Soft on Sin
Listen to “Soft on Sin” by Fred Smith
What the heck was Jonah’s problem with Nineveh?
The same problem as the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. The same problem as Job and Jeremiah and David. In fact, the same problem all of us have. How can God be inconsistent? How can he be soft toward the rebellious and so strict with those of us who try so hard to do what is right?
We need Psalm 37 to be true. We need to know that in the end the wicked will get their due and we will get ours. We need to know God does not have a double standard and that he is not fooled by those who are evil. We need to know they do not have him wrapped around their fingers like they do everyone else. If these things are not true, then something is wrong. We cannot be sure of God’s own commitment to goodness and fairness.
Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away. Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun. Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. . . . A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.
Why be good if God is merciful? Why be righteous if the wicked do not pay in the end? God can be too forgiving. He can offend our sense of justice and common sense. How can we trust him to do what is right? This makes us furious. Jonah cannot let go of his anger either. It has become a part of his life. It is justified. It is necessary . . . and it is killing him slowly. In fact, he would rather be dead than let go of it. “Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” I’ve seen that same anger in people who hate one political party over the other. We choose to have someone to resent so we can justify our bitterness.
Jonah needed Nineveh to be wicked because a root of bitterness that needed feeding had grown up in him. The last thing he wanted to do was what God asked him to do—go to Nineveh and speak out against the wrong, confront it—and take the chance that God would forgive. That would offend all that Jonah held to be true: Righteousness is rewarded and unrighteousness is punished.
I would say that you and I have our own Nineveh’s—something or someone who deserves our anger and God’s, and we have built a small but growing dark area of our lives around our resentment about them. The Lord said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” In a sense God was using Nineveh to change Jonah as much as he was using Jonah to change Nineveh. There are people I consider malicious hypocrites, but they are successful. There are people about whom I enjoy hearing bad news. I absorb the details. I know their flaws and failures and I don’t want to see them humbled. I want to see them exposed and found out. If they were truly humbled, they might repent and be even more successful!
And what did Jonah do? He went down when God said go up—down to Joppa, down in the ship, down in the sea, down in the belly of the fish. We cannot stay in the same place when we disobey. Disobedience moves us in the opposite direction from God. We cannot be neutral.
The Belly of A Great Fish
All of us head toward Tarshish or Spain in one way or another when we are running from the terrible freedom of God, the unfairness of God.
To what Spain might you be headed—away from God’s call to speak up and bring the possibility of forgiveness? We all prefer running to a place with good people, no inconsistencies, no confrontations, and no hypocrisy. We look for places to start over where no one knows us. No one knows the call we are avoiding. We are looking for a place where good people are blessed and hypocrites are exposed. We want to find a place we can be anonymous and without responsibility—untroubled by obligation or commitments. We will be free to hate what is wrong and love what is good.
I’ve got bad news for you—we don’t get there. Just as it was with Jonah, the whole world seems to conspire against you when you are running from your calling. You are out of your place and that disrupts more than your life alone. It causes everyone around you to be affected.
Where we do get is as far as the belly of a great fish. We don’t die. God does not kill us for disobedience nor does he turn his back on us. He puts us in a safe place—a place that saves us from ourselves but not a place he intends for us to stay—a place between places. It’s not drowning but it’s not Nineveh. Some of us are in the belly right now, and maybe we’ve been there three days, three months, or three years. We are safe—but not satisfied. The belly of the whale is where we wait until we are ready to obey.
From what Nineveh might you be running? What justified and legitimate resentment have you been building about someone or something deserving punishment? What kind of Spain is in your mind? A long vacation from people who are hypocrites? Maybe joining a group of people with the same anger and justifying what you feel about those who deserve to be exposed and defeated?
In what great belly might God have you right now? It’s a place to wait until you are ready to obey what he has called you to do but it is no place to live.
Art by Lucian Freud
An excerpt from The Edge of the Inside available on Amazon.