I just finished studying the book of Jonah with one group of ladies… and I’m starting to study it again with another group. It’s a story I’ve been familiar with since childhood when I laughed at the thought of a whale vomiting Jonah back to shore.
But my more recent readings have stirred up new thoughts… most of them not quite as amusing as that vomiting whale.
What if God called me to ISIS like He called Jonah to Nineveh?
When I heard the story as a kid, it always sounded like Jonah was simply a rebellious teenager who just didn’t really want to do what God told him to do. I mean, why not go to Nineveh?
Well for one thing, going to Nineveh could have gotten Jonah killed. It was the capital city of Assyria, the ruling empire of the moment, which had a well-earned reputation of ruthless violence toward its enemies. In Jonah’s day, Israel would have have been very familiar with this violence, and it would have been the first thing that came to Jonah’s mind when he received God’s instruction.
Jonah’s choice to run away wasn’t motivated by rebelliousness. It was motivated by fear.
In addition, the situation in Nineveh seemed pretty hopeless. The Israelites would have looked at the violence and wickedness and held out no hope of “those people” ever knowing the one true God.
Jonah probably figured there was no point in going to warn the Ninevites of their impending destruction. They couldn’t possibly care what God thought of them. And besides, Jonah certainly didn’t want to give God an opportunity to be merciful toward these awful people. In fact, when God did show mercy to Nineveh, Jonah’s response was, “Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.”
Jonah would rather die than live in a world where evil people receive grace.
It’s bad enough to think that a prophet of God had that attitude back in the day. What’s worse is when the Holy Spirit starts poking my heart and showing me where I harbor similar attitudes?
What if ISIS were my Nineveh?
It’s probably the closest comparison we can draw in our world right now. The despicable acts of violence committed by this group have horrified more than just the Christian community. And more than one person has deemed the situation hopeless, arguing there’s no way “those people” could ever come to know the one true God.
I’d be terrified if God called me there. The prospect of losing my life would probably be enough to send me packing just like Jonah. I don’t know where I’d go… but it wouldn’t be toward ISIS.
But what if I did go?
And what if I spoke the message God gave me and ISIS responded the way Nineveh did?
What if they repented and turned from their evil ways?
What if they acknowledged God as the one true God and put their faith in Jesus?
And what if God were merciful?
What if they were never tried and convicted and punished by earthly authorities for their crimes against humanity?
What if the only justice paid for their crimes was Jesus’ death on the cross?
Would I be ok with that? Or would I, like Jonah, prefer to die?
I know. That’s a lot of questions, a lot of “what ifs.” And I don’t really have answers for them. But as I consider them, I find myself asking one final question… and I think it might be the most important one:
Do I understand the depth of the scandalousness of the grace I’ve received enough to rejoice when it’s extended to those I deem the worst of sinners?
I don’t think I do. But I want to.