By Dave Smith
I trudged up the hill. I was mad at God, the world, anything, and everybody. Why? Because I was tired of how God was running things. He sure wasn’t listening to me. And I had had enough. I was angry. I was going to stay angry, maybe forever, or at least till the end of the day.
In that reverent spirit, I walked into a Tuesday morning chapel here at Ozark Christian College. I sat down. I stood up. We sang a song. And then, as if things weren’t bad enough, the worship leader said, “Get together in small groups and share a thanksgiving to God.”
You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. I hate doing this impromptu small group stuff when I am thankful, much less when I am not. So I just stood there, waiting, trying to figure out how to get out of it.
And then something happened. God whispered. And when he was done, I knew what I was thankful for. I was, and am, thankful for a God who loves me even when I revolt. I am grateful for a gracious God who does not wipe me off the face of the earth, a God who does not give up on me but keeps forgiving, sustaining, and loving rebels like me— and you.
Many Christians, even leaders, struggle with God’s love. Why? We judge God’s love by the conditional love of family and friends, allies and adversaries. We look at our own love and find it lacking. And so we paint God’s love in our own broken image.
Too many of us who believe God loved us when we were lost, doubt it when we are found. Why? Because we are still rebels. And it is one thing for God to love lost rebels, but what about found rebels? Does God still love us? Yes. The same God who loved the prodigal son loved the older brother. The same God who loved the godless Assyrians loved the rebel prophet Jonah.
The book of Jonah is not so much about a great fish as it is about a great God, a God who loves all peoples. In this book we see the love of God for the people of Nineveh. But we also see God fleshing out his love for Jonah.
God loves us. We cling to that reality, demonstrated at the cross. But many times our own rebel hearts or circumstances cause us to question God’s love. By walking with Jonah, we discover God’s love revealed not only at the cross, but in his consistent relationship with us.
Jonah was a prophet of God who spoke to God’s people Israel. But God called him to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, the enemy of Jonah’s people. The Assyrians were known for their cruelty, plundering, prostitution, and witchcraft. They represented everything that opposed God.
Jonah had no desire to go there. Why? Because he was afraid for his life? That would make sense given the track record of the Assyrians. But it was not concern for his life that sent Jonah running. Rather, it was concern that God would spare the lives of the Assyrians, and Jonah wanted no part of that. So off he went. Called to Nineveh some 500 miles to the northeast, Jonah boarded a ship for Tarshish, some 2,000 miles to the west.
God sent a storm, the winds and waves of discipline. Jonah answered by falling asleep, dead to God and his shipmates. The sailors awakened Jonah and discovered he was running from God. After vainly trying to row to land, the sailors surrendered to the discipline of God and tossed Jonah overboard. The sea grew calm. And Jonah, in his rebellion, sank toward the bottom of the sea.
What can we learn from this? We cannot hide from God (Psalm 139) nor escape his discipline. But there is love in the discipline. Yes, God cares that we honor him by our obedience. But he is also thinking of Jonah. He wants Jonah to have his heart, the compassion of the waiting father, not the indifference of the older brother. And so he demonstrates love through discipline.
Sometimes we may experience God’s discipline when we can point to no known rebellion in our lives. Like Job, we cry out, “Why is this happening to me?” The book of Hebrews reminds us God allows hardships into our lives as discipline, for our good, that we may share in his holiness. Discipline proves God’s love for us, for he is treating us as sons.
We return to son Jonah, sinking down, down, down. And we find God’s love revealed for the rebel not only in discipline, but in grace. “But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17).
The fish embodies God’s grace, his unearned, overwhelming, extravagant love for rebels like us. To be swallowed by a fish may not look like grace, but it was God’s means of rescuing Jonah and bringing him ashore. Jonah saw grace in the swallowing:
In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry. . . . But you brought my life up from the pit O Lord my God. Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs (Jonah 2:2, 6, 8).
But what if we have no big fish story? Where is the grace? Everywhere. God’s grace sustains our lives on this earth. God’s grace provides us with food, shelter, clothing, safety, friends, and family. God’s grace bears fruit in the natural abilities and spiritual gifts he gives us.
One day some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to Jesus, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.” Jesus answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign. But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:39, 40).
Do you want to see grace? Do you want to see a sign that he loves you? Here it is in Jesus, crucified, buried, and resurrected for rebels like you and me.
As I have wrestled with God over my wife’s multiple sclerosis, God has taught me much about his grace. I know, despite my struggles, that I am forgiven and loved. But that does not mean God relents and does it my way. And even in this, we see God’s love.
God is persevering. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised, since he so often challenges us to persevere in prayer, faith, and life. When God decides, he persists. He has already decided that we will be conformed to the image of Jesus. God chooses kingdom over comfort, character over convenience. God perseveres with us and with Jonah.
Jonah was vomited onto dry land, a living symbol of the discipline and grace of God. God spoke, again. “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you’” (Jonah 3:1, 2).
God did not say, “Never mind.” He repeated the original call. Why? He loved the people of Nineveh and wanted to give them opportunity to repent. But God also loved Jonah too much to let him rot in his own rebellion. Swallowed by a fish is one thing; eaten by your own selfishness is another. God refused to let Jonah off the hook.
I remember when God began calling me to New England. I did not want to go: too cold, too expensive, too distant, too unfriendly. Like Jonah, instead of heading to the Northeast, I headed west, to Colorado. After all, there are lost people there too. And if I was going to move, why not go somewhere I wanted to go?
I hopped on a plane and flew to Denver. No violent storm, just a little turbulence. I looked around, interviewed here and there, and generally sought to plot my own course.
And then, I got sick—throw-up sick. And in the sickness I heard God saying, “Give it up, you are not going to Colorado.” So I canceled a meeting I was supposed to have about a church plant in Estes Park (Estes Park for crying out loud!) and went back to the airport.
As I waited for my plane I said, “OK, Lord, maybe you’re not calling me to Colorado.” Instantly, I was well, and I felt God’s peace. As I stared out the window on the flight home I said, “OK, God, maybe you are calling me to New England.” Immediate joy. I couldn’t believe it. Did God call me to New England because there are people who need Jesus? I believe this was a reason. But I believe God called me to New England because I needed to be like Jesus, to care for people who initially I couldn’t care less about.
Is God frustrating you because he is calling you to do something you don’t want to do? He perseveres because he loves us. Though he does not tell us everything, he reveals some of himself and his ways to us. And here again we see his love.
Jonah obeyed God. He preached, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:4). Short sermon. Striking response. The people believed, fasted, and repented. God showed compassion and did not destroy them. Jonah chastised God for his grace, he who had just received a healthy dose of it. Then he went up into the stands to watch what he hoped would be “Sodom and Gomorrah II: Fire Comes to Nineveh.”
In his love, God taught Jonah. He gave Jonah a plant for shade, destroyed it, and then heated him up with a scorching wind. Angry, Jonah wanted to die. God seized the moment.
You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city? (Jonah 4:10, 11).
We are left hanging about Jonah. What path did he choose, that of the compassionate father or the indifferent brother? But we learn more about God. He pulls back the curtain to show us his heart. In his revealing, we see his love even for rebels like us.
What is God trying to teach you? Where is he seeking to invade your life? Learn from him. As he reveals more of himself, know this God of discipline, grace, and perseverance shouts his love for rebels like you and me.
Dave Smith is professor of church planting at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.