There really was a man who valued a plant, that grew one day and withered the next, more than the entire population of a city. In fact, the thought that God could love and have mercy upon the people of this city, made him so angry he wanted to die rather than to see them live.
I’m talking about Jonah from the book in the bible of the same name.
The book begins with the word of God that came to Jonah, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me’ (Jonah c1:2 NKJV).
Jonah’s response was to attempt a 2500 miles journey, in the opposite direction, to Tarshish (in modern day Spain). I used to think the reason Jonah ran away from doing what God instructed was fear, but I was wrong.
Jonah didn’t want to preach in Nineveh in Assyria (modern day Mosul in Iraq *) because he hated the Assyrians. Assyria was an enemy of Israel. If we could ask Jonah, he would probably give us a long list of atrocities carried out by Assyria against Israel.
Jonah didn’t want to preach to Nineveh because he knew God is merciful and he hated the thought that these people, knowing what they had done, could be forgiven. How could God love those who hated Israel? They weren’t a tribe of Israel. They weren’t God’s people. They worshipped other gods. They were responsible for great evil. How could God expect Jonah to preach to and pray for them? Rather, treat them as they deserve and wipe them out.
I’m skipping significant events, in what is a short book anyway, but I want to get straight to my point and what prompted this blog.
In 2014, when James Foley was the first of 7 men murdered by Islamic State, in order to provoke ‘the west’, I was so outraged and angry. I can be a bit hot blooded and my first reaction isn’t always my best. I’m going be honest and tell you that my first reaction was ‘kill them all’. Not just ‘Jihadi John’ but everyone in Islamic State. Eradicate them completely. This would have been my way of making the world a better place.
Is it right for me to be angry?
It was at this time that the book of Jonah came to mind. In c4:4 God asks Jonah ‘is it right for you to be angry’? I felt God was asking me the same thing. Jonah, probably wisely, didn’t answer, but settled down to see what God would do with Nineveh, hoping, I think, that God might still destroy the city and everyone in it.
As Jonah waits, God causes a plant to grow over him to shield him from the heat of the sun and Jonah was pleased with it. (c4:6). The next day, though, it withered and died. This really upset Jonah. Then God speaks again. ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the plant’? (c4:9) Jonah replies this time, ‘it is right for me to be angry’.
God rebukes Jonah, ‘You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left’ (4:10-11).
I felt very challenged by this. Overcome evil with good sounds great until one is told to do it in circumstances that we’re angry about. As I thought more, it also seemed a very weak and feeble thing to do. To my carnal mind a show of strength was called for, not prayers of love.
I sometimes find the love of God scary. By this I mean it scares me what God could expect of me to demonstrate and express His love to others. In this situation, being honest, God wasn’t asking much of me personally, as I hadn’t been directly impacted by the events in Syria (by this, I mean, I didn’t know the men) but God would have said the same even if I had.
This is difficult and may be offensive to some but we have to love. God moved my heart to pray for Syria, specifically, and those of Islamic State, that God’s love would rain down on a place where a life seemed so cheap and ending it so easy. I prayed for dreams and visions of God, that even Jihadi John be saved (not that I thought he should escape justice for what he had done) and spend eternity in heaven.
You see this is victory! That we overcome evil. That lives be transformed. Transformed lives transform nations. Let there be love in hearts where there is hatred right now. Think of the difference this will make.
I have a plant too
Do you know as I type this, even now, part of me is still offended. It occurs to me that I have something like a plant, that we can all have something like a plant, that is a limiter of God’s love being expressed through us. The plant was so trivial compared to the lives of 120,000 people but for a while, at least, Jonah valued it more.
God, forgive my hard heart and I pray (scary prayer time) that any carnal thing in me, that prevents me loving souls as you do, will wither and die. Fill my heart with love. Help me to love as you do.
* Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, was the location of the tombs of both Jonah and Daniel. The tombs were destroyed by Islamic State.