Most of us are probably familiar with the Sunday School version of the story of Jonah. God sent him somewhere, he refused and tried to run away. God sent a storm to the area his boat was, he was thrown overboard, and then he stayed in the belly of a whale before being spit out three days later onto dry land. The morale of the story as I always learned it was to obey God when He calls or you’ll end up in some metaphorical or actual belly of a whale.
As I read the story this morning, I was overcome with how overly simplified this was. Yes, it is true, but really there is a much greater story here about Jonah as a human being and the reflection it could lead to for us.
Jonah’s story doesn’t end there. It is actually only half of the book of Jonah. What happens next is that Jonah is sent to Ninevah to tell them that they will be destroyed in 40 days. The people of Ninevah repented and changed their ways; so, God showed them mercy and changed his plans.
Here is where the story got interesting for me. What was Jonah’s response?
This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry. So he complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away…I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.” – Jonah 4:1-3
For me, the lesson of Jonah is one of character. I’ll be honest: I can’t help but not like the guy. He acted out of selfishness and pride. He ran away in selfishness. He didn’t want to do what God was asking. His pride took away any compassion for others. He was afraid of how he would look because of God’s compassion. He was so wrapped up in himself, how he would look, and how he was affected that nothing else mattered: God’s plan didn’t matter and neither did the people of Ninevah. He would have preferred that the 120,000 people in Ninevah had died than for his reputation to be questioned.
The story of Jonah ends shortly after this. We aren’t really told if he changed or realized the error of his ways, but I hope so.
However, for me, the story of Jonah is a reminder about humility and priorities. It was fear for himself that stopped Jonah from obedience and pride that led to his resentment and anger. I want my heart, mind, body, and soul centered on the will of God. I need to remember that all my work should be about Him and pointing to Him. I’m human and I have hopes and goals as well. However, I have to make sure that my earthly priorities and pride do not get in the way of what God is calling me to do or in showing compassion to others – not because I don’t want to end up in the belly of a whale, but because I want to live a life of intentional purpose.