May 1, 2011

TWE 5: Do You Have a Right to Be Angry? (Jonah 4)

by Rev. Jeremiah Cheung

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Benjamin Franklin said, “Anger is never without a reason, but seldom with a good one.” Many times, our attempts to vent our emotions turn into anger outbursts, transforming small issues into big ones. Every anger outburst has its reasons, but it is important to examine whether these are reasonable or not. Today, we will be concluding our study of the Book of Jonah with the title: `Do You Have a Right to Be Angry?’ This is a question the Lord directed at Jonah twice (v.4 & v.9). We must remember, we are Jonah – often, we get angry at the Lord, at the church, at our church leaders, at our brothers and sisters. Today, let us allow God to ask us the same question – do you have a right to be angry? These 11 verses contain two dialogues between God and man, the first dialogue is found in verses 1-4, and the second in verses 8-11. Let us examine them today:

I. The First Dialogue between God and Man 4:1-4

1. Jonah’s Displeasure and Anger

Jonah was very displeased with what had happened – forty days after he pronounced judgment on Nineveh, the Lord did not destroy the city whose sins reached to the skies. Jonah became very angry. He became angry at God. How could he be so bold, wasn’t he afraid of God’s judgment? Let’s not forget that only awhile back, when he hovered near death inside the belly of the big fish, he pleaded with God to deliver him; why is he now so bold as to fume at God?

Have you ever flared up in anger against your parents? Maybe you don’t dare do so, especially if your parents are very stern. But in certain situations, you might have. What are those situations? When you feel that your parents are totally unreasonable, when they wrong you, when they refuse to listen to reason; in such situations, the strong-willed ones will rise up and rebel. Jonah was such a man. He felt God was unreasonable for not doing what he said he would do.

That nothing happened after forty days brought on two situations: 1. Jonah lost face. Jonah went and proclaimed loudly in Nineveh, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” However, after forty days, nothing happened. What will people say? `It was a lie. Jonah was making it all up. Jonah is a false prophet.’ It was very humiliating for the Jonah. The Book of Jonah is included among the Minor Prophets, and because of that, we assume Jonah was not a significant prophet. Actually, Jonah was a great prophet, a famous one. 2Kings 14:25 “He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance with the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.”

Jonah had once made a prophecy that Jeroboam will restore the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Sea of Arabah and it came true. It must surely have been big news in those days, everyone must have known the prophet Jonah. Jonah was not an unknown prophet. Jonah was a famous prophet. But now he came and declared Nineveh’s destruction, but it didn’t happen. He really was humiliated. 2. God lost face. God declared it but didn’t carry through. What kind of a God was he, was he a false god? Was he a powerless god? Jonah felt he had every reason to be angry! Don’t we all react just like him? When we feel the church is wrong, our leaders are wrong, others are wrong, we get angry. Everyone who displays anger feels he has reasons to be angry.

Jonah was a man who possessed an enormous sense of justice. He saw how wicked the Ninevites were – the Assyrian army was feared everywhere it went, they killed the men, raped the women, they didn’t spare the old, the young or the infants. The people longed for God’s justice. God’s destruction of Nineveh was just what Jonah had been waiting for.

However, when God sent Jonah to proclaim judgment on Nineveh, Jonah fled to Tarshish, why? Jonah 4:2 “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.” Jonah knew the Lord well, he knew the Lord was a gracious and merciful God. He knew that if the Ninevites repent, the Lord will relent from sending calamity on them. So, he refused to go to Nineveh. He didn’t want to see these violent and wicked people given an opportunity to find mercy, because for him, they should be punished.

He told the Lord: `It is better for me to die than to live. I am not willing to see wicked people find mercy, I can’t take it. Take my life away!’ Before we judge Jonah, let us first ask ourselves, “Don’t I also give a lot of fine reasons when I am mad at my church, my parents, my friends?” I am not saying that our arguments are wrong, but none of us can truly know what is in the heart of another man. Sometimes, we can perceive incorrectly yet be totally unaware of it. Paul said do not judge. Do not judge means we must not think we are God and that we know everything! Surrender the problem to God because only He knows the whole story, let Him make the right judgment! v

2. God’s Response

I felt God was really gracious with Jonah, He simply replied, “Do you have a right to be angry?” In fact, I believe the Lord said it gently and not angrily, just as Jonah described Him – gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Jonah knew the Lord was extending mercy to the Ninevites, what he did not realize was how the Lord was also showing him mercy. Just like Jonah, often, we see the faults of other people and not our own, we are aware only of how others need God’s mercy but not our own need for His mercy.

God told Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry?” and Jonah didn’t reply. When you are angry, and your father asks you, “Do you have a right to be angry?” and you refuse to answer him, you are in for a spanking. But God was very gracious, He didn’t say anything. Actually, Jonah wasn’t the only person who had shown God his displeasure, Cain was another one. When God didn’t look with favour on his offering, he got angry at God. He showed a downcast face, God also asked him, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?” We should be grateful that our God is gracious and merciful, if not, we will all be goners!

However, let me ask you, why didn’t God get angry at Jonah? Isn’t God a just God? Confucius once said, “A teacher must use teaching methods as are best adapted to the students.” A teacher must instruct his students according to each person’s ability and personality. God was dealing with Jonah according to his need and personality. Jonah had a strong personality. If a stern approach was used, he would only have resisted further. If your son is strong-willed, you cannot change him with scolding and spankings, you have to use other methods.

If God had used harsh methods with Jonah, the prophet would not have acknowledged his error. The Lord used another method to change him. There is nothing wrong with being strong-minded; actually, people who are strong-willed are potential leaders. However not all strong-minded people can become good leaders. If a person who has a strong personality will not learn to submit to authority, then he will only be rejected by God. Strong-minded people are potential leaders but they will have to go through the Lord’s training.

3. God and Man’s Second Dialogue 4:8-11

This was God’s training for Jonah. Let us first understand the background of this conversation. After Jonah became angry with God, he went 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. Do you know what Jonah was waiting for, or what he was looking for? Jonah was indeed a fascinating character. He understood human nature very well. Since the Lord didn’t destroy Nineveh after forty days; if you were a Ninevite, what would you do?

I believe there are two probabilities:
1. You will thank the Lord for his mercy. `God did not destroy us, let us continue and keep away from sin.’
2. You will start to think, `We had been tricked, there is no disaster at all, it is untrue. Forty days without food, water, gambling, and fun, let us indulge ourselves now!’

Jonah was thinking that since the Ninevites had been very wicked, most probably 70% them would choose the second possibility. He was thinking they had been used to wickedness for a long time, they only repented because they were afraid of the judgment; now that the judgment didn’t come upon them, not even a thunder, now they will return to their sins. That is why Jonah didn’t leave, he sat there because he wanted to see what will happen to them, how God will deal with them.

God had a good sense of humor. He didn’t say anything to Jonah yet provided a leafy plant, made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort from the heat of the sun. Jonah was very pleased about it. But 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 said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” This is the second time he asked to die.

In the Book of Jonah, God provided many things – in 1:4 God sent a violent storm, 1:17 God provided a big fish, 4:6 God provided a leafy plant, 4:7 God provided a worm, 4:8 God provided a scorching east wind. This shows us all God’s creation submit to the Lord’s order, man is the only creature who dare to defy God. May the Lord have mercy on us for we are really a rebellious lot! When the Lord was still on earth, he had once sighed and said, “How long will I put up with you!” May the Lord have mercy on us, may he help us to be his obedient children! It was in this situation that God and Jonah had their second conversation:

1. Jonah asked to die

Jonah 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.” If your wife sees you flirting with another woman and she gets mad, you ask your wife, “Is it right for you to be angry?” and she answers, “Yes, it is right, so what!” Jonah’s reply meant exactly that.

Let me ask you, was Jonah angry because the vine died? Was he really concerned about the vine? No, let us not be deceived by Jonah. He wasn’t concerned about the vine, he was thinking of himself. Self-centered – that was Jonah; and that is also what we are. `My point of view is the most important. The people in Nineveh deserve to die. No matter what God says I will not listen, because in my heart they deserve to die, they do not deserve God’s mercy, why did God spare them?’ Pardon me, but we are all `Jonahs’. We believe that what we consider right is always right, and what we think is wrong, is wrong.

Let me tell you, I have learned a lot in this area. As a pastor, sometimes I have wrongly assumed that I was right and others were wrong. In my 23 years in ministry, the Lord has shown me that what I thought was right was not necessarily right, and what I thought was wrong was not at all wrong. Many times, we are self-centered. May the Holy Spirit remind us, illumine our minds so that we will not be self-centered.

2. God’s Response

Twice, Jonah got angry at God. If you were God, how would you deal with him? You would most probably punish him severely. However, not only did the Lord not punish him, the Lord in fact counselled and encouraged him. “10 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. 11 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?” Jonah was very strong-willed.

I mentioned that strong-willed people are potential leaders, however unless they undergo training, they can never be used of God. This is why God had to leave Moses in the desert for 40 years. Moses was also a very strong-willed man. He was talented and gifted, but when he attempted to do God’s work, the first thing he did was kill a man. God cannot use such kind of a leader, so the Lord left him in the desert for forty years. After that time, he became the humblest man on earth.

A strong-willed man can become a leader for God’s use, but he can also become a most defiant man. The difference is whether he has undergone training and nurture. If you have such a child at home, a stubborn one, who questions and challenges you on everything, don’t be angry; such children have much potential. In school, teachers are afraid of such challenging students, and so, they give them C,D,E for conduct. Teachers who do that destroy potentials. Einstein asked too many questions when he was a child, and his teacher concluded he had learning problems, they asked his parents to transfer him to a special school. But his mother refused to listen to the teacher and taught him herself; if not for her, there would not have been a great Einstein.

If you have a stubborn child at home, you must not spank him all the time, he is a precious stone needing patient polishing. Train, nurture and support him so that his brilliance will shine forth. Jonah was a precious stone, God didn’t deal with him harshly, He coached him. God told him, “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?”

The Book of Jonah ends with this question for us to ponder. Did Jonah repent, did he apologize to God? I believe Jonah repented, because:

1. He stopped arguing with God. If Jonah still didn’t agree, I believe he would have told the Lord: `So what. I have every right to be angry.’ However he no longer replied. When a person keeps quiet, it could mean he is angry, but it could also mean he has acknowledged his own mistake.

2. He wrote down his story. The most important evidence is the existence of the Book of Jonah. Jonah was the author of this book. He wrote down the story of his disobedience. If he still didn’t agree, he wouldn’t have written the book of Jonah. Writing it down is a sign of his testimony, a testimony of repentance. He is admitting his error, he was no longer mad at God. He was testifying to the world.

Benjamin Franklin said, “Anger is never without a reason, but seldom with a good one.” Do we have still good reasons to be angry at God? When God wants us to share the gospel to the world, do we have any reason to say no?