Grace Isn’t What Jonah Wanted

And the Lord God prepared a gourd

Jonah 4:6

God’s grace is often misrepresented and abused. Sometimes, we’re a bit like Jonah and we don’t really want grace for others, but we misinterpret God’s patience for us as a gift of grace.

Too often, we resemble Jonah. God commands us to do one thing, and we run in the opposite direction. God turns us around so we begrudgingly comply. In the end, when God doesn’t do things the way we think He should, we pout and complain.

Or maybe it’s just me. I see way too much of myself in Jonah – and it isn’t a pretty picture.

Rehashing the Story

Everyone learned this story as a child. Perhaps you even learned a chorus or two to sing about it. “I don’t want to be a Jonah” comes to mind.

God appeared to Jonah and told him to head over to Ninevah and preach. Jonah didn’t like those evil people (for good reason), so he decided to head in the other direction.

Jonah feels no guilt for his actions. How do I know? Because while a violent storm threatens his escape route, he sleeps like a cat. Until he’s rudely awakened and told to pray to his God for deliverance.

That’s when things snap into place for the prophet. He realizes the storm is God’s punishment for his disobedience. He accepts his fate: after all, drowning beats preaching to those stinking Gentiles.

But the joke’s on Jonah because God wants to give him a second chance to obey. Jonah sits inside the belly of the great fish for three days. Finally, the overwhelming stench gets to him. He prays for help and promises to keep his vow.

Covered in vomit, he gets the command to preach to Ninevah. Does he want to? Nope. It’s pretty evident by his eight word sermon that he only reluctantly obeys.

What happens next has always been confusing to me. I blamed the “non-ending” of the story for my discontent. I hate when stories end without resolution.

What Jonah Wanted

Jonah wanted his enemies dead. He despised these violent Gentiles and felt justified in it while delivering God’s message of judgment to them.

In the back of his mind, however, Jonah was afraid. After all, he knew God could be merciful (he’d put him in the fish rather than killing Jonah just a few days before). Jonah didn’t want these people to receive God’s mercy. Their sins were too horrible.

Jonah watched the city for forty days, waiting for the judgment of God to fall. These Ninevites were wicked and they deserved to be destroyed. Like gawkers at the scene of an accident, Jonah wanted a front row seat.

It got hot. Jonah got sunburned. He was feeling pretty self-righteous at the time. After all, he had done exactly as God commanded.

God miraculously raised up a bush to shade Jonah from the heat. Here’s where Jonah made another mistake. He accepted this gift as a sign that God was overlooking his bad attitude. God wouldn’t be so nice if he was angry. Or would he?

What God Did

God showed grace to his errant prophet. He knew all about Jonah’s bigotry before calling him for this mission. All along, this task was about Jonah learning a lesson more than about Ninevah hearing from God.

God showed mercy to Jonah on three separate occasions. First, he showed mercy by letting Jonah run instead of striking him down. Next, he showed mercy by preparing a place for Jonah to take a time out and get his attitude adjusted.

The finally act of mercy was when God didn’t kill Jonah for his selfish attitude. I mean, the prophet railed on God for having mercy and he lacked an eternal perspective (Jonah 4:1-4).

And then God went a step further. He extended grace to Jonah.

Remember, mercy is withholding judgment we rightly deserve, and grace is getting blessings we don’t deserve. What did God give Jonah? The gourd.

Jonah pouts and whines and wants God to destroy a million people. God sees Jonah fainting in the hot sun and provides shade.

Jonah acts like so many of us, he accepted God’s gift without so much as a “thank you.” Furthermore, when God withdrew the gift, Jonah whined and asked God to kill him. Again.

Jonah believed he deserved that gift from God. I’m not sure why, but I know we are guilty of doing the same thing.

I think Jonah also believed that God’s provision meant something more – that God was sorry about Jonah’s state. Did Jonah think God would change his mind and destroy Ninevah after all? Maybe. If God showed favor by sending the gourd to protect Jonah, perhaps that meant he’d hear the prophet’s plea for justice for the Ninevites.

God withdrew his blessing from Jonah, hoping he would finally understand the lesson God had been trying to teach him from the very first verse of the book: God alone is capable of dispensing judgment, mercy, and grace.

The story ends with a question: “Is the gourd really more important in the eternal scheme of things than 120,000 innocent children?”

Do we mistake God’s grace for acceptance?

How often do we misbehave and God gives us grace anyway?

This isn’t when we’re speeding past the police officer, and he doesn’t pull us over. That is mercy. We deserved a ticket for breaking the law, but God got us off with a warning.

I’m talking about when we mistreated someone in the parking lot (“That was my space, you idiot!”) and we don’t have to wait in line at the register. We let our friend know of our disapproval in none too gentle terms, and another friend hands over tickets to an event we’re dying to attend.

We act out, but instead of slapping us upside the head, God gives us a gift instead. The two things are not directly correlated, but because they happen in proximity to each other, we decide they are tied together.

Did Jonah repent for his obnoxious behavior? We don’t know.

This cliff-hanger ending to a book of the Bible should cause us to consider our own outlandish attitudes and actions.

If God told us that Jonah prayed and was forgiven, we would expect the same. If God said he struck Jonah with lightning, we would decide that Jonah deserved it rather than reflecting on the deeper lesson.

Is God gifting you with good things today even though you didn’t read your Bible or have a conversation with him through prayer?

Don’t be a Jonah.

God’s grace doesn’t mean he’s overlooking our poor behavior. He hopes we’ll remember how awesome He is and return to the right path.

**Originally published on another blog on March 11, 2014.

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