Saturday, 24 November 2018

"Is it right for you to be angry?"

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry... But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah 4:1-4

Do you get angry easily? Are you angry about something right now, while you’re reading this? If so, is your anger justified?

There’s no doubt that in the Bible anger is generally regarded as bad. Jesus, memorably, warns us about it in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:22).

But that isn’t always the case. There is, after all, such a thing as the wrath, or anger, of God - and that, surely, can’t be bad. One of the most famous incidents in Jesus’ life is when he threw the money-changers out of the Jerusalem temple and accused them of turning the most holy place on earth into “a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13).

There are times, surely, when it is wrong for us not to be angry. Perhaps it wouldn’t do us any harm to reflect for a bit on times when we sin by not being angry - that is, by being lazy, cold or indifferent when confronted by a clear wrong.


I think the wonderful little story of Jonah can be summed up as The angry prophet and the gracious God.

Jonah gets angry with God for being merciful to the wicked people of Nineveh (“to Jonah this seemed very wrong”, 4:1). Then he gets angry (“so angry I wish I were dead”, 4:9) because God deprives him of the shelter of a leafy plant that was protecting him from the sun. He is like a petulant, peevish, self-pitying child. (Do any of us, I wonder, recognise ourselves there...?)

And the wonderful thing is how mild and gentle God is with him. If ever anyone was entitled to be angry, surely it’s here; you would think God would give Jonah an absolute roasting for his disobedience and stupidity.

Jonah, after all, has shown a total disregard for God’s commands. When first called to preach God’s word to Nineveh he ups and runs away (as if you can escape God!). Quite apart from anything else, this endangers the lives of the sailors in the ship he boards. And then when God rescues him from drowning by providing the “huge fish” (1:17), giving him a second chance, and blessing his preaching with remarkable success, he just gets even more grumpy and tetchy.

And how does God respond to this? With a gently probing question: “Is it right for you to be angry?” (4:4, 4:9). No fireworks, no “hair-dryer treatment”: just a kind and wonderful mildness.

This is how God loves to act towards his people, however wayward they may be. It makes me think of Simon Peter, when he denied Jesus before the crucifixion. After the resurrection Jesus was entitled, surely, to let rip at him - to make him squirm with shame and guilt: “I told you this would happen! You really are pathetic”.

But no: as with Jonah, he gently probes with questions - and then restores him to his place, honouring him with a major responsibility: “Take care of my sheep”. Yes: this failure, this wretched loser, is made the human head of the church.

When we fail, we should feel bad: no doubt about that. But let’s never forget that our God is a God who loves to forgive and restore.

Perhaps you need to feed on that wonderful graciousness right now...?

But there’s something else here - something equally vital. This isn’t only how God feels about his own people. No, the story of Jonah is also about God’s desire to show mercy and compassion to his enemies, even those whose “wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2).

Jonah is very happy to put God in his place, to tell him just where he’s going wrong: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).

How ironic! Jonah knows his theology all right! He is quoting straight out of the Hebrew scriptures (Exodus 34: 6). But he just doesn’t get it, does he? He just doesn’t see that those beautiful words apply even to God’s enemies. Having received, himself, such mercy from God, he begrudges that same mercy to the lost Ninevites.

Isn’t that something we too need to take notice of?

The New Testament tells us that God “wants all people to be saved” (1Timothy 2:4), that “he doesn’t want anyone to perish” (2 Peter 3:9). Jesus, looking at the crowds of people, “had compassion on them, because they were... like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).

I have heard preachers talk about how the lost are “heading straight for hell” with little more, it seemed, than a regretful shrug of the shoulders. All right, perhaps not quite as bad as angry, hard-hearted Jonah; but not far off it.

I suggest a prayer...

Lord Jesus, help me to see the lost with your tender, loving and compassionate eyes, and use me to make known your love by word and deed. Amen.

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