Most of us are at least nominally familiar with the story of Jonah, the prophet called by God to preach to the people of the city of Nineveh. Jonah decides that this a pretty ridiculous request and runs in the opposite direction, boarding a ship bound for Tarshish (either Carthage in Northern Africa or ancient Spain). A great storm comes upon the ship and the only way for the crew to survive is to thrown Jonah overboard. He is promptly swallowed by a fish, left for three days in what must have been a beyond-words-disgusting environment and is finally spit out onto the land after crying out to God. Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches all across the city, telling the people to turn to God or be destroyed.
They choose repentance.
This seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 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. Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live!” – 4:1-3 (NKJV)
Seems a bit excessive, doesn’t it?
Jonah had good reason to be upset that the inhabitants of Nineveh would go unpunished. The city was the capital of Assyria, one of the cruelest nations in ancient history. Expansionist policies during the Neo-Assyrian empire (911-612 B.C.) consisted of “systematic economic exploitation of subject states. . .[and] vicious military action.” (1) This was no “live-and-let-live” type of conquest.
Assyria had intermittently harassed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, where Jonah lived, since its inception. While the decisive victory would come in 722 B.C. with the fall of Samaria and the deportation of at least 27,000+ from that city alone, it is safe to say that national prejudices were running high during Jonah’s time. He “does not want God to relent and is angry with Yahweh being true to Himself.” (2) Jonah wanted to see the inhabitants of Nineveh, and probably the rest of Assyria burn (see Luke 9:54 and its surrounding context for another example of this brand of intense disgust).
I understand Jonah’s anger. When someone has wronged me or those that I care about, I want to see them punished!
But then God asks a question:
“Is it right for you to be angry?” – 4:4 (NKJV)
Jonah certainly thought he was in the right, but it’s glaringly obvious in reading the text that he should feel the same compassion that God does. The people have chosen to turn away from their wickedness and God forgave them. Shouldn’t that be a cause for rejoicing?
Jonah is left shaking his head.
I haven’t been called to preach a message of repentance in an atmosphere of racial and cultural intolerance, nor have I ever pitched a fit about God forgiving someone and welcoming her into His family. Nevertheless, the question haunts me. “Is it right for you to be angry?”
There are times when we can answer this with an honest and unequivocal “yes.” Nowhere in Scripture does it say that anger is wrong. We should feel angry when we witness or experience abuse or betrayal. It would be abnormal if we didn’t. So, if someone spreads a rumor about me, I’m going to be offended. I’m going to be angry that this person felt the right and the need to be so hurtful.
Would it be right, however, to be angry about it months later?
I have heard it said that depression and anxiety are anger turned inward. Instead of expressing the sense of injustice, lips remain sealed and a placid expression remains on the face. It is a different story within. The incident is studied over and over again, the hurt growing each time it is looked at. Conversations are imagined, the “enemy” always coming out on the losing end. Eventually a place is reached where punishment is actively hoped for; it becomes easy to enjoy the misfortunes of others.
Someplace buried deep inside, where all the secrets are kept, it becomes easy to ask God to burn others.
It frightens me to know that I have the capacity to be (and have been, more than once) just like Jonah. How quickly anger can be blown out of proportion. How simple it is to expend precious energy fuming and fussing.“Is it right for you to be angry?”
There comes a point when the only true answer to this question is “no.” We know that. We know when we’ve held on to the pain and the offense far too long. The stench of it clings to us like garbage sitting in the sun. We can’t go anywhere, do anything or be in relationship with anyone without the smell tinging everything. What’s worse, we’re not the only ones who notice it. All we come into contact with know, somehow, that the rage burns.
Anger can be constructive. It can motivate us to have that difficult talk, to stand up for the oppressed, to work to make things better. And that is the point – anger must move us to action, for in that action the anger dissipates. New perspectives are achieved. Energies are moved in a healthy direction Holding on to anger clouds the vision and blocks the ears.
I want to experience this beautiful, blessed and messy life without the blinders of intense, misplaced anger. I want to rejoice in God’s forgiving spirit, knowing that His justice is still maintained and that He cares about the hurts I feel. I want to release the heaviness generated by carrying around so many things and people into His capable hands.
Old, musty anger robs us of joy and delight. It saps our energy. It makes us bitter, difficult and unpleasant people.
Let’s move on.
(1) Chad Brand, ed., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. (Nashville.: Holman Reference., 2003.), s.v. “Assyria.”
(2) Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 233.
This post appeared on the Far East Broadcasting Company Gospel Blog on April 24, 2014.