What we can learn from Jonah about anger

Jonah had an anger problem.  A really big one. Sure he could push it down for a chapter or two (his book only has four chapters), but before long it would come roaring back again. The final chapter closes with Jonah sitting on the side of a mountain, being good and angry at God’s gracious ways.

It actually appears that a bad case of self-pity brought it on. You see, Jonah wanted the Ninevites destroyed, but God granted them a stay of execution. Something that’s allowed if you’re the judge and your heart is gracious (Ps 100:5). But Jonah wanted their punishment bad.  Wanted is the key word here.  When we struggle with self – pity it is always our unmet desires that push the door open; before long we can’t get the focus off of ourselves, no matter how hard we try. 

Self pity says, “I believe that something I wanted and deserved was unfairly kept from me” (Jonah 4:1).

This is where Jonah finds himself. He believes he deserves to see the Ninevite’s destruction. With the destruction of nearly 50 Jewish cities on the Ninevite’s resume, Jonah figures they had it coming. Notice Jonah’s words when God backs off on the initial plans for destruction.

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? . . . for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Jonah 4:1-2).

Jonah believed that something he wanted and deserved was unfairly kept from him. Think about the word deserved. Did Jonah really deserve to see their destruction? Was he really given the role of both judge and jury?  Had God called him to  prophesy the message and mete out the justice too? The after-effects of a bout with self-pity are anger and the controlling of others.

Because self-pity has its underpinnings in pride its helpful to contrast it with humility. The change of words in the definitions is subtle but essential.

Humility says, “I believe that something I didn’t want, but deserved was graciously kept from me” (1 Cor. 15:9-10).

Paul points this out in 1 Corinthians. He writes,

For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me was not in vain. (1 Cor. 15:9-10).

Because humility believes it doesn’t deserve God’s grace and forgiveness, its after-effects are gratitude and the serving of others.

I don’t want the last chapters of my life to read like Jonah’s–stuck on a mountain and seething in anger. I want them to read like Paul’s–free, though in prison, and thankful for God’s grace. I’m betting you do too.

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Does practice really make perfect?

If you have ever taken a piano lesson you probably heard the statement practice makes perfect. I had a 9th grade basketball coach who disagreed. He used to say, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.” Practice anything the wrong way long enough and before long it will seem only natural to do it the wrong way. This is really evident when it comes to our propensity to sin, and our spiritual battle to do the right thing.

If you struggle with anger, the flare of your temper feels right when you have been wronged. It seems the natural thing to do. The truth is, you’ve practiced it that way for so long, that it feels like the only response you have available.

If you struggle with self-pity your perception feels permanent. Rejoicing in the Lord seems a million miles away.  But God’s Word is all about hope and change (Rom. 6:5-7). The Lord desires to set you free from those enslaving sinful habits.

By the grace of God you will need to practice differently. Before he was a believer, Paul’s passion was the annihilation of Christians (Acts 9:1). He had lived with that anger for so long that I’m sure it felt justified. But notice what happened later in his life:

For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me (1 Cor. 15:9-10).

With a dependence on God’s grace, Paul began to work, and work hard. The word work can be translated labor, toil, work, or weary. Sounds like my high-school basketball practice. While Paul acknowledges this to be “by the grace of God,” he chose to actively participate in the process. He practiced.

Towards the end of Paul’s life he will encourage a young apprentice, Timothy, to do the same:

Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress (1 Tim. 4:15).

Practice, you see, makes permanent. Do the wrong things long enough and it will feel like you can’t change.

But do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reason, for a while, and there will be progress that even others can see.