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JOHN PEARRELL: Only God decides on mercy, or punishment, for people

John Pearrell

John Pearrell

The Old Testament book of Jonah is the strange account of a prophet of God who decides that he doesn’t like his new assignment (preach against Nineveh), so he decides to retire on a beachfront in Spain.

The book is only four chapters long and I encourage you to read it for the full account. Let me give you a brief synopsis of how the story unfolds. Hearing that his next commission is to be in Nineveh, the principle city in a culture he (Jonah) despises, he decides to head as far away from Nineveh as he can and heads toward Tarshish, a city on the Atlantic coast of Spain.

If you grew up in Sunday School, you know the story. God said “Go” Jonah said “No” and God responds “Oh?” God sends a storm that threatens to sink the ship Jonah is on, and when all seems lost, Jonah finally comes clean and gives the sailors the only option they have if they want to live; throw him (Jonah) overboard.

They don’t think that’s such a great idea, so they struggle a little longer at the oars and finally decide, “It may be our only hope!” Jonah is thrown over the side and a large fish comes up and swallows him, then takes him three days back to the coast of Israel and spits him out on dry land.

A lot of people have trouble accepting the validity of the account due to its incredible nature. You don’t have to believe the historicity of the account to benefit from its teaching. Personally, I accept the historicity of the account because when you read what Jesus had to say about Jonah, He believed in the historical nature of the account. I’m going with Jesus every time.

Most think Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he was afraid. If you want an idea what his commission to go to these people was like, let me put it into today’s terms. It would be like God calling you to go to Iraq and start telling ISIS “God is fed up with your cruelty in the name of your God. He says, ‘You’re toast! I’m giving you 40 days to set your house in order because I am going to destroy every last one of you at the end of that time period.’”

Any of you want to sign up for such an assignment? Me neither. But that is what Jonah was told to do.

I would balk at such a commission for fear, and perhaps that’s why we assume that was Jonah’s response as well. It is a good assumption, a logical one, but if that is your belief, it’s a wrong assumption. Jonah himself gives us the reason he didn’t want to go to Nineveh.

Here is his account: “But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the LORD, ‘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 4:1–2, NIV84).

Jonah’s problem is one that a lot of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, share with Him: We want to decide who deserves forgiveness, mercy, and grace and who deserves punishment and justice.

Like Jonah, we want mercy for ourselves but justice for those we don’t like. Like Jonah, we want to see people get what we feel they deserve, and ­— let’s be honest — like Jonah, we can become sullen brats when they don’t.

In the New Testament, Paul has this word of counsel to give to the Jonahs in our churches, “Forget about deciding what’s right for each other. Here’s what you need to be concerned about: that you don’t get in the way of someone else, making life more difficult than it already is.” (Romans 14:13, The Message).

Billy Graham said, “It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, my job to love.” I wonder how living that way would change the way people see the church?

Dr. John Pearrell is pastor of Gateway Community Church in Covington. For more information, visit the Gateway Web site at www.gatewaycommunity.org or email john.pearrell@gatewaycommunity.org.