But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
- Jonah 4:4-11
“There is legitimate guilt that is removed through repentance and restitution, and then there is irremediable guilt. When people say, ‘I know God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself,’ they mean that they have failed an idol, who’s approval is more important to them than God’s. Idols function like gods in our lives, so if we make career or parental approval our god and we fail it, then our idol curses us in our hearts for the rest of our lives. We can’t shake the sense of failure.
“When Idolatry is mapped onto the future – when our idols are threatened – it leads to paralyzing fear and anxiety. When it is mapped onto the past – when we fail our idols – it leads to irremediable guilt. When idolatry is mapped onto the present life – when our idols and blocked or removed by circumstances – it roils us with anger and despair.
”All that was happening in Jonah’s heart. …”
- Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods
If you ever have the thought of telling someone that God has forgiven them, and it is pride that gets in the way of them forgiving themselves, read over the quote from Timothy Keller above. Pride is an element in that the idol that the person has created is his own idol, no one else’s other than what they created themselves. It may create the same effect as telling an angry person to not be angry. While he punches you in the nose, he may punctuate the punch by saying, “I am NOT ANGRY!” Then, maybe his guilt is increased when he sees blood over his knuckles and then sees blood pouring from your nose. Then you must wonder what his “counterfeit god” might be.
But what are these idols? Jonah’s final idol is revealed at the end of the book. He wanted Israel to regain its prominence from the times of king Solomon, but no, God forgave the city of Nineveh. They would maintain their strength, for a generation or so, after Jonah was a distant memory. Jonah’s ambition for his nation led to his unwillingness to forgive Nineveh.
Have you known people who could never give up their guilt? Rev. Keller is not saying that they are not saved, but in not forgiving themselves, God cannot do the redeeming of their souls, to cleanse them so that they can be useful servants in this world. In a way, regardless of their idol, who’s approval is more important than God’ forgiveness, they add one more idol to the stack, the guilt itself. They worship their guilt, their badge of courage.
Rev. Keller hit me with a gut punch in the quote above. Late in my working career, a boss asked me what motivated me. He was trying in his total inept way, to soften the blow that we were not getting pay raises yet again – at least no pay cuts. I thought for very little time before I said that I had never heard my mother say, “Job well done.” That had driven my work ethic ever since, driving me to be the workhorse that got bosses promoted, but like Joseph in the prison, kept me forgotten. My boss smirked and said something along the lines of, “Sorry, but you’ll never hear me say that.” I had just placed a fear in my boss’ head that if I ever heard “Job well done” I would immediately lose my motivation for working at all. I thought then, and still think today, that it would have fueled me to reach even higher. After all, I did have a couple of nice bosses in my career for whom I would do anything. Now, Rev. Keller says that my desire for a “Job well done” from anyone was my idol. And he’s right. God has already decided what He will say come judgment day. Why do I hang onto the guilt of falling short of an earthly “Job well done?”
In his book that is quoted above, Rev. Keller goes through many Biblical heroes. God tests Abraham’s faith and love by telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Was Isaac Abraham’s idol? He had waited long enough, and then some, for an heir. But, no, Abraham was willing to do as God had said. Jacob had one idol after another. He was so in love with Rachel that he allowed himself to be duped by Laban. Rev. Keller spends time discussing the other wife, Leah, the one who lacked beauty and how God worked through her while Jacob’s thoughts, and emotions, were elsewhere. Then the book goes into those counterfeit gods that we normally think about: money, power, fame, etc. and how those affected various Biblical heroes.
But now in the closing chapters, we see the reluctant prophet Jonah preferring death rather than see Nineveh repent.
Do you look forward and still anticipate failure? What does that leave you other than anxious, worrying, fearful, and depressed.
Do you look to past failures with guilt and regret? Could this be why you cannot feel that ultimate closeness with God?
And what of the present? Do you get angry at your circumstance? Do you lash out in despair about your lack of … (whatever idol you are chasing at the moment like fame, money, possessions, children, success, etc.)
Whenever you hang onto any guilt, or just any moment of deep reflection, ask yourself what aspect of life is too important to let go and follow Jesus full-time, every second of the day. You might find more than one idol. You may find your counterfeit gods.
Trust in the one true God, whose Son, Jesus, came to earth to die for our sins. Then leave those sins nailed to the cross, and do not carry them along the path of redemption. They weigh you down and slow your progress. You may have to rid yourself of a few false gods along the way.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.