The prophet Jonah is an interesting study in grace. He is a man who was used by God to make a most outrageous statement about God’s forgiveness of mankind. At the beginning of the book we find Jonah being called by God to deliver a message to Israel’s sworn enemy, the Assyrians. Jonah was to go the capital city of Nineveh, and tell them that they must repent or die. Jonah did not want to go and tell them about God’s judgment because he was worried that God might forgive them. Jonah was quite all right with the Ninevites getting what they deserved. Jonah thought that it was about time that God settled the score so Jonah refused to go.
As a wise man once said, “When God tells you to do something, DO IT! You will eventually end up doing it anyway so you might as well do it first. Jonah tried to run away but it didn’t work. Three days in a whale changed his mind (sort of) and Jonah went to Nineveh and delivered his message.
It was one of the shortest, and at the same time, most effective evangelistic sermons in the world. “Forty days and Nineveh will fall.” Not exactly seeker sensitive or contextually appropriate. He didn’t even tell them what to do. Incidentally, here we see an important message for preachers everywhere. When God delivers a message, the messenger is utterly irrelevant: The Holy Spirit can use anyone. The Holy Spirit can make a donkey a messenger (Numbers 22:28) so He can easily use you.
The people of Nineveh were heartbroken and repented of their sins in sackcloth and ashes (a profound way of expressing remorse) and Jonah was furious. Do you see the irony of the story? Jonah preaches a message about God’s grace (even though he didn’t want to) and the people believe it, while Jonah does not! Jonah doesn’t believe, nor does he understand the very message he is preaching!
Jonah is profoundly effective in his prophetic ministry but he still wants to wait and see if God still comes through and kills the Assyrians so he camps out on the top of a hill to wait and see if God’s wrath pours down. It’s stifling hot, and so God shows mercy on Jonah by making a gourd plant grow up and shade him from the sun (which Jonah did not ask for nor deserve). Then God sends a worm to kill the plant and Jonah is again furious with God.
What Jonah finds frustrating here is what we often struggle with when we are trying to understand God (at least its what I struggle with). I sometimes get to thinking that I have God figured out only to have God wreck my plans and shatter my preconceived notions. John Newton, writer of the hymn, Amazing Grace, wrote another song about this gourd plant of Jonah’s.
“I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow” by John Newton (1779)
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.
I hoped that in some favoured hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
and by His love’s contraining power,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in ever part.
And more with His own hand
He seemed intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I had schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
“Lord, why is this,” I trembling cried,
“Will you pursue your worm to death?”
“’It’s in this way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayers for grace and faith.”
“These inward trials I employ,
From self and pride to set you free,
And break your schemes of earthly joy,
That you would find your all in me.”
God scourges the sons (and the daughters) that He loves (Heb. 12: 6; Prov. 3: 11) and he must sometimes shatter us to make us open to new possiblilites that we were never going to go looking for. Ravi Zacharias wrote,
When God wants to mold a man – To play the noblest part;
When He yearns with all His heart – To create so great and bold a man
That all the world shall be amazed, Watch His methods, watch His ways!
How He ruthlessly perfects – Whom He royally elects!
How He hammers him and hurts him, And with mighty blows converts him
Into trial shapes of clay – which Only God understands;
While his tortured heart is crying – And he lifts beseeching hands!
How He bends but never breaks – When his good He undertakes;
How He uses whom He chooses, And which every purpose fuses him;
By every act induces him – To try His splendor out – God knows what He’s about.
Sometimes God must break us to make us.