How Flawed Is Our Gratitude? Learning from Jonah
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Gratitude for God’s grace can be flawed. But if nourished by God's grace, gratitude does have the effect of changing us, very deeply. It can grant us a lens through which to view all of life. We can come to realize that we’ve received so much more than we can possibly give in life, and all that we give has ultimately been received from the hand of God. This insight can humble us, remove our sense of entitlement or privilege, and grace our lives with profound generosity of spirit towards others, including those we might be prone to fear or put down. Yet, not all occasions of gratitude rise to that level. Whether or not they do depends on the degree to which we allow the grace behind the gratitude to change us. I’ll use the story of Jonah to illustrate my point.
I’ve chosen Jonah, because chapter 2 of the book of the Bible that goes by that name contains perhaps the most moving poetry expressing gratitude to God that I have ever read. Before we get to that, a little background is in order. Jonah is a prophet who simply refused to obey God’s calling to preach judgment to the Ninevites of the Assyrian Empire, known to be a cruel people, who represented a threat to Israel. Problematically for Jonah, preaching the possibility of divine judgment to the Ninevites will grant these unworthy and dangerous people a chance at repentance and receiving divine favor. Jonah stands for his people! So, he wants no part of a mission that could have the effect of bringing these Ninevites under the umbrella of God’s blessings.
Seemingly offended at the prospect of Ninevite favor with God, Jonah attempts to flee from God. He books passage on a ship in the opposite direction of Nineveh. He heads for the city of Tarshish (quite a distance from Nineveh which is in modern day Iraq). It doesn’t seem to occur to him that a prophet who denies a divine call is hardly a prophet, and neither is one whose heart of love does not beat in unison with God’s. Even more ridiculous is Jonah's idea that he can avoid God’s commission by crossing a sea! Of course, Jonah’s attempt to flee has dire consequences, as one might expect. God causes a storm that nearly breaks the ship apart. When confronted by the ship’s crew, Jonah confesses that the storm was caused by God, the Creator of all, who is displeased with him. Throw him overboard, he tells them, and all will be well. Of course, the crew willingly obliges him!
Plunged into certain death in the depths of the sea, Jonah cries out to God for deliverance. He is spared by God, but in a manner that is hardly ideal (the path of disobedience can be treacherous indeed). God provides a large fish to swallow him whole and transport him in the direction of Nineveh. Not ideal accommodations by any means, but it was certainly better than a transport to the realm of the dead! It is from the unusual location a fish’s belly that Jonah is said to express these wonderful words of gratitude for deliverance from the sea. Note the moving poetry from Jonah chapter 2:
“In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry. You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’ The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit.
“When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.
These words of gratitude are moving, indeed, but still incomplete. There is no repentance in the above words of gratitude, no obvious change of heart, an odd omission given the story of blatant disobedience that preceded them in the book. Jonah is grateful for his rescue and looks forward to sacrificing at the Temple of his people. But there are no words that desire the sacrifice of heart and life for what God desires in the world. Jonah’s piety, though moving, is shallow, still too limited to his own welfare and that of his people. If only Jonah had realized that there can be no true welfare without a heart dedicated to God’s mercy towards the stranger and the foreigner. Jonah makes it to Nineveh and dutifully proclaims the message that God ordered him to give. According to the third chapter, he walks an entire day preaching this message. But, interestingly, he does not intercede for the city to God. The King of Nineveh ends up playing that role. But Jonah’s mission still succeeds, quite dramatically in fact. The result is citywide repentance, and citywide divine mercy and favor. Though Jonah preached the message that led to this dramatic success, his investment was in word only, for his obedience was merely external. His heart was still a thousand miles away, not only from Nineveh, but from his God.
The fourth chapter begins with a startling revelation of Jonah’s true feelings about his mission and its success: “But to Jonah this seemed very wrong!” (4:1). Jonah is offended by the boundless grace of God, who is Creator of all. It is simply not right that God’s favor should be shown to these Ninevites! No, not to them! He takes up his complaint with God, blaming the lack of wisdom in showing such grace to these untrustworthy Ninevites on a character flaw in God: “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity!” (4:2). One must say in Jonah’s favor, he knew God. But he didn’t know that what he perceived as a weakness in God was actually a strength. He didn’t want God to be boundlessly merciful. He wanted a national or even tribal deity who would keep enemies at bay and punish them for their wickedness. Rather than conform to God, Jonah wants God to conform to him. And this desire distorts his spirituality, limiting the scope and effect of his gratitude. The moving words of gratitude expressed in chapter 2 didn’t change him, expand him, raise his sights above and beyond his self-serving concerns and nationalistic morality. It could have, but for that to happen, Jonah needed to repent, to admit defeat in his conflict with divine grace, yield to its ways, and open up to learn from its wisdom.
Jonah does not repent at the close of the book. The book ends with a standoff between God and a stubborn prophet. It’s as though the book leaves the matter unresolved, because it really extends past Jonah, to us all. Too many of us who are genuinely grateful for what God has done for us and those who are near to us don’t allow that gratitude to inspire acts of generosity and mercy towards those we are predisposed to despise or to fear. It doesn't make us think, if God is so gracious to one as unworthy as I, should I not be just as generous to others? Are these people we fear so different from us? Can we not allow our gratitude for God’s boundless love for us make us willing to be channels of divine grace to them? After all, God loves them just as much. Our war with divine grace may not be as apparent as Jonah’s, for Jonah at least understood what that grace looks like and implies. Therefore, we need to stand in Jonah’s shoes, view God as he did and let that grace offend us too! Only then may we consider the foolishness and futility of Jonah’s war with God. Fortunately, we have an advantage over Jonah, for, with Jesus Christ, one greater than Jonah has come, one who did not just yearn to sacrifice at the Temple as Jonah did but who offered his entire life as a living sacrifice for the cause of divine grace in the world. We have the unique privilege of standing at the foot of his cross, where God crossed the boundary of human sin and rejection to love sinners, which includes all of us. Gratitude that is born from that event should open us to love the world as boundlessly as God does. How flawed is our gratitude? Stand in Jonah's shoes, stand at the cross, and you’ll know.