“And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
Jonah 4:11 (ESV)
In his book Bold Love, Dan Allender challenges Christians to think more deeply about a word they use so often: love. “We use the word so easily and might even think we know a bit about it. Surely it’s something we all want and, in our better moments, want to give. Yet there is no more demanding occupation than love.” It is certainly easy to say that God is love; it is another thing altogether to act lovingly toward our personal enemies or enemies of the faith. Furthermore, love is anything but bold when Christians ignore the Great Commission, when they fail to put their lives on the line and enter closed countries, learn difficult languages, and labor among the lost Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or animists. The Lord’s love, in contrast, is always bold, rich, and deep.
In the first three chapters of Jonah, the prophet flees God’s command to preach in the wicked city of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, located in what is now Iraq. In Jonah’s time (eighth century B.C.), Assyria was a marauding and powerful nation that had invaded Israel and Judah more than once. Their methods were infamous: when a people resisted becoming vassals, their nation was looted and destroyed. No wonder Jonah chose to flee instead of preach repentance in the capital of this empire. Not only was there cause to fear for his personal safety, Jonah also knew that God might convert and forgive them, and he wanted nothing to do with that. After all, who wants to introduce his enemies to a “gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2b)?
Nonetheless, Jonah’s flight was futile; he eventually obeyed God’s command (3:3) and preached repentance on the streets of Nineveh with resounding success. Just as he feared, “the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (3:5). By the end of the book, the prophet was downcast once again, clearly disappointed in the generosity of God’s grace. It is one thing for the Lord to choose to love His people, the Jews, but compassion for Assyria was too much for Jonah to take. Of course, Jonah should not have been surprised at the Lord’s bold love initiative beyond His chosen people, for years ago He had told Moses, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19). So instead of condemning a rebellious and unruly people who did “not know their right hand from their left” (v. 11), God sent a prophet to preach His Word—and, consistent with His loving character, He gave the city life.
Like Jonah, Christians today may be tempted to wipe their consciences clean of any responsibility for the adherents of other world religions, some of whom wish the Church great harm. Nonetheless, Christianity leaves no room for hatred or apathy. When Jesus said “something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:41), He was referring to Himself. He had come to be preached to all nations: the friendly and the militant, the safe and the dangerous, the open and the closed. May the Lord spare the Church today from the indifference, indeed the disdain of Jonah. May He also spare her from those who might think that if God were to convert even a terrorist, He would be loving too much.