"But Yahweh asked, "Jonah, do you have the right to be angry about the vine?" "Yes I do," he answered, "and I am angry enough to die"" (Jonah 4:9, CEV).
I know some of you here are pretty good artists. I can draw machines, maps, planes, and one or two other things, but people I cannot draw. But if I could I would draw a picture of the prophet Jonah - the man Yahweh called to preach to Nineveh and who rebelled and had to be swallowed by a whale before he would obey - and I would draw him slumped on the ground with elongated face, drooping mouth and fierce, blazing eyes. I wonder how you would represent a man with a grievance spouting out his angry disgruntlement with the words, "I have every right to be angry, to the point of death" (ibid., JB).
Now I know we all get angry sometimes, sometimes with justification, but more often than not without any justification at all. At the end of the Book of Jonah we are faced by a prophet of the Most High God who is furious. What's his problem? Why is he so angry?
As I read through the Bible and study the lives of men and women who really suffered, like Job, John the Baptist, the apostle Paul, and the Messiah Himself, I can find some grounds for anger - anger at human injustice, cruelty, human blindness, and folly. I can understand Yah'shua (Jesus) getting angry with the money changers in the Temple. I can understand Paul getting angry with rebels trying to change and subvert the Gospel and so rob men of their salvation. I can understand the prophets in general who got angry because of the wickedness all around them. But Jonah? What was he so angry about? You're going to find it hard to believe, but all he got angry over was a castor oil plant!
Now Jonah was an Israelite. Yahweh had called him to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh, one of Israel's worst enemies - a people who had ravished his nation, defiled its women, murdered its children. And he resented that. So he tried to run away. And we all know what happened when he tried to do that. He spent three days in the belly of a whale for his refusal to be obedient.
Now let's remember one thing. Jonah wasn't just an ordinary man. He was a prophet. Like Jeremiah who was ordained a prophet even before he was conceived in his mother's womb, Jonah was called and ordained before he incarnated into matter. That was his calling, and he had agreed to it. So when Yahweh calls a true prophet to do something, it is not without that prophet's agreement. Indeed, we are all here on this earth, going through what we're going through, because we agreed in the pre-mortal worlds to be here and run the gauntlet of mortality. So when God asks us to perform a mission - whether it is to preach repentance to a bitter enemy, give birth to a child under difficult conditions, sacrifice something that is cherished for the sake of the Kingdom, it is because we agreed to do so beforehand.
Now Jonah was bitter because Nineveh - that cruel and tyrannical city which had caused Israel so much suffering - repented! He bitterly resented the fact that Yahweh would not strike down the city for its gross crimes. He lacked mercy in his soul and the wider perspective of God's plan on earth for all peoples, no matter how dark the deeds of their past. So there he was, this prophet of God - bitter. Resentful, sitting under the shade of this castor oil plant, sheltering himself from the blistering sun and the hot scorching wind if the desert. Then a worm started eating the plant and it withered away, robbing him of his shade. It was the last straw for Jonah. It was the straw that broke the camel's back. "I have every right to be angry," he complained, "to the point of death."
When any one of us explodes over a little thing, it is usually because there is some larger thing behind it. And that large thing, or series of large things, has set up an attitude, an attitude of resentment, if not of fierce anger. "I have every right to be angry, to the point of death."
This kind of behaviour ought to be familiar to us. In fact, it's so familiar that is afflicts the whole human family. It's what I call the "Jonah Syndrome". It's a deadly spiritual illness but easily curable. I turns the human spirit into a cripple when it ought to be healthy. It prevents us from spiritually maturing when all that is needed to conquer it is honesty and a assault on the deadly enemy to man's soul, pride. And if it's not faced an conquered, in the end it destroys out ability to be loving, likeable human beings.
Now you might think that Jonah was a small man - the kind of person who easily takes offence, the sort of person go goes and deliberately looks for something to be annoyed with. There are people like that. For them, everything is wrong, and criticism is never far away. Well, Jonah was a small man in a way, but not so small that Yahweh had not called him as decisively as any prophet to go and proclaim the message of God's concern for the heathen city dwellers of Nineveh. There was something about Jonah for him to be entrusted with such an important assignment. He did not go at first, as we know. His attempted escape in a ship was in the opposite direction from Nineveh, to Tarshish. The shipwreck and swallowing up of Jonah, not by the raging sea, but by a roaming whale, is the part of Jonah's story most people know, and unfortunately it is the point at which they withdraw serious interest which is what they most need!
Now not only was Jonah of sufficient stature to be called to a significant mission, he knew deep down that however frequently Yahweh might appear as a God of judgement, that He was actually a God of infinite compassion. You can search the Old Testament and maybe the New, and you will not find a description of the heart of God to surpass that which Jonah uttered, when he said:
"I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness, One who relents from doing harm" (Jonah 4:2, NKJV).
You see, he knew what sort of a God he served, proof that if Jonah did not know deep down, that he knew them as part of a general prophetic teaching. Jonah belonged to the prophetic circle. And we, even if we don't know that Yahweh is gracious and merciful deep down, can at least believe what others who have known Him intimately experienced and have recorded for all posterity in the Bible. You see, the Bible isn't just a novel. It is the collection of the experiences of men and women who have known God. And what they experienced we can, and will, likewise experience by following Him and doing as He asks.
Now Jonah wasn't a poor preacher either. In fact, he was pretty good. Jonah could get his message across to complete outsiders with no background in true religion, which is not something all our preachers can do. Nineveh was stirred to the depths by what they heard from the lips of this man, which, though a message of judgement, must somehow have been radiant with hope. The Ninevites repented, they turned to Yahweh and experienced His deliverance.
So we have to get right out of our heads that Jonah was a small, mean man. There was the potentiality, and therefore the possibility of greatness in him! But he became a small man, so small that the last we see of him is someone slumped with elongated face, drooping mouth and fierce, blazing eyes, with that withered castor oil plant beside him, and possibly even the worm that nibbled through its stem - a ripe subject indeed for a cartoonist, and the bitter words blurting out from his lips, "I have every right to be angry, to the point of death."
Now how do you handle a man or a woman nursing a grievance? Now I know what most of us would like to do, and it's something we do almost instinctively because we don't want to be machine-gunned emotionally. We would probably approach him softly and inquire, "What's wrong, Jonah? Why are you so angry? It can't really be on account of that castor oil plant or that wicked worm!" Now the chances are you'd get your head bitten off, of course. People with grievances are notoriously snappy - and if you challenge them on their snappiness, they'll usually blame it on anything but the real problem.
And then the truth came out. It was God Jonah was angry with. Yahweh, whose ways were not Jonah's ways, not His thoughts Jonah's thoughts. Jonah did not see how he could get along with a God who showed up as he Had shown up in Jonah's experiences. To put the matter crudely, though maybe clearly, Jonah was "fed up" with God, fed up, as we say, "to the back teeth." Thinking about Yahweh as he slumped there in the blazing sun and scorching wind, his shade gone, he grumbled, "I have every right to be angry, to the point of death."
Now, if you are honest with yourself, this is no picture of a rare phenomenon - a man angry with God because of the deal life has made out to him. In fact, it's such a common experience that it's almost embarrassing. But doesn't the story of Jonah tell the truth about the human condition? Does it not tell the truth as a great masterpiece of painting tells the truth? Does it not tell the truth about people, about people in relation to Yahweh our God, about people when things don't go their way? May it not be telling a trust about us? This is always the terror of Scripture. It acts like a sharp, two-edged sword, and sword thrusts hurt.
Here is a man declared redundant to his work, a good and honest employee. Here is a mother, a wise and careful, God-fearing mother, and her child is born with such a brain defect that he is almost an idiot. Here is a professional man, near the top of his professional tree, and he makes one unfortunate error of judgement which means his premature retirement from the stage of affairs. Here is a woman who has been molested by Satanists since she was a baby and complete fractured in her personality, not knowing what it is to be an ordinary human being. Here is a young lover whose sweetheart is killed in a motor accident days before their wedding. And the cry goes up, "It isn't fair! What have these people done to deserve this?" It isn't as if they were bad people, careless people, even small-minded people. They have hearts and heads and hands above the average - but Yahweh apparently does not put a safety net under every one of His servants. So is it a rarity to find people slumped down with drooping mouth and fierce, blazing eyes? "I have every right to be angry, to the point of death."
I want to tell you the story of an amazing woman from the East End of London in England. She was born a hopelessly incapacitated spastic. Nevertheless, with the astonishing patient assistance of her parents, she struggled to make something of her life, and did. Then in her teens came the doctor's report that she was gradually going blind. For the mother this was almost the last straw. Then, however, a young man, also incapacitated, brought new life by loving her, but after a while he grew weary of her in capacities and told her so. After this her parent's house was burgled and all the girl's records, tapes and playing equipment by which she had made some contact with the artistic world, were smashed. Did she nurse a grievance against anyone? Against life? Against God? No, she did not. There was never a sign of this. What is most remarkable, she actually came through to a practising Christian faith and finally took the step of confirming it by becoming an active church member. Instead of nursing a grievance, she came to nurse a faith.
You see, not only are our life's circumstances and the things that happen in them purposeful, but they are designed to nurture faith and multiply love. Perhaps not always by the channels we expect or would like, but nevertheless the way that Yahweh, our Heavenly Father, knows is best for us. Far from being the victims of random suffering, we are actually the recipients of a path in life tailor made just for us to bring out the very best in our souls. But you can never understand this - or the vicissitudes of life - if you believe that this life is all there is. Without a faith in a life before and a life hereafter, nothing can possibly make sense. In fact, a life with no faith in God is, I would suggest, no life at all. And when people choose to live that way, they choose instead to live for things or people. And when they don't get the things they want, and the people don't turn out the way they'd like, they become hurt and resentful, just like Jonah.
The religion of unbelief - the religion of believing that there is no God and no life to come (and it is a religion because it is a matter of faith and not scientific fact) - is a religion of nihilism and spiritual suicide. And we know it is this in the way that ultimately people turn out. They may hold out until their death bed and then, as the awful (for them) moment of the end of life comes, all the pretense comes down and their are consumed with paralysing fear - a fear precipitated by the knowledge that it's too late to change their minds and do anything about their false belief. And what is worse, the evidence for there being no God is so pitifully weak that only those in wilful denial can ultimately say that they were entirely ignorant when that last, fateful hour arrives.
Jonah was angry and bitter but he know only knew that Yahweh existed but that He was a good, kind, patient, merciful and loving God. He knew these things! The issue is not, really, whether God exists or not (for you have to be utterly and wilfully blind to assert that in all honesty), but how we choose to react to life's circumstances. We can choose to be that East London girl and with determination make something of life in spite of our disabilities, or we can be like that incredible preacher and man of God and blame Yahweh for not giving him what he thought he wanted.
Jonah's fall was the result of one defect in his nature - he chose not to love. He decided that the beastly Ninevehites, who had brought such suffering to his people, were not worthy of salvation. He, a mere mortal, decided that! But God loves everyone - even the worst of sinners, and desires to bring them to salvation, freedom, happiness and productivity. Within this Old Testament story we get a deep insight into the love of Yahweh for people -- an infinite love which Yah'shua (Jesus) our Messiah revealed - not for the first time, for He was simply reminding us of what was already revealed.
You see, Yahweh forgave a genuinely repentant depraved people. And they were depraved! The Assyrians were amongst the cruellest people if the Middle East. They mutilated, maimed and tortured their enemies. They raped women, offered children as sacrifices to pagan deities. They were a thoroughly demonised people. And Jonah knew that. He knew how repugnant their works were to the Creator. But what He refused to accept that whilst God hated their evil works, He still loved them as people, and as a dutiful father, wished to see His prodigal sons and daughters come home! It was this love - this care and compassion for men and women in spite of their crimes - that Jonah would not accept. If the truth be known, there was REVENGE and HATRED in his heart -- and he did not want to give them up. Yes, he eventually did what Yahweh commanded him to do, and he did the job well, but it was not so much out of love but out of duty. And that is not the best reason for doing anything.
Faith in God is not enough because if there is not a deep and abiding love for Him - and a trust that all He permits has a loving purpose ... ultimately ... then that faith will never be enough to see our faith through. At some point that faith will waiver and collapse into atheism or, worse, Satanism.
But we must also understand that this life is not the beginning and end of everything important and desirable. In truth, this life can never give us everything we would truly like to have. It may give us some, but in order to realise the deepest and fondest desires of our hearts, we must await the next life. That is where everything is made right. Getting a right perspective of earth life is therefore critical because it will determine the way we live the rest of our life. The tools of life like career, physical pleasures, comforts, and so on become, instead, the goals of life, and lead ultimately only to disappointment. These things exist only to facilitate our spiritual agenda. Without a clear vision of the spiritual purpose of life, and the appropriate response from us, things will not end up as we would like.
Some people, it is true, seem to cruise through life with few problems ... at least it seems that way on the surface. But deep down, in the restless oceans of the heart, there is dissatisfaction, bitterness and anger. I have never ever met an unbeliever who is really happy and at peace. Never. They have tried to project such an image but little things -- and sometimes bigger ones -- at once explode the myth.
We are all of us -- at least parts of us -- afflicted by the Jonah Syndrome. It won't go away and sooner of later must be confronted. And when we do, we have choice -- to end up pitifully as Jonah did or respond as that English girl did. That choice -- the way you react to painful circumstances or difficult in your life -- could determine your entire future in eternity. Know and understand that there are always two choices and that even if you reacted to one wrongly long ago, that there is still the possibility to change direction and get onto the path that Yahweh has mapped out for you.
Jonah had the alternative but he rejected it. I pray that none of us do, but that if we have, we will now turn round and ask Yah'shua (Jesus) to forgive us of our wrong choice - our lack of faith, bitterness, desire for revenge, and even blasphemous thoughts against God -- and to come into our lives and make us into new and happy people.
Two nights ago a woman I know made such a decision after having spent her whole life as the victim of satanic abuse. My wife and I sat with her on-line as she made her commitment to Christ. We sat and we watched with joy as in an instant her life turned round - as she experienced the living presence of Christ in her life. Suddenly a cynical and tough women was happy, meek and mild.
This, brethren and sisters, is not what some people cynically call "religion", as though it were some psychological crutch, but the ultimate reality. It is the power of the Creator of the Universe in action. It's available for anyone, for believer and unbeliever alike. And remember, and remember well, that Jonah was a "believer" too, but took a wrong turn in his life and would not change. His stubbornness may have cost him everything. May none of us ever go his way - an empty, lonely and deeply unsatisfying way. Amen.