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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Jonah’s one right thought…

The story of Jonah is one of those that we learn young. Show a child a picture of a man in a whale, and if he doesn’t guess Pinocchio he’ll probably say its Jonah.

Yet it was only in the belly of the creature from the deep that Jonah actually thinks God’s thoughts (Jonah 2:1-10). It’s only from within a stomach lining that Jonah begins to grasp his need for grace. Unfortunately he never fully desires for his enemies to have that grace (Jonah 4:2-3).

Tucked in Jonah’s submarine prayer is one of my wife’s favorite verses. The NIV captures it this way,

Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs (Jonah 2:8)

You might want to reread that verse. Read it slowly. It is life changing, but it doesn’t have to be. You see it was life changing for the Ninevites — they heard Jonah’s preaching and repented from their idol worship and turned to the living God (Jonah 3:8). It was life changing for the sailors bound for Tarshish. Having thrown Jonah into the Sea, the storm stopped, and they worshipped the Lord and got committed (Jonah 1:16).

But it wasn’t life changing for Jonah; its effects on his attitude were only temporary. Jonah’s idol was his bitterness and bigotry. Certainly the  Ninevites had done cruel acts to the surrounding nations. The pleasure they took in their violence and torture of others was renowned. But Jonah did not deem them as worth saving. He knew if he preached to them, they just might repent. And he knew if they repented, God in his grace would forgive. That’s why he got on the west-bound ship, when he should have been going east. He chose to cling to his worthless idol.

What root of bitterness consumes you? A wrong committed against you in the past? Something that happened to you as a child? The unfaithfulness of a spouse? The deceit of a friend?

Be careful of clinging to the pain of another’s wrongdoing, you might discover that you’re forfeiting the grace that could be yours.