But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry.Jonah 4:1
It’s all too easy to judge Jonah. Easy also to declare that, because all anger is at its heart a desire to be in the place of God, it should simply respond to a biblical rebuke and go away. Seeing anger this way, however true it might be, achieves remarkably little. Once when I was angry at a colleague, another colleague described the trigger to my anger as “a test to see if I respond in a godly or ungodly way”. Quite apart from the pastoral insensitivity, it’s essential a truism. All conflict tests how we respond. And it’s not only anger that stems from our desire to be in the place of God; all human sin begins there too, as Genesis 3 will tell you.
No, it’s one thing to know the theological root of anger; it’s another to know just how anger works in the human mind and how to speak into it so that it defuses. I doubt anyone stopped being angry simply because they were told too, any more than anyone relaxed because they were told to take a chill pill. We love dispensing useless truisms. I think the book of Jonah invites us to go a little deeper than that.
You see, Jonah has been angry all along. This is the first time he’s described as such, but the very next verse will tell us that Jonah ran away because he was expecting this of God. So Jonah has no doubt already been playing over in his mind the way this will turn out when God acts just like he predicted. And the thing about predicting things that will make you angry is that you’re no less angry simply because you anticipated it; quite the opposite. In fact, you’ll be more angry because you’ve already experienced the anger the first time you anticipated it and now you’re doubly angry that it happened even after you anticipated it. Anger fuels itself on our own thoughts, continually bringing them back to the surface wherever it can and consuming us in the process.
And why is Jonah angry? At its simplest, because he hates his enemy, and he knows that if God forgives Nineveh then he will have to do the same, and it’s easier to burn in self-righteous indignation than to humble yourself and be wrong.
But this, as we’ve seen again and again so far, is where the Gospel begins. You see, Jonah’s anger is, in a way, quite right. Nineveh doesn’t deserve forgiveness. But Jonah is wrong to be angry because he is not the one whom this should anger. Jonah doesn’t deserve forgiveness any more than Nineveh. It’s God who has the right to be angry, and God, Advent reminds us, is not angry with us any more. Because all of that rage against our fragile flesh is going into the life of a tiny baby – still, as far as Jonah is concerned, centuries away from being born, yet His birth, death and defeat of death are the reasons, those centuries earlier, that God could forgive Nineveh, could forgive Jonah, could forgive me and you.