Jonah, idolatry, and me


Surprised by Grace
Scene 4: IN A GREAT RAGE

This chapter of Surprised by Grace: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels picks up the Biblical narrative following the amazing revival that occurred in Nineveh. We who grew up hearing Jonah’s story in Sunday school and Vacation Bible School have perhaps lost some of the shock that would no doubt accompany reading the next scene in Jonah’s drama for the first time. If we were unfamiliar with the drama to ensue, we might expect, for example, that Jonah, this prophet of God who has experienced both an amazing rescue and now an amazing response to his message, we might think him exultant and excited about Nineveh’s widespread repentance. Not so fast, my friend. The Bible tells us that “it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” (4:1)

Jonah goes so far to give a reason for his intense reaction:

And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (4:2, emphasis mine)

Tchividjian writes in Scene 4: In a Great Rage that “[t]his has to be the most bewildering thing in the entire story”. Jonah is mad because he knew that what kind of God the Lord is! He knew God would have mercy! We see now why he fled in the first place; he was afraid not of failure but of success, that the Lord would indeed have compassion and spare the detested Ninevites.

It seems silly to me, this childish reaction on the part of Jonah. Particularly when he tells the Lord he just wants to die. Puh-lease, I want to say, with a roll of the eye. What is he, two years old? Such drama! And all because an entire city has repented in what may well have been the greatest revival the world has ever seen? Can Jonah be any more ridiculous?

Apparently Tchividjian isn’t as smug as me because in examining Jonah’s inappropriate response to the outpour of the Lord’s grace and mercy, he carefully exposes Jonah’s temptation to idolatry…and mine as well. Jonah took great pride in his national and religious identity and this worship of his pedigree led him to the foolish and ungracious anger at the Lord’s willingness to grant pardon to those he hated and despised. Yeah, worship. Worship? Isn’t that too strong a word? Consider what Tchividjian writes about true worship:

Worship is a posture of the heart. It is an attitude of loyalty and trust toward something–someone–in your life that you believe makes life worth living. Ultimately, worship defines you, makes your life meaningful, and gives you security. Thus, we all worship something or someone…typically, whatever we worship is our “nonnegotiable.” It is that one thing, should we lose it or part with it, which would bring both devastation and hopelessness.

And here’s an interesting test to evaluate what occupies your worship: fear. What do you fear the most? “Behind everything you worship is some fear that, without this person or thing, you’d be lost…your fears cause you to attribute ultimate worth either to things such as success, reputation, family, relationships, or to God.”  When that ultimate worth is granted to anything besides God, we are indulging in idolatry. I agree with Tchividjian when he asserts that “most idols are good things in our lives that we turn into ultimate things, things that take God’s place as we unconsciously depend on them to give our lives meaning and security.”

Jonah’s story reminds me of the insidious nature of my idols, how peevish I can become when I feel they are threatened, and what empty security they offer. Yes, Jonah’s reaction is silly and ridiculous and sad because the Bible is clear that the only reliable object of worship, the only secure source of justification, love, mercy, grace, approval, cleansing, righteousness, the only One worthy, is the one true God who secures all this—and more!—in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

So I cannot judge Jonah. I am like him in my petty idolatry. I am thankful that, like Jonah, the Lord does not cast me off in my self righteous pity party, yet continues to seek and save me. How great is His mercy. How relentless is His love. How tender is His compassion. How much I need Him.


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3 Responses to Jonah, idolatry, and me

  1. Leslie says:

    This chapter provided me so much to chew on! I’ll just share a few things.

    First, I think it’s wonderful that because the Lord asked him to preach to the Ninevites, Jonah knew God was going to show them mercy. That ought to encourage us every time we open our mouths to share the gospel!

    Second, a friend of mine and I got into a little online discussion about patriotism in America. This chapter gave me much to think on regarding how we Americans idolize our country and heritage, how we base our identity on it more than we do who we are in Christ. My friend’s greatest fear is communist rule; he would rather be dead than live in a country controlled by an evil dictator. He said, “Better dead than red.” Sounds like Jonah, doesn’t it? “Better dead than seeing God bless Nineveh.” Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not in any way supportive of socialism or communism or dictatorships. If “America” or “democracy” is not my idol, and I find my identity in Christ, then I will not be shaken.

    Think of all the believers who are living under communist and/or dictatorial evil: many continue to be faithful to the Lord, many suffer for sharing the gospel with those who imprison them. Their allegiance isn’t to a country or any leader; it is with God alone. I want to be like them.

    Finally, I think there’s also application here for the way Christians treat believers who are also Palestinian or Israeli. We shouldn’t take sides based on nationality.

    Nineveh’s repentance glorified the Lord. The Lord. Not Israel and not Jonah. I think we’re all behind God glorifying himself as long as it includes propping up our idols or selves in some way. It’s when God’s plan for his glory involves our suffering or the death of something we love/worship, then we get angry like Jonah did. How he must have hated the Ninevites!

    Lots to think about after reading this chapter and your summary. Thanks, Lisa!

  2. Pingback: Interesting | Resilience

  3. Pingback: Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel… « Factum non iustus lacuna…

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