When talking about demanding rights, it can often be hard for some people to grasp the problem, and many people don’t even know that there are examples of this in scripture. Let’s take some time to study the book of Jonah and see how things unfolded as he began to demand his rights from God.
I recommend you pull your Bible out and follow along. For the sake of time and space, I’ll only be including key verses as we go through. Start with reading the book (it’s just 4 chapters) to familiarize yourself with the story. Then we’ll begin.
Jonah was a prophet of God, and it was his job to tell people whatever God told him to say. And for the most part, it probably was a decent job; but as with all things, eventually your boss tells you to do something you don’t want to do. And we see that in chapter 1, verses 1-3:
The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.
So God gives Jonah a job to do. But Jonah decided to run away from God. How stupid is that? Everyone knows you can’t run away from God. But when has that ever stopped us from trying? We don’t like what God is doing in our lives, we don’t want to do what he calls us to do, so we run. We hide. We isolate. We try to find an easy way out and around. Maybe we don’t get on a ship to sail in the opposite direction, but we can find someone else to tell us we don’t have to obey God in that area. We can find a substance to numb us. There’s no shortage of ways we try to run from God.
Let’s look for a minute at why Jonah didn’t want to obey God. All God has asked was for him to do was go to Nineveh and give the people a reality check about their relationship with God. What’s so terrible about that? Well, Nineveh was a great city full of people — people who were enemies of Israel, who brought great trial upon them. They were mean and they were wicked; and the people of Israel hated them. Even so, God had compassion upon them and wanted them to have the opportunity to repent of their sin and live.
Aren’t you glad that God doesn’t pick and choose who he will rescue based on our actions as lost people? Imagine! But God doesn’t run a clique, and he doesn’t play favorites. He gives everyone an opportunity, and the worse off a person is, the better, because the more glory God receives when he transforms their lives.
Unfortunately, we humans aren’t quite as gracious or compassionate as God. Minister to our enemies? Tell the person who annoys us, makes our lives miserable, the one who provokes us day and night, that they can begin a relationship with God? Are you kidding? Absolutely not! We want them to suffer like they’ve made us suffer! We want them to be punished, not shown mercy! Our struggle is not new – because this was clearly how Jonah felt and why he ran from God.
The irony is that in this process, we forget what we were like before God saved us. That we were the same way. We were bitter, angry, mean and harsh. We lashed out at people, especially those who tried to help us. But in spite of us, God, who is rich is mercy, reached out to us. He showed us love. When we didn’t’ deserve it. And it was beautiful. And God calls us each to share that beauty of love, mercy and grace with others – and the fact that they don’t deserve it is exactly what makes it beautiful.
So Jonah, feeding into his fear, anger, hurt, and prejudice, decided it was not fair or right of God to ask him to do this. However, he knew enough of God to know not to argue with him. But he didn’t seem to know enough about God to know that he couldn’t run from God. Or maybe he did and just didn’t care. I think that happens with us sometimes. We figure if we get far enough away, we’ll be too far to do it anyway. Sin sure will make you stupid.
Chapter 1, verse 4 tells us that geography doesn’t affect God.
Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.
Now, look at 5-6
All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”
Jonah, in his running from God, brought God’s wrath on those he was with. And you know what? That’s always the case. We like to think our sin only affects us, but it doesn’t. It never does. It always hurts those around us, and often it hurts them even more than us.
So as God brings judgment on Jonah, the sailors become terrified. That tells you what kind of storm it was; if people who are used to the sea are terrified, it’s huge. Yet in all this, where was Jonah? Below deck, asleep.
I’ve wondered about that before. How can Jonah be asleep, and in such a deep sleep, when such a violent storm is shaking the ship? Wouldn’t the guilt alone have kept him awake? But then as I thought about how we act nowadays, it hit me. It’s exhausting to run from God. I mean, it is a lot of work. There’s incredible stress, adrenaline, fear and paranoia. And eventually, you crash. Add in the false sense of relief he probably felt as he assumed he was safely away from God now, and I think that’s exactly what happened to Jonah.
But finally, the captain wakes Jonah and tells him to call on his god, just as the others had been doing. Of course, the captain didn’t’ know which God Jonah had. He discovers that later. But interesting to me is the fact that Jonah doesn’t appear to have obliged. I can just see him in my mind, stubbornly holding on to something to keep from being thrown across the ship. The other sailors all around him crying out to their gods, and Jonah being strangely and stubbornly silent.
Now if you’re familiar with the story, you know what happens next. The pagan sailors cast lots to see who is responsible for the storm, hoping that the guilty party will be able to call on his god and make it go away. Wonder of wonders, the lot falls on Jonah.
Chapter 1, verses 8-10:
So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”
He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)
I think it’s interesting to note that the sailors already knew he was running from his God, but he obviously hadn’t told them who his God was. And when he did – look at their reaction! Even lost people can’t deny the power of God. It’s one thing to run from your job, to run from your family, or even to run from the law — but to run from God? Watch out! And now these sailors are part of that. An accessory.
In knowing the story and having counseled many people who are in a similar position of Jonah (running from God), I can almost hear the reluctant admission coming out of his mouth. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven… who made the sea and the dry land…” *sigh* It comes out grudgingly, not enthusiastically or with conviction. Like a kid who got caught and doesn’t want to admit it but has no way out.
Let’s look at what happens next, in verses 11-12:
The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”
“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”
Now that the sailors know this is the real deal, they ask Jonah what to do. And what does Jonah say? Does he say, “Hey guys, I’m sorry. Look, I’ll take care of this. Just give me a minute, and I’ll pray and I’ll tell God I’ll go back and go to Nineveh.” #NOPE. He says, “Kill me.” Jonah would rather die than submit to God.
But Jonah isn’t the only one who has ever felt that way. Suicidal thoughts and patterns are a result of stubborn rebellion. For Jonah, he’d rather die that to do what he didn’t want to do. And for people who commit suicide, it’s because they want to hurt someone else, they want to prove a point, or they want to escape their troubles rather than face them.
So Jonah focused on himself. He believed he had a right to minister where he wanted, to whom he wanted, and in the way that he wanted. And when God disrupted his life to teach him this was not the case, Jonah got angry. And Jonah rebelled. And Jonah ran. And Jonah became suicidal.
(Side note: remember the definition of anger? An unwillingness to accept God on His terms.)
It was a simple fix – just repent, and do what you were told. Like God said to Cain, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” But we so badly want to be right! We so badly want comfort and ease! And we’d rather be right and die than admit our wrong, submit to God, change, and live.
Verse 13 tells us what happens next:
Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.
There’s a few points worth making here. First is the fact that the sailors tried to find a way to avoid Jonah being killed. But God thwarted them. Now, remember – the sailors were essentially collateral damage. They weren’t the primary focus of God’s judgment, but they got the overflow because of Jonah’s sin. I want to draw a comparison for a moment. When our loved ones are running from God, and God is chasing them to catch them and bring them to repentance, things often hurt us before the loved one, and worse than the loved one. And then it often reaches the point where the only thing left for God to get their attention is for them to be thrown overboard. But we love them! We care about hem. We don’t want them to get hurt — so we try to save them ourselves. But we can’t, and God will thwart our efforts and take that control from us. Don’t fall into the trap of getting in God’s way to rescue someone from their sin. God is the only one who is qualified to rescue. Let him do his job. If you step in and find a way out for your loved one, you’ve only kicked the can further down the road and offered comfort to someone who is running from God. You’ve become an accomplice to their sin and enabled them to continue rebelling against God.
Finally, the sailors realized there was no recourse. They had to throw Jonah overboard. Again, I can’t help but think, if only Jonah had humbled himself and just repented. But he refused. So they threw him into the sea, and the sea grew calm. Immediately. Again, I point out: when you let God do what he must do to get someone’s attention, the peace can come much quicker than you can ever get it on your own.
And how did the sailors respond? They offered sacrifices and made vows to the Lord. What does that sound like? It sounds kinda like a conversion to me. And in spite of Jonah, right? It’s not like Jonah cared about their souls enough to share the gospel with them; he was thinking only of himself. But God still worked through the situation to bring glory to himself and bring souls to salvation. God is pretty awesome like that. Does that mean it doesn’t matter if we don’t share the gospel? Of course not! But the good news is God works through failures just as much as our successes.
Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
What did Jonah want? To die. Did God let him? Nope. How long was he in the fish? 3 days and 3 nights.
Chapter 2, verse 1:
From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.
Let me go ahead and share something with you… this wasn’t like Jonah: a VeggieTales movie.
For one, Jonah was in the fish for 3 days and nights before he prayed. Why do you think that is? Could it be he was hoping to be digested and die? And after 3 days and 3 nights realized it wasn’t going to happen? How stubborn and angry do you have to be to hold out for 3 days and nights in that environment?
What kind of environment are we talking about here? Well, it wasn’t a huge mansion with a choir and candles. It was likely small, tight, very dark, and very gooey. It would have been stinky; there had to have been fish and other things that the fish had eaten that were being digested. Slimy, stinky, and barely enough air or room to breath. And he waited 3 days and 3 nights.
We do that, too, when we’re angry and in rebellion against God. We have a battle of wills. We like to think we can beat God; we can outlast him, we can outrun him, and we can win. But we can’t. As someone once said, “When the will of God crosses the will of a man, somebody has to die.”
Even in the prayer that we read in chapter 2, I can almost hear it being recited, performed, in a resigned and dejected monotone. The attitude of, “Well, this is it. I don’t have a choice. So here.”
But in this prayer, we discover another attitude that caused Jonah to run in the first place. Verse 8:
“Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.”
Here Jonah finally reveals that attitude we picked up in the beginning. Jonah knew that when the people of Nineveh turned from their idols, God would show them grace. We see how this attitude continued to affect Jonah by the end of chapter 4.
At this point, Jonah says, “Fine, I’ll do it.” Obviously, he wasn’t going to be digested. The pain of staying the way he was became greater than the pain of change; so he submitted.
God caused the fish to vomit him out. Again, can you say gross? Why do we let our pride get us to that point? It’s disgusting.
In chapter 3, we see that God took no chances on letting Jonah “forget” to follow-through on his obedience. I think we are all guilty of that – we say we’ll do it, but then we drag our feet, hoping God will forget. But he doesn’t; in fact, he will continually remind us until we do it.
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.
Finally! Jonah did it! Yay! Go Jonah! Well… let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves…
Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
Um, what? Was that really the message from God? It seems like it was more like, “Your wickedness will cause you to be overthrown by God; repent so you will live.” But Jonah didn’t mention repentance, did he? In fact, he doesn’t even mention God that we see.
Have you ever asked someone to do something and do it really badly? Like, they technically did what you asked but they barely did it, took forever, and screwed up a bunch of stuff in the process? Kids are particularly bad with this. They tend to think if they do it badly, they won’t be asked again. Or in Jonah’s case, he probably hoped if he didn’t quite share the good part, they’d not take him seriously or repent.
But what happens? Verse 5:
The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
The next section of chapter 3 tells us how the people of Nineveh, including the king, repented and sought God for deliverance. It’s quite amazing, and reiterates the fact that God often has to use us in spite of us. And in verse 10, we see that God accepted their repentance and relented from his judgment. That was the goal, right? “Give these wicked people a chance to repent and do right so I can bless them and love them and take care of them.”
But it wasn’t Jonah’s goal, was it? Let’s see what he was doing while the people repented.
Chapter 4, verse 1:
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry.
What was “this?” The fact that God accepted the people and showed them mercy. Jonah felt God did the wrong thing, so he got angry. That’s what anger is always about. God did me wrong, God did them wrong, so I get angry, becasue I know better than God. Clearly, Jonah had not really repented, because he kept his same wrong attitude which came out when things didn’t go his way. You can only fake it so long.
Jonah continues in verse 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. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Can’t you just hear him yelling at the top of his lungs, shaking his fist at God? We hear these verses about God being gracious and compassionate and we say them gently, full of hope and awe, or we say them with excitement and joy; Jonah said them in anger and bitterness. Jonah was standing in judgment of God for his love and mercy. God had violated Jonah’s rights to minister to who he wanted, how he wanted and where he wanted. He had disrupted Jonah’s life, he had challenged Jonah’s prejudice, and Jonah was over it. Rather than submitting to God, drawing closer to him, seeking his perspective, and being able to grow in his relationship with God, Jonah indulged in his pride and anger to the point of, again, demanding to die.
“It is better for me to die than to live.” What? Why? Because God showed mercy to Jonah’s enemies.
God answered Jonah in verse 4,
But the Lord replied, “Have you any right to be angry?
God finally directly challenged Jonah’s rights. How does Jonah respond? He doesn’t.
Is there anything more frustrating than trying to work out a conflict when the other person decides to give you the silent treatment? Why do people do that? Pride and anger. Just sayin’.
So instead of answering God, he continues in his rebellion and sets up a camp in direction of the city and “waited to see what would happen to the city.” Now, God had already relented. But Jonah was still hoping against hope God would change his mind and destroy the city. So he sat and waited.
Since Jonah wasn’t in the mood for conversation, God decided an object lesson was in order.
Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant 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.”
Jonah is, once again, suicidal. Over a plant. That he had nothing to do with. You want to talk about mood swings? Jonah’s got ’em. When you are focused on yourself and your rights, you inevitably become emotionally unstable, isolated from others, and ultimately, estranged from God. And that’s exactly what we see happen with Jonah.
When Jonah again demands to die, God again asks him, “have you any right to be angry?”
But this time, Jonah answers: “I do,” he said. “I’m angry enough to die.”
Over a plant? Really?
Sin’ll make you stupid… pride will blind… and anger will destroy.
At this point, the story is almost over. There are only two verses left in the book, and they’re both full hope and full of sadness.
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?”
God uses Jonah’s emotional attachment to something he couldn’t even control to express God’s emotional attachment to the very people that he created and cares for. If Jonah cares that much for something out of his control, why does he stand in such judgment of God caring for his own creation?
Look at the difference between God’s perspective of the people of Nineveh and Jonah’s. Jonah saw them as wicked enemies who deserved to be destroyed. God saw them as ignorant and in need of direction and help. Jonah saw them as in inconvenience and a waste of time. God saw them as valuable and deserving of an opportunity to do right.
Not only do often struggle to demand our rights as Jonah did, but we can also struggle with the specific rights that he claimed. It’s all too easy for us to begin to see the very people God calls us to love and minister to as an inconvenience, as not worth our time, or even as someone who deserves to be punished. But the people who we are called to love are ignorant. They need help, hope, healing, encouragement, and direction. And God calls us to give it to them. We can’t do that if we think they are supposed to make our lives easier. I’m not going to lie: it will be hard. But it will also be good. Let God use you as an instrument of his love and compassion to people who are broken and hopeless.
Unfortunately, it would seem that Jonah never repented. For all we know he died on that hill waiting for the destruction of Nineveh. Let’s not let our pride fuel our anger and rebellion so that we follow his example. It’s not worth it, and we never find the validation we want.
You can’t minister without love.
You can’t love without God’s love.
You can’t have God’s love without surrender.
Give up your rights. Submit to God. Love others.
In a word: passionate. About Jesus, church, ministry, music, reading, family, friends, and sometimes even iced skinny soy mochas.