When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”Jonah 4:8
There’s a parallel moment to this in the Old Testament, when the prophet Elijah, after defeating the prophets of Baal, finds that Queen Jezabel is still out to get him. In a burst of adrenaline he runs and runs into the desert and finally, after an extensive time of not eating and reaching what today we would call complete burnout, he calls on God to take his life. It’s an interesting parallel: Elijah has been deeply zealous for God and has risked death multiple times; Jonah has fled from God, been spared death three times – once from the storm, once from drowning, once from the fish – only to reach this point of “burnout” because of God’s mercy. Yet this is not how the story feels to Jonah. To him, God has been unreasonable: God has shown kindness to Nineveh after all their evil and now has taken away the comfort he had amidst the heat and the discouragement of seeing your enemy get away with murder. In Jonah’s mind, he has been zealous for God; yet his idea of what God wants or expects is fundamentally flawed.
It’s important to distinguish what Jonah feels here from ongoing mental illness and suicidal ideation. These need to be treated sensitively and with great awareness of their complexity. Jonah seems more to have held wrong ideas about God and his place in God’s economy, and the discouragement, anger and burnout he feels here are symptoms of that false theology; and this is something that many struggle with unknowingly for a long time, often only becoming aware of it when we reach a crisis point like Jonah does here. At these moments of crisis, we need to interrogate our own assumptions about God, looking beyond what we declare to look instead at what we live out as true. In practice, that’s to say, what do we actually think about God and who we are before Him?
While this might be a frightening thing to confront, it need not be: Advent teaches us that God, whatever else we may think of Him, is a God who has chosen to be near to us, chosen to make Himself known to us, chosen the frailty of our flesh, our vulnerability, the way we burn beneath the heat of life; He has chosen to be one of us.