My Way — Adam’s Angle

There’s a reason people remember the story of Jonah — and it’s not just because he gets swallowed by a big fish. Many people can relate to him.

Think about it. If we’re forced to remember what the messages of Amos, Obadiah or Habakkuk are about, we’re left scratching our heads. But if you ask about Jonah, we’re instantly reminded of a stubborn prophet who fled a direct order from God and who repented only after three days of thoughtful reflection from inside the belly of a fish.

It’s our story. He grudgingly did what God told him to do and—surprise— God was right. The wicked people of Nineveh changed their hearts and got saved. But Jonah’s story doesn’t end there.

The lesson of the book isn’t just “Do what God tells you to do the first time” or “God’s gonna get you if you disobey.” God had something else to say to us in chapter four: selfishness has got to go because bigger things are at stake.

Righteous Anger

When God showed mercy to the people in Nineveh, Jonah burned with anger: “O LORD . . . That is why I was quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:2-3).

Jonah was willing to die for his conviction about the people of Nineveh. Was he totally out of line? The Ninevites (a.k.a. the Assyrians) were ruthless. They were known for violence and torture. They followed pagan gods. Wasn’t his anger a righteous anger against sin? What’s wrong with wanting God’s justice to flash forth? Maybe Jonah had a point.

Or maybe something else was at work in his heart. God starts to cut through the veneer of Jonah’s righteous anger by asking him a question: “Have you any right to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4).

We don’t hear an answer from Jonah — for the moment. Maybe he’s quietly seething or muttering under his breath, but he’s smart enough to keep his mouth shut. He doesn’t say he is in the right, but he doesn’t repent either. God’s not about to let the issue go. He ups the ante.

A Little Object Lesson

God cares enough about Jonah’s heart to set him straight, so He gives him a little object lesson. As Jonah is waiting outside Nineveh to see if something terrible is going to happen to it, he gets hot in the Middle Eastern sun. God causes a huge vine to grow up overnight to give Jonah shade. Jonah likes the vine. But the very next day God sends a worm to chew up the vine so that Jonah is left in the hot sun again — and this time with a scorching east wind.

Jonah is totally frustrated by the turn of events. He just can’t seem to get a break. First God has to show mercy to the Ninevites, and now He’s taking away that one little bit of comfort that Jonah thought he had. His heart overflows and he speaks, “It would be better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:8).

Noticing that Jonah has broken his silence, God asks the same question to Jonah, but with a twist: “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” (Jonah 4:9). Don’t want to talk about Nineveh? Fine. Let’s just talk about the vine.

You’d think that Jonah would see the light. You think he’d say something like, “You’re right, Lord. It’s just a vine. It’s not worth getting worked up about. I’m sorry I said that it would be better for me to be dead.”

But Jonah’s response was a bit more colorful. He had the audacity to tell the Creator of the universe, “I do . . . I am angry enough to die!” (Jonah 4:9).

With these words we see the root issue was not the fate of the Ninevites. The root issue was selfishness. Jonah wanted his way. If he didn’t get his way, he wanted to check out.

We could be tough on Jonah, but we shouldn’t be. The truth is that we’ve all been there. We want things our way: “God if you don’t give me a godly spouse, I don’t want to have anything to do with this life.” Or, “God, if I have to keep on suffering with this infirmity I want out!” But beyond these things there’s a bigger perspective.

The Big Picture

God wanted Jonah to see that there were bigger issues at stake than just fulfilling his wish list: “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:10-11).

The apostle Paul had a thorn that the Lord did not take away. Jesus had a cup to drink that He did not want to drink. And chances are you have something in your life that needs to be surrendered so that God’s greater good will be accomplished.

For whatever reason, God has chosen to use us as His ambassadors to this world. Sometimes we get frustrated and want to be done with it all because things don’t go our way. But God doesn’t want us to give up. He didn’t grant Jonah’s multiple wishes to die, He wanted Jonah in the race. But in order to finish the race well and to do God’s work, we need to let selfishness die. There are more important things out there than us getting our way.

— Adam Pivec