This song, Forgiveness, by Matthew West, has reached out and grabbed me when it plays on the radio lately. I do believe that Forgiveness is the key to living a joyful life. It’s the opposite of bitterness, which eats away your life. I believe that forgiveness is for the person doing the forgiving more than anything. As he says in this song, “The prisoner that it really frees is you.”
Here’s the song:
Today’s sermon was on Jonah 4, and it struck me that Jonah 4 is a story of unforgiveness.
When Jonah tried to run from God, God went after him. Jonah repented and did what God told him to do — but his heart was still bitter.
Jonah preached to the Ninevites, and they repented. He should be happy, right? Instead, he tells God, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee 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, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
What do you suppose Jonah had against the Ninevites to hate them so much? We know they were barbaric conquerors, and we also know that they conquered Israel’s northern kingdom. We know they fully deserved total destruction from God.
No mention is made of Jonah’s family. What if Assyrian soldiers killed his children? What if they raped and murdered his wife? That would certainly explain his bitterness, hatred, and anger.
My first reaction to those “what ifs” is to think, God would never send Jonah to the Ninevites if that had happened.
Jonah was so angry with the Ninevites, when God forgave them, he wanted to die. He sat outside the city, hoping God would change His mind and blast them after all.
What if, besides wanting the Ninevites to repent, what if God wanted to free Jonah from his bitterness?
You know, it’s easier to be forgiving when the person in question is suffering for their sin. If everything you hear from them sounds like complete misery, what’s to be angry about? They’re suffering as they deserve. But what if they repent and God forgives them? What if things start going well for them? Why do we feel like it’s up to us to remember how awful they are and all the punishment they deserve? Why do we feel we have to carry the torch for their wrong-ness, to make sure it’s never forgotten?
God put Jonah into the belly of a whale. Jonah had to beg for God’s mercy and face his own need for forgiveness. In chapter 4, with the vine, God tries to make Jonah see those he hates as people, too.
God asks Jonah, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
I love this quotation from George MacDonald about why God cannot forgive those who don’t forgive:
“When we forgive our neighbor, in flows the forgiveness of God’s forgiveness to us. For God to withhold his forgiveness from the one who will not forgive his neighbor is love as well as necessity. If God said, ‘I forgive you,’ to a man who hated his brother, what would it mean to him? How would the man interpret it? Would it not mean to him, ‘You may go on hating. I do not mind it. You have had great provocation, and are justified in your hate.’ No, the hater must be delivered from the hell of his hate, that God’s child should be made the loving child that he meant him to be.” (Wisdom to Live By, p. 162)
What if this is why God specifically sent Jonah to the Ninevites?
I’d like to think Jonah indeed learned from this, that the message of God got through in the end. And I do have reason to hope that: After all, how else did that chapter get into Scripture? Jonah and God were the only ones who were there. I’d like to think Jonah was the one who told people about the aftermath of his preaching. He had some time to think about it, and he added to the story, “Here’s what God taught me in the end.”
And in the process, I’d like to think Jonah stepped out of his prison of bitterness.
And maybe that’s a greater miracle even than God sending the great fish.