No matter how often I read the account of Jonah, I always chuckle to myself when I read Jonah 4. The imagery of the prophet steaming, both physically and emotionally, on a hill overlooking Nineveh and waiting to see it destroyed. A prophet of the Lord broods looking down at this city that had just experienced revival and he is angry about it all. Twice in the final chapter of the book of Jonah, the Lord asks Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry?” The first time, Jonah is silent to God’s question. The second time, Jonah defiantly states that he has a right to be angry. While the picture might be humorous, it is more real than we might care to admit.
Let’s face it: a lot of people are angry these days. With social media, most people think they are an expert on everything now. We will form an opinion, find someone who agrees with us (YouTube, podcast, article), and then we see their affirmation as validation for our view. If anyone dares question or push back, we will lash out in anger. The COVID-19 pandemic serves as gasoline on the fire of “self-expertise.” Unfortunately, this serves as a breeding ground for anger. People are angry at the President, their state and local officials, the news media, the health care officials, the school boards, and I could continue to go on. Solutions are not sought. A scapegoat must be found. Someone must pay how our lives have been disrupted.
While it was not a health pandemic that “disrupted” Jonah’s life, everything that he would consider “normal” changed in an instant when the Lord summoned him to Nineveh. The call that came to him did not sit well with him. How could he, a Hebrew and an Israelite, go preach and extend a call to Gentile dogs like those in Nineveh? The story of Jonah is one of a continual descent; both physically and spiritually. We all know the story of how Jonah goes in the opposite direction, is swallowed by a large fish, prays and thanks God for deliverance, obeys the call the second time it comes, carries out his duty, and then simmers in the desert heat because God had the audacity to show mercy to Nineveh. The last words we hear from Jonah are him defiantly telling God that he, a mere creature, had a right to be angry with the Creator. Have you ever met someone like Jonah?
I have. Jonah is the book that I began preaching through on May 24th. This was our first Sunday at NTBC to gather together corporately in over two months. By preaching through this book, I began to see how much of Jonah I found in me. This year has been the hardest for me in ministry. I imagine most, if not all, pastors would acknowledge that. Not only did the time of separation due to health recommendations greatly weigh on me, our church family wrestled with difficult counseling situations. I could hear in the voice of the flock how much the lack of being able to gather together affected them. I knew it was real because it had affected me too. As I arrived in chapter 4 and worked through the text, I began to see that Jonah was not the only one who had been angry with God. In my heart, I had been angry too.
Sure, I felt anger towards the incompetence of federal officials, mixed signals from health officials, and longing for a return to “normalcy” in pastoral ministry. In reality, my anger was really towards the Lord of heaven and earth. As one childhood pastor used to put it, I had allowed my heart to enter a state of the “mulligrubs.” Why was this happening to me? I pastored a confessional Baptist church that sought to honor the Lord’s Day by meeting morning and evening, strove for an ordinary means of grace ministry, enjoyed weekly fellowship around the lunch table as a church, moved to monthly communion, and on and on I could go. I realized that I had allowed myself to succumb to a covenant of works mentality. “God, we are doing these things right especially in comparison to those around us. Why is this happening to us?” In the moments of sermon prep that week, I had to confess my sin and seek forgiveness. How foolish I had been!
Sinclair Ferguson’s book “Man Overboard” is a dynamite resource on Jonah, and it will punch you in the spiritual gut a few times too. Several times throughout the book, Ferguson notes the difference between theology we get write on paper and theology we actually believe. Jonah had theology proper and a doctrine of grace in his head but it was not in his heart. The same had happened to me. None of us deserves anything good from the hand of the Lord. In this time of frustration, we must be on guard not to allow ourselves to be trapped by misguided anger.
Before we begin to think that we have gotten a raw deal, let us remember that none of us have been burned at the stake like Hus. When we think of the difficulties we might experience in trying to gather together for worship, consider the Puritans ejected in 1662 and the laws passed subsequently that forced them to hold covert services in England. If we would begin to complain about our lot, reflect on men like John Bunyan, Thomas Grantham, James Marham, and Hercules Collins who were jailed because they were Nonconformists and Baptists in 17th century England. In the present, consider the thousands of believers in places like China, Nigeria, and elsewhere who are being incarcerated and slaughtered for the faith.
In no way am I minimizing the effects this past year have had on the church with respect to the COVID pandemic. However, since we confess the sovereignty of God over all things, should we not be asking what is the Lord teaching us through this? If the answer is simply for us to be angry and view ourselves as some type of Christian revolutionaries fighting against a tyrannical government, I fear we are missing the point. Instead of calls for revolution, we should be hearing the call of Jonah: repent. Instead of mimicking the anger of the prophet, we should be emulating the people of Nineveh who bowed before the Lord. A greater than Jonah stands before us and He is our Savior, Redeemer, and Friend. May COVID-19 produce a greater affection in our hearts for Christ and let us not think it well if we are angry.