The worst opposition to gospel preaching lies within a Christian heart.
Jonah is a strange book because so much of the time we’re trying to figure out why a prophet would run from God and seem so dull to spiritual things. It’s not until his prayer in the last chapter that we find out:
“And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster'” (4:2).
Jonah had a problem with God’s grace, mercy, love, and long-suffering. He was no doubt fine with God displaying these wonderful traits toward him, but not toward those who didn’t deserve it, namely, the devilish people he had been sent to—the Ninevites. Nineveh was a capital city of Assyria, an ancient empire known for its brutality.
Though the empire was harsh and unpleasant during most of its existence, some kings excelled at cruelty toward conquered lands. The Assyrian king Ashurbinapal, dug up tombs, desecrated dead bodies, and brought the humiliation of the conquered to new lows.¹ The king writes: “3000 of their combat troops I felled with weapons…many of the captives taken from them I burned in a fire. Many I took alive, from some (of these) I cut off their hands to the wrist, from others I cut off their noses, ears, and fingers; I put out the eyes of many of the soldiers…I burnt their young men and women to death.”2 He also spoke of skinning victims and decorating his palace walls with the skins.3
Apparently the prophet knew enough of God’s virtues, that if even these people repented, God would forgive them. Jonah was not okay with that arrangement.
And so the man’s attitude is the greatest problem in the entire book. The Assyrian sinners were not the problem—they eventually repented. God was not the problem—He forgave them when they repented. That just leaves Jonah—problematic, opinionated, and sour.
There’s a little Jonah in all of us. We love God, but that same love is often clouded with our own bents and opinions. More accurately, we love and prefer part of Him, conveniently, the part that syncs with our personal preferences. The rest of Him we acknowledge with polite theological toleration, but not much more.
For instance, some people are bothered about His judgments of temporal discipline and eternal punishment. Alternately, a number of others, like Jonah, are annoyed over that big love of His that makes room for people who don’t deserve it. You’d think the concept of grace would have sunk in by now, and it does sound more wonderful as part of a reformed doctrinal package, but not for application to “Ninevites” (whoever they might be).
The gospel, whether it warns of consequences, or thrills with promises of grace, doesn’t always find a welcome home among those who are supposed to bring it, not in its entirety, anyway. When the God behind it is only partially loved, and partially agreed with, our actions and even our prayers reflect this inward problem.
On one occasion, after some of the Samaritan people rejected Jesus, the disciples wanted to call fire down from heaven upon them. Their outrage was high and their bloodlust barely contained. But, Jesus “turned and rebuked them” (9:55). Their attitude needed to be called out.
Maybe you don’t hate the non-believing people around you and in fact, are quite proud of not being judgmental. Yet that may actually mean you’re indifferent, which is to say that while you don’t judge others, you don’t care at all about their future state and where they will spend eternity. No, you may not consciously be repulsed by people and run from them in the other direction, but neither are you willing to be sent to them with the gospel.
This attitude has real time effects upon us. When we don’t accept the broad conceptual idea of being sent to others, we are far less prone to even notice them. When I enter a barbershop, say, the person inside is nothing more than a barber—certainly not a soul God loves and wants to save. Likewise when I sit down in a restaurant, I see a waitress, not a soul whom the Holy Spirit is seeking. In each of these cases, the people have a role to perform and a service to provide me. I have no other use for them.
I used to travel throughout a network of small churches, teaching and hoping to encourage their outreach efforts. This was not for the sake of church growth, but for the sake of church health. Invariably the first thing I had to do was address the members’ concerns about gospel outreach: What if someone rejects me? What if someone asks me a question I can’t answer? What if after telling someone about the gospel I am not a good example? And so I would categorically try to answer these, and pump some encouragement into the congregation.
But after returning perhaps six months or a year later, I would find they had still not shared their faith with anyone, neither stranger nor friend, and had not prayed for opportunities to do so. Apparently, from the time I departed, they had never seriously considered the possibility of it. It became clear to me that I could train Christians to the teeth on outreach and apologetics so they could answer every critic’s questions, but unless a certain basic attitude was addressed, nothing would change.
What is that attitude?
- Personal priority—agreeing with Matthew 28:19 that it is critical for the people around us and those afar (“Go therefore and disciple all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”).
- Personal ownership—agreeing that Jesus told me to do it (not just the twelve apostles, Billy Graham, Ravi Zacharias, Luis Palau, etc).
- Personal determination—agreeing that, yes, I will do it (And I’m willing to learn who, when, and how).
This is the ground level attitude we must process before anything else can happen. Maybe you’ve always agreed with the Great Commission. But the proof of agreement is in the pudding—obedience. If you don’t agree, you won’t do it, full stop. Something on the attitude grid has actually not been settled.
Am I saying we need to go out and get in everyone’s faces with the gospel? No. In fact, I think the old school “Get fired up and let’em have it” ethos has often resulted in an evangelical comedy of errors.
Agreement starts with the small adjustments in our lives. Maybe it means praying for thirty seconds before you enter any place you might end up interacting with another human being. I’ve found that while gospel opportunities don’t always happen on the tail of such prayers, at least I myself become different. I feel alert to the Spirit’s possible pre-arrangements, sensitive to the needs of the world around me. I’m able to navigate life without being lost in a fog of busy-mindedness. I see other human beings not as interruptions, but as precious Souls.
Even if they’re no better than Ninevites.
1Saggs, H.W.F. The Might that was Assyria, 1984 (London: Garden City Press.
2Ibid., p. 261
3Ibid., pp. 248, 262