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Faith Doesn’t Exist In a Vacuum

(Photo: Nik Shuliahin/Unsplash)

Editor’s note: This is part four of a series of reflections on the Book of Jonah. Read part one – Am I My Enemies’ Keeper?; part two – When You Fall Or Feel Like A Failure, Remember Jonah; and part three – The Gift Of Righteous Indignation.

Have you ever gotten into a fight before? I’m not talking about a verbal argument where you yell back and forth at someone. I mean a physical fight where actual punches were thrown. I know that, typically, little girls are taught to not fight, but in some communities, it’s a rite of passage for boys. Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest that you get into a street brawl, and I’m not celebrating the fact that people do fight. I’m just acknowledging that, in some communities and contexts, fighting is a regular part of life.

In the neighborhood where I grew up with my twin brother, Derrell, fighting was an expected part of life. Not a pleasantly expected part of life, but a part nonetheless. Knowing that physical altercations were going to be a part of life, my grandparents tried to mentally prepare us for the days that we would find ourselves in the unfortunate position of having to physically defend ourselves. Part of that preparation was to instill in us the mindset that we were to never start a fight, but we sure were supposed to try to end it by beating the other person—and if we couldn’t beat them, that person should at least walk away knowing that they had been in a fight.

My grandparents were both faithful, loving Christians who took us to church twice a week. As much as they taught us the value of memorizing God’s Word and recognizing others as being created in the image of God, they also taught us to value our own safety and how to protect ourselves from unnecessary physical harm. For them, it was one of the realities they knew we would face and they wanted us to have a plan for handling the tough parts of life. They knew that, although we were Christians, we didn’t live in a vacuum. Just because they were teaching us to live in a certain way didn’t mean that other parents were teaching their children the same thing.

This idea of not living in a vacuum is still true today. Just because we are Christians, doesn’t mean the world respects our beliefs and values. We believe in love, the inherent value of all life, and that all people were created in the image of God and, therefore, hold certain intrinsic values. We know that not everyone agrees with or respects our beliefs. Not everyone sees value in life. Unfortunately, some people see just the opposite. They see value not in recognizing and respecting life, but in taking it and hurting it. We are reminded of this every time we hear about a mass shooting, or terrorist act, or some other senseless act of violence that changes people’s lives unnecessarily.

Within the past three articles I have written for Faithfully Magazine, I have explored the ideas that God loves everyone, and we should take a hard look at how we view those who we think are our enemies and be willing to forgive them and see them as God sees them. But, I must ask myself an honest question: Can I do that when a person is responsible for indiscriminately inflicting pain on innocent people? How would I respond if one of my children became the victim of a tragedy? Would I be willing to forgive the perpetrator?

In Jonah 4, our anti-hero is angry at God because God sent him to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh who, in the not so distant past, had conducted terrorist strikes against Jonah’s people, the Israelites, and defeated them. Nineveh was the sworn enemy of Jonah’s people, and God had the nerve to send him to those people, so they could be saved. Think about that for a moment. It would be like a person who lost a loved one in a terrorist attack being sent by God to a terrorist training camp and having that person say to everyone at the camp, “Repent because God wants you to be forgiven and reconciled to Him.” Can you imagine how much pain and confusion that person would be facing?

Jonah’s faith and theology didn’t exist within a vacuum. Neither did his pain nor his frustration with God. Jonah expressed this anger toward God. He told God that he didn’t want to see the Ninevites repent because he knew that God would forgive them if they did. The last thing Jonah wanted to see was them receiving the same thing from God that he and Israel had received, which was forgiveness. He knew that there would be consequences to preaching to the people of Nineveh. Either they would disregard him and die; or, they would believe him and continue to live.

The latter happened, and Jonah was furious with the idea that God wouldn’t hold their sins against them. God patiently listened to Jonah complain, only interrupting him to ask one simple question: “What gives you the right to be angry because I have decided to show mercy to this group of people (Jonah 4:4)?” Jonah didn’t have an answer, so he left the city and found a location in the distance to watch the city, all the while hoping that God would change His mind and still rain down judgment against them.

While Jonah waited, God caused a plant to grow above him to provide him with shade from the scorching heat. He rested underneath this shade all day and into the night. When he woke up the following morning, this God-given shelter had died and shriveled up. Jonah was incensed. He was mad that his enemies were still alive while the plant that was providing him shelter was no longer alive. Out of frustration, he told God that he wished he would die himself.

God’s response to Jonah was unique: “You are concerned about a vine that you did not plant or take care of, a vine that grew up in one night and died the next. In that city of Nineveh there are more than a hundred twenty thousand people who cannot tell right from wrong, and many cattle are also there. Don’t you think I should be concerned about that big city (Jonah 4:10)?” You hate these people because of what they have done, but they have only done these things because they don’t know any better. They don’t know my statutes or my laws or my desires for how they are to live in relationship with other people. This is the opportunity for them to learn it.

You may be wondering if I’m saying that people who have experienced pain at someone else’s hands should just let their pain go? No, I’m not saying that. I understand Jonah’s anger. If someone did something to one of my family members, I would likely not only try to fight them, I would kick their dog, skin their cat, and probably try to skin all their family members, too. I would want revenge. I would want justice.

I must admit that when I read Jonah 4, I struggle with it. I don’t want to forgive people who are evil, or people who unnecessarily harm children or defenseless people. I don’t want to forgive terrorists. I want to see them get what’s coming to them. But then I’m faced with the polarizing words that God delivers in Jonah. Words of God saying that it is best to show mercy to the merciless. When I read Bible passages like that, I can sometimes understand why people may feel like that kind of God isn’t the God they want to follow. We want to follow a God Who is filled with vengeance and Who will wipe out those who are evil—or at least wipe out those who are evil in our eyesight.

But then, like Jonah, we are faced with a sobering question. Is this the only place we can find ourselves? Caught between anger and wrath? We want God’s mercy and wrath to match ours. We want God to forgive us and those whom we believe are worthy of forgiveness and we want God to unleash holy wrath against those whom are our enemies and whom we have great anger toward.

When we, or our loved ones, have been hurt, we must ask ourselves: how does God want us to respond? This will be extremely hard for us to do, especially when wounds inflicted by enemies are fresh. But, God can heal all wounds and God’s presence can be found even in the challenging times when we are reminded that life can be less than perfect.

Amen.


Faithfully Magazine Fall 2020 Special Edition Final Digital PDF DownloadRead the new issue of Faithfully Magazine... Featuring Brenda Salter McNeil, Stuart Greaves, Irwyn Ince, Michael McBride, Traci Blackmon, Dwight McKissic, Van Moody, JeVon Bolden, Heather T. Day.

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    Written by Terrell Carter

    Terrell Carter is assistant professor and director of contextualized learning at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, and pastor of Webster Groves Baptist Church. He is the author of multiple books, including the forthcoming volume Healing Racial Divides: Finding Strength in Diversity (Chalice Press). You can follow him on Twitter @tcarterstl.