Who needs your mercy and forgiveness instead of judgement? How quickly do faces come to mind? How often do their sins float through your thoughts? Your reasons for judgement may be well founded and maybe these people aren’t remotely sorry. God understands. This is how things stood between him and the people of Nineveh. In a surprising move, instead of wiping them out, he sent Jonah with a simple message, repent or be destroyed. God didn’t owe the sinful Ninevites the courtesy of a warning. I think his desire for repentance and relationship, carried more weight than his absolute right to judge and condemn them.
I love stories of repentant sinners and prodigals. They give me hope for my own lost and wayward soul prayer list. So, why didn’t Jonah break into a happy dance when Nineveh repented? Instead of enjoying the thrill of being used by God to save an entire city, he exploded with anger. Who knows that without Jonah’s message and Nineveh’s repentance, another Sodom and Gomorrah event was scheduled to occur? Why couldn’t Jonah celebrate that, even for the sake of innocent children?
“The people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (Jonah 3:5 ESV).
“But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry” (Jonah 4:1)
To find an answer, let’s transport this scenario into the present day, so we can better understand Jonah’s response and God’s forgiving nature.
Recently, I attended a service featuring a group of men from our local Teen Challenge Ministry. Men and women in the Teen Challenge Recovery program often enter with criminal records and substance abuse problems. When they commit to enter the program, they kick addictions cold turkey, and enter a new life of discipleship in Christ. Many of their testimonies are harrowing.
One young man stood out because he did not come from a broken home, abuse and neglect like the others. His background included a stable, Christ-centered family and a dynamic church. After a college education, he started a career in money management, married and fathered two children. An experiment with cocaine became a love affair that cost him his job, his family and his faith. He left his parents and wife on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt. Finally, his criminal activity left him with nothing except the choice to enter Teen Challenge for a year or spend eighteen months in jail.
Listening to his story, I wondered how his extended family responded to his repentance? What does forgiveness of such acts look like, as this family struggled for years to resolve the consequences and damage this young man generated? Did they lose or re-finance their homes to pay debts? Drain savings? How did his wife, suddenly thrust into single parenthood and one income, provide for herself and her children?
My thoughts drifted to Luke 15, Jesus’ story of the prodigal son. I looked at the older brother’s feelings with fresh eyes. Consider what happened in this family because of the prodigal’s selfishness and sin. First, he broke his family’s hearts, wondering and worrying about him. Secondly, when he finally came home, he came with nothing. He spent his entire inheritance. What did this mean for the entire family going forward, financially? Is he trusted with more money, at the risk of him squandering it? Is he made to work in his father’s business and pay him back, displacing another sibling or employee? Did he also leave behind unpaid debts? Lots of questions here.
As the prodigal’s sister, I’d need extra doses of God’s grace to believe his story of repentance and forgive him for hurting my parents deeply. Second, I’d feel mixed up about spending money on a dinner party to welcome him home considering how he squandered everything he’d been given. Finally, I’d be deeply concerned about my flakey brother re-entering the family business.
As I pondered all of this, I came to a revelation when I examined the responses of God to Nineveh and the father to his prodigal son.
“When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10 ESV).
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20 ESV).
God’s forgiveness and mercy will never make sense to the natural mind. Mercy is risky and forgiveness is often not deserved, at least that’s how humans see it. The stink of Nineveh’s sin made it to God’s nose. The prodigal son wasted his entire inheritance on immorality. Yet, in both stories, God sees potential and boom; judgement plans are canceled, and mercy’s showers start to pour. Jonah didn’t approve. The older brother didn’t approve. Sometimes, neither do we.
God views prodigals and sinners differently from us. He longs for us to adjust our paradigms and see people’s value as he does. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He’s profoundly serious when he expects us to balance hatred for sin with love for the sinner. Jonah never did, as far as we know. The stench of Nineveh’s sin, which Jonah experienced first-hand, overpowered the reason God called him to the city, to save humans from destruction.
God’s highest priority is to redeem people from hell and hellish living. The mess of that redemptive process can be overwhelming to us, when we engage with sinners. God understands intimately. His entire creation ended up sideways, due to sin. Instead of irreversible judgement, his only child endured a brutal death to make a path of forgiveness and restoration for us. He will grant us eyes to see potential in the worst offenders, if we ask him.
Lamp and Sword
****Further resources for study and reflection****
“Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path.” Psalm 119:105
“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword.” Hebrew 4:12
- If you are struggling to forgive someone, particularly when there is no sign of remorse, I suggest a read-through with these verses. When you are a victim of someone’s sin, be it great or small, your inner sense of justice is disturbed. Only God can set it right. Sometimes we can receive justice in the natural, but there are times when we don’t. These are the places where God completes the picture for us and gives rest to our souls.
Romans 5:8, Matthew 6:14-15, 5:43-44, Psalm 7:11, Amos 5:15, Ephesians 5:2, 1John 4:8
- Sometimes our thirst for judgement is directed towards people we’ve never met. We are aware of their sins on a national and international level. Liars, cheats, murderers, thieves, abusers and such can stir up great anger and we cross the line, rejoicing in their downfalls and misfortunes, forgetting that they too are souls God loves, and for whom Christ died. If you find yourself brimming with unrighteous anger when you are confronted with evil current events, I suggest you ponder these verses. Ask God to help you pray for justice, victims of evil while also praying for the repentance of wicked perpetrators.
Romans 5:6-8, I Timothy 2:11, Romans 12:20-21, Romans 2:1-4, I John 4:20
- “A Divine Revelation of Hell,” is a book written by Mary K. Baxter, based on thirty days of visions God sent her as to what hell might be like for those condemned to its fires. If your heart needs a jumpstart to care about and pray for the wicked and lost, this will do it. The book is easily available used and new on several different online sites.