He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”Jonah 4:2-3
I’ve heard many interpretations of the book of Jonah that offer various reasons for why Jonah does not obey God at the start, one of the more popular ones being a desire for comfort, an unwillingness to step out into the unfamiliar or challenging. These are not entirely wrong – there’s value in them – but here Jonah tells us why he fled. He knew that God would giving Nineveh and couldn’t bring himself to be God’s agent of forgiveness.
We can judge Jonah, but the truth is that loving our enemies is significantly harder than we think. Jonah would have had ever earthly reason to not want the Nineveh’s to be spared. At a human level, his response is totally understandable. The problem is not how Jonah feels but what He does with the feeling. Instead of taking in to God, he runs away from God. Like one partner in a marriage throwing up their hands in defeat and saying, “What’s the point talking about it?”, Jonah has decided that God is incorrigibly forgiving and he no longer thinks there is any value in talking about it. And so, instead of coming to God, he runs.
This kind of thinking, whether about God or any other relationship, only ever leads to festering resentment. When we harbour grievances that we never take to the other, we can only be driven further apart as the grievances grow. William Blake describes this kind of scenario in his poem “A Poison Tree”:
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
How much worse when that growing anger is between us and God, the source of our life. How can we hope to receive grace and comfort from God when we refuse those very things out of resentment?
I have been there with Jonah many times. It’s a place I slip back into all too easily. Not only do I fancy that I know better than God but I refuse to speak to Him about it, no doubt because at some level I know that a minute of talking to Him and I’ll soon realise how little I know after all. Yet God’s grace is about to be made even more intimately apparent in this book as He takes sulking Jonah and gently persists in opening him up to the one thing that can salvage him: dialogue with God.