Soccer and the Gospel
By Ruth McDonald
I recently saw a t-shirt that read, “I’m having technical problems with my attitude today. Avoidance suggested.” If the prophet Jonah had worn t-shirts, this one would have fit him perfectly.
Most are familiar with the Sunday School version of Jonah. God told this prophet to go to Nineveh as a missionary. He didn’t want to go, so he boarded a ship headed in the other direction. The moral of the story?
If you don’t obey God, you might end up in the belly of a big fish. Thankfully, Jonah said he was sorry, was spit up on dry ground (ewww), and finally obeyed. The people of Nineveh were saved, and they all lived happily ever after. Right?
The real Jonah is much more complex, and the story doesn’t resolve itself quite so satisfactorily. As an adult, it looks to me like Jonah was not only stubborn but also angry, bitter, depressed, terrified, reluctant to obey, whiny, judgmental, and complaining. At the same time, he makes some of the most beautiful and profound statements about God’s nature in the entire Bible. Jonah is not a simple man.
Scene One: Saying No to God (Jonah 1:1-3)
The first problem in this adult version of Jonah is why he did not want to obey. Was he uncertain of God’s will? Certainly not! In the second verse of the book we read, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah.” Clear and simple.
Was the prophet too lazy to go? No, again. Nineveh was far, but Tarshish was farther and more expensive. Was Jonah experiencing a crisis of faith? The answer is again negative. In verse 9 of chapter 1, Jonah clearly states, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Sounds like a pretty clear statement of faith to me.
Fortunately, Jonah himself later tells us why he disobeyed. In Jonah 4:2, we eavesdrop as he tells the Lord, “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.”
Say what? Jonah disobeyed because God is gracious? Yes, that is exactly what he said. Jonah was personally a great fan of God’s mercy, love, and patience. He was happy for God to extend grace to himself, his family, his friends, and his fellow countrymen. However, when God wanted to extend the same compassion and forgiveness to Jonah’s enemies, that’s where the prophet drew the line.
The simple truth is Jonah hated Nineveh. He was consumed by anger and a thirst for revenge, to the point he did not want a single Ninevite to escape the well-deserved judgment of God.
The ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh was located in modern Iraq, near the modern city of Mosul. It was part of the Assyrian Empire and feared for acts of terror including beheadings, mutilations, rape, and torture. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Jonah had good reason to hate the Ninevites. They truly did not deserve God’s mercy. Their atrocities warranted God’s judgment. So, Jonah said, “No way! I will not be involved in telling them about God and helping them get off the hook.”
We can certainly understand Jonah’s attitude and perhaps even justify it in our minds. Though Jonah has long been the poster child for rebellion and disobedience, we have to ask ourselves if we would have been any different.
Scene Two: Running From God (Jonah 1:3-16)
It is never easy to forgive those who have caused us pain. As you read this, you may be thinking of someone who hurt you deeply. Perhaps the trauma is so deeply personal you’ve never told anyone. On the other hand, you may catch yourself telling anyone who will listen about just how nasty that person was to you.
Clinging to anger and bitterness causes a huge disconnect in the heart of the believer. Every time we recite the Lord’s Prayer, we plea, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Just three verses later, Jesus tells us that if we do not forgive others, the Father will not forgive us. Yikes!
Refusal to forgive causes our spirits to become increasingly toxic. It doesn’t actually hurt the person who wronged us, but it sure does a number on our own emotional, spiritual, and physical health. Of course, unwillingness to forgive is just one example of sin. Any unconfessed sin or rebellion poisons our spirits if we refuse to repent and allow the Lord to detox our hearts.
Most of us have never physically boarded a ship to Tarshish. These days, we have other ways to run from God’s voice. My personal favorites are neglecting my Bible and turning to television, shopping, overeating, and oversleeping. If I weren’t such a “good Christian,” I might try drugs, alcohol, or partying. Truth is, the root—the “sin behind the sin”—is the same in every case. We want to drown out the convicting voice of God and nestle comfortably in our sinful behavior.
In Jonah 1:5, Jonah’s anger resulted in apparent depression. He exhibits symptoms commonly acknowledged by psychologists of our time: excessive sleep, apathy, and numbness to the crisis around him. When confronted by the other passengers, he seems completely detached when he tells them to hurl him into the sea to resolve the situation.
Remember, Jonah didn’t know the rest of the story. Being thrown into the tempestuous sea during a storm meant certain death. Jonah could have chosen to repent at this point, since he knew the problem. But he preferred to die rather than forgive his enemies and become an instrument of God’s mercy to them.
Scene Three: Appointment With God (Jonah 1:17—2:10)
I doubt it was written in Jonah’s pocket planner, but God had booked a reservation for a three-day, three-night, all-expense-paid vacation in the belly of the great fish. The experience was anything but pleasant, and Jonah did not come out tanned and relaxed. But he did come out ready to obey. It may have been the most life-changing spiritual retreat in recorded history.
Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish is filled with panic, distress, repentance…and a bit of attitude. Even inside the whale, Jonah seems to be blame shifting. In verse 3, he says “For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas…all your waves and your billows passed over me.” He has forgotten it was his doing rather than God’s that resulted in his predicament.
God did not cast Jonah into the deep. It was the other passengers, and at Jonah’s request. Jonah wouldn’t have been on that ship in the first place if he had simply followed God’s plan. It was Jonah’s rebellion, conniving, and disobedience that took him and his attitude overboard.
THE SAME GOD WHO SHOWED COMPASSION FOR THE UNDERSERVING PEOPLE OF NINEVAH WAS PATIENT WITH HIS REBELLIOUS PROPHET.
God was responsible for two things: He sent the storm, and He prepared the fish. God was too concerned for the lost to allow Jonah smooth sailing. It is never okay to disobey God. We got that part right in the Sunday School stories. We, too, will find living in rebellion is a sure way to incur God’s discipline. He does what is necessary to recapture our attention. But in the midst of His judgment on Jonah, He also prepared a great fish to save the disobedient prophet.
Thankfully, Jonah remembered the Lord. The same God who demonstrated compassion on the undeserving people of Nineveh was patient with his rebellious prophet. Like Jonah, rather than begrudging God’s grace toward others, we should thank Him daily. We are the wicked, and yet He gives us grace, patience, forgiveness, and a way of escape.
Scene Four: Reluctant Obedience (Jonah 3:1—4:11)
Every Sunday School kid is happy when Jonah finally obeys, and the people of Nineveh are saved. But Jonah? He wasn’t happy at all. “It displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry” (4:1).
The prophet delivered the message of judgment from God, then found a comfortable seat a safe distance from the city and waited eagerly to see it destroyed. His heart of hatred toward his enemies remained unchanged.
Obviously, God desires us to follow Him joyfully, eager to do His will. But let’s get real. We all have times when we don’t want to do what’s right, when we’d rather not go to church, be unselfish, or say no to some tempting no-no. When we can’t obey willingly, should we just give in to our desires? Reluctant obedience won’t please God anyway, right?
Some simple things prove helpful when we don’t want to obey. First, examine our hearts and ask God to change our desires. In the very moment of temptation, a quick prayer can change the outcome. If we have more time, it is helpful to refer to the Bible and remind ourselves of the truths that should guide our decisions.
Next, obey even if we don’t want to. I’m all about being honest and real, but let’s face it. It’s better to think about sinning than to sin. It’s better to do the right thing than the wrong one. Even with less than ideal motives, the rule of consequences comes into play, and it is always better to choose the right action. No matter how reluctant, Jonah did the right thing, and because of his decision, an entire city was spared.
The shocking thing about the book of Jonah is that the story ends with the main character retaining his bad attitude. After everything the Lord did to spare him, Jonah still had the nerve to question divine judgment. Can you imagine saying to God, “I know better than you”? It’s a wonder God didn’t strike Jonah where he sat.
But that, my friends, is the happy ending. In Jonah’s own words: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” I am so thankful the Bible is filled with imperfect followers, and God is patient and merciful to me, just as He was to them.
About the Writer: Ruth McDonald and her husband Donnie are career missionaries to Japan. Learn more: www.fwbgo.com.