The God I Don't Like
Jonah doesn’t come across that well in the Bible. He is the prophet who is disobedient, running in the opposite direction when God calls him. He doesn’t want people to hear the warning and he sulks when they repent. God asks him, “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” It’s a rhetorical question - the answer is meant to be yes, and the implication is that Jonah isn’t concerned for them.
But consider who these people are to Jonah. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a nation known for its ruthless warfare and gruesome treatment of enemies. We have sources which show defeated people being skinned alive, having their tongues pulled out, and being made to grind the bones of their dead ancestors.
The Assyrians are those who strip, abuse and shame. These are the people for whom Jonah finds it hard to rustle up some compassion. I get that. Anyone with a shred of empathy gets that.
Those of us who have experienced what it is to be stripped, abused or shamed can imagine what might be going through Jonah’s head:
- I don’t want to be anywhere near them. I won’t be safe.
- Do these people even have the capacity for repentance? How will we know it’s not fake repentance (again)?
- Even if they do repent, what then? So they get forgiveness and it’s all over? No! I was justice!
Yes, I can see where Jonah is coming from. Because if I am in his shoes and God comes to me and says, ‘what about these?’, I’m not sure how I answer.
I’m with Jonah. I resist this God too. What is this great and terrible love of God, that He has enough mercy even for the despicable?
And yet, when I read Nahum, who lived around the same time as Jonah, I am confronted by another God I don’t like, the One who punishes evil.
Nahum’s oracle paints a graphic picture of the utter destruction of Nineveh. It is mocking in its tone, daring the Ninevites to shore up their defences and at the same time painting a picture of Nineveh under siege. In Nahum’s prophecy, it is Nineveh who is stripped (2:10), shamed (3:5), and abandoned (3:18).
This is presented as good news to God’s people (1:15). Justice will be theirs for Nineveh’s past atrocities, and there will be future peace. Nineveh’s destruction means their security (1:5) and restoration (2:2). It’s even likely that this oracle was never presented to Nineveh but was given to God’s people as comfort in their afflictions and oppressions.
Something about it doesn’t feel right to me though. God’s wrath is just so fierce and unrelenting. If God must punish, must He be so gleeful about it? If He responds in kind to those who strip and shame and abuse, is He any better than they are?
It turns out, punishing evil and bringing about justice is kind of complicated. Who can handle the complexities of those of us who, perhaps like Jonah, have been stripped, shamed and abused? Who can offer us safety? Who can we trust to see the truth of the situation, not the pretence of those who hurt us? If that question is put to us, “Should I not forgive these?” and we are not sure how to answer, to whom can we look without fear?
For me, there is only one. His name is Jesus.
He sees through every false repentance. He called out those who look good on the outside but are full of hypocrisy and wickedness (Matt 23:27-28). Even as He hung on a cross, he turned His face away from the arrogant and towards the humble (Luke 23:39-45). I need not worry that he will be taken in by false repentance and side with those who manipulate. God cannot be mocked (Galatians 6:7). I can trust Him to make righteous judgements.
And yet, this righteous One is also merciful. He is the One who gave himself to be stripped, shamed and abused on behalf of others. That includes me (for I too am a sinner), and perhaps even those who have hurt me. And yes, as Jesus is stripped, shamed and abused, forgiveness is offered even to the most despicable should they repent. But we are not left with forgiveness offered to all while the vulnerable remain unprotected.
Because the One who self-offered and was despised and afflicted, was also raised in glory. He is King as He hangs on that cross, and He is vindicated as He ascends from the place of the dead, and He rules at the right hand of the Father. He who was stripped, shamed and abused is now clothed in splendour, surrounded by glory, worshipped by the angels. He calls me friend and sister and His kingdom is given to those who are poor in spirit and persecuted. There the mourners are comforted. And so His vulnerability brings my security.
In learning this, I find I do want this righteous One also to be merciful. This path He carves out of forgiving the despicable causes my very bones to shake, but this is the path to his kingdom, where I am offered refuge and healing. It’s only the One who has been merciful in bringing forgiveness who can also bring security to me. So when I am asked, “Should I not forgive these?” I bow my head and say, with tears in my eyes and hope in my heart, “I cannot know the heart of a man, but I trust that you will make all things right.”
Tamie hails from Adelaide and lives in Tanzania with her husband and two sons. In partnership with CMS Australia, they work with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES).