Does the church hate forgiveness? (Like Jonah)

We know who’s in. We know who’s out.

There’s a sickness in Christianity today.

Pastors publicly denouncing other pastors. Bloggers parsing the words of Christian writers, dissecting and weighing their theology to determine if they are orthodox. Christians waving protest signs declaring exactly who God hates.

We’ve got an epidemic of the Jonah Syndrome.  As it spreads we’re not even noticing when God shows up. Just like Jonah.

Do you remember his story? It’s not just about a big fish; in fact the fish is a big distraction.

Jonah hated forgiveness.

Photo Credit:  Unknown
Photo Credit: Unknown

God tapped Jonah for the task of taking a message of judgement to Nineveh. This was the capital of Assyria, a brutal neighboring superpower. The Assyrians would sweep into Israel unexpectedly, burning down villages, leaving every inhabitant dead or enslaved. Jonah didn’t want this job.

He booked a cabin on a ship headed across the Mediterranean. His destination? To “flee from God’s presence.” Enroute, a storm hit. Jonah convinced the crew to throw him overboard, ending up as fish food for three days. Knowing he was running out of time, Jonah begged God for mercy. Then the fish, in a bout of divine nausea, spat the prophet onto the shore.

With new motivation, Jonah obeyed. An angry street preacher, he railed against Nineveh. To everyone’s shock, the people listened. They turned to God. It’s the ideal outcome for a preacher, you’d think. But Jonah just got angry.

Turns out this was exactly why he had run from God in the first place. He knew all about God’s messy tendency to freely distribute mercy, but Jonah hated Nineveh. These people were his enemies. They were immoral. They smelled funny. Jonah’s best hope for them was eternal damnation.

What do we do when God shows up?

Jonah’s tale shows an interesting contrast as different people responded to God.

First, there were the pagan sailors. In the threatening storm, they had been praying like mad to their many gods. But when Jonah hit the water and the storm disappeared, they were awestruck. Jonah 1:16 says, “At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice…and made vows to him.” Surely their theology wasn’t square.  That didn’t matter.  They were in awe.  They worshipped and promised to live differently as a result.

Then, there were the Ninevites. They heard God’s message and stopped in their tracks. They begged forgiveness.  Even more, they actually changed their behavior.

Finally, there was Jonah. He was one of God’s people. He was a prophet. He was raised with God’s word. But when God showed up asking something of him, Jonah ran. When he was confronted by the sailors, he decided he’d rather die in the sea than repent. When he obeyed, it was because a fish spat him in the right direction. And then, when revival broke out in Ninenveh, instead of celebrating Jonah whined that he’d rather die than see these pagans turn to God.

I’d laugh if it weren’t still happening today.

Word Art: Marc Alan Schelske.  Original Art credit:  Anonymous of the Appleton Compassion Project.
Word Art: Marc Alan Schelske. Original Image credit: Anonymous of the Appleton Compassion Project.

Jonah’s problem with grace was that he didn’t want his enemies to be forgiven. In his mind they were foreign, evil and deserved nothing but destruction. He wanted to camp out under a tree and watch the city crumble in a rain of epic smiting.

The Jonah Syndrome is rampant in the church today. How many of our words boil down to fights over who we think deserves God’s grace?

We’re arguing and debating and painting more signs, while all around us modern pagans, self-help humanists, LGBT folks and others who don’t fit into our “good Christian” expectations are discovering Jesus. They are finding grace and transformation.

Who are the people holding onto God’s anger for God? Who are they? It’s only us. The people with God’s story and invitation of grace in our back pockets. We’ve become religious accountants, tabulating everyone else’s balance. In the middle of our hand-wringing, we’re missing out on God’s presence.

It shouldn’t be so.

[Tweet “Our experience of God’s grace is limited by our willingness to let grace flow to others.”]

If you have the good fortune of having grown up in a family that loved God and taught you grace, how can you not extend the same to those around you? If you’ve been rescued from the pit by an act of God, you know the reach of God’s mercy. We have no excuse for not throwing ourselves to the floor in gratitude and wonder, and then tripping over ourselves to be the first to share that mercy with someone else.

Don’t let it be the pagans in your life, the ones you think know nothing of God’s mercy, who truly worship before you do. Don’t let it be your own judgement of who is worthy that stands in the way of your experience of transforming Grace.

God is showing up all around us, and inviting us into His crazy adventure. Are you open for God to truly love and save anyone? Until you are, you’ve not really understood God’s heart.

Question: How else do we or our churches struggle with forgiveness?

10 thoughts on “Does the church hate forgiveness? (Like Jonah)

  1. Nice work on this Marc. As much as I believe this is true about the church, it is probably just as true about me more than I’d like to admit.

    1. Hey Brad, thanks so much for leaving a comment! I think you’ve nailed a really important issue. It’s so easy to talk about the problems “the church” has. Much harder to look at how I contribute to that just by being me! So, maybe that’s a follow up post, huh? Am I really OK with forgiveness?

  2. Yes Marc I picture the 2 thieves on the cross besides Jesus I may be on the wrong side many times with my attitude. It always starts and ends with me. My log not your stick.

  3. A technically challenged friend of mine, Kerry, wrote this response to this post. I asked if I could share it here for all of you:

    Forgiveness = forgetting??

    I forget so many things: Where did I put my car keys;did I feed the dogs; did I lock the door, did I make the bed; what did I have for breakfast. I even forgot my wife’s birthday once (NOT COOL!!). Why can’t I forget what YOU did to me? In my life I have held on to even the smallest slights, and have total recall of all of them. WHY?? Because I’m human. Great excuse right??

    It has been a long time coming, but the light is finally shining in those dark places of my heart. I have realized that forgiveness is not about YOU. Forgiveness is about ME! If I don’t let go of my bitterness, my hatred, my need for retribution there can be no healing in my own heart. If I wait for you to apologize, I may be waiting a long time. Maybe you don’t even realize you did anything to wrong me! In my bitterness (I will never tell you about it) I am poisoning my own heart. I try my best to “make you suffer”, but it is me who suffers in the trying.

    God has forgiven so much. I fall so short of His glory every single day. He doesn’t ask me to forget just to forgive as He forgave me. To let go of my need for retribution and let Him heal my heart. Forgiveness isn’t about you, it’s about me. It’s about me letting God work in me to be the grace filled, best person He can make me!

    I may not forget, but I CAN forgive. In the prayer Jesus taught us it seems important to do just that. Forgive us….as we forgive others. If I have ever wronged you please forgive me. I’m like the soldiers who nailed Christ’s hands and feet– I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m an ignorant hu-MAN who needs grace and forgiveness every single day.

  4. Finally, I think this is the context to ask a question I’ve been thinking about.
    If we’re not justified by our works are we actually condemned by our sins?
    Do we really get to tell someone it is this or that sin that is keeping them from God?
    As you say, “How many of our words boil down to fights over who we think deserves God’s grace?” As if we could really prevent someone from receiving God’s grace if God himself was offering it to them. We do sometimes seem to do our darndest to make these people believe that though. I LOVE this thought, it is a pretty great summation of a lot of things I have been learning in the past year: “We’re arguing and debating and painting more signs, while all around us modern pagans, self-help humanists, LGBT folks and others who don’t fit into our “good Christian” expectations are discovering Jesus. They are finding grace and transformation.” AMEN!

    1. Here’s what I’m coming to think: If sin separates us from God, it is only because of what sin does to us. The incarnation makes clear that God has chosen the path of entering into our broken world, broken lives, broken minds and bodies to bring restoration and justification. God is not held back by us, or held away by how awful we are. John 5 is a pretty interesting take on judgement from Jesus’ perspective. I think we need to let go of tasks that belong only to God, and happily take up the real task God has given us. What do you think?

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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