I once dealt with a woman who was so upset with her husband that she was literally shaking with anger. There had been a time when her husband had been abusive, but he came to know Christ and became a loving person. What was so upsetting to this woman is that God saved her husband instead of punishing him for all the abuse he had dished out. She wanted some divine payback! She was actually furious about God showing grace and compassion.
This is not a novel or new experience. In the ancient world, the Assyrians were notorious for their brutality toward conquered peoples. They thought up forms of torture as a creative past-time. It was a violent culture full of inhumane practices and soldiers who were the scourge of the Middle East.
We know from the little Old Testament book of Jonah that the ways of the Assyrians caught the notice of God, who was ready to pronounce judgment on the heart of the Assyrian Empire, Nineveh. So, as God typically did in the Old Testament, he tells one of his prophets to go and give a message. And the message was simple: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2).
For whatever reasons, when Jonah did not immediately obey God, God stuck with him. God did not call another prophet to take his place, but insisted that Jonah be the one to preach. If God calls us to something and we neglect to do it, we cannot simply think that someone else will do it. Sometimes God insists that we do it, not someone else.
Jonah eventually does go to Nineveh (after the infamous being in the belly of a great fish for three days and nights) and there is a great repentance of sin. The entire city turns from their evil ways. God saw this mass repentance and relented from sending disaster. Instead of destroying the city with all its inhabitants and animals, he was gracious and compassionate, abounding in love. If there is a response God delights in more than anything it is humility and the courage to admit personal evil and turn from it.
But Jonah has a problem with what is going on. He is not just a little ticked-off; he is greatly displeased. He is angry enough about this whole affair to want to die. Jonah was actually annoyed and angry by God’s goodness. He wanted justice and judgment, not grace! The grace of God is so massive that it even extends to some of the most evil people in history, and Jonah wanted no part of that theology.
God asked Jonah twice: “Do you have a right to be angry?” It is the same question that God is asking his people today. Jonah wanted destruction and pay-back for all the sin of the Assyrians. But God searches our hearts and to expose our expectations. Often, when those expectations do not happen we are disappointed. But more than that, when the very opposite happens of what we want and expect, we can become very angry and upset.
A lot of people are angry about radical Muslim groups killing and torturing Christians. It is evil and it is upsetting. In fact, many of the killings have taken place in the same geographical area as the ancient city of Nineveh. Yet, perhaps God is asking us Western Christians who are looking for judgment the same question the little book of Jonah ends on: “But there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world; should I not be concerned about that great number?”
God wanted Jonah to share the same heart he has, and God desires to see us have a heart that beats for lost people to know Jesus – a heart that has grace and compassion even in the face of flat-out evil. Sometimes God calls us to do what we least want to do in order to reveal what is really in our heart. Hating people to the point of wanting nothing but destruction upon them does nothing to bring about the righteous life that God desires. But the blood of Jesus Christ has the power to bring healing and hope, even to the worst of sinners. Thank you, Jesus, may it be so.