But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’
But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
—Jonah 4:1-11 (NRSV)
Jonah is not a book of the Bible that people talk about too much, save for the familiar story of Jonah and the whale, perhaps. But this last chapter of the tiny yet beautiful book of Jonah from the Hebrew Bible is one filled with an interesting conversation between Jonah and God. In reading it, I find it similar in some ways to the book of Job, and Job’s struggles and anger at God. This feeling of helplessness is one that I have personally dealt with many times…where I’ve just wanted to give up and to throw in the towel. Jonah, in his situation, wants to die. He wants to give up. But God asks him to question that decision, to look at things from another perspective. God doesn’t give him the answer, but God asks him to think about things.
In fact, the chapter ends with a question, not an answer. I always have found that odd. But upon reading this again today as part of my morning prayer, I think it’s just perfect. Ending on a question.
God is there for us in our prayers. God is with us in our struggles. God grieves when we grieve, and celebrates when we celebrate. But God does not swoop in and make everything happy and joyful when we are sad. Far too often, that is how people view God, as a celestial entity who is there only when we need God to be, and to save us over and over whenever we get ourselves into trouble.
Yes, God does save us. We are saved by grace. But God is not there to swoop in and fix everything when it goes bad. This fact is something that turns many people away from God. Questioning why God would make people suffer, or why God would let bad things happen to good people.
I don’t have answers or a perfect explanation to justify God’s actions. But what I do know, through my own experience, is that God is faithful to the end. God is WITH US, in my experience in Jesus Christ, to help us bear our burdens and to comfort us when we are hurting. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”, Jesus says in the Gospel of St. Matthew.
This Lent, as we remember our mortality, and shift our practices in different ways to unsettle us and help us to focus more on God, remember that God is faithful. Remember that God is with us, in our struggles and in our joys. And rejoice in that.
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.