As a child learning Bible stories, I was intrigued by the Old Testament tale of Jonah the prophet. The idea of spending three days in the belly of a live fish never failed to stir my curiosity and horror. How did he eat, breathe or go to the bathroom? However, I didn’t think at all about the question that now provokes my greatest concern with this narrative: why did God put Jonah through such a gruesome ordeal? Couldn’t He have gotten the prophet’s attention with a method a little less abusive (to him and the fish)? The man finally relented and obeyed (though it doesn’t appear his heart ever embraced it). What was Jonah’s issue that bothered God so much?
Some Bad Dudes
The problem centered on a group of people called the Assyrians. Of all the brutal, twisted, fiendish ancient warriors, these citizens of Mesopotamia, with Nineveh as their capital city, were at the top of the conqueror’s food chain. Their armies had completely obliterated nation after nation. Some of their artistic images we have today show soldiers cutting out the tongues of prisoners of war; flaying captives while still alive, then impaling them on sharp poles. Those they didn’t torture and kill were exported as slaves. The news of their atrocities was calculated to strike fear in every people group they were yet planning to invade. To the Assyrians, cruelty was merely a practical component of the business of world domination.
Jonah would have been very aware of all the gruesome stories. He understood these savage subjugators were making their way toward his home in Israel. “Hate” is a mild word for what he felt. However, when he received the call of God to “get up and go to the great city of Nineveh [and] announce [God’s] judgment against it because [God has] seen how wicked its people are (Jonah 1:1), Jonah did not rejoice over the opportunity to preach fire and brimstone to these sadistic murderers. Instead, He knew the gracious character of God well enough to realize there was only one reason the Sovereign Lord would want His judgment announced: God was hoping the Assyrians would hear, repent, and change their ways. The Lord desired to forgive and show them mercy. But this was the last thing Jonah wanted for his people’s enemy. So he took off in the opposite direction.
Yet even after God’s severe intervention with the giant fish, Jonah’s heart didn’t change, though he reluctantly obeyed the second time. In Nineveh he preached God’s judgment against their sin and announced the coming destruction of their city—hoping all along they wouldn’t respond. However, to his utter disappointment, they acknowledged their evil and sincerely repented. And the Almighty Judge spared the city. The story ends with God scolding Jonah for not understanding His merciful heart for ALL people. The prophet’s hatred had blinded him to God’s larger plan.
Complexities of Hating Evil
Hatred is bad—but not always in the Bible. Proverbs 6:16-19 gives us seven things that God hates: “haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that kill the innocent, a heart that plots evil, feet that race to do wrong, a false witness who pours out lies [and] a person who sows discord among brothers and sisters.” It’s right to loathe evil activity and the injustice it brings. God’s hatred of bad behavior, however, amazingly does not interfere with His tenderness and compassion for people. In spite of the sin that He despises in this world, He does not want anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
Humans, on the other hand, don’t naturally handle hatred that way. Once we lock onto something as bad, hurtful, unjust, disgusting or evil, we tend to reject and hate everything and everyone associated with it. If we’re not careful, mercy evaporates from our hearts. And we drift from God.
There are a lot of unacceptable things in our world to hate right now. Everything from racial inequities, political corruption, and child exploitation to greed, false accusations, and plain old narcissistic behavior in relationships. The more intensely I focus my disgust on one or more of these things, I feel my blood pressure rise. Typically, while in this state of mind, I find no room in my heart for compassion, and I long to see all offending people and groups pay for their transgressions. Mercy? Grace? Ha! They don’t deserve such things.
Yet, I’m afraid that many of us who follow this pattern (and it’s so easy to justify it) are missing the heart of God. Jesus revealed our Heavenly Father’s way when He said that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He goes on to say, “In that way you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For He gives His sunlight to both the evil and the good, and He sends rain on the just and the unjust alike(Matthew 5:44-45, NLT). We know that God hates evil and injustice, yet He manages His hatred so profoundly different than us. Somehow He holds the two in tension so His compassion doesn’t collapse under His loathing of wickedness. God has always expected His people (like Jonah and us) to understand and manage their relationships this way too.
We Have to Be Different
What needs to change to walk this way? For starters, I must learn to exercise a lot more humility. As a finger-pointer, it’s always a simple thing to overlook my own transgressions, prejudices and selfishness to more intensely highlight the evil I am seeking to expose and correct (read Choosing to Not Point My Finger). Humble compassion is what I need to rightly challenge sin and injustice. I need to constantly remind myself that at any moment I could be justly accused for my own failings and wrong-doing.
In addition, followers of Jesus must understand that we are called to do things differently than the popular culture or the “group think” of our particular social or religious crowds. We are set apart to be like our Heavenly Father in the way He forgives and shows kindness to those who are undeserving. In the end, He is the only one who can bring about justice in the right way. Our hatred of evil tends to create more evil. On our own, we just can’t handle it like He does.
The Great Manager
It’s easy for me to shake my head over’s Jonah’s inability to appreciate God’s compassionate heart. Yet with just a few adjustments in the circumstances, I would be right there with him. I want to learn to balance compassion and justice from God because He is a perfect picture of both.
Approximately 70 years after Jonah, Nineveh was destroyed by the Babylonians. According to the prophet Nahum, it was God’s just judgment that finally caught up with the Assyrians. May all of us as followers of Jesus learn to trust God for His justice in His timing and not rely on our own hatred to bring it about.
Let’s never let our love grow cold.