Jonah. He’s not exactly the type of prophet that one aspires to be. Unlike any of the other major prophets on biblical record, Jonah’s book is more about the messenger and the state of his heart than the message from God Himself. Isn’t that poignant? Stirring? I find it downright disquieting. Does God really lay off on the prophesying and truth-speaking for a bit to focus, in the Book of all books, on the people He uses to speak? Yes, He does. In fact, given the accounts of Moses, Elijah, and etc. going through severe depressive episodes in their tenures as leaders and judges, one could assume quite safely that God really cares how His people are doing.
In Jonah’s case, this is especially true of those people who go through monumental struggles when what they want is not what God wants. God wants to preach to and potentially save the people of Nineveh. Jonah does not. In fact, he’s so not okay with the mere possibility of their repentance that he foregoes the mission, books a trip to the other end of the world, and emotionally stomps out of his and God’s conversation to show the extent of his displeasure. This guy is seriously pissed off.
As such, Jonah’s always been so easy for me to judge because of this seemingly irrational dislike of a potentially glorious mandate (how many people really get the chance to be a part of saving an entire city/civilization? I mean, really Jonah?). He’s not striding into a lion’s den or a roaring furnace; he’s not got assassins and angry kings on his tail; I mean, what is this guy’s problem? He walks away from a divine mandate and is more than content to leave a whole lot of people to rot and burn. But grant me the grace here for some speculation. For to me, Jonah’s anger seems much more than just generic hatred, the racist kind that likes to paint all people of a type by the same brush. No, this is more than cultural disdain. In fact, his repulsive attitude towards Nineveh seems to me personal — for it’s in these intimate waters of our own hurts and hearts that our feelings take over and cloud the view. Did something truly terrible happen to Jonah before while he was in Nineveh? Did someone there rob him of his life savings? Of a prized possession? Of someone he loved? What deep hurts lurk beneath the surface that are driving Jonah not only to run from this city, but from his God? Whatever it is, there’s something about this city that strikes at the core of who Jonah is and makes his lip curl. He hates this place.
From this point forward, my sympathies with Jonah are pretty much sealed. I know what it’s like to have God want something for me that I do not want for myself. And I do know what it’s like to try to run from Him as a result — out of anger, fear. That outrage: how could God ask this of me? Jonah’s running did mean the probable destruction of an entire city full of living, laughing people, and while my own choices and life experience have never been against a backdrop as dramatic as that, I certainly have run from God before knowing that there would be negative consequences on the people around me as well as on myself. I know what it’s like, in other words, to feel like telling God ‘no’ and then not having the spiritual maturity to act otherwise with my heart. I cut and run all the time.
So what astounds me today is that God has actually made provision for someone like me in the story of Jonah. What I feel when I read this book of the Bible about an errant prophet is that I am fully seen and fully known: that I am not the first of God’s children to make irrational decisions based on my emotions and impulses rather than the big picture, whose faith has failed at pivotal moments of history and sent me running for cover. I relate to this failure of a truth-speaker whose internal struggles were so ugly and yet so real that God saw fit to record them for future little prophets and woeful instruments like me. Though he’s not exemplary, I love what Jonah shows us about what I do when God and I disagree. I run. I hide. I rage. And God writes it all down in perfectly legible print, not to further shame us, but to save us all from being too proud and full of ourselves to think that we could do much better. The book of Jonah’s a great comfort because it shows that God sees us. It amazes me with how much God not only knows, but He cares; that He asks the impossible, while preparing for our failures; and, finally, that He loves infinitely more the people He uses than the missions to which He calls them.