Sunday 27 September 2020
Ps Ben Hooman
We continue in the Christ-centered Life Series. In the book of Jonah, we see a man that spends most of his life avoiding the God that he set out to serve. The prayer that runs through this series is: Lord make me less than Jonah and make me more like Jesus.
We saw that God has done miracles of grace in the life of Jonah. When Jonah disobeyed God, God sent a storm to bring Jonah back from a life that would have otherwise been wasted in disobedience. Then God marvellously sends a fish to save Jonah’s life from drowning. We been learning that God wonderfully cares about His servants and when He sets His love on you, He never lets you go. He has His way of bringing His own children back.
Not only did God do miracles in Jonah’s life but also through his ministry. He went to Nineveh and we saw last week that Jonah went into this pagan city known for its violence and torture and terror, to proclaim the Word of the Lord. There are an extraordinary response and the people of Nineveh believed God and turned to God in repentance, crying out to God in prayer and putting their hope and mercy in the God of the Living Bible.
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. We find a man resenting God’s work in ordering the world.
“But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.” (Jonah 4:1) (NIV)
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.
Notice that in the Bible Jonah was not the only one to go through this experience.
Jonah is not alone
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:
“But as for me, my feet almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when 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? Is it worth living like this? The wicked prosper, so why have I kept my heart pure?
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”
“But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look these many years I served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” (Luke 15:28)
The older brother is not angry with the younger brother, he is angry with the father! That’s where Jonah was here in chapter four.
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 marvellous servants, doing all that was asked of them, just as some of us do. Those that give them fully in serving God can find themselves at some point in their life frustrated and even angry with the God they serve.
There is a particular darkness that can be a specific trail to those who serve God best. Resentment towards God is the special temptation of mature believers who serve Him well. This is a great issue for those in ministry. 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 Christ-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 then how God dealt with Jonah to deliver him from it.
How to avoid a Christ-centered life through resentment
Let’s begin by noting what Jonah does do right. In chapter one, Jonah is unhappy with God, and he runs from the Lord. But here in chapter four, Jonah is unhappy with God, and he prays to the Lord. That’s progress!
But Jonah’s prayer is a complaint against God, and not just a complaint about what God does, but a complaint about who God is.
“He prayed to the Lord, ‘Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing 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)
Jonah is quoting one of the great statements of the character of God from Exodus 34:6: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,”. 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 ten 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”, and that is Jonah’s complaint and his problem. 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)
This is a marvellous 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 look what happens in chapter four. Jonah is going backwards! He now wants to explain why he went to Tarshish. He feels that there was some justification, some defence 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 it was that 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.”
The truth is, 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 had not 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 say 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…” Remember, you just undermined your repentance.
There’s a subtle shift going on in Jonah’s heart that is of devastating spiritual proportions. 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!
It happens right here in Jonah chapter four. 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 currently in our country, 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 rather than taking responsibility for it, 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”.
This chapter takes us into a surprising truth that you might not have thought of before: God’s grace makes some people angry. In fact, we’re going to see that God’s grace will do one of two things in your life and move you into one of two directions: either it will 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 chapter nine. Of all the chapters in the Bible, Romans chapter nine is the starkest statement of what God’s grace actually means.
Many people 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!
“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For He says to Moses, ‘I 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 and where I exercise compassion.
“So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” (Romans 9:16)
The obvious conclusion is that “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort but on God’s mercy”. Salvation does not come from your effort or desire to be saved, but from His great mercy and work in you.
Paul goes on to deal with an obvious objection:
“You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who can resist His will? Then why does God still blame us? For who resists His will?’. But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (Romans 9:19-20)
What a biblical answer! God saying “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
“Our God is in heaven; He does whatever pleases Him.” (Psalm 115:3)
God is free to do whatever He wants in any situation. If you are really struggling with this, you are not alone. One reason why many struggles is that it seems like God’s freedom, “Jacob I have loved, Esau I hated” seems to make His love less. If God is really loving, should that mean that He treats everybody the same?
Some people 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 also by breaking into the lives of particular people to save them.
That’s what God did with His people Israel as a channel of mercy. Listen to this great statement about God’s particular love for His covenant people:
“For 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” (Deuteronomy 7:7)
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” (Deuteronomy 7:8)
Why does God love you? Because He loves you for 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 peoples 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. Jonah say why Nineveh? And that made him mad!
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? The answer: “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 angry and secondly, God’s grace makes some people to worship.
God’s grace makes some people worship
Some believers disagree on how we should understand these things, and if you find yourself saying “I don’t see what you see 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, even when God is doing wonderful things to others and not to you.
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 people 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 your new life from above, and you did nothing to deserve it! Neither did I. That’s grace!
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 to Christ.
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!”
When you see God’s grace you will stand in awe! God not only makes it possible for us to be saved, but He also saves us! That is what the Bible teaches.
You may say “Well, this is all very well for you who are saved, but what about those who are lost?”
That takes us to the last aspect on God’s grace. God’s grace makes some people angry, and God’s grace makes some people worship, but it is the same grace that make some people pray.
God’s grace makes some people pray
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, but He takes the initiative.
God swooped down into your life uninvited, to change your heart so that you 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 lead you 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 two, he ends it by saying,
“But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord.” (Jonah 2:9)
Let us pray:
Father in heaven, help us in all our struggles in anger. Deliver us from undermining our own repentance. Fill our souls with a sense of wonder and amazement at Your grace in our own lives that is bigger and greater and further than we have ever known before. And with that a compassion and a renewed resolve to pray to You our saving God on behalf of others who You can reach in exactly the same way as You reached us. Hear our prayers and increase our gratitude for Jesus Christ sake in whose Name we ask it, Amen.