Jonah the Wimp

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

[Jonah] prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live." (Johah 4:2-3 NRSV)

Jonah was a wimp. God called him to proclaim a message of repentance to the people of Ninevah and the very first thing he did was run away. Rather than obeying the call of God, Jonah made a mad dash for a cruise ship, the open ocean, and a far away country. He thought that he could escape the call of God by just getting out of Dodge. In this he was very much like most of us: we, too, are afraid of, and are prone to run away from, the calling of God. This is especially true, as was the case with Jonah, when God’s call looks in the least bit difficult. Most of us don’t want a tough task ... we want things to be easy, simple, quick, convenient, and comfortable! Heaven forbid that the calling of God might cause us to stretch our faith muscles any, or risk the possibility of personal failure, or hardship! So, lest we be a bit too hard on Jonah, we should always remember that he did what we so frequently do ... he ran from God. Or, rather, he tired to run from God.

After having been caught running away, after having been tossed into the sea, swallowed by a great fish, and barfed out upon dry land, Jonah receives the word of God a second time. This goes to show that, even when we mess up, even when we try to run away from God, even when we fail to do what God calls us to do, God not only does not give up on us but, indeed, God gives us second, third, and fourth chances to follow God’s Will. Scripture is clear here: "The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time...." (3:1) It wasn’t that Jonah remembered what God’s calling was, or decided to follow the orders he had been given earlier; no, Jonah actually received the word of the LORD a second time. This is good news for us: if we miss it and mess up when God speaks to us, we can have hope that God will speak to us again.

After receiving the calling of God a second time Jonah set off to preach his way through Ninevah. He managed to make it a third of the way across the city, having preached for a full day while traveling, and during that time the people heard his message and – shock of all shocks – repented of their sins! Indeed, the King of Ninevah was so taken with the call to repentance that he ordered the entire city to put on sackcloth and ashes, abstain from food and drink, and to repent all evil practices. Jonah’s calling, was successful! One would think that Jonah would be pleased that the people of Ninevah had repented.

Quite the contrary, Jonah was not in the least bit happy. After all, he had been through a great deal! He had been caught in a storm at sea, tossed into the waters, swallowed by a great fish, spent 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of that fish, and then been sub-orbital barfed from the Mediterranean to the shores of the Euphrates River. After all of this, Jonah wanted to see some action! He wanted to see the dirty rotten sinners of Ninevah smitten! And, so, he whined to God. He claimed – in one of the most outlandish lies to be found in the Bible – that God’s leniency with the people of Ninevah was the very reason he had run away from God and not wanted to do God’s Will! "I knew you were going to forgive them, and I didn’t want to see that! I want fireworks! When I ran away from you I got my punishment, now I want to see them to get their punishment! Smite ‘em, God!"

Again, we find in Jonah a mirror for ourselves: we want grace for ourselves, but we don’t want it for anyone else. We want success on our own terms, not on God’s terms. We think we know better how God should go about His business, and when God doesn’t do things the way we think they should be done we are prone to want to take our toys and go home. We get angry ... "angry enough to die!" (4:9) And, like Jonah, we have no justification for our actions. We might pretend as though we do, but we are lying and wimping out just as assuredly as was Jonah.

When God calls, we should listen and not try to run. When God calls, we should do as God says and follow His Will for us. And, when God produces a result, we should be willing to accept God’s Will even when it conflicts with our own desires, designs, or expectations. In truth, like Jonah, we have no choice. God is in charge, so we might as well bow to the inevitable.

© 2006, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from