“But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.” Jonah 4:1 (NIV)
You would think that a man who had seen miracles of grace in his own life, and miracles of grace in his ministry would be full of praise and thanksgiving to God. But to our surprise we find something different.
Remember Jonah was a mature believer. He was a prophet of the living God. He was involved in the work of full-time, cross-cultural missionary.
You would think Jonah would be filled with joy in serving God, but what we find instead is that he’s angry, frustrated and out of sorts with the God he set out to serve.
Jonah is Not Alone
Asaph: My feet almost slipped!
In Psalm 73 we have the testimony of Asaph. Asaph’s ministry was leading worship. He was the director of music for King David, and he gave himself fully to God’s work.
Asaph tells us how he went through an experience just like Jonah: “My feet had almost slipped,” and he explains why: “I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:2-3).
Here is a man pouring out his life in service to God, and he says “I began to feel that God is kinder to His enemies than He is to His friends! What is the point? The wicked prosper, so why have I kept my heart pure?”
The elder brother: All these years I’ve been slaving for you!
Another example comes from our Lord’s famous story of the prodigal son: The younger brother left home and wasted his inheritance on riotous living. But the older brother stayed at home and served his Father. Day after day, he worked hard in the Father’s service.
When the younger son came home, the Father forgave him and welcomed him back into the family home. Jesus says “The older brother became angry” (Luke 15:28). He told his father “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.” The older brother is not angry with the younger brother, he is angry with the Father! That’s where Jonah was in chapter 4.
The temptation to resentment
What do Asaph, Jonah and the elder brother have in common? They are all hard workers. They are all obedient. They are all marvelous servants, doing all that was asked of them.
There is a particular darkness that can come to those who work hardest in the Lord’s service. Resentment towards God is the special temptation of mature believers who serve him well. This is a great issue for those on the mission field. The more you do for God, the easier it is to feel that God owes you.
There is a great mystery here: How is it that I can experience God’s grace in my own life and ministry, and still find that I struggle with the God I love? How is it possible to be in the middle of a great work of God and yet to find no joy in it?
Jonah shows us one of the most common ways in which a mature believer can avoid a God centered life: You serve God and then you end up resenting the very God you serve.
If you have sacrificed much for the cause of Christ, you are likely to experience this trial. Therefore, you need to know how to deal with it, which is surely why God has given us this story. I want us to see how resentment grew in Jonah’s life, and how God dealt with Jonah to deliver him from it.
How to Avoid A God-Centered Life Through Resentment
“He prayed to the Lord” Jonah 4:2 (NIV)
Let’s begin by noting what Jonah does do right. In chapter 1, Jonah is unhappy with God, and he runs from the Lord. But here in chapter 4, Jonah is unhappy with God, and he prays to the Lord. That’s progress!
But Jonah’s prayer is a complaint against God—not just a complaint about what God does, but a complaint about who God is: “’O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity’” Jonah 4:2 (NIV).
Jonah is quoting one of the great statements of the character of God from Exodus 34:6-7. It was regularly repeated among God’s people as an expression of praise.
But Jonah turns it back to God as a complaint, and here’s why: He feels that God is too slow in dealing with evil. This was a great struggle for Jonah. The people of Nineveh were wicked, and they would return to their evil ways even if they repented for a time. Jonah was sure of this, and he was right!
History shows that within a generation or so, Nineveh had returned to its evil ways. The generation that repented was soon replaced by a generation who returned to the old ways of violence and torture. And it was this next generation that destroyed the northern kingdom, where the 10 tribes of Israel were situated, with great brutality.
The book of Nahum [written after Jonah’s time] lays out the excruciating evil to which Nineveh returned. All of that could have been avoided, if only God had destroyed Nineveh in the time of Jonah. Jonah saw this coming and God’s mercy made Jonah mad!
Haven’t you ever wondered about God’s strange providence in ordering the world? Think of how much evil and suffering the world could have been spared if God had wiped out Hitler, or Stalin or Bin Laden when they were young.
Yet He lets them live! Why? Because God is “gracious, compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love” (v2), and that is Jonah’s complaint. When he thought about all the violence and wickedness in the world and how slow God is to judge, it made Jonah angry!
Why is this happening to Jonah? What is going on in his heart? I want you to see here how Jonah undermines his own repentance.
Undermining your own repentance
“This is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.” Jonah 4:2 (NIV)
This is a marvelous example of undermining your own repentance. Jonah disobeyed God when he got on the ship to Tarshish. His disobedience led him into a storm. God was merciful to Jonah and sent a fish to save his life. Jonah repented of his disobedience, and God forgave him. He moves forward in ministry and God blesses it.
But now Jonah wants to explain why he went to Tarshish. He feels that there was some justification for what he did: “Lord, I see now that there were some very good reasons why I did that.” As soon as you start explaining why you sinned, you undermine your own repentance.
Repentance says “I did this. I take responsibility. I am sorry, and I trust myself to the mercy of God.” Self-justification says “You need to understand the reasons why I did this. Let me explain my disobedience.” A great struggle goes on in every human soul between repentance and self-justification.
Even after you repent of a sin in your life, you may find yourself thinking “Actually, there’s another side to this. Look at the pressure I was under, the difficulties I was facing, the lack of support that I had. It’s easy to understand how I fell. In fact it would have been amazing if I hadn’t fallen!” And now suddenly, you are undermining your own repentance. Does that sound familiar?
A man has an affair. He repents. He takes responsibility and he says he is sorry. But a few weeks later, his tone changes. He begins to explain himself: “Here’s why it happened,” he says, and the explanation undermines his repentance. It turns out, actually, that it was someone else’s fault. “I’m sorry I lost my temper, but you said…” You just undermined your repentance.
There’s a subtle shift going on in Jonah’s heart: He used to see himself as a sinner in need of the mercy of God. Now he sees himself as a man who can explain the wrongs in his life to God. There’s all the difference in the world between these two things!
Jonah’s reasoning has changed: “I went to Tarshish, and I know that was wrong, but actually, God, it’s your fault! If You judged the wicked like You should, there wouldn’t have been a problem, but I knew that you are a God who relents from sending calamity. That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.”
Here’s the pattern: When you feel that you can offer an explanation for your sins, you undermine your own repentance. And the tragedy is that when a man undermines his own repentance, it won’t be long before he is angry with God: “It’s all God’s fault. God made me like this. God put me in this position.”
Explaining sin is big business in America, and the tragedy is that it leads many into the dead end of long-term anger with God. If you’ve been encouraged in some way to explain away your sin, this is where it leads. Explaining sin undermines repentance and undermining repentance leads to anger with God.
God’s grace makes some people angry
Notice how the theme of anger runs right through the chapter:
“Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry” (v1).
God asks Jonah “Have you any right to be angry?” (v4).
God says again “Do you have any right to be angry?” (v9).
Jonah says “I am angry enough to die” (v9).
Jonah is angry about God’s grace: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love” (v2). This chapter takes us into a surprising truth: God’s grace can make you angry. In fact we’re going to see that God’s grace will either make you angry or it will make you worship.
If you want to discover how God’s grace could ever make people angry, read Romans 9. Of all the chapters in the Bible, Romans 9 is the starkest statement of what God’s grace actually means.
Many folks think that the grace of God means simply that God is kindly benevolent to all people. But Paul makes it clear that God’s grace is much more personal and much more wonderful than that:
“Jacob I loved, but Esau, I hated” (Romans 9:13).
That’s one of the most difficult statements in the Bible. There’s an instinct within us that wants to say “It’s fine for You to love Jacob, but then You have to do the same for Esau.”
Some people will think that this is unfair: “What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For [God] says to MosesI will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion’” (Romans 9:14-15). In other words, God says “It’s up to me to decide where I exercise mercy.”
The obvious conclusion is that “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort but on God’s mercy” (v16). Salvation does not come from your effort or desire to be saved, but from His great mercy.
Paul goes on to deal with an obvious objection: “One of you will say to me: Then why does God still blame us? For who resists His will?” (v19). Notice the biblical answer: “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” (v20). God says “Excuse me, are you telling me what I can and cannot do?”
Is it not an expression of our pride and arrogance that we make so much of our own freedom and so little of God’s? We feel that we must be free to choose or reject Him, but we do not feel that He should be free to choose or reject us.
The Fruit of Embracing God’s Freedom
God is free to do whatever He wants in any situation
“Our God is in heaven; He does whatever pleases Him.”
Psalm 115:3 (NIV)
If you are really struggling with this, you are not alone. One reason why many struggle is that it seems like God’s freedom—Jacob I have loved, Esau I hated—makes His love less. If God really is loving, should He not treat all people the same?
A love that treats everyone the same is a very weak kind of love. Let me tell you about a strong love: I love my wife. That means I treat nobody else the same! The Bible speaks about the love of Christ like this: He has a bride! (John 3:29).
Some folks are so committed to the idea that God must treat everyone the same that they think of God opening the door of salvation and then standing back, waiting to see who will come in.
But the Bible speaks of a greater love than that, in which God takes the initiative, not only in sending His Son into the world, but by breaking into the lives of particular people to save them.
That’s what God did with His people Israel. Listen to this great statement about God’s particular love for His covenant people: “You are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6).
Why did God love them in this special way? “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (v7).
Why then did God set His affection on them? “It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (v8).
Why did God love you? Because He loved you—no other reason—not because of your background, your prayers, your ministry, your commitment, your faith, or your good life.
God set His love on you simply because He loved you. That is why He chose you out of all the people’s on the face of the earth to be among His treasured possession.
Now God extended this saving love to Nineveh, of all places, the capitol of terror and torture. Why Nineveh? Of all the cities of the world, why did God send a prophet there? Of all the cities God could have chosen, why did He bring revival to Nineveh?
“Our God is in heaven. He does whatever pleases Him.” Nobody tells Him what to do! And that made Jonah mad. We’re more comfortable with a God who operates within our framework, but that’s not the God of the Bible.
God’s grace makes some people worship
Christians disagree on how we should understand these things, and if you find yourself saying “I don’t see what Colin sees in the Bible,” we can agree to differ. That’s ok. Your eternal future does not hang on this.
So, why am I speaking about it? Because I think a great deal of your joy in worship does hang on this. Let God’s grace lead you, not into anger, but into worship.
If you are a Christian, why is it that you believe, and someone else in your family, workplace or group of friends does not? I’m thinking of folks with the same background, and the same opportunity.
Do you think it’s because you’re wiser than they are? You say “I made a better choice,” but why did you make a better choice? Is it because you are a better person? If it is, you just turned grace into works.
Here’s why you believe, if you are a Christian: God set His love on you. God’s Holy Spirit awakened you. God drew you to Himself. He redeemed you. He gave you new life from above, and you did nothing to deserve it! Neither did I. That’s grace.
Isaac Watts wrote a hymn that describes the thing I can’t get over in my own life: It’s called “‘How Sweet and Awesome is the Place.” It takes up our Lord’s picture of salvation being like great banquet. He pictures us as believers, coming into a vast banqueting hall, greater than you can imagine. We see a marvelous feast spread out on tables:
While all our hearts and all our songs
‘Join to admire the feast
Each of us cry, with thankful hearts,
Lord, why was I a guest?
Why was I made to Hear thy voice
And enter while there’s room
When thousands make a wretched choice
And rather starve than come.
‘Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste
And perished in our sin.
Apart from God’s grace, you would never have come to Christ and neither would I. Our sinful hearts would have taken us away. We would be outside, like thousands of others, still refusing to come.
Let God’s grace lead you to worship. Once you get a taste of God’s grace, you will spend the rest of your life coming back to this question: “Why me?” And you will never get a better answer than this: “He has set His love on me!”
You will start to feel with John Newton that God’s grace is “amazing”:
Amazing grace how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found
was blind but now I see.
If you asked “What’s so amazing about grace, John?” He’d say “I was lost and God found me! I was blind and God healed me! And why God would do this for me, when thousands live their lives and die their deaths still lost and blind is amazing beyond anything I can imagine or begin to explain!”
I want more of us to see, not just that God makes it possible for us to be saved, but that He saves us! Because that’s what the Bible teaches.
You may say “Well, this is all very well for the folks who are saved, but what about the folks who are lost?”
God’s grace makes some people pray
Isaac Watts ends his hymn by praying that the same grace of God that drew us in, will now draw others to faith in Christ.
‘Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste
And perished in our sin.
Pity the nations, O our God!
Constrain the earth to come;
Send thy victorious Word abroad,
And bring the strangers home.
The reason Watts can pray like that—and the reason you can pray like that—is because he believes God does constrain people to come. God does bring strangers home.
If all God could do is open the door of salvation and then stand back and leave it up to us, there would be little point in praying for the lost. But when you see in the Bible that God takes the initiative, then you will pray for the lost.
God’s grace is the greatest incentive I know to pray for the salvation of lost people. He doesn’t just stand by the door and watch.
God swooped down into my life uninvited, to change my heart so that I began to seek after Him. That’s what he did for you, if you are a Christian. And He can do that in the lives of other people, including those who, right now, are filled with resentment towards Him. God is able to do this because He is free to do whatever pleases Him.
God’s grace is amazing: No-one is so good as to deserve it. No-one is so bad as to be beyond it.
Either God’s grace will make you angry or it will lead you to worship and to prayer. Jonah chapter four is about how God gently leads Jonah away from being angry about grace and into worship and prayer, which is why, when he writes the great song of praise in chapter 2, he ends it by saying “Salvation comes from the Lord.” (Jonah 2:9).
 Isaac Watts, How Sweet and Awesome is This Place, 1707
 John Newton, Amazing Grace, 1779