Many people today, both in and outside of Christianity, know about Jonah from the Bible. Mostly remembered for being inside of a great fish, Jonah’s tale teaches us much more than just the time he spent an aquatic creature’s stomach.
In fact, God’s speaks to us today just as clearly as those who would have read the part of the Old Testament so many years ago. At the heart of Jonah’s struggle resides the war between pride and compassion – self-righteousness versus evangelism.
The first three chapters of Jonah describe the process of God calling Jonah to bring a prophecy to the evil city Nineveh, Jonah running away via ship, God disturbing the sea, Jonah’s shipmates eventually casting him overboard (at his own request – which actually leads to their worship of the Lord), Jonah being swallowed by a great fish and his prayer of repentance, followed by his return to dry land and preaching to Nineveh. The entire city, upon hearing Jonah’s message from the Lord, repents of their sins and worships God.
The fourth chapter of Jonah gives us the real backstory behind Jonah’s foolish escape attempt from God’s calling. Many have tried to say Jonah was afraid of what might happen to him in Nineveh, but Jonah 4:1-3 tells us the truth:
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was yet in my country? That I is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Jonah actually grew angry because the Ninevites repented and avoided the judgment of the Lord! Reading that makes me angry at Jonah’s pride and self-righteousness, but does my judgment of Jonah also apply to my own life?
Christ calls all of his disciples to share his gospel to the world, but many of us turn and run from that every day. Are we not in the same boat as Jonah? Why do we act this way?
Sure, some of us may claim that we are afraid to share our faith, but what is the real story behind our excuses? What Jonah lacked we also find ourselves deficient – compassion for those who did not or do not know the Lord. Notice the difference between that and how Matthew describes Jesus in Matthew 9:6:
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Jesus had compassion for people – not just the poor and downtrodden. Jesus had compassion on the cities he looked out over, even those that would soon demand his crucifixion.
Paul paints a wonderful picture of Christ’s humility in Philippians 2:5-11, as he urged the Philippian church to imitate Christ’s humility:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Humility sets the stage for compassion. We lack compassion today because we lack humility and servant-hood. We let pride reign in us and fuel our self-righteousness. If this were not true, then the church would be sharing the good news of Christ with a lost world! Instead, the church spends too much time looking down on the lost with contempt like Jonah stared at Nineveh.
Let’s examine more of how pride fuels our self-righteousness and squelches our compassion. For Jonah, he was an Israelite, a member of the people of God. When God established Israel, he wanted his people to live in relationship with him and bear his name to the world. We see through the Scriptures that instead Israel mostly turned inward and developed pride for themselves instead of compassion for the world that did not know God.
When Jesus was on earth in the time of the Pharisees, this attitude had developed into a strong self-righteousness based on how well one would observe and keep the law. The “better” someone could keep all the laws, then the “better” that person was. The Pharisees for the most part believed they were better and treated others just like they were not. Jesus actually addressed this in a parable that would have seemed quite shocking to those who hear it (Luke 18:9-14):
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
We fall into this same trap today. Those of us in the Church, the people of God, get so consumed with our own morality and self-righteousness that we, either blatantly or subtlety, look at the lost world with contempt. Instead of thinking, “They need to hear the good news of Christ from us,” we think, “They need to act more like us.”
Today as cultures and lifestyles that differ from us assert themselves in the world, the sharp division of contempt or compassion becomes more and more apparent. Our contempt grows in the face of the celebration of sin rather than compassion for the lostness of those who are deceived by such things.
How do we combat this battle that rages within us? It all begins when we remember what actually sets us apart is not our own doing. Remember what Paul wrote in Romans 5:8:
But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Even when we did not deserve it – Christ gave his life for us! How quickly we forget this! If we look back at Jonah, he forgot it too:
Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
Our pride lies to us. It tells us that we make ourselves good and what we do good makes us better than someone else. Then we don’t have any reason to share our faith when we are wrapped up in our own self-righteous bubble.
The time has come to burst that bubble and remember that our good is not really that good. Jesus died to set us free from the burden of self-righteousness, but we still struggle with it daily. We will never take the gospel to the world if we continue seeing it with contempt instead of compassion.
May our hearts be broken so that we will honor Christ as Lord and see the world as he sees! Christ, the only one ever without sin, saw the world with compassion and love. As Christ-followers, we are called to do the very same!
Here are some steps to take if you are struggling with a compassionate heart for the lost:
- Ask for forgiveness – Ask God to forgive you for holding on to your pride and self-righteousness
- Remember – Remember back when you gave your life to Christ. What led you to that?
- Humbly serve – Start small and serve others. Have the same mind that Christ did like Paul wrote in Phil. 2
- Read the Bible – this may sound like a no-brainer, but the best way to combat the lies of pride is with the Word of Truth
- Be accountable – Be a part of group of believers that will help keep your heart in check