Ever read the Bible and find it's reading you? I found this with Jonah chapter 4 today. Jonah, sulk-full of self-pity is quarelling with God under what Eugene Peterson memorably called 'the unpredictable plant'. A lesson in grace unfolds.
A number of biblical characters quarrel with God. Sometimes they are wrong and earn correction – like Paul; sometimes, they are vindicated and gain God’s approval – like Abraham; sometimes both – like Job.
Jonah quarrels with God because God relented from destroying Nineveh. It is not clear why this made Jonah so angry: maybe because it made Jonah’s message of coming judgement seem untrue; maybe because Jonah saw the (non-Jewish) Ninevites as unworthy of grace.
In fact, grace – undeserved favour – is a key theme here. God’s grace is shown not only in His forgiveness of Nineveh, but also in the way He handles Jonah. He doesn’t blast this sulking prophet for his self-centred anger; He gently asks a question: “Do you do well to be angry?”
Then, just as gently, God teaches Jonah a lesson, using the unpredictable plant, which first grows to shade Jonah and then withers. God helps Jonah to see the smallness of his heart, asking the same pointed question: “Do you do well to be angry...?”
And the book of Jonah is unique among biblical books in that it ends with a question: “And should not I pity Nineveh...?” This puts the challenge not only to Jonah, but also to me: can I see from the perspective of God’s huge, all-embracing, gracious love?
It makes me ask myself questions like: How easily can I accept those who are different to me? How quickly can I forgive? How gentle (rather than swift to correct or rebuke) am I with those who are (as I see it anyway) in the wrong?
We never find out what happened to Jonah, whether he languished in self-pity or learnt the lessons of grace that God was so patiently teaching him.
I can't do much about Jonah anyway. He's long gone. But I can do something about me.