The heart of the gospel is about loving difficult people. Showing us how to love the unlovable is the point and purpose of the Bible.
The death of Jesus Christ on the cross, who died for undeserving people, is the primary example that teaches us this truth (Ephesians 5:1). Jesus does not ask us to do things He is unwilling to do. We have a tested and sympathetic Savior (Hebrews 4:15). Christ is the reason we should not shirk our biblical responsibility to pursue those who rub us the wrong way.
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- Do You Understand the Point Of Your Trouble?
- When God Hurls a Storm At You
- Rick’s Articles from the Book of Jonah
Paul, a direct disciple of the Savior, gave us his thoughts about interacting with people who do not meet our expectations:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. – Romans 12:14-18
He did not make this up or pull this idea out of thin air. He was inspired by God to write those words. Loving difficult people is the way of the Lord. Peter, another disciple of Christ, gives us a similar, but more acute thought about how to respond to difficult people.
For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. …if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. – 1 Peter 2:19-20
Then he backs it up with the example of Jesus. Peter had firsthand knowledge of how Christ dealt with sinful people. The evidence is overwhelming and should have a humbling effect on our souls.
When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. – 1 Peter 2:23
Who Are You?
Let’s make this personal. Think about an annoying person in your life–someone who gets under your skin. What are your thoughts about them? How do you associate with them? Would you rather avoid them or pursue them?
Your answer will test your understanding of and faithfulness to the gospel–the redemptive work of Christ. God is a relentless pursuer whose goal for us goes beyond salvation. He wants us transformed into the likeness of His Son.
Perhaps you have a spouse who challenges every fiber of your being when it comes to loving like Jesus. Maybe one of your children has disappointed you one too many times; you have weak resistance, and your desire for redemptive parenting has waned.
What about that church member who tempts you to sin just by looking at them? How about your extended family member? What about people or people groups in your culture? Gays? Abortionists? Democrats? Republicans? What about lazy people? Obese people? How about women drivers?
You could probably clump all of your annoying people into one broad category: people who do not do things your way. Wouldn’t that be true? How many people in your life agree with you, but you disagree with them? That is rare.
Typically, the people who annoy us the most are those who do things differently from us. Regardless of who they are or what they do, God’s call on us is the same: He wants us to partner with Him to carry the gospel to them.
I Am Jonah
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. – Jonah 1:1-3
The primary purpose of the book of Jonah was God’s call for him to go to a people group who were not like him and to tell them about the Lord. Their primary differences were their ethnicity and their religion: they were Ninevites.
Jonah’s problem would be similar to asking an American Christian to go to an Afghanistan Muslim to tell him about Jesus. When Jonah received a call like this, he responded by running in the opposite direction from where God was calling him.
He went to Tarshish, which is like being in Columbus, OH, called to New York City, but choosing to run to Seattle, WA. Rather than going 500 miles northeast to Nineveh, he decided to go 2300 miles west, in the opposite direction.
It is difficult for me to be hard on Jonah because I act similarly to him. Though God has not called me to go to an uncomfortable culture, He has called me to interact with uncomfortable people.
How about you?
The individual that the Spirit of God has brought to your mind is more than likely your disappointing person. It’s that annoying person in your life that you would rather avoid than to respond to redemptively.
I Am a Runner
Jonah physically ran from the Lord, which is something you probably have not done. But I suspect, if you are like me, you have run from the Lord in your mind. You do this by pretending the problems between you and another person are not a big deal, or that the person or the problem does not exist.
Minimally, you are a mental runner–a person who avoids difficult contexts or potential conflicts. Our culture calls it fight or flight. I do not like this terminology because it is devoid of the gospel. It would be better to say redeem or run.
The solution is not to pick a fight or run from the situation, but to seek to redeem an individual or a relationship–an act that would put God on display. If Jonah had decided to redeem rather than run, he would have experienced great things with God.
Trying to run from the presence of God is as futile as trying to shovel smoke with a rake. – Anonymous
Though you may not be excited about entering into a potential redemptive opportunity, God is. He will not only be with you; He will help you succeed at what He has called you to do (Philippians 1:6).
The type of “mental running” that we do happens because we forget that we are living in the presence of God, which is a serious doctrinal mistake because our omnipresent Lord is everywhere.
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? – Psalm 139:7
I Am a Pretender
And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. – Hebrews 4:13
Imagine if your theology were better than Jonah’s. Imagine if you were more aware of who the Lord is and how He works. How would this change the way you interact with others? How would this change how you think about others?
You cannot run from God, physically or mentally. He is there. He is always there, persuading, appealing, wooing, and searching. At that moment, none of this mattered to Jonah. He acted as though he had theological amnesia.
Minimally, his theology was not driving his actions. His sinful biases and preferences were motivating him to run from God’s clear call on his life. Doesn’t this raise the question? What is God calling you to do?
What message from the Lord is clear to you, but you are either physically or mentally running? How would a daily awareness of and sensitivity to God’s Spirit living in you, animate your thought life and compel you to walk with Him–to change you?
If you were keeping in step with the Spirit, rather than running from the Spirit’s illuminations as He engages you by the Word, what would be different about your thinking? Your life?
- How would it impact the fantasies that tempt your mind?
- How would it impact a decision you know you should make?
- What area of your marriage is God calling you to change?
- What is He asking you to do differently with your family?
- Is there a business decision you should make, but are avoiding?
- How should you engage your neighbors differently?
- Is God calling you to better financial practices?
- What would be different about living in community with others?
- What about your angry or frustrated thoughts regarding God?
- Are there secret places in your mind known only to you and God?
Do you live with a constant awareness that God is in all places and has complete knowledge of all things, including the thoughts and intentions of your heart? If Jonah did know this, no doubt he was pretending it was not true.
He acted as though God did not exist. You can do this too. I most certainly have done this. I have been a pretender. The foolishness of pretending does not change the truth that God is always there, and He is a relentless pursuer.
God Is a Pursuer
Jonah knew God was a relentless pursuer, which was part of the problem. He knew God might bless the Ninevites if he cooperated with Him. We learn this through Jonah’s painful but honest confession in the last chapter.
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. – Jonah 4:2
Jonah’s problem was far more profound than just running. He had hatred in his heart toward the people God was pursuing to redeem. But it gets worse. Jonah was criticizing God for being God.
Jonah was doing all he could to withhold the grace of God from the Ninevites. He knew if he relented and did it God’s way, the Ninevites might be saved, which was not acceptable. Rather than doing what God told him to do, he ran.
His response was a profound act of a man who is a prophet of God–a Christian. It is sobering for us to take note of it and to examine our thoughts and motives. Is there someone or some people group in your life you hope would receive God’s judgment than His forgiveness?
Is there someone you would withhold God’s grace from than extend God’s grace to them? Maybe the problem is not about differences in personal preferences; perhaps the person you are thinking of has harmed you.
The question would be similar: though they have done wrong, do you long to see the efficacious grace of God operating in their lives? Are you praying, hoping, and seeking ways in which you can be a messenger of this blessing?
I Want the Heart of God
The irony in this story is that it was God’s child who was trying to run the furthest from God. All too often this is the case. Religious people can be some of the most deceptive people.
How easy it is to hide under the shroud of religion while having a heart that actively works against God. This “religious game” is our temptation. We can create a wide gap between who we profess to be and the life we have.
Jonah had a gap in his life that God revealed and then the Lord called him to respond redemptively. A person that God requests to do a hard thing may be tempted to run rather than pursue redemptive possibilities.
Jonah ran because he did not have the heart of God. The Lord wanted to expose Jonah’s heart. He desired to wake His prophet up and turn him around.
He had pockets of un-discernible disobedience, which could only be exposed when he was challenged to respond to God. In this sense, he was no different from the Ninevites.
- The Ninevites were living in sin. So was Jonah.
- The Ninevites needed to be exposed. So did Jonah.
- The Ninevites needed to be redeemed. So did Jonah.
- The Ninevites needed someone to call them out. So did Jonah.
When you refuse to respond to the call of God to help another person, there are two people in need of help–you and the person God is asking you to help. The book of Jonah is not about the Ninevites. It is about God and His relationship with His prophet.
The remainder of this book will demonstrate that God is a relentless Redeemer and the lengths He will go to help His children. If Jonah’s temptation is tempting you today, you are only a prayer away from God’s lavish grace.
God’s call on your life requires change because He wants to save you from yourself. He is not trying to ruin your life by asking you to act redemptively toward others.
He knows the more redemptive you are, the more you will have a heart like Him. If you are a runner, you can choose to stop, turn around, and run back to God. We call this biblical repentance.
You can run boldly to the throne of grace, asking the Father for a fresh work of His grace in your life. Stop pursuing your hidden idolatries. Turn to Him in the act of faith, and you will experience the redemptive activity He wants you to lavish on others.
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. – Hebrews 4:16
Call to Action
I have asked you many questions throughout this chapter. Go back through them with a friend while asking God to reveal any hidden anger you may have toward someone. Perhaps you’re working with someone who struggles with a difficult person in their life. Use this chapter to help them see what may be unclear to them at this moment.
Also published on Medium.