Here's a question for you: what are the first thoughts that come to your mind when you think of Al-Qaeda?
I'm in the final stretch of the book "Counterfeit Gods" by Tim Keller. This is an amazing book which uses common stories from the bible to help the reader understand the evil and often hidden sin of idolatry in the hearts of some of the bible's most famous characters.
So much of this book has hit me right in my heart. How idols are hidden in our hearts and how these idles are usually not bad things, but instead good things which we allow to become 'ultimate' things and take the place of God in our lives. These things can be anything from:
| Money | Love | Sex | Success & Power | Wisdom | Race & Religion |
These are all innocent things, which God has created for our enjoyment, but just like so many other things sin creeps in and totally changes the game. Turning these good things into areas of temptation, sin and idolatry in our lives and in our hearts.
One story in this book that stuck out to me was that of Jonah. Of course growing up I knew all about this character (or so I thought). How God called him to do something great, challenged his faith, but because of fear (I'll get back to this later) Jonah chose to flee from God instead of listen and obey. As we are all well aware, the story goes on to tell us that God sent a storm to "slap some sense" into Jonah, and when Jonah realized that this storm was caused by his disobedience, he told the crew of the ship (who were casting lots to see who was responsible for the calamity) to throw him into the sea to save their ship and their lives (Jonah 1:12). Jonah was then swallowed by a 'big fish' and right there, in the belly of the fish, he was finally brought to the understanding that one cannot flee from God and even when God calls a person to do things they are fearful or uncomfortable with, they should have faith, listen and obey anyway.
That's usually where the story ends for children. It's a great story with analogies that show children the importance of listening to God and obeying his will. This story can also be used (manipulated) to help children understand the significance of listening and obeying not only to God but to parents as well.
And that's usually where the story ends. We don't typically hear this story outside of Sunday school. It's a great story for the kids, because it's exciting and it has a whale in it...(and the whales always look so cute on the felt board) but most people assume that this story has no significance in the life of an adult who is dealing with real issues of faith and life...but that thought couldn't be further from reality.
In all of my years reading the story of Jonah, with the help of Tim Keller, this is the first time I have ever come to grips with the real issue plaguing Jonah. God called Jonah (in Jonah 1:2) to, "go to Nineveh" and "call out against" the evil that they were committing. But the strange thing is that the very next verse (Jonah 1:3) says that Jonah fled after receiving this "calling" from God. However, the reason behind Jonah's escape attempt has been twisted by many people today into something it really wasn't about. Jonah wasn't "FEARFUL" that he would be killed or mistreated for calling out against the evil in Nineveh. No, quite the contrary. Jonah was worried that God would find it in his heart to forgive them of their evil and restore them into a relationship with himself, and this troubled Jonah's heart enough to flee from God.
But why? Why would Jonah be so upset at God's call on his life to speak truth in Nineveh and call them to repent? The answer is wrapped in Jonah's idolatry. Jonah was a patriot, he loved his heritage and nationality (Jonah 1:9) and because of this he had contempt in his heart for Nineveh and it's people (the Assyrian's) whose evil was directly felt by Jonah and his people. Essentially these people were Jonah's enemies, and the love he had for his people and his culture had grown into bitterness and hate towards the Assyrian's and he wanted nothing to do with their repentance and turning towards God. He wanted to see them suffer...he wanted to see their demise.
But God had other plans...and to make matters worse, his plans included not only showing grace to the people of Nineveh, but also to use Jonah as the vessel. And God had another point to make as well; to show Jonah the pride and idolatry in his heart. To reveal to Jonah that his love for his nation and it's people had become his god and was storing up evil and iniquities in his heart.
The story goes on to tell us that Jonah finally followed God's will, he called out against Nineveh and they repented. They followed God, and turned from their wickedness. Under any other circumstances a revival like this would have been celebrated by the evangelist who was lucky (blessed) enough to play a role in God's work...but Jonah was not happy at all...in fact he was the opposite (Jonah 4:1). Jonah was angered by the LORD's grace, so much so that he asked to be put to death. He said to God,
"O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That 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."
But God's response to Jonah was simple and striking...He simply said, Do you do well to be angry?
This is the point. God was trying to help Jonah see and understand the root of the anger and evil in his heart. How could Jonah, a man who clearly understood God's grace, mercy and steadfast love, be so angry at God for doing what comes naturally to him? How could he be upset with God for showing the same kindness to Nineveh that he did for Jonah and the entire nation of Israel? Jonah was angry because idolatry had taken control of his heart. Jonah had more desire for the nation of Nineveh to suffer destruction for their evil against Israel then he did to see God's abounding grace and love poured out on sinners.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:44 to, "love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us]." These words are significant for two reasons. First, we are not suppose to harbor vengeance, hatred and judgement in our hearts. We are not God. We are sinners and we are incapable of infinite justice. Only God can judge and punish perfectly, and all our efforts or attempts to do so simply fall short. We demand justice for those who sin against us, but we want God to show us mercy...which is the second reason Christ's words in Matthew are so important for us. God has shown us mercy. We were the enemies of God because of our sin. We despised him, rejected him, turned our backs on him and were unfaithful to him...yet instead of justice, wrath and punishment we received grace and steadfast love. This is the heart of the gospel, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
That is what God was trying to get Jonah to understand. Jonah's idols had created a skewed gospel in his heart and mind. A gospel, which in Jonah's mind, only Hebrews were good enough to receive. It was their right based on their race. They were the only group entitled to God's grace. Jonah's gospel was no longer about God's love, mercy and grace...but was now about God's favor for a specific people group...a people that Jonah just so happened to be a part of. God reminded Jonah that his love is for all people willing to repent from their wickedness and return to God. That his steadfast love and abounding mercy can cover even the most wicked sinners and wash them white as snow.
So, the question that we need to ask ourselves is this; are we loving our enemies in the way God has called us to, or in the way our flesh desires? Do we demand justice for our enemies or does our heart break for those who are unsaved? What are the first thoughts that come to your mind when you think of Al-Qaeda? Do you feel hatred towards them because of their evil against America and maybe even people you knew and loved? Do you look forward to them meeting God so he can send them to hell for their wickedness? Are you like Jonah was in this story, or does your heart break for them because they are lost?
If you're like me, I have a feeling you too can learn a lot from the 'real' story of Jonah.
For His Glory,