My father was a boy during World War 2. He often heard of atrocities that America’s enemies, the Japanese and the Germans, were committing. According to the stories, those foreigners were the villainous aggressors, and they were seeking to come to our country to do the same things. In his child’s imagination, the images of these people resembled monsters. They were evil incarnate.
Then came the day he learned that his own grandparents and mother were Germans. The mental dissonance was overwhelming. How could his gentle, caring mom be one of the enemy? Of course, she wasn’t. And thus my dad had his first lesson on one of the problems that come with judging whole groups of people with simplistic labels.
What are God’s thoughts on canceling people because of their reputation, behavior, or beliefs?
A Prophet’s Struggles
We get a good idea of God’s perspective in the Old Testament book of Jonah. God told this prophet to go to Nineveh and announce that unless the people of that city repented of their evil ways, it was going to be destroyed. Jonah however, refused. He got on a ship sailing the opposite direction, seeking to get as far from Nineveh as possible. A horrendous storm came up, and to keep the rest of the passengers and sailors from perishing, Jonah had them throw himself overboard. He was aware that his disobedience was the cause of the storm. What happened next is the most familiar part of his story.
A giant fish swallowed him. And we are told that he survived in its belly for three days while he went through an uncomfortable repentance process. He was then spit onto dry ground and given a second chance to do what God had instructed.
I have tended to view Jonah as a jerk. The story narrator tells us that the prophet didn’t want to preach to the people of Nineveh because he was concerned they would actually respond to his message. That’s not the usual fear of a preacher.
“I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people” (Jonah 4:2 NLT).
And because he was familiar with these character qualities of God, he rightly predicted how the Almighty would respond if the people of Nineveh responded to his message. God is merciful and prefers to forgive than destroy. So, how could this prophet of God know all this and yet be so heartless toward Nineveh?
But they were REALLY bad
There is a backstory that provides some insight to Jonah’s feelings. Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrians. And they were known as the most brutal warriors of the ancient world, specializing in systematic torture. Today, we would call their methods systemic psychological warfare.
By establishing such a gruesome reputation, cities would immediately surrender before the Assyrian army was even in sight. Everyone heard of the burning, impaling, beheading, flaying of skin, chopping off of limbs and genitals, poking out eyes. It was done to men, women, and children. The Assyrian kings claimed it to be their divine right as rulers to torture their enemies. Jonah, an Israelite, was intimately acquainted with all the horrendous stories. And he knew the Assyrian army would eventually make its way to his homeland. He feared and hated them. They were thoroughly evil and deserved no mercy.
Am I that different?
Not a lot has changed in the human heart over the past 3,000 years. We still hear of atrocities committed that are not much different than those of the Assyrians. I think of ISIS and the Taliban. And who knows how many have secretly wished terrible degradation and suffering onto those who have hurt them – but have just never acted on it or been found out? Of course it’s still generally accepted and even encouraged to hate our enemies, especially the really bad ones. There’s the recent and growing trend to pour out vitriol onto those who disagree with our politics or how we respond to the virus. We are now encouraged to consider pretty much anyone an enemy who disagrees with us. If words were physical weapons, we today would make the ancient Assyrians look like novices with our intentions to slice, dice, and inflict pain and misery onto others.
As a follower of Jesus, I want to know God’s heart in all this. How does He expect me, one of His children, to respond to despicable people and those I strongly disagree with? His interactions with Jonah and Nineveh seem like a good place to start. The God of justice appears to have been more interested in showing mercy to bad and ignorant people rather than destroying them – especially if there was any chance that His generosity would be well received.
God knew what Jonah knew, and even more, about the Assyrian people. Nothing good or bad is hidden from His sight. And Jonah knew enough about God’s gracious and merciful character to figure out that the All-Knowing Judge would forgive these people of their terrible deeds if they gave Him the opportunity. Yet Jonah chose to still hate them because he felt like he had a good enough reason.
God’s man disregarded God’s heart.
Choosing to be Like God
How often have I justified my own hateful thoughts, words, or actions because I evaluated another person’s or group’s thoughts, words, or actions as my enemy and therefore bad. But Jesus reveals our Heavenly Father’s heart plainly: “Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! 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).
True children, strive to be like their Heavenly Father in the big and little offenses. The only way to be like Him with this kind of love is to confess the truth about the hatred and animosity we have let build up in our hearts. We then must practice letting go of the offense(s), that is forgive (which doesn’t mean we’re saying they’re right). And then we can invite His love to fill the space within which hatred, bitterness, and hostility have occupied.
Say “NO” to the Way of Jonah
Jesus followers must resist walking in the spirit of Jonah. Such a way of thinking justifies malice and bitterness as if it is righteous anger held within one’s heart towards another. It also wraps itself in a self-righteous veneer that makes canceling others feel virtuous. And all the while one’s own sins and failings are overlooked as “not nearly as bad” or even non-existent.
As a follower of Jesus, treat your enemies like you would treat your kind and gracious mother or grandmother. And in this way be more like your Heavenly Father.
Mercy will ultimately triumph over judgment. (James 2:13).
I want to learn the way of mercy.