Not So Different
A reading of the Book of Jonah hit me with a small revelation about the nature of human compassion and how it has not changed so very much amongst the Lord's followers.
The reader will recall that Jonah was sent by God to give the Assyrian city of Nineveh some really bad news. Jonah, like a lot of Christians today, chucked a wobbly and ran in precisely the opposite direction. He even endangered a ships crew and made them send their cargo (and profits) to the bottom of the sea. The Lord had to work unbelievably hard to get this prophet of His to get on board with the plan. That is, giant fish and a few days inside it to reconsider attitudes. Some, like me, would shaking their heads and wondering why this moron just did not get it.
One might think Jonah had got over himself after a bit of time out. He heads over to the city and gets his message out there. Much to Jonah's surprise, Nineveh listen up and even the king there decides to repent of his sins. The Lord's move worked and, rather than be delighted that he was part of God's plan, Jonah throws the dummy out of the cot again. Not only that, the prophet picks the best viewpoint to watch God's judgement pour down on Nineveh. When it does not come, Jonah is less than magnanimous in his attitude.
Let me quote Jonah 4 in total:
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing 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, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant[a] and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
Not only is Jonah upset, when the Lord challenges him on it, the prophet actually claims he has the right to feel angry because God did not act in the way that he was expecting. This passage from Jonah has brought up a couple of points for me.
First, that God is more compassionate than those who follow Him. In Romans 5:8, the Bible says: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is no different to the Lord's approach to the Nineveh population. They were immersed in their sins, yet the Lord God still attempted to bring them to Himself. In Nineveh's case, it worked a treat.
The flip-side of this coin is that sin does matter to God. God is not going to let it slide, or just tolerate a sin or two. Maybe, just the “small” ones will be over-looked. These ideas that the Lord has decided that sin is not important are simply not correct. In the case of Jonah, the sin in Nineveh and the priority of the people living there were important enough to God to provide a giant fish to give Jonah time to work on his attitude. Simply put, Nineveh's sin was important enough for God to go to great lengths to ensure they had an opportunity to repent.
On a more universal scale, the sin of humanity (all of us) was important enough for God to send His only Son, Jesus Christ, do atone for us all on the cross. And that was while we ourselves were still steeped in our own sin.
For any who maintain the sin of one person does not matter to God, have a look at the Lord's responses to sin. The scale of that response should be a fair indication that sin does matter to Him. And it matters to Jesus.
And yet, the Lord has made every effort to ensure we are to be counted among His faithful.
Second, modern Christians might learn a thing or two from God. If the Lord God Himself could have compassion and mercy on sinners in a polytheistic city replete with idols and temples and more. Yet, the Lord God did not judge them for that, but sent someone with a message of mercy and a call to repentance. It is testimony to Jonah's gift of communication that he was able to convince most of the people of the city, despite feeling nothing but contempt for them. He clearly gave it his best shot, thinking there was no way they were going to listen to him.
In contrast to Jonah, the Lord noted the ignorance of the people of Nineveh (Jon 4:11) as a point for which mercy was warranted. Interestingly, God even shows concern for the animals that share the city. Jonah even admitted that the Lord is “[...] a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jon 4:2)
The contrast to many believers could not be more pronounced. Rightly, those who are outside the faith and hostile to it point at the lack of compassion among believers to demonstrate the falsity of belief. However, the mercy of God in the First Testament is often ignored, by those within and without the faith. The responses of God to sin must be viewed in context with His compassion and slowness to bring calamity, qualities Jonah knew full well while he was throwing tantrums.
Being a little more balanced, like God, would not do us any harm. In fact, if we are to follow Christ, I would suggest that it is vital. That does not mean we ignore sin, but rather address it with compassion and mercy, rather than the judgement and horror for which our faith seems to have a reputation.