Do you recall hearing the story of Jonah and the Whale? When I was growing up, it was often told using a flannel board and cut-outs of Jonah, a crowd of people, and a large fish! I remember sitting in a circle on the floor at church listening to the story as a child, awed by such a remarkable account of a man who disobeyed God and ran away from the Lord’s plan. He was thrown overboard in the middle of a storm and then got swallowed up by a huge fish! Let’s take a closer look, as adults now, and see what we can learn from Jonah’s narrative. Maybe there’s more to the story than we’ve remembered!
The Lord gave Jonah, a prophet of Israel, a mission. He told him to go to the city of Nineveh and instructed, “Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are.” (Jonah 1:2 NLT) Jonah wanted the wicked people to receive the judgment for their sin that they were due. He didn’t want to take God’s message, because he knew what God was up to. Jonah knew that the Lord would be merciful if the people responded to his message in surrender. He knew of God’s lovingkindness, even toward great sinners, and suspected that when the people repented, the Lord would forgive. Because he felt so strongly against the people of Nineveh, Jonah disobeyed the Lord’s directive. He found a boat going in the opposite direction and paid to ride along, thinking he could get away from God’s plan.
While Jonah was sleeping below deck, the Lord sent a fierce storm. Just before the boat sank in the high seas, the sailors cast lots to see who it was that had caused such calamity to come upon them. If you know the story, you know it was Jonah’s fault, for disobeying God. When the men confronted Jonah, he answered, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.” (Jonah 1:9 NLT) They were so frightened from experiencing Jonah’s God’s power and might, that they asked what they should do to appease the Lord. Jonah told them to throw him overboard. Instead, they tried to get back to land, but they couldn’t make it and they feared for their lives. In their despair, as they threw Jonah over, they asked his God for forgiveness. Immediately, the storm calmed. The sailors were amazed and they vowed to serve this Lord. Along Jonah’s journey, the Lord used every opportunity to extend his mercy to whoever was willing to believe in and surrender to him.
While sinking deep, the Lord sent a great fish, perhaps it was a whale, to swallow up Jonah. He was in that dark place for three days and nights until he was spit out near the seashore. Then, the Lord gave Jonah another chance to fulfill the mission, to obey his voice and deliver his message. God hated the sin of the people of Nineveh, so through Jonah, he sent them an opportunity to repent and turn to him. If we think about it, perhaps the Lord was not only after the hearts of the people of Nineveh, but also wanted to soften Jonah’s heart too. Although he believed and even spoke on God’s behalf, perhaps the Lord desired for Jonah to gain a deeper understanding of his heart for both justice and mercy.
This time, Jonah went to Nineveh and gave the people God’s message, “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” (Jonah 3:4 NLT) They believed Jonah’s warning of God’s judgment for their sin, and they responded by fasting and mourning. Even the king repented and told his people to turn away from evil and to stop the violence. He hoped, “Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us.” (Jonah 3:9 NLT) Just as Jonah had predicted, the Lord saw their repentant response and he did change his mind. He chose not to destroy them, because they turned away from their evil ways and sought him.
Jonah wanted the people to get what they deserved. He wanted them to be punished for their sin. He even waited outside of the city, watching and hoping that the Lord’s punishment would come. Instead of rejoicing over thousands turning away from the darkness and coming into God’s light, Jonah was angry. He was offended by the Lord’s mercy. He responded, “I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.” (Jonah 4:2 NLT)
The Lord had compassion for the people of Nineveh - men, women, and children that he had created. Even though they’d been known for their evil deeds for years, when they repented before the Lord, he forgave them. Their bad reputation did not change God’s heart for them. The moment they turned their hearts toward the Lord, he spared them from the judgment that they were due. This is the heart of the Father - that all would return to him in repentance, even the greatest of sinners, regardless of the gravity of sin. He longs to demonstrate his mercy to all who will respond.
We don’t know for sure, but perhaps Jonah had been personally affected by the people of Nineveh. The extent of his animosity would make us wonder what pain was behind Jonah’s actions. The Lord allowed and perhaps understood Jonah’s anger against the ungodly people, but God didn’t want him to stay in that mindset. He responded by questioning Jonah, to cause him to see from a different perspective. He asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?” (Jonah 4:4 NLT) The Lord reminded Jonah that he alone is God and judge.
Can we see ourselves in Jonah? Do we pass judgment and hold onto resentment? Do we ever want others to “get what they deserve?” When we don’t extend the mercy that’s been given to us and instead, withhold forgiveness, then like Jonah, we are thrown into the storm of the circumstance until we’re willing to surrender it all before the Lord. We, too, must remember that God alone can see the hearts of others and that he alone is worthy to judge. We need to remember our own depravity and where we’d be without the Lord. We need to remind ourselves of the great mercy that God has shown to us. Others are no less deserving of his mercy.
God’s Great Mercy
Even though Jonah’s attitude of unforgiveness and lack of mercy was wrong, the Lord continued to speak to him. God didn’t give up on him. He continued to have mercy, on Jonah too. When the Lord revealed his heart for the sinful people of Nineveh, he showed his heart for Jonah, and for you, and for me. We are all sinful and in need of God’s mercy. When we respond to his love and receive his mercy and forgiveness, we’ll find the strength to extend it, even to people, like us, that don’t deserve it.
How can we learn to extend mercy and forgiveness? We can meditate on some of the examples given in Scripture. Consider Stephen, whose story is told in the book of Acts. He was stoned to death by the religious leaders of the day for proclaiming the truth about Jesus. On his knees and near the point of death, Stephen cried out, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” (Acts 7:60 NLT) What an extreme act of mercy and forgiveness in the face of injustice. Stephen, being full of faith and the Holy Spirit, truly exemplified the heart of Christ. His selfless response brought glory to God! Consider Jesus, the Son of God, and the greatest gift and example of mercy and forgiveness ever shown. Is it really possible to capture in words the love of God that he demonstrated through Jesus? The life and death and resurrection of Jesus is the reason that any one of us can be made right with God. If we’ve received his gift of salvation then we need to live with a mindset of appreciation for the Lord and the gift of mercy that we’ve received. Rejecting our own stubbornness, rebellion, and selfish ways, when we choose to live mindful and thankful of our gift, then we can live out mercy, like Jesus and Stephen did. It will not be perfect, but that is okay. The Lord doesn’t ask us to do these hard things alone, he is present and available to help us through instruction in his Word and with the help of his Holy Spirit.
When Jesus taught his disciples about forgiveness in Luke 17, he explained:
“If another believer sins, rebuke that person; then if there is repentance, forgive. Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive.”
This is truly a hard thing for us to do. Jesus’ disciples knew this and responded, “Show us how to increase our faith.” Extending forgiveness, especially over and over again, is not a natural response. The disciples were aware that they’d need help living this out. They realized that extending forgiveness requires faith. We need to ask for greater faith too, to believe that we can forgive, to believe that our feelings can change, and to hope that others can change too.
The Lord’s response to the disciples request for more faith was both challenging and insightful:
“The Lord answered, ‘If you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘May you be uprooted and thrown into the sea,’ and it would obey you!
When a servant comes in from plowing or taking care of sheep, does his master say, ‘Come in and eat with me’? No, he says, ‘Prepare my meal, put on your apron, and serve me while I eat. Then you can eat later.’ And does the master thank the servant for doing what he was told to do? Of course not. In the same way, when you obey me you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants who have simply done our duty.’”
What do you hear the Lord saying in his admonition? It sounds like he is laying a foundation of truth, saying, - Trust me, I am the Lord and my way is best. Remember who I am and who you are. Remember the great mercy that I’ve shown to you. Live from this place of understanding. If we’ll be faithful to remember these things, we will be enabled to extend the mercy that we've received. It will cost us something, but with time, we’ll experience a real joy that comes from knowing that we’ve obeyed the Lord and brought glory to his name.
You may ask, “What about the person who hasn’t asked for forgiveness? What if I’ve experienced the most grievous offense? What if I’ve held onto something for years? The only answer is to forgive. To be in relationship with the Lord, there is absolutely no way around it. We can’t do it in our own strength, but the Lord is strong when we are weak. He is ready to calm the storm and provide the way out. All we have to do is surrender to him. Then, as we choose to obey his way and keep an attitude of thankfulness for the mercy we’ve received, we’ll be strengthened and enabled to give mercy and forgiveness too. What joy we’ll find as our lives bring honor to the Lord as we submit and follow his way!
Meditate: Is there an offense that you’re holding onto, like Jonah? Imagine yourself extending forgiveness toward the person that sinned, the person that caused the pain. Have faith to picture the peace and the joy that you’ll find on the other side.
Thank you for Jonah's real-life example. Please reveal more of your wisdom and insight within his story.
Thank you for the mercy you have shown me, a sinner in need of a Savior. Forgive me for withholding forgiveness. I’m ready to release the offense and the pain and come out of the storm and into your arms.
I lean on your strength in my weakness. Please help me to have faith to believe for better. I forgive ______. I ask that you help me continue the process of forgiveness and teach me how to extend mercy like you do.
I love you Lord.
In Jesus name, Amen.