Jonah has always been one of my favorite prophets. Not because he runs from God, or because of his sojourn in the fish. It’s because Jonah knew anger. He is one angry prophet, and there is no resolution. Unlike Job, who directs accusation towards God and, when hearing the reply, is humbled, Jonah continues to sulk. He claims and defends his anger, an anger that is inexplicably at God’s mercy, and the end of the book leaves the situation unresolved, God defending His right to be merciful towards people and animals and Jonah defending his right to be angry about it.
Jonah says at least twice that he’s angry enough to die, and I know exactly what he means. I have that rage inside myself. I have always had enough energy and anger to avoid depression: that’s why my life turned towards anxiety. I have been angry enough to just die, even in the last month.
This isn’t a suicidal thing. It’s not about ending it all because my life is so bad. It’s spiteful. It’s suicide as an insult, a giant middle finger to God and life and love. It is transforming the self into a vortex of destruction: the ultimate destruction of self. To kill others is to maintain one’s self-worth, at least a little. Ultimately you still think that you have intrinsic value, enough that you deserve to survive. Self-destructive rage is to deny that value.
Jonah was angry enough to die, and he told God it was appropriate that he should feel that way. Why was he so angry? According to the text, it’s because he knew God was a big ole softie. He knew that God would forgive the Ninevites. He knew that he would look like a fool, proclaiming judgment and destruction. Venturing into my opinion here, I believe he wanted Ninevah to be destroyed. He didn’t want them to get a second chance. They were a destructive, evil force. They killed and enslaved and tormented, and yet God sent them a second chance. And worse of all, God chose Jonah to deliver that second chance.
Imagine that for a minute. God asks you to give your biggest enemy a second chance. Not just with you, but with the whole world. And you know that they will take it. And you suspect that it won’t really change them at all – that in the end, they will go back to their murdering pillaging ways. So all you’ve done is spent time with someone you loathe so you can watch a shallow repentance be honored by the God of justice. Is it any wonder Jonah was angry?
I like the lack of resolution in Jonah. We don’t know what happened. Jonah obeyed God in the end, but he wasn’t happy about it. Did Jonah then fail? Did God continue to work with Jonah, sending him over and over until Jonah finally began to see God’s grace as a good thing? Or did God shake His head sadly and move on?
Theologically the question Jonah’s story raises to me is this one: Why do we get angry when God shows grace? Is it because we do not believe we need grace, so we resent others getting a free ride? We don’t truly understand our own capacity for evil, and thus our own need for grace. Do we resent it when people who haven’t filled their lives with good works get the same reward we do?
Emotionally, the story of Jonah gives me permission to be angry. I don’t have to censor or attempt to stifle my anger. I can simply accept my rage. Because God didn’t strike Jonah down. He worked with Jonah, over and over. He worked with Jonah in the belly of the fish. He worked with Jonah with the shade vine. And He worked with Jonah up to the very end. He is gentle with Jonah, not striking him down. Just reminding him that people and animals need God’s love too.