The book of Jonah is often reduced down to a children’s story, the moral of which is simplified to encourage listening to God for the purpose of evangelism. It promotes the idea that those who we evangelize might be more receptive than we anticipate.
The story of Jonah, however, is one of the most relevant biblical stories for modern times (even considering the fantastical elements of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish)
Jonah’s reluctance to do the Lord’s will is relatable, few people find it easy to step out and evangelize. There is a lot more going on, however. If we look deeper we can begin to see the reason why Jonah was so against going to Nineveh. Jonah lived in a time where God’s “chosen people” were living in the land that God promised them. The land had been regularly defended by people such as the Ninevites. Had God asked Jonah to go and teach his fellow Jews, and build up their faith, Jonah would have had no opposition. The Ninevites, in Jonah’s mind, deserved to perish for opposing God. We come to the end of the story after the Ninevites repent, and God decides to spare them. It says that Jonah became angry. Jonah was so furious that he spoke out to God saying, “Isn’t this what I said when I was still at home? I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love.”
When God blesses Jonah, and offers grace for Jonah’s wrongdoing, Jonah praises God. When this grace is extended to the Ninevites for their wrongdoing, however, Jonah gets so angry that he tells God, “Now Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” The Ninevites, in Jonah’s mind, were not worth saving. Jonah was under the impression that God’s chosen people were the only saved people; that because God chose the Israelites to be His hands and feet, the rest of the world must perish. God had different plans, and the evil in Jonah’s heart did not accept the grace given to others. He didn’t want to do God’s will, he wanted God to do his will.
God replies to Jonah’s anger by asking, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
With that question, God is really asking Jonah, “Do you know me?” God is wild and free. He doesn’t live up to our expectations, and He doesn’t follow our agendas. Jonah doesn’t understand this, he is so caught up in trying to control what God does that He loses track of the reality that God is the creator, and Jonah is the creation.
This anger towards God is so often exhibited today by unbelievers and followers alike. Often we start from a place where we state: “If I were God…” and it ends in our own narrow and uninformed will, “I wouldn’t give such evil people so much money”, “I wouldn’t allow so much suffering”, “I would make myself more obvious to people”, etc. Like Jonah, we come from a place of wanting to control God- of knowing that we could do much better if we were God. And like Jonah, when we don’t have our way, we often get angry at God for doing things His way.
To us God has the same question, “Is it right for you to be so angry?”
The Lord is sovereign, we can follow him or we can decide not to, but we cannot in any way control Him (nor should we want to).