I’ve been absent from writing lately. The reasons have recently started to clarify in my head. I’ve been behaving a bit like Jonah at the end of his story. Allow me to explain.
Most church people learn the Bible story of Jonah being sent to Ninevah to preach. (Good Prophet) He chickened out and went the opposite way. (Bad Prophet) God then created a huge storm and Jonah ended up being tossed over the side of the boat. (Powerful God) Self sacrificed to save the other men on the boat. (Good Prophet) He was miraculously saved by being swallowed by a whale. (Huge God) There he stayed for three days and nights. After being spewed out by the whale on a beach, Jonah chose to finish what God had started. He preached to the people of Ninevah. Hooray! (Good prophet!) The people listened and did what they were told. Double yay! Happy Jonah because God wouldn’t end up destroying people as He had threatened!
Only not. Jonah got mad. He went up on a high hill hoping to watch the display of God’s wrath on those lousy, disobedient people. Get ’em God!
But God didn’t wipe out the people of Ninevah. He showed them amazing grace. He showed His mercy. Jonah had succeeded in saving the people from the jaws of death. Way to go Jonah!
And Jonah then asked God to let him die. He was angry. He was disappointed. He pouted.
This part of the story is often omitted–especially in the pre-k Sunday School version about the nifty whale and the guy who did what he was told (eventually). This part is confusing. This ending is messy. Why would the man who was miraculously saved from certain death be mad that others had been similarly saved?
I’ve been pondering this for a few days. Given what I know about me and other humans I have a few possible ideas.
Well, maybe Jonah wanted to see a fireworks show of God’s awesome power. Wow! What a testament to the neighboring towns! Obey God or be wiped from the earth! Sobering. Scary motivation to remain on the righteous path. Who wouldn’t take that seriously? What numerous and obedient puppets God would have created with that one move. What was God thinking by passing up that wonderful opportunity???
Or, maybe Jonah wanted his own threatening words to be fulfilled. Wouldn’t that be awesome! Tell others “Forty more days and Ninevah will be overturned.” (Jonah 3:4b) Then sit back and say “I told you so.” I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’ve had moments when I would have loved to watch my words of warning play out. Of course I would never say “I told you so” out loud. I’d just smile and repeat it in my head. And silently gloat. (That would be the more Christian thing to do). Imagine the respect, power, and legitimacy Jonah would have had for his remaining days. He could have been like a god! “Better listen to what that guy says! Have you heard about Ninevah?!”
There’s another thing I saw differently than ever before when I read this story today. A glimpse of self-righteous pride in Jonah’s prayer while in the belly of that whale. (Of ALL places to be self righteous!) It all started out well. Praise to God for hearing and saving him when he was drowning. But then he said this: “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord.” (Jonah 2: 7-9)
Could he have thought that those people in Ninevah had forfeited their chance at grace? They had clung to worthless idols after all. They had earned God’s wrath. They did not follow the tenets of Jonah’s faith. Heathens!
But, after hearing Jonah’s words, the people of Ninevah listened. They obeyed. They “sacrificed to God”. They tore their clothes in grief. They wore sackcloth as a sign of humility and repentance. They fasted. They changed their behavior. And God turned away His wrath. He let them go free.
Kind of like Jonah.
But Jonah was a man of God! He deserved God’s forgiveness! Everyone makes mistakes! Give the guy a break. He was just an imperfect man. You reap what you sow.
But those Ninevites…no. They were awful humans. Screw ups. Violent. Nasty. Perverted. They deserved exactly what they got! You reap what you sow!!
Time and time again in scripture we read stories of God choosing grace over punishment. We love when we are the recipients of this undeserved grace. Isn’t our God wonderful? Isn’t our God loving?
But when God chooses to show that same undeserved love and grace to those who believe differently than us, who think differently than us, who behave differently than us….then….What could God possibly be thinking?!? I go to church. I give. I help others. I am a good Christian!
I. Have. Earned. More.
And there it is.
The undeserved grace and love shown us is more earned than those other people.
Only that’s not how undeserved things work. Only, that’s not the way God works. Because He is just. Just–to a level our tiny human brains can’t grasp. All who choose Him win. No matter how late in the game. No matter what a mess they were before. No matter if it makes others happy to see; or if it makes them want to rant and rave at the injustice of it all.
So here’s where my Jonah moment comes in. I think Jonah just gave up. As he sat there under that tree he may have been thinking–What’s the point? Things didn’t work out the way I had expected. Why did God do things this way?
I was thinking–This whole speaking out thing isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. People get angry. People get defensive. People don’t listen and think. People look at me differently. When I look around I see folks entrenched in their little camps. Little, if any, grace is extended to those who think differently than them. Nothing seems to get through.
So I quit. I gave up. I even pushed away some of the thoughts that normally are swirling around my brain. I enjoyed floating along the surface for a while. I liked pretending that maybe I was mistaken about the nudges from God. Those who encouraged me to write must have been wrong. I didn’t have to say anything. Others will do it. I’ll just sit here in my garden and give up.
But, I want a different ending than Jonah. I like to imagine that he eventually stood up, admitted that he was being selfish and silly, and went back to his work. I like to imagine that he accomplished wonderful things once his pity party was over. I like to imagine he impacted all who knew him. But I don’t know. Did he ever realize that grace was better than destruction? Did he ever acknowledge his stubbornness? Did he ever shake his head in disbelief at his obnoxious behavior toward the God who saved his life?We can’t know. It’s not written.
But I can keep writing my story. I can leave the garden and get back to work. I can welcome the uncomfortable reality of a life awake to the pain surrounding me. I can speak when I am compelled to. I can speak up when the established church goes astray from their original mission. (Where is that forest anyway? All I see is these pesky trees.) I can endure the changes in relationships to do what I am called to do. I can seek answers rather than following traditions.
Temporary Jonah moments are to be expected. There will be more. Life will get in the way at times. But, I’m in good company. And there are no whales nearby.