Jonah was beset and confounded by notions of divine retribution – he was sure that God’s punishment should be administered to those sinners across the river. While he enjoyed the protective shade or cursed the burning sun, Jonah probably encountered the variations in life experience that happen to nearly all of us at times, sometimes throughout life. Many Americans are said also to be like Jonah, especially prone to consider that good or bad experiences are somehow deserved. How could it be otherwise for rugged individualists? Where is the fault in such reasoning?
Certainly at times it seems reasonable to see justice as being done, especially when we do not particularly favor the persons reaping those negative outcomes. That was the case with Jonah; what he saw in the Ninevites, to his mind, deserved only punishment. He was also sure that God, in his mercy, would most likely forgive those malefactors. In fact he later confessed that this was his reason for disobeying the Lord! When Jonah tried to flee from God his very name became the sign that has come to augur doom to any mission.
Many of us, including this writer, often find it hard not to account for negative outcomes in the lives of others as due either to foolishness or the fruits of bad behavior come home to roost—i.e., as the result of poor judgment or poor moral fiber or both, and richly deserving punishment. Why then, shouldn’t our Lord see it that way too? Can we not say, with candor and a rare sense of self-awareness, that to think in these terms is after all a commendable honesty about our human nature? To claim to be only human is not, in this case, offered as an excuse, but as a reasonable explanation.
Here however, is precisely where the flaw lies in Jonah’s thinking, and so often in our own as well. Do we always tend to treat ourselves with these same standards of judgment? At times I find myself mulling over my own motivations and purposes only to explain them (in fantasy, or to others), in terms of someone else’s perceptual field, usually someone for whom I would rather prefer to regard me in a good light (“Those small lies we tell ourselves in darkest moments shrivel in even the faintest light”—Atlantic Monthly, Mar. 04).. Two problems are occurring here; for one I have probably already bent the truth in my favor, but more importantly I have now internalized a fictitious view of myself – and it will most likely be carried forward, rendering my life experience in relevant areas as fictitious. It will be lived out sincerely enough, but now in less than a realistic relationship with one's self and others, and with God. Here we are back in Jonah’s mindset again, but asking for ourselves the same forgiving and indeed merciful, reaction from God that Jonah (resentfully) expected toward the sinners in Nineveh.
Can it not be said that we also sometimes become confounded and confused about ourselves and each other?
Thankfully God does not get confused about us, and furthermore he does not use human reasoning and feelings to decide what to do in applying His judgments. Like Jonah, we may at times get angry at God for not running things our way – we want Him to be made in our image rather than the other way around. As C.S. Lewis said, however, “If I always understood why He did things He wouldn’t be much of a God, would He?”
There is at least one other issue to deal with here: Knowing that God knows us very well, do we really want to ask for justice for ourselves – or do we desire His mercy? In order to do unto others in the way asked of us by our Lord, we should need to pray mercy for others as well.