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Beating the Jonah Syndrome

As Hurricane Gustav churned in the Gulf of Mexico a few days ago, reports circulated that it could grow into a monster Category 5 storm. I, like many others, kept tuning in to find out if it would strike New Orleans with more or greater force than Katrina had done three years ago. So great was the possible danger that it caused a major political party to cancel its campaigning for a day. Yet Gustav weakened, its center headed west of New Orleans, and it only struck the city with a glancing blow. The cameras trained on the levees, which showed the angry sea waves sloshing over the top, were not able to deliver stunning pictures of their collapse and the re-flooding of this city. So though the winds of political campaigning have picked up again and are blowing as strong as ever, thankfully the winds of Gustav died down and the city of New Orleans was spared.

At least that last phrase in the sentence above is what one is expected to say publicly. If the truth be known – and here is where you may lose any respect you might have had for me – there was a part of me wanting to urge the hurricane on. “Strike this wicked city and finish what Katrina did not, ” would summarize my dark sentiments.

For rather than repenting of its sins following Katrina, New Orleans seems to be more determined than ever to hold onto its Mardi Gras lifestyle and resume its violent and immoral ways. Crime continues to increase. Its murder rate far surpasses that of other American cities known for their violence. So like the prophet Jonah, who made a shelter for himself outside the ancient, wicked city of Ninevah, then sat under its shade so “he could see what would happen to the city” (Jonah 4:5), in the comfort of my home I watched the TV reports to see what would happen to New Orleans. Insurance companies continue to call these natural catastrophes “acts of God” when it means they do not have to cover the disaster, but no one seems truly to believe that the God of heaven would send these storms purposefully. Is it not about time God shows them? This is what I am calling the Jonah Syndrome, the desire to see the wicked get their due now.

The more I think about it, I’m sure this syndrome is more widespread than one may think. For in the Scriptures it was not limited to just Old Testament prophets. Two of Jesus’ disciples, common men like us, wanted to call fire from heaven down right that moment on one city that had rejected welcoming Christ into their midst (Luke 9:51-55). Indeed, with vengeance being routinely condemned in Scriptures (Matthew 5:38-42; Romans 12:19-21), even if you did not secretly root for the hurricane, surely you have wished for a lesser disaster to fall on that person who wronged you?

It is not just the desire to see evil punished that constitutes the Jonah Syndrome. God’s Word instructs us to pray that would occur (Psalm 94:1-2; Acts 4:24-31). I’m reading in Isaiah currently, and in chapters 23-25 he tells of the destruction of another seacoast city, the ancient and wicked city of Tyre, and says, “I will exalt You, I will give thanks to Your name…for you have made a city into a heap, a fortified city into a ruin” (Isaiah 25:1-2). Rather, behind this syndrome is the impatience of wanting action now and the lack of horror regarding what God’s judgments mean for its recipients.

For remember that Jonah was disappointed. After he had warned Ninevah that a disastrous judgment of God was coming, only to have them repent on a massive scale, God relented in sending it. When Jonah later expressed his frustration and anger that God had spared these evil people, how did the Lord respond? With a question. “Should I not have compassion on Ninevah, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?”

Certainly like the psalmist we can cry out “How long shall the wicked, O Lord, how long shall the wicked exult?” But then we need to see the Creator’s compassion, His patience in waiting for people to repent. Like God, we should take no delight in the death of the wicked. For they will get their due soon enough. Even if it does not happen in our lifetime, on God’s calendar it will be all too soon.

Indeed, about 150 years after Jonah God raised up another prophet to Ninevah, named Nahum. His message? “A jealous and avenging God is the Lord; the Lord is avenging and wrathful. The Lord takes vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished…(speaking of the armies that would ruin it Nahum says) With an overflowing flood He will make a complete end of its site…Woe to the bloody city, completely full of lies and pillage!…There is no relief for your breakdown, your wound is incurable” (Nahum 1:2-3, 8; 3:1; 3:19).

The time for judgment on Ninevah had finally come. May we grow in compassion and strength knowing that it always does.

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