As we prepare to dive into Jonah (no pun intended!) check out Pastor Mike’s thoughts on some of the book’s most controversial elements.
There are scholars who regard the book of Jonah as fictional satire. Do you believe the story is fictional or literal and why?
I believe the story is literal because Jesus seems to indicate that it’s literal. In Matthew 12:39-41, when the Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign, He says, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
Christians sometimes say that God “allows” suffering rather than “causes” it, but the Bible clearly says God “appointed” a fish to swallow Jonah. Does God intentionally cause suffering in our lives?
Most people like to use the word “allow” instead of “cause” because it seems softer, but that’s not actually true. Imagine that you’re standing at the top of a staircase with a toddler, staring down into a basement. If you see that toddler start to slip, and you allow him to fall, that doesn’t relieve you of the guilt of causing his fall. You’re still morally culpable because you had the ability to catch him. In other words, it doesn’t really let God off the hook to say He “allows” suffering.
What we need to examine is the motive behind suffering. In and of itself, suffering is completely neutral. What makes it good or bad is the intention of the person inflicting it. For example, one day Connor came in with a really deep splinter. So I took a knife and cut his leg, just a little bit, to get that splinter out. I had to cause him pain in order to prevent infection. If I cut his leg with sadistic intentions, then the suffering would be evil. But if I did it to help him, the suffering is not only good, it’s wise and right.
Yes, God will bring hurt into our world, but He will never bring harm into our world. Hurt is temporary pain used to instruct us, whereas harm is permanent damage, and God does not permanently damage His people. You may experience a form of suffering so intense it hurts until the day you die, but then you’ll be healed. Revelations 21:4 promises that one day, “He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” No Christian will suffer forever.
In this book of the Bible, Jonah becomes very angry at God. Is it normal for Christians to feel anger toward God, and if so, how do we handle it?
Yes, it’s very normal, though it’s interesting here because Jonah handles his anger poorly. I like that because it shows that if you give anger a foothold inside your heart, it can be a powerful tool that pulls you away from God.
That being said, anger itself is not necessarily wrong. It depends on what you do with it. That’s why the Bible says, “Do not sin in your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). The Bible presupposes anger in the heart of a person. The question is, “What are you going to do with it?” If we don’t respond to anger correctly, it can mess up everything in our world.
One of the ways I cope with anger is by running to God’s sovereignty. I have a frequent prayer that I pray: “God I don’t know why you are doing what you’re doing, but I trust You are good even in this.” People have different triggers for anger, but at the end of the day, it generally arises over a sense of loss or feeling out of control. It helps to recognize that God’s sovereignty plays into all the situations where we feel the most out of control.
Jonah isn’t the only one who demonstrates anger. Why would a loving God threaten to demolish an entire city filled with men, women, and children?
One of the ways we can understand the terrible things that happen in the Bible is by recognizing that we don’t see the whole picture. And it’s actually not our job to see the whole picture. Our job is to trust God’s sovereignty. It would have helped Jonah a lot if he just said, “I’m going to do what You’ve told me, God, because I trust Your Word over my perception of reality.”
Another thing we don’t realize in the 21st century is the extent of evil among the Assyrians. Even secular historians from that time period write that the brutality of the Assyrians was unlike anything else in history.
The reverse question, then, is why does God show mercy to Nineveh if they’re so evil?
Excellent question, and that’s really a question of justice. Okay, now you’ve convinced me that these guys are so bad, why don’t we just obliterate them and be done with them once and for all, right?
The answer to that question is God’s absolute and unflinching mercy and grace, even in the Old Testament. The Bible says, “God does not delight in the death of a sinner” (Ezekiel 33:11), and in that sense, God wants to give them one last chance before He brings destruction upon them. Even the king repents, and God brings many to salvation that day. So in the subsequent destruction — because later God does bring judgment on Assyria — so many less people are destroyed because even if they’re killed, many of them had already turned to God. I think it’s incredibly beautiful.
Mercy inspires me. Justice doesn’t inspire me. What’s beautiful about getting what you deserve? But when you say, “I’m going to respond to you in a way that you don’t deserve,” that’s beautiful. That’s how I got saved! I was a mess, and people said, “Hey, God has more for you and He loves you,” and I was like, “No one loves me.” But these people said, “God absolutely loves you with all of His heart,” and I could not believe it. It was the best news that I’d ever heard in my whole life.