But the LORD said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock? (Jonah 4:10-11)
Pity is a wonderful trait—if directed toward others in need. Self-pity, however, is a perversion that turns a virtue into a vice. The book of Jonah begins with the prophet being unwilling to go preach to the Assyrians out of a sense of self-protection, to be sure, but also prejudice toward these pagans. He wanted them to be judged for he deemed them worthy of it. Sadly, the book ends with Jonah pouting that God did the very thing he feared—spared the repentant people.
Jonah had just experienced the greatest revival in history. We might turn to the fourth chapter expecting to see him rejoicing, but the opposite was true! The heart of his problem was the problem of his heart. Is it not true of us? That is the human condition. God had been working on him, for God is in the business of sanctifying His children. The activity of God is woven throughout the book—God prepared a storm, a fish, a plant, a worm, and a wind—all because God was breaking down a stubborn soul.
Jonah wanted his way rather than God’s will. Like a petulant child, he sulks. He became a spectator, hoping the Assyrians would backslide and judgment might yet descend on them. He was bitter—no wonder the whale spit him out earlier—who wants to be around a bitter believer? How many times I have seen church members who were active become bitter over some disappointment in life—really, disappointment with God or the church—and they wind up pouting on a pew.
God let Jonah stew in his own juices for a while—marinating in self-pity. Then, in God’s perfect timing, He sends grace, causing a plant to grow up—the leaves providing a shade over the little shanty Jonah constructed. Jonah was glad, but not grateful. He rejoiced in the provision and not the Provider. He enjoyed the blessing, but not the Blessed One. The plant became the object of the prophet’s affection—and that is idolatry!
Church people can become idolaters the same way—taking that which is meant to be a sacred how to lead them to God and making it a sacred cow to substitute for God. Preachers can become that. God sends a man to lead the church to the Lord and we wind up idolizing the man. Programs can become that—methods meant to bring people closer to Christ that become the object of our devotion. Places can become idols—a church building where we gather to worship the Lord, and yet the building becomes the focus of our adoration.
God sent a worm to destroy Jonah’s idol. He may send a pulpit committee to take away our preacher idol, or a financial difficulty to end the church program, or a fire to consume a building. Then God sent a sirocco—a searing east wind to add an exclamation point.
God is more concerned about people than programs. If the church is more devoted to preserving what they have within the four walls, than sacrificing to reach people beyond them, then we have missed the point of this story.