Our Own Ninevah

Jonah's WhaleAsk anyone, churched or unchurched, to list a remarkable story in the Bible, and many people would say “Jonah and the Whale.” One part of that story, though, that is often overlooked is the end of the book when Jonah pouts because God poured His grace on the wicked Ninevites. How many preachers do you know would be upset because God used them for a city-wide revival? We condemn Jonah for his defiance toward God at the beginning of the book and his anger at God at the end, but we are really no different in our attitudes.

I recently heard a series of messages from Paul Tripp on the book of Jonah. One of the many thoughts that convicted me in that series was Tripp’s question “Who is it that you don’t want God to give mercy to and why?” The question can be easily answered by thinking of what group of people you are glad to see punished. My challenge is for us to seek to be ministers of grace to challenging people.

A Heart of Compassion

The first step in becoming a minister of grace to a group of people is to see them with a heart of compassion. The Gospels repeatedly tell us that Jesus looked on a group of people and had great compassion on them (Matt. 9:36). Seeing with compassion is a natural response when a visiting missionary shows the pictures of native children whose empty eyes tell so much of their sad story. When we hear about a person who has just gone through a personal tragedy, we instantly surround him with words and acts of compassion.

These are certainly right reactions. What happens to that compassion, though, when we are confronted with a group of people who irritate us or whose particular sin patterns detest us? The people of Ninevah were known for their extreme wickedness. Jonah wanted God to pour out His wrath instead of His grace on them (Jonah 4:2). Compassion does not mean that we overlook or excuse sin, but it does change our motivation and therefore our interaction with people.

Before three years ago, I put people entrenched in any addictive behavior in the bracket of unthinkable sin in my own thinking. Then I started helping in a Christ-centered addiction recovery program. As I got to know the people behind the stigma, God taught me that my sin is just as heinous as anything I could condemn in others. My pride put Christ on the cross as much as an addict’s self-destruction did. I also have been learning that we all try to fill that God-shaped vacuum in our hearts with something other than God. When we truly understand that we are all on level ground at the cross, we will see people with the compassion that Paul had when he told the Philippians that he had them on his heart (Phil. 1:7). Is a homosexual the person for whom you have no compassion? What about a brazen God-hater?

Prayer with an Open Mind

Our display of grace must go beyond eyes of compassion to prayer with an open mind. When God begins to show us a group of people in their real need, He often wants to use us to help meet those needs. Our tendency is, like Jonah, to avoid God’s call on our lives toward the people we struggle with. We do exactly the opposite of what God desires for us to do. Instead of praying that God would break our hearts and use us in those specific people’s lives, we often ignore the increasing burden and think that someone else will minister to them. We must pray with an open mind since God could use us to meet a need. Even if you are too hurt to be able to step into a person’s life yet, I would challenge you to pray biblical prayers for them. For example, you could ask the Lord to “strengthen them with might by His spirit in the inner man” (Eph. 3:16), or you could pray that their “love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and discernment” (Phil. 1:9). You need to pray that God would help you forgive as you have been forgiven (Col. 3:13) and love as God loves you (1 John 4:11). When I have chosen to pray for people that hurt or even appall me, my frustration turns to compassion.

We have all heard the testimony of people who started praying about a particular avenue of ministry, and God called them to step up to the challenge themselves. I have some friends who have been actively serving the Lord for many years. They were very involved in their church but always wanted to do more. At a banquet for our addiction program, they heard the stories of the lives changed by the truth of God’s Word. This godly older couple, with tears in their eyes, volunteered to be leaders in the program and have been wonderful tools of God’s grace to that needy community. They constantly give of themselves for whatever need arises with the people God has knit in their hearts. By the way, prayer instigated their action, and now their involvement pushes them to pray even more fervently.

Faithfully Continuing by God’s Grace

In the story of the tortoise and the hare, both the tortoise and the hare were excited about the beginning of the race. They started with equal fervency, but when the race got difficult, the rabbit took breaks and shortcuts. The tortoise won the race because he faithfully continued until he crossed the finish line. Even with all of the hard work required to begin a new ministry or discipleship with a new individual, a certain excitement comes with a new avenue of service. After we begin, though, we must faithfully continue by God’s grace. Christ never stopped giving to the needs of people, even the people who turned others away from Him, falsely accused Him, and even killed Him. Hebrews 12:2 reminds us that Christ’s motivation for His perseverance was His focus on the eternal rather than on the temporal. An eternal focus is our only hope for the sustaining grace necessary to keep faithful in spite of the tremendous challenges, the overwhelming fears, and the great hurts.

Whom has God burdening you about? Have you thus far resisted because of self-righteous disdain or fearful intimidation? Isn’t Christ’s sacrifice for us enough to compel us to see the real need, to pray with willingness, and to act in obedience? Will we ignore the call to our own Ninevah?

Joy WagnerJoy Wagner taught classes and was the ladies’ dorm supervisor at Northland Baptist Bible College (Dunbar, WI) for 10 years. She works as a counselor at Rocky Mountain Biblical Counseling Center.
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