A Spiritual Danger, as Seen in the Book of Jonah

As we continue to read the story of Jonah at daily Mass, for Wednesday of the 27th Week we ponder a significant spiritual danger. Most of us struggle to some degree over God’s patience and clemency. Certainly, we want God to be patient and merciful with us, but we don’t want Him to be patient when it comes to allowing bad or even sinful things to continue. We would like to see God put a swift end to every heresy, mete out a quick and harsh punishment for every transgression—especially those that are open violations of His teaching. Our frustration is not wholly bad; scandal is a serious problem and without swift action to address it, others can be drawn into sin. Yet our desire for the immediate punishment of those who bring scandal is seldom satisfied. Jesus said, Woe to the world for the causes of sin. These stumbling blocks must come, but woe to the man through whom they come (Matt 18:7). Ultimately, those who bring scandal will be punished, but not necessarily as quickly as we would like.

The deeper problem for us is not the concern for scandal, but the desire to see the destruction of our enemies. This vengefulness is exemplified by Jonah:

Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry that God did not carry out the evil he threatened against Nineveh. He prayed, “I beseech you, LORD, is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? This is why I fled at first to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, rich in clemency, loath to punish. And now, LORD, please take my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the LORD asked, “Have you reason to be angry?”

As we shall see, Jonah would not answer this question but instead walked away from God. For us, the question remains: “Have you reason to be angry?” Or to put it more gently, “What are the reasons for your anger?” Perhaps, instead of walking away from God as did Jonah, we should stay and allow Him to expand His questioning so as to help us. It is often hard to answer honestly, but it is best.

  1. Is your anger only about the scandal caused by unpunished injustice, error, and heresy or is there more to it?
  2. Is there some desire for vengeance in you?
  3. Have you ever caused scandal or led someone else into sin?
  4. If so, are you glad that God did not intervene and strike you dead before you had a chance to repent?
  5. Do other people need time to repent? If so, how long?
  6. Do you know whether they will ever repent?
  7. What is the proper balance between allowing time for a sinner to repent and protecting the common good?
  8. Are you confident that your answers to questions 5-7 are perfectly just?

Our anger at scandal and injustice is understandable; indeed, we should have some anger. The spiritual danger is that we may also have a desire for vengeance. In addition, we engage in a form of pride wherein we assume that we know how things should be handled, down to the last detail.

You may recall the movie Bruce Almighty, which despite its ridiculous theological premises does explore the truth that we human beings do a miserable job playing God. In the movie, Bruce thought that the right thing to do was to say yes to the prayers of everyone he thought was nice and to punish those he thought were deserving of it. The effects were far-reaching, wreaking havoc all over the globe. Finally, the real God explained to Bruce that “no” is sometimes the best answer, even when we sympathize with those who ask; from struggles come glory and lasting destiny which are far superior to temporary victory or comfort.

Therefore, it would seem that our own anger at God’s delay in punishing those we think need it should be balanced with a lot of humility.

There is a second and more difficult point that Jonah (and) we must learn:

 Jonah then left the city for a place to the east of it, where he built himself a hut and waited under it in the shade, to see what would happen to the city. And when the LORD God provided a gourd plant that grew up over Jonah’s head, giving shade that relieved him of any discomfort, Jonah was very happy over the plant. But the next morning at dawn God sent a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. And when the sun arose, God sent a burning east wind; and the sun beat upon Jonah’s head till he became faint. Then Jonah asked for death, saying, “I would be better off dead than alive.” But God said to Jonah, “Have you reason to be angry over the plant?” “I have reason to be angry,” Jonah answered, “angry enough to die.” Then the LORD said, “You are concerned over the plant which cost you no labor and which you did not raise; it came up in one night and in one night it perished. And should I not be concerned over Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left, not to mention the many cattle?”

And here comes the hardest truth: God actually loves our enemy. Yes, He loves even those who do harm. God loved the ancient Assyrians and He loves His enemies now. He wants to save them even though they hate Him or serve other gods.

How this love will play out in the end is not for us to see. Perhaps in His love, God sees their ultimate repentance. Perhaps in His love, He does not rush to cancel their freedom. Perhaps in his love for us, He sees that He can draw good even from the bad things that go (for now) unaddressed. St. Paul says, And indeed, there must be differences among you to show which of you are approved. (1 Cor 11:19). Yes, the distinctiveness of Christians reflecting God’s glory is often best seen against the backdrop of darkness.

Like you, I have grave concerns about the moral darkness of our times. Numerous recent prophecies have spoken of coming chastisements. But I think that rather than hoping for it, we should pray so that it does not come! Our Lady of Akita said,

As I told you, if men do not repent and better themselves, the Father will inflict a terrible punishment on all humanity. It will be a punishment greater than the deluge, such as one will never have seen before. Fire will fall from the sky and will wipe out a great part of humanity, the good as well as the bad, sparing neither priests nor faithful. The survivors will find themselves so desolate that they will envy the dead (Message of October 13, 1973).

Through Jonah’s story, the Lord teaches us humility. We should learn to love our enemies the way God loves them. We should want their repentance, for their repentance is a boon to us as well. A mutually shared destruction may be too awful to imagine.

Pray for the conversion of sinners and love them.