Almost everyone has heard the story about a guy named Jonah getting swallowed by a whale. And almost everyone seems to have an opinion about whether it’s a true story or parable, myth or exaggeration. But what if all the Sunday school classes and storybooks and flannel graphs and movies tell the story without ever actually telling the story? What if we've missed the whole point?
Just to make sure we are all on the same page, here is a basic summary of the story. A man is sent by God to tell a massive city full of violence and injustice and greed that there is a better way. The message is a difficult one: if they refuse to turn toward that better way destruction is coming. This man doesn't want to go so he jumps on a boat headed the opposite direction. The first chapter of the story repeatedly reminds us that he is trying to get away from God, we just don't know why. But his efforts prove to be futile when God sends an epic storm that threatens the lives of all the men on the ship. Eventually the men throw Jonah overboard and the storm stops. As he is sinking into the depths of the sea, about to drown, God sends a sea monster to swallow him. This is in an effort to rescue him and after 3 days he is spit up on dry land, life saved. God sends him again. This time he decides to go. And it is at this point in the story that we begin to see what is really going on here. Jonah delivers the message from God and it is received, to our surprise, quite well. The city and their rulers fall on their knees and begin to mourn the way they've been living. This is a pretty shocking turn in the story. But not nearly as shocking as what happens next.
Jonah actually became angry at God because the people were very sorry about how they were living and took drastic measures to show how sorry they were. He explains to God, "This is why I ran away from you in the first place. I knew this would happen! You'd look on these people with compassion and extend grace to them, and these people don't deserve it!"
Jonah then goes outside of the city, sets up camp on the side of the hill, and waits for a light show.
The teaching that often surrounds this story is curious: if you run away from God... you might get swallowed by a fish? Or, no matter how hard you try to escape from God, He will always find you. As if the good God of the universe is someone to be avoided. Or if you do what God says, He will work in ways you never imagined. These are all ways of telling the story without every actually telling the story, like teaching the theme of Cinderella is that the relationship between a stepmother and stepdaughter can be tumultuous.
The real theme is one we've sadly missed, because it’s a profound and challenging truth all of us need to hear. Jonah has a big problem. It’s a problem called self-righteousness. Jonah is not running away from God because he is afraid to go to Nineveh or because He doesn't want to take orders from God. He is running away from God because he knows how this is all going to play out – and he disapproves of it. Jonah's problem is that he genuinely thinks he deserves grace more than the people of Nineveh do.
We have this problem too. You and I genuinely believe we deserve grace more than the people around us. The standards we set for others are ones we never personally meet. Still, we give ourselves grace. Meanwhile, we hold others in contempt for not living up to our expectations.
I believe the mainstream Christian culture really needs to grab on to this. For years and years, those who sit outside of our little subculture have used words like ‘hypocritical’ and ‘judgmental’ to describe us. In other words, we are recognized by the two attributes Jesus Himself despised, two-facedness and self-righteousness. If ever the church finds themselves being described by words that are the opposite of what Jesus taught and demonstrated, it’s time for a change.
Lindsay always says, "You can tell how humble a person is by how many times they say 'I'm sorry' in a day." Likewise, “how you respond to someone else’s apology says a lot about how much grace you think you need”. I think those are brilliant insights. And we try to live by those truths around our house. There is nothing I have done to deserve grace. And there are very few things I get right each day. We want our house to be a place where everyone gets grace -- not because everyone deserves it; but because no one does. What makes grace so powerful and disruptive and transformative is precisely that it isn't deserved, and still extended. That is what changes people's hearts. What if we had that posture when interacting with our neighbors and coworkers and friends and family members? What if people starting recognizing followers of Jesus by their humility and graciousness? Those are two attributes Jesus demonstrated over and over again.
Please give me some grace as I write this:
You don't deserve grace any more than the clerk who makes a mistake at the cash register, or the colleague that was late for your staff meeting, or your spouse that said something that hurt you in a heated moment. You don't deserve grace any more than the dude that cut you off on the highway, or the customer service representative you are raising your voice with on the phone or that celebrity that says something offensive with a microphone to their face. Let’s take it a step further. You don't deserve grace more than the girl who robs a bank, or the guy who is misusing his sexuality, or the couple on your street that drinks too much/fights too much/works too much. You aren't that great either. And neither am I. Neither are they. We are all plagued with one destructive belief; that if we take up residence in our own sub-kingdoms, we’ll all be better off than we would if we lived with God as king. The worst people on earth are those who have completely abandoned themselves to a belief in self-rule. But we've all spent time living in that belief. And we are all still living in that belief to some extent. So, what if we started inviting people to go on a journey with us away from that belief instead of constantly condemning the behavior that so often accompanies it?
We could instead invite people to journey with us to a kingdom full of grace, and beauty, and truth, and creativity, and sustainability, and love. To the reign of a King that embodies all of these things.
The story finishes out like this. God grows a plant beside Jonah that gives him some shade, which he really appreciates... until God takes the plant away. At which point Jonah becomes furious again and tells God that he is "angry enough to die". To which God responds, "You are upset that I destroyed a plant that was here for one day... but you are angry that I didn't destroy 120,000 real people, each one with a heartbeat and a dream and a family. Not to mention destroying all those animals."
The irony in the story is that everyone is interacting in a gracious way except the “man of God” himself. The one God has sent into the city with a message is the only one that never actually gets the message. He is graceless. He has utter contempt for those he regards as less than him. And still God gives him grace.
The story ends with this question from God: "should I not have compassion on them?" What if we lived with that question in mind?