“Is Your Anger Good?” - thrive UMC Official Blog

“Is Your Anger Good?”

Jonah 3:10-4:10

            Last week we found the prophet Jonah going, at last, to the place God had sent him: Nineveh, that great city! While he was there, he spoke the proclamation God had given him, and a miracle happened: the people responded.  They called for fasting and morning, signs of sorrow and humility.  Everyone was moved, even, it seems, the animals.

            Today, we’re continuing on with the story, including the closing lines from last week’s reading, and finishing the book. We’re picking up in Jonah chapter 3, verse 10. 

            It says this:

10 God saw what [the people of Nineveh] were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it.

But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”

The Lord responded, “Is your anger a good thing?” But Jonah went out from the city and sat down east of the city. There he made himself a hut and sat under it, in the shade, to see what would happen to the city.

Then the Lord God provided a shrub,[a] and it grew up over Jonah, providing shade for his head and saving him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub. But God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died. Then as the sun rose God provided a dry east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. He begged that he might die, saying, “It’s better for me to die than to live.”

God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?”

Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good—even to the point of death!”

10 But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night.11 Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

            Here at last we discover the explanation for why Jonah ran away from God in the first chapter of the story.   It wasn’t just that he was afraid to confront the people of Nineveh, or that he might suffer humiliation at their hands; but what he was really trying to avoid –the thing he was most afraid of- was their deliverance. 

            As the story unfolds, God sees that the people of Nineveh have turned; so God cancels the judgment-plans he had for the city.  And He didn’t destroy it.

            For Jonah, however, God’s reaction to all of this is “utterly wrong” –in fact another way this verse could be translated is this: “to Jonah, it was a great evil and he began to burn.” 

            “Come on, LORD!” he says, “Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land?  This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier!  I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy…”

            Jonah knew what God was like.  He knew God to be merciful, and compassionate, and patient, and full of loving-kindness, and willing to relent from punishment. Jonah had already witnessed and experienced all of those qualities of God first-hand!

And that is precisely the problem!  Because Jonah didn’t want God to be all of those things… for them.

            Not for the Ninevites! They’re like the worst-of-the-worst!  God, have you forgotten the torturing and flaying and dismembering business that happened at their hands? Did you see them then –how they watered whole fields with blood? Do you remember the delight they took in stacking up big piles severed human heads and the glee on their faces as they counted the corpses they slaughtered to build their empire? 

            Uh-uh, God!

            Don’t be merciful for them!  Don’t have compassion for them!  Don’t be patient with them!  Don’t relent from dishing out what they rightfully deserve! Save your compassion God, for someone else –another day!  Give the people of Nineveh not mercy but justice!  Reign down on them, like Sodom and Gomorrah! Pay them back for the violence they’ve inflicted on so many others!  Cast them into the sea so the waters overwhelm them, like the Egyptian King who had enslaved our ancestors! 

Already you spoke their doom, now do it!   Keep your word!

Make them suffer. 

Punish them!

That’s what Jonah was hoping for.  He wanted these nasty Assyrians to pay for what they had done. He wanted a little retribution for the people who had done so much evil –a taste of their own medicine.

“At this point, LORD,” continues Jonah, “you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”

            If it weren’t bad enough that God spared the wicked, but then God went ahead and practically forced Jonah to be an accomplice in this indefensible act of mercy.  Didn’t Jonah do everything he could to prevent precisely this event from happening?  Didn’t he run the opposite way when God called him?  Didn’t he refuse to jump out of the boat to calm the storm?  Didn’t he walk as slowly as possible to Nineveh, and preach the sorriest excuse of a sermon from the outer edge of that hated city?  Didn’t he do just a little less than the bare minimum to make it as absolutely unlikely as possible that the inhabitants of Nineveh would hear and know and turn? 

            Do you think Jonah –an official prophet of the nation of Israel- can go home after unwittingly becoming the vehicle of salvation for an enemy? 

            ‘Kill. Me. Now.’ says Jonah.

            He went all that way, endured all that –took all of those risks- all just to end up watching the very people he wanted to see go down get a free pass from God. And as Providence would cruelly have it, he was the one who gave it into their hands. ‘God, you’ve got to be kidding me!’

            And Jonah is angry. He is angry enough to call God evil

            Have any of you ever been that angry?  Have you ever been so angry that your prayer started off with ‘Listen, you evil so-and-so, you’ve got some [blankety-blank/ words-I-can’t-say-in-church] explaining to do!’  Have you ever been so enraged that God looks to have switched sides and become against you?

            I’ll tell you what: I’ve been there –or at least close.

            Like the time my freshman year in college where it looked like God had sent an angel into my life, in the form of a certain coed.  She was the most perfect girl I had ever met up ‘til to then, and we had just everything in common, and I was convinced that she was the answer to my longest, most deeply-craved prayer.  Until that one Friday night I end up accidentally being there with her, on what turned out to be her first date, with the total doofus she got engaged to six-months later. 

            I was angry at that point in my life anyway, and that just threw me over the top.  I walked around for months with my teeth grit, and hands clenched in shaking fists.  I saw nothing but red.  It was bad enough to not get what I wanted –what I had thought was my due blessing.  It was something else to know someone–who I was sure was probably a terrible person- got my blessing instead.  But to be there and to have to watch it all happen!  And let me tell you, I didn’t just have front-row tickets to the show –I was up there on the stage with them!  I had to dodge the little sparks of attraction flying back and forth between them.  I could smell the perfume she put on just for him.  I couldn’t avoid their exchange of body language about me –‘like hey, why is this scrawny guy who’s terrible at bowling here?’  And she’d give him a look back that said, ‘Shhh! I don’t know; but don’t worry about him; he’s a little weird but totally harmless –I’ll tell you all about it later while we’re making out.’

            Certainly could have done without that, God!  It’s kind of hard to avoid the conclusion that You’re just being cruel when you make me sit there and watch!

            Have you ever been angry like that? 

            You know, I think this story of Jonah is inviting us to look again at our anger.  We’ve all had times where we’ve lost our cool.  For some of us, that might be a bit of an understatement.  We’ve all looked around at the events that transpire around us and thought that God should do something about it.  Or do something else. Each and every one of us has looked at the injustice and evil of our world and thought, at least in the secret parts of our souls, that God’s involvement –or seemingly non-involvement- is not good.  At some time or another, all of us have done what Jonah is doing here: which is putting God on trial.

            It’s time to call you out God!  What you’re doing is not right!  And I will not stand for it!  And if this is who you are, and how you’re going to be, then I’m done with all of this.  If you’re not going to be on my side, then I don’t even want to live anymore!

            Of course we already read the story, and we know what God does.

            But did we first take the time to notice what God didn’t do?

            If we take a step back from ourselves and our own stories for a moment, we can probably acknowledge the strong possibility that God doesn’t appreciate being called wrong or evil. 

            I know I hate it when my kids accuse me of being wrong, and I’m not even God!  My kids get a time out for trying that stuff.  So what if they were actually right about it once; I don’t care.  They’re gonna go sit in a corner for five minutes anyway. 

            But God doesn’t do that.  God doesn’t send a bear or a lightening storm to try and punish Jonah.  God doesn’t get defensive, or return anger for anger.  God doesn’t go into a long  monologue to justify all of the choices that were made, or to explain the reasons for why Jonah had to go through that difficult stuff.  God doesn’t even try to correct Jonah.

            And I think pausing a while to notice that about this passage is important.  We should notice that here, at least, God doesn’t respond to anger with anger –and God does not try to force Jonah into being or doing what God wants.

            Instead, God has only a question to confront Jonah with; in response to being accused of being not just wrong, but evil.  God asks Jonah: “is your anger good?”

            This is a question that you can turn, like a diamond: shift the emphasis to any word, and it will reflect a new light.

            “Is your anger good?”  God asks Jonah, and the first time, Jonah storms off.  He goes east from the city, which is a way of hinting that Jonah was trying to get away from God, to leave God’s presence.  East was the direction Adam and Eve were sent when they left Eden.  That’s the direction you go to exit when you leave the temple. You go east.  And there he sits, by the bank of the river, watching to see if God will go ahead and destroy Nineveh like he said he would, after 40 days.

            After that, there’s this business about a plant, which we’ll talk a bit more about next week –but it’s a thing that just gets Jonah more angry. 

To which God asks again that same, powerful question: “is your anger good?”

            As we sit and bear witness to this story, we can see that, in any case, Jonah’s anger doesn’t take him to a good place.  It takes him away from the great city, with their luxuries and spectacles.  His anger doesn’t take him back home, for he’s ashamed of his part of God’s compassion for someone else.  His anger doesn’t bring him any closer to God, or understanding God’s ways or mystery.  Instead, his anger takes him to a place of exile –of lonely suffering.

            His anger also doesn’t appear to accomplish anything good.

            It doesn’t force God to change his mind, even as Jonah holds his own life hostage.

            It doesn’t help Jonah feel better about himself, or assist him in making wiser life-choices. It doesn’t bring him closer to an understanding or appreciation of who God is, or what God is doing. And it certainly doesn’t lead him into a state of greater knowledge and understanding. 

            Instead, his whole life is on pause while he waits for the thing he demands of God: not compassion, but condemnation!  Not salvation but destruction!  Not life, but death.

            Is Jonah’s anger good?

            No, of course not.  By all accounts –any way you look at it- there is no way to call Jonah’s anger good! Understandable, maybe.  But not good.   All of us can see it, just as we can see it when someone is angry in our family or in public.  None of us have ever been sitting around a table at Thanksgiving and said: ‘gee, aren’t we so glad uncle Bob blew up about the Christmas gift grandma gave him three years ago? That was really the encouragement grandma needed to select more thoughtful gifts!’

            No, no one ever says that, because it never happens!  Instead, part of the family is just missing, and now grandma has heart troubles; and now no one gets presents from her because the whole thing has turned into such a huge anxious ordeal for her that she just can’t do it!   That’s what anger does –it just takes away. It is a subtractive emotion and power.  It cannot give.  And that’s even how we talk about it, ‘oh, I’m so sorry, I just got carried away.’ Because most of the time, what it removes is us.

            But is that the answer Jonah gives to God?  Golly, I guess you’re right God, my anger’s no good! What was I thinking?

            No, in this story Jonah goes: “Yes, my anger is good! Of course its’ good!  If it weren’t good, then I wouldn’t be angry!  It’s good, even to the point of death!”

            In other words, my anger is to die for! I feel so good about my anger, and the reasons for holding it that I think I’m going to hang on to it forever!  You will have to pry this anger from my cold, dead hands –that’s how much I love it! It is that good, God! 
            This is why I love the Bible: because it is, without a doubt, a true story.  When we get some distance from angry people, we can always see how it’s no good. But when it’s us –when it’s our experience, it’s a whole different story, isn’t it?  Because anger feels good.  It makes us feel right; and it makes us feel powerful  —precisely when we are not.   

            So this morning, which is part 1 of this sermon, I simply wanted us to see the mechanics of anger in this account, and in our lives, so that we might take with us this one powerful question: is your anger good

            May we turn to God, who is the source of all good things, and lift up our anger to God, to help us decide.

            Let’s pray.