As the story of Jonah—the reluctant prophet—unfolds, we are not really sure whether to laugh, to cry or to jeer, are we? God calls this man to travel 500 hundred miles east, to the city of Nineveh. Instead, Jonah hops on a ship to travel to a city 2,500 miles west—Joppa. When God acts, sending a storm to stop the ship’s forward progress and nearly sink it, Jonah has the sailors throw him overboard. God has a fish waiting, ready to take him back to shore and start him on the journey to Nineveh. After arriving ashore, smeared in fish vomit, Jonah finally goes where God pointed him in the first place and preaches what must be one of the shortest sermons in evangelistic history. Nineveh experiences a city-wide revival. Everyone, from the king to the lowliest peasant, and all the livestock, don sackcloth, fast, and pray. The Lord relents, pouring out mercy rather than judgment. Jonah, unhappy that God has withheld said judgment, marches off in a hissy fit.
It is a story of futile fury, revealing what happens when a heart is controlled by hatred. It is an illustration of insular thinking run amok, racism writ large. But Jonah is much more than that.
At the heart of that book is a beautiful statement by this reluctant prophet, an affirmation of God’s goodness that ranks up there with the best hymns in history. The irony is that Jonah describes God’s goodness with something of a sneer. At the height of his fury, angry that the Lord would be merciful to the pagan people of Nineveh, Jonah throws these words at the Almighty, almost as if cursing:
And [Jonah] prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. (Jonah 4:2, ESV)
Jonah speaks of God’s character as if it were a problem. But it was God’s character that allowed Jonah to become a prophet in the first place. It was God’s goodness that ordained Jonah would be born to God’s Chosen People, Israel. It was God’s goodness that prevented Jonah’s headlong rush into rebellion and saved him from the stormy sea that should have been his grave. Jonah, an unworthy recipient of God’s “merciful, slow to anger, steadfast love,” is unable to understand why the Ninevites should receive it.
This is because Jonah lacks the God-like character quality that inspired his commission in the first place—compassion. God looked down at the people of Nineveh and what He felt was a deep compassion for these wayward people, lost in sin and its damaging effects. So God sent someone. Unfortunately, that someone did not carry God’s own compassion in his heart for the people he was sent to reach.
We live in polarized times. The politics of the day have turned into a zero-sum game where, rather than political adversaries, many people treat the opposition like evil enemies. The social warfare plays out in the virtual world of Facebook and Twitter. The effects can be felt in real places as bombs are sent out in the mail and bullets fly in synagogues.
Christian, if we want to reach into this society that seems incapable of putting itself in each other’s shoes, it will take a healthy dose of compassion. It will not be enough to know we have been commissioned. We will need the heart of the Lord who commissioned us. He himself came into the world while we were still sinners, still opposed to Him, lost in our rebellion, steadfast in our selfishness. He came because He saw our need and wanted to do something about it!
This is the heart we must bring. Compassion is the word for the day. Let’s embrace it with both arms as we reach out to the people around us.
Adam T. Barr (MDiv, ThM) serves as senior pastor at Peace Church near Grand Rapids Michigan. In addition to his work in the local church, Adam speaks and writes on Christianity and culture, helping followers of Jesus understand and apply God’s Word in an increasingly post-Christian society. His most recent book, Compassion Without Compromise, is available through Bethany House. Adam is also a contributing writer and adjunct teacher on the Organic Outreach International team, serving as the Director of Cultural Apologetics and hosting our Organic Outreach Podcast (available through iTunes).