I've written about Jonah before. And last Sunday I talked to the good Jesus Army people in Coventry about him - particularly about the episode with the plant (Jonah 4 – not as famous as the episode with the whale, but just as instructive).
With Jonah's help, I explored anger.
Reminiscent of the older brother in Jesus' "Lost Son" story, Jonah is displeased at God’s grace. Before we leap to say ‘How wrong!’ (and, yes, he's undoubtedly wrong) we should remember that Nineveh had terrorised and brutalised the world including Jonah's own people.
Grace is scandalous. If you've stopped being shocked by it, beware. Maybe grace has left you behind. Maybe you're left with a tidy religious system. The fact is grace had burst out of control in Jonah's eyes. Things hadn’t turned out how Jonah wanted – or thought they should.
Result: he was angry. And he expressed it! "Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live." This is a full-scale, spit-your-dummy-out, not-playing-anymore strop.
So what does God say? “You are wrong to be angry with the righteous God and therefore I will smite thee and strike you down with lightening until all that remains is a small patch of burnt ground”?
Well, no. God asks a question: “Do you do well to be angry?” This is tender; this is grace; this is God honouring Jonah’s humanity and dignity.
But Jonah's not yet ready to have his anger questioned or probed. He retires to the sidelines ("to the east of the city") – as people often do when they’re hurt – and finds his comfort in lesser things – as people often do when they’re hurt.
Three divine ‘appointments’ show God's grace towards Jonah. The first is comforting – the "plant" – the second disturbing – the "worm" – the third downright provoking – the "scorching east wind". God won't abandon Jonah to soul-destroying rage. He comforts – but then He provokes his anger further; brings it to the surface to be dealt with.
Ever seen two riled guys with one saying ‘Come on! Come on!’ and giving the other little pushes to start a fight? Well – here's God doing the divine equivalent of just that. Jonah is sinking into his unexpressed anger and God provokes and pushes – and asks again: "Do you do well to be angry?" And this time God gets a response: "YES! Yes I do well enough to be angry! Angry enough to die!"
Anger is powerful: God help us, we must learn how to handle it. "Anger is like an accelerator in a car" says Myra Chave-Jones in her book, Living with Anger; "when a learner it has startling power, but with experience it becomes an extension of ourselves and can be used without anxiety or threat."
In a similar vein, Eugene Peterson (of The Message fame) points out that anger is "useful as a diagnostic tool" (it points out that something is wrong), but less useful in that it fails to tell us "whether the wrong is inside or outside of us".
Anger expressed in temper can be very destructive, can be sin, as James points out in the New Testament. God grows self-control in us.
But anger bottled up and denied can also lead to sin. And sometimes that sin is worse; longer-term, deeper rooted. It can lead to entrenched attitudes, unbelief – and outbreaks of rage over other, smaller, things. Anger denied becomes a cold, grey, but very flammable sludge inside the soul. A spark can set it blazing!
"What happens to anger once it is censured?" asks theologian Lytta Basset in her book, Holy Anger. "Repressed anger falls upon an innocent person: the anger of the employer
falls on the employee, of the parent on the child, of the child on the
younger brother or sister, who takes it out on the cat!"
Paul gives a command in the New Testament, which is really two commands: "Be angry and do not sin." Be angry - don't deny it! But do not sin - work it out rightly! Paul is citing Psalm 4:4, which goes on to give an example of working through, of handling, of dealing with, anger: "Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent."
Ponder it! Work it through! Question it, probe it, discover its source and cause. On your own (who hasn't had a sleepless night working through anger over one thing or another?) and with others. Sometimes, with serious anger over serious hurts, counselling can help.
Only this way can we avoid anger becoming murder - figuratively or literally. Only then can anger be used can be "used without anxiety or threat".
René Girard, French historian, literary critic,
and social philosopher, warns us about undealt-with anger: "[There is a] tendency, universal among human
beings, to unburden their accumulated violence on another, a substitute
victim... Scapegoats continue to exist...
Everywhere and always, when humans cannot or dare not attack the object
of their anger, they unconsciously look for substitutes, and most of the
time they find them."
When Paul adds "Don’t let the sun go down on your anger" he means something like "deal with your anger before it goes cold". There's a time to "count to ten" to avoid temper outbursts. There's a time to "ponder in your heart on
your bed" to work anger through. But don't bury it – "don’t let the sun go down" –
don’t deny it or put it off!
Most anger ends up at God sooner or later if let to run its course. Anger at God needs particular care – but it also can provide a gateway into liberation because God is the one who is supremely able to receive our rage, our fury, our hurt and wounded sense of wrong done – and take it.
So Jonah, provioked by God, expresses his anger to God. The painful honesty of the dialogue with God that follows has the potential to open up new perspectives ("Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city?")
We don't know how it ends with Jonah. His book ends, tantalisingly, with a question mark. Maybe, like Cain, he refused God's provovation and sank into murderous violence. Maybe, like Job, he had it out with God and made it through into peace. Maybe like Paul, he had to go round the block a few times. Maybe like Jesus, God stressed him out to the point of illness.
We're all angry. God give us grace to tell Him. To work it through. To find the peace that He wants to give us.