A Mixed Up Minister?
What insights does the book of Jonah have for ministers today?
Led by The Revd Tom Stuckey, a former President of the Methodist Church.
The Angry Prophet
In the first article of this series, I wrote about the 'the fearful prophet'. Fear is a basic human emotion, and is clearly evidenced in the stories of the prophets. However, it may be transformed by inspiring godly action, and so become a spur to key events in the life of God's people in the Bible. The second basic emotion that I will explore is anger. The prophets experience every emotion, and there are plenty of examples of angry prophets. Moses shatters the two tablets of the ten commandments when he observes the people of Israel worshipping a golden calf (Ex 32:19); Samuel rebukes Saul for disobeying God in an angry exchange that sees the Kingdoms of Israel torn from his grasp (1 Sam 15:24-30); Jeremiah castigates the people of Israel for their reliance on foreign gods (Jer 10). Nearly all the prophetic writings of the Old Testament show deep hurt and anger about injustice, false worship or the misrepresentation of God's self revelation.
I cannot simply turn this powerful emotion around, however, and describe it as a source of godly action in the same way as fear, because we are talking about something very different. Whereas fear is a reaction to events, anger arises from within, and is often the outward sign of deep and complex feelings. Much mis-interpretation of anger occurs because the reasons for it are not accurately understood or communicated. Those who are trained in counselling and ministry know that expressed anger is but 'the tip of the iceberg' of a person's feelings; it can arise from frustration, disappointment, rejection, and even love.
So it is with anger expressed in the Bible; if we are to understand it, we must explore the reasons that create it.
The first thing that must be said is that God himself shows anger (there are plenty of examples in the Old Testament - see Numb 32:10ff for example). If you try to look this up in a Bible dictionary, you will probably find yourself directed towards the word 'wrath', an awkward word but one that helps us unravel what we mean by anger. The two separate words have significant differences in the Bible: 'anger' is a word that has to do with outward expression, whereas 'wrath' has to do with the pent-up emotional heat. God's anger is expressed at a variety of human circumstances (Abraham is cautious of God's 'anger' when he barters with him - Gen 18), but his 'wrath' is described as breaking out against constant and repeated human disobedience, idolatry and injustice, and as bringing consequent judgement upon that sin.
Nevertheless, it is important to realise that the reason for God's hot anger, or wrath, is because he loves his people and creation, and is forced to act to sort out the mess that we make of it. Indeed, if he didn't care for us so much, there would be no point in acting to sort us out. Think of it this way: some of the deepest emotional feelings of frustration and anger occur between people who love each other (as in marriage), and it is precisely because two people love each other that they find themselves angry, frustrated and hurt when things go wrong, or communication breaks down.
The job of the prophet is to speak out not their own wrath, but God's. In so doing they address real life as they see it and also point beyond it. It is not surprising therefore that when the Old Testament prophets speak, they talk of the deep churning over of God's love which requires him to act judgementally to sort out the mess his people find themselves in. These actions may be hard (as when Jeremiah makes it clear that God's people must submit to the indignity of the destruction of their beloved Jerusalem if they are ever to rediscover their faith - Jer 29 ff); they may be judgmental (as when Joel sounds the alarm for the 'day of the Lord' over the ruin of Israel); or they may be profoundly challenging (as in Jonah, where there is a parody played out between the wrath of God against Nineveh that impels him to call them to repentance, and the unresolved anger of Jonah at being forced to do God's will). But a close examination of all these texts will show a close interplay between the deep emotions of wrath and passionate love. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the pathos of Hosea, where a close reading of the prophet will demonstrate that God agonisingly reveals his damning judgement on the sinful people of Israel despite his passionate fatherly love (Hosea 11:1 ff), only resolvable through the salvation of the remnant of Judah (Hosea 1:7 etc.).
It may be too easy to say that many of the problems we have in the church occur because we feel very deeply about our faith. We feel wrath about this or that matter in the church (don't mention Foundation Training to some people, because you will get a sharp response!). People leave this church or that because of divisions about charismatic ethos, baptismal practice, the singing of hymns or songs or racial intolerance, for example. Our own generation is characterised not by unity amongst God's people, but by the little understood post-modern forces of division.
The prophets remind us that it is not our wrath or anger we should be worried about, but God's. Now, that's the challenge. God has many things to say to us about the messy stuff of life, but I suspect that it is similar to the Old Testament challenge of the prophets - to be faithful to God and to do justice to each other in equal and undivided measure. To that challenge we can add the reassurance of our salvation won in Christ, which means that as we enter into him and as he enters into us, we have the opportunity to rise beyond the messiness of this life, to see things with God's eyes and to act personally not from our own favour or wrath, but with a passion that comes from the heart of God.
not my wrath, but yours, O Lord;
not my love, but yours, O Lord;
not my life, but yours, O Lord.
All the same thing for Christians, brothers and sisters. Without this we are lost, but living in this we are found.