound of heaven (see October 21 devotional) is not about to give up the chase.
We conclude our series Sunday by listening to the question God is posing not only to Jonah, but through him to all of us. It is this: what kind of people will we be?
See you Sunday at 9:29 or 11:11.