Growing up, I somehow got the impression that grace was for other people—for people who slept around or committed adultery, who abused drugs or alcohol, who had uncontrollable tempers and lashed out with abusive words. But people like me—good, church-attending, Bible-believing, law-keeping Christians—why would we need grace? Of course, we made mistakes, or sometimes even messed up. Nobody is perfect, after all. And we expected God to forgive us for those minor peccadillos because . . . well, the rest of our lives were pretty much under control, so why wouldn’t he? Otherwise, who would be left to make up the numbers in church? Certainly not those wild and rebellious sinners!
So, I grew up with a clear division of the world into good people and bad people. Bad people could become part of the church, provided they gave up being bad and became good like us. Good people had better keep on being good, if they wanted to keep on being forgiven by God for all of those little mistakes that kept happening. They had better not ever commit a Really Big Mistake because that might ruin everything.
Of course, one problem with that world view was the reluctance of my own heart to fall into line. Outwardly, I was able to measure up to the expected standards of righteousness, given the gift of a measure of self-control.
My heart, however, was a quite different matter: a hidden cesspool of pride, lust, anger, bitterness, jealousy and assorted other sins. According to the Bible, those sins were just as deadly as all those outward blemishes that I so carefully kept myself away from. But as long as I hid my sins carefully out of sight, they didn’t really count, did they? At least, so I thought.
The end result of this perspective was that I could speak of grace in accurate, theological terms, but I was never really astonished by it. It was there for bad people, who certainly needed it, but I didn’t have that much use for it. As a result, I sometimes had a problem with how freely God seemed to dole it out. In principle, I was fine with the idea of bad people receiving grace, but not when their sins hurt me deeply and personally or when their messiness made people think badly about our church or about Christianity. Those people didn’t deserve to receive the grace of God!
The book of Jonah was written for people like me. In it, we see God doing some astonishing things. There is the huge fish that swallows Jonah and the rampant plant that shades him from the burning sun. Those are just window dressing, though. More remarkable is the repentance of a group of pagan sailors as a result of a storm, and an entire pagan city converted after probably the worst evangelistic outreach in history (Jonah 3:4).
These dramatic conversions demonstrate that salvation truly is of the Lord, as Jonah declares (2:9). Yet their story is also incidental rather than central to the book. The central focus is the Lord’s unrelenting pursuit of Jonah, the self-righteous prophet, who flings Scripture back in God’s face as his reason to be angry with God (see 4:2). Just as Jesus’s parable about the prodigal son does not conclude with the son’s return but shifts its focus onto the heart of the elder brother, so too the book of Jonah shows us an angry, self-righteous believer who would rather die than see God’s grace extended to the undeserving. I can see myself reflected in the mirror of Jonah’s story.
The center of the story is not the ugliness of Jonah’s heart—though that is laid bare for all to see; it is the Lord’s gracious and unrelenting pursuit of him in spite of his self-righteousness. In the story of the prodigal son, the most amazing element is not that the father waits long for the prodigal, scanning the horizon daily for his return; it is that the father leaves the celebration he has organized in order to search for the lost and angry elder brother. He too must return for the father’s joy to be complete.
Here is great news for self-righteous elder brothers like me: The Good Shepherd is not just seeking wandering sheep who know they are lost and far from the fold. He is also seeking the sheep who are proud of the fact they stayed home. The Great Physician not only has a cure for those who know their disease to be terminal; he also has the remedy for those who dismiss their spiritual malady as a mere sniffle. It is not an easy and painless cure. It involves opening our hearts up to public display and recognizing the terrifying truth about our inner selves. We are indeed much more sinful than we have ever dared to confess, perhaps even to ourselves. Our secret anger against God for his mercy and grace to others is every bit as offensive to him as their bold, public breaking of his commandments, because it flows from the same root—a refusal to acknowledge God as God and a desire to reshape him in our image.
All this the book of Jonah makes clear. Yet the book ends with an unanswered question. We never hear the end of Jonah’s story, just as we never hear what the elder brother decided to do in Jesus’s parable. Did he repent in the end, or did he remain hard-hearted? The reason we don’t get the answer is simple: what counts today is not what Jonah decided to do, nor whether the elder brother’s heart was melted by his father’s kindness. The important question is what you will do with the father’s grace, to you and to others. Will it melt your icy heart and open your blind eyes to see your need of grace? Or will you remain stuck in your self-confident assertion that you don’t really need it.
The gospel is, after all, not just the good news of the forgiveness of our sins. It is also the proclamation of a new righteousness given to us as a free gift—the righteousness of Christ. And to receive that gift, we not only have to repent of our sins, but open our hands and let go of our own righteousness. This is very hard for “good people” like me to do, but it is only when we acknowledge our need that we can receive the perfect righteousness God demands of us, a righteousness that comes to us from Jesus and finally gives our frantic hearts the rest we so much crave.
As Herman Melville put in that other book about a big fish, Moby Dick, “Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterians and Pagans alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.” The book of Jonah shows us the astonishing grace that provides healing for “good people” (“Presbyterians”) every bit as much as it does for “pagan” sinners.