by Dr. A. Charles Ware
I can still remember the expression on my African-American brother’s face. He shared with excitement how several people had made a profession of faith in Christ at his new job! Then, his countenance changed. While still trying to hold a smile, he added with disappointment, “but they were all white!”
For decades I have been promoting G.R.A.C.E. (God’s Reconciliation at Christ’s Expense) rather than race relations. I have observed that both those in the majority and minority races struggle with prejudice at times. As biblical counselors, we must consider the “Jonah effect” within the discussion of racial reconciliation.
Jonah had solid theology and was used by God. God blessed his preaching with the conversion of the entire city of Nineveh. Yet, he was disappointed! How could a theologically sound servant of God be disappointed? He was prejudiced!
We often limit prejudice to the majority culture. Could minorities within predominately majority ministries harbor unresolved wounds that cause them to resist God’s blessings upon majority ministries? Could those same wounds halt racial reconciliation? I will confess that, for multiple reasons, at times I have longed to see my ministry be more effective among minorities!
God’s gracious dealing with Jonah and Nineveh is both convicting and encouraging. Biblical, gospel-centered reconciliation is, at its core, loving God and our neighbor (Matt. 22:36-40), or simply conforming to the character of God (1 John 4:7-11).
The Grace of God
The book of Jonah provides divine wisdom concerning how grace pursues a prejudiced prophet. The perfect Counselor, God Himself, confronts His imperfect prophet, Jonah, whose heart conflicts with God’s own heart and character. The book ends with God asking Jonah a penetrating question that distinguishes His heart from the heart of His prophet, “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city…?” (Jonah 4:11).
Grace Patiently Pursues a Prejudiced Prophet
God commands Jonah to proclaim His Word to Nineveh, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). God commands Jonah to preach His Word to a people who Jonah would rather see receive God’s judgment than forgiveness. Nineveh was known for its wickedness and evil (Jonah 3:8; Zeph. 2:5; Nah. 3:1, 4).
Jonah’s immediate response is to reject God’s clear command to preach to a people he dislikes. In fact, he heads in the opposite direction! “But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord…” (Jonah 1:3). Similarly, some minorities rehearse past and present injustices and reject biblical commands to pursue biblical reconciliation through loving their majority brothers and sisters. Yet, God pursues Jonah through both natural obstacles and the rebuke of unbelievers (Jonah 1:4-16).
Grace Reveals the Heart of the Matter: Prejudice
After being thrown off the boat into the sea and swallowed by a great fish, Jonah cries to the Lord, “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love, but I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed to pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2:8-9). Jonah experiences God’s supernatural preservation and deliverance and is ready to obey God’s Word!
Finally, Jonah obeys God’s command and preaches to Nineveh. Nineveh repents, and God forgives (Jonah 3:10). How does Jonah respond to God’s miraculous act of using him to bless others?
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live (Jonah 4:1-3).
Jonah had good theology (“I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”), but his heart opposed it. Could our attempts at racial reconciliation be experiencing resistance due to hearts that resist truth rather than theological ignorance? Is there a Jonah in your church or organization opposing, often secretly, attempts at reconciliation? They agree with your theology but are disappointed with progress! How do we engage such imperfect servants of God?
Grace Seeks to Transform a Prejudiced Heart
Interestingly, rather than harshly rebuking His imperfect prophet, God’s grace continues to reach out to Jonah. The God whom Jonah knows to be “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…” (Jonah 4:2), also demonstrates inconceivable grace toward the angry prophet.
He causes a plant to grow overnight that provides shade for Jonah the next day. Then, God causes a worm to destroy the plant, removing his shade from the heat. Jonah’s discomfort in the heat results in his anger! God graciously seeks to reason with Jonah through a diagnostic question, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4, 9). Jonah replies that he did do well to be angry. His personal comfort (shade from the heat) was taken away!
God’s question was asked to help Jonah see the selfishness of his heart in contrast to the gracious and merciful steadfast love of God. If only we could see God’s grace toward us and desire for others to experience similar grace. Such heart transformation would greatly enhance biblical, gospel-centered reconciliation within our churches.
Grace Fails When Prejudice Prevails
The book of Jonah does not have a happy ending. There is no record of Jonah’s change of heart. He is left with right theology, but a wrong heart. God graciously reasons with Jonah, “…You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow…and should I not pity Nineveh, that great city…?” (Jonah 4:10-11).
G.R.A.C.E. (God’s Reconciliation at Christ’s Expense) relations are at the heart of biblical, gospel-centered reconciliation (Matt. 22:36-40; 1 John 4:7-11; Eph. 2-4). What’s in your heart?
Questions for Reflection
Have you observed any heart issues that resist reconciliation? How have you experienced God’s grace, bringing your heart in harmony with His heart for reconciliation?