I’ve always thought the concept of being “mad at God” was pretty ridiculous. I’m not sure that I would ever have the boldness or audacity to say that particular phrase. I’ve “felt distant from God,” been “frustrated by what he is doing,” and “struggled to believe that he loves me” before, but never outright admitted to being “mad at him.” It just seems like such a childish stance to take. Childish and weak. And, as I said, pretty ridiculous.
I would also argue that the idea of a grown man being swallowed by a big fish and then spit back up onto the shore to go about his life sounds pretty ridiculous. But as this is the divine, inspired word of God I suppose I must contend that it is true.
John Piper takes the stance that it is never right to be mad at God but always right to express that anger to him and repent of it when it is felt. He explains that his reason for this way of thinking is that being angry at someone suggests a strong disapproval. “If you are angry at me, you think I have done something I should not have done” (Piper). Which, of course, cannot be true if he is the perfect and sovereign God of the universe.
“Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgements” (Revelation 16:7).
Post-big fish debacle, God asks Jonah to go to Ninevah and “call out against it the message that I tell you” (Jonah 3:2). I suppose if my life had just been saved from being in the belly of a fish for three days I might do whatever God tells me to do as well but it certainly doesn’t seem to be an easy request to follow. To go to an unknown people and proclaim to them that God will overthrow them in forty days due to the sins of the people. I imagine it would be both terrifying and humbling – to take on the role of the bearer of seriously bad news – to be feared or hated or made a fool by the people to which you bring this news – and all the other hardships that go along with it that I can’t even imagine. But Jonah had just seen the most tangible expression of God’s faithfulness as he saved him from the fish. So I can only assume that this is what he fell back on and rested in as he walked into Ninevah telling of their imminent destruction.
But then the people repented. And we read this:
“When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10).
“But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry” (Jonah 4:1).
Recap: God tells Jonah to go call out to Ninevah about their evil towards the Lord. He refuses and flees to Tarshish. While on the ship to Tarshish there’s a great storm. Jonah is found out and thrown into the sea. He’s swallowed by a big fish. “Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish” (1:17) (WUT?). The fish pukes him up and God tells him again to go to Ninevah. Empowered by seeing the Lord’s faithfulness to him, Jonah obeys. Then God changes his mind and has mercy on the people. And Jonah is pissed.
Now, I’ve never been called to tell a city of their coming destruction, and I’ve certainly never spent a weekend in the stomach of an animal, but can I say that I greatly empathize with Jonah in this story? He tried to follow what he thought God was telling him and then God seemingly pulls a 180 on him and it all seems pointless. He looks like a fool to Ninevah and (if I may speculate) probably feels hurt, confused, and maybe even deceived. Such that in verse 3 he asks the Lord to take is life, “for it is better for [him] to die than to live.”
Tell me you’ve been there, too. You’ve felt the Lord pull you in one direction only to find the end of that path to be abrupt, thorny, and oftentimes pretty humbling. You’re walking in what you think to be what God has for you only to find yourself later explaining to friends and family how that was wrong. And it’s jarring and difficult and even embarrassing sometimes. And it sucks.
So it brings us back to this question that seems so foolish and trite: what do we do when we’re angry with God?
Because Jonah seems somewhat justified in his anger in that moment. Or at the very least I would say it’s an understandable response. And certainly one that I’ve had before. I may color it as something else to avoid sounding weak or childish, but at the root of those moments, I am angry with the God of the universe because I feel that he has wronged me in some way.
Like when people get divorced or get sick or someone dies “before their time” or a relationship ends the way we didn’t think it was going to or the door you thought the Lord had opened suddenly gets closed in your face. Aren’t we right to be a little angry about that? Isn’t it reasonable to feel deceived or unloved or made a fool? Doesn’t it make sense to be mad?
“Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret – it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land” (Psalm 37:8-9).
“For man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:20).
“And the Lord said [to Jonah], ‘Do you do well to be angry?’ (Jonah 4:4).
So what then, if not anger, should be our response? Because, full disclosure: I don’t handle anger very well. When I feel hurt or betrayed, I shut down and revert to the desires of my flesh. Like I subconsciously (or consciously, depending on the moment) believe that clearly following God doesn’t work so I might as well try something else. And then suddenly high school Bailey has returned (sans the black hair) and my heart becomes hardened to sin and God and emotions and everything else. And it happens pretty quickly. Like a dog returns to its vomit.
Jonah felt deceived and asked God to take his life. I feel deceived and start acting like a 16-year old.
So what do we do? Because
at times today it feels like unless I suddenly get swallowed by the worm at the bottom of this tequila bottle for three days, this pendulum swing between anger and apathy isn’t going anywhere.
“In your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26).
…(Well now you’re just asking for a miracle).
“Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said ‘it is better for me to die than to live.’ But God said to Jonah, ‘do you do well to be angry for the plant?’ And he said, ‘ yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.’ And the Lord said, ‘ you will pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:5-11).
Do I do right to be angry? Do I pity the people and relationships and things that are taken from me for which I did not labor nor did I make them grow? Am I right to be angry with the giver of all things when he subsequently takes those things away? He who makes the plant to shade me in my distress. He who takes that plant away to remind me of his sovereignty. He who saves me from the belly of a fish or the bottom of a bottle despite my evil against him. He who poured out his anger on his perfect, faultless son rather than on my imperfect, indignant self. He who forgives. He who is merciful. He who desires for me to come to him in my anger and grant me the grace of repentance.
“When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:7-9)
Let us not forsake our hope of steadfast love by forgetting who God is. In pain and discipline and loss and hardship, let us remember that he is a God who does not wrong us and does not withhold good from us. But rather, he loves us enough to draw us into sanctification in whatever means he sees fit. Let us trust in his wisdom there. Let us rest in his faithfulness always. And let us not pay regard to vain idols, no matter what they pretend to promise us.
We have been given the hope of steadfast love. Let us not forsake it in the foolishness of indulging in anger.
Salvation belongs to the Lord.
Amen and amen.