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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Self-Pity: Thinking too highly of oneself

Self-pity causes us to see ourselves as better than we really are. We tend to think of self-pity as thinking too poorly of ourselves, but the opposite is true. We are thinking too highly of ourselves. Self-pity is a preoccupation with self. Because it is birthed from the “pride” family of sins, it comes with a sense of entitlement. This is revealed each time we are denied something we believe we deserve, or when we receive something we don’t believe we deserve.

Jonah’s conversation with God in the 4th chapter of his prophecy reveals this clearly. He had been denied what he really wanted to see – a front row seat to the destruction of Nineveh. He entered the city from the west; courtesy is submarine ride through the Mediterranean Sea. His message was simple: “Forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” A few days later he exited the city through their East gate, climbed a mountain and sat down to watch the destruction. Only one problem: the people of Nineveh repented. And God, being true to his character, showed mercy. The destruction was called off. This angered Jonah; because he thought the people of Nineveh deserved to be destroyed. Check out the conversation,

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? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:1-4)

 Jonah knew the character of God. He appreciated second chances when they were extended to him; he just didn’t believe the people of Nineveh deserved the same deal. God saw it differently.

In the hot desert winds God showed Jonah grace again. He appointed a plant to grow up and provide shade for Jonah’s aching head. Jonah must have smiled. He liked God’s grace when it was directed towards him. You get the impression he thought he deserved it. But grace is never deserved, so the next day God appointed a hungry worm. The plant could not survive the worm’s appetite. Jonah’s cabana was gone. He was angry again, but God’s grace lesson wasn’t over. God sent a wind from the east. To avoid the sand in his eyes, Jonah would have to turn back to the West, and stare at the city of people he didn’t think deserved God’s grace.

Self-pity pours from this chapter. Jonah was angry at everything and everyone. He complained incessantly. Twice he declared he’d be better off dead than alive. Beneath the surface of Jonah’s self-pity you hear his sense of entitlement.

He deserves grace for his wrong choices.
He deserves shade for his aching head.
He deserves to watch the destruction of his enemies.

He deserves, deserves, deserves. And when he doesn’t get what he deserves he mires down in self-pity. Sadly the book bearing his name ends right there – with Jonah staring at God’s grace, but unwilling to grant it.

His life is a vivid reminder of the suffocating isolation that self-pity brings.