Welcome to the 8th day of our 40-day Lent journey! My name is Gina, and I’m here to walk with you through today’s scripture reading, reflection and prayer.
Scripture: Jonah 3:1-10 (Living Bible).
Did you know that God changes His mind?
That’s a strange thing to imagine of an infinite Being who knows everything that is going to happen, from the life and death of the tiniest bacteria, to the rise and fall of every human civilization. The complexity of our world is light years beyond our own comprehension, let alone control, but God knows it all. And yet, the Bible tells us through multiple stories that this Being can and does change His mind about something or someone.
It happened with Nineveh, as told in the Old Testament book of Jonah.
Jonah was a prophet from Israel whom God sent to warn Nineveh that they were about to be destroyed by their evil and violent way of life.
We might think that, in the world prior to the birth of Jesus Christ, God only dealt specifically with His chosen Hebrew people—as though He only noticed them and only interacted with them. But during Jonah’s time, Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire, an entirely different people and nation. Even though the 120,000 residents of Nineveh weren’t the chosen people of God, what we see in this story is that God knew them, watched them, and was concerned about them. He wanted them to know they were about to be destroyed.
Interestingly, Jonah’s message did not include any words of hope. He preached doom, plain and simple: “40 days and you shall be overthrown.” He didn’t say, “40 days and you will be overthrown… unless you do this or this.” It was just doom.
Furthermore, Jonah preached to them in the name of a God they did not know. Many ancient peoples believed in local gods—gods who were physically tied to their city, to a hilltop or a valley, to a river, or even to a nation. Once you left the geographic supervision of that god, you entered the territory of another god, where the first god had no authority or power. They would have seen Jonah preaching to them about a foreign God that they probably thought was a localized deity in Israel.
Yet, by some miracle, they believed that this perceived distant God was telling them the truth through this foreign prophet, and that this distant God had the power and authority concerning their future. They fasted, prayed and begged this unknown God to show them mercy, and spare them from destruction.
The passage then says, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”
God changed His mind. God interacts with humans. Even humans who don’t know Him.
This infinite, all-powerful, all-knowing Being noticed people who had not noticed Him, and intervened with a warning to prevent their destruction. In our Wesleyan understanding of scripture, the word for this is “prevenient grace.” Prevenient grace means that God’s demonstrates His love to us before we’re even aware we need it, before we want it or ask for it. He first loved us, as the writer of 1 John chapter 4 says. Even more astonishing, God first loved the evil and violent people of Nineveh.
What an amazing thought!
A beautiful message we hear from the story of Jonah is that no one, not one person, is so far from God that they are beyond His redemption. It wasn’t the unlikely presence of a foreign street preacher, shouting doomsday from a faraway and unknown God, that changed the people’s hearts in Nineveh. Did the Holy Spirit go before Jonah, softening their hearts, preparing their minds so that when they heard Jonah’s message, they were ready to believe it? They were able to make an informed choice of whether to continue recklessly down their path of destruction or to beg God to save them from the consequences of their violence and evil choices?
If this can happen with an entire city bent on selfishness, evil and violence, how much more for those individuals in our lives who seem so remote from God? Those people we think, “It’s hopeless. They’ll never know God like I do. Their heart is too hard or their experience with church or Christians has just been too damaging.”
What about people we don’t even think about as people—people God loves and longs for a relationship with, like politicians, actors and celebrities, corrupt dictators, or ethnic groups who oppress or commit violence against our own people group?
No one is hopeless. We can ask the Holy Spirit to do the work in their hearts that we cannot do, so that when they are ready and hear the words of God’s love and promise of salvation, they will believe it and accept Him and His love for them. We should also ask the Spirit to do the same for us.
If you read the rest of Jonah’s story, you discover that Jonah never wanted this city to be saved. When his mission was successfully accomplished, he didn’t celebrate. He was actually upset. He wanted them to be destroyed. Jonah was so furious with God for changing His mind about them that he even wanted to die.
Is it possible we might have this in common with Jonah? Are there people—people we know, like coworkers, family members or neighbors, that we secretly (or even unconsciously) hope will be destroyed rather than redeemed? Or maybe not destroyed, but we simply wouldn’t mind seeing them suffer rather than prosper. What about people we don’t know, just like Jonah didn’t know anyone in Nineveh? People remote and faraway from us that we hope will experience a downfall or destruction that we think they deserve, like politicians, celebrities, their voters or fans, or people from enemy ethnic or ideological groups?
God understands that feeling. He was patient and gracious with Jonah, just like He was with the people of Nineveh. When Jonah stomped off to an isolated place to sulk, God followed and met him there, and they had a conversation. The last words of Jonah’s story end as God gently asks him, “and why shouldn’t I feel sorry for a great city like Nineveh with its 120,000 people in utter spiritual darkness?”
This is the same God speaking to each of us today, intervening in our lives. He leads and He reacts to us as we make choices and grow.
God, in Your mercy, grant us hope for the lost who seem too far in the darkness to be saved, and compassion for those lost we don’t wish to be found.
Let’s pause to think about a couple of questions:
- Is there someone in my life who I’ve lost hope will ever give their lives to God? Give that person to God now, and ask for hope to keep praying for them.
- Is there a person or people in the world that I would like to experience destruction, rather than salvation? Is it someone I know, or someone I’ve never met? Ask God to soften your heart and replace your condemnation with compassion. Pray for that person or people right now, that God will rescue them from their ignorance or defiance of God, and transform them through relationship with Him.
- What steps can I take to replace an inner default toward condemnation with compassion for those I believe deserve to be punished?
Patient and gentle Father,
Thank You for being a God who is not distant, uncaring, or uninvolved. You are actively, deeply involved in the details of our world, a world you have made, and in the life of every person, whether we notice or want Your presence or not. Thank You for Your grace, which takes initiative to open our hearts and minds to You, and to give us the clear choice of whether to turn to You, or turn away from You.
Please plant in our hearts the same compassion that You have for the lost, for people who are selfish, hurtful, corrupt, oppressive, exploitative, and even evil. Help us to understand that, as Jesus said in Mark 2:17: “Sick people need the doctor, not healthy ones! I haven’t come to tell good people to repent, but the bad ones.” Teach us to pray for our enemies, to remember daily that we all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious ideal, so that we are burdened for others’ redemption because we have also been redeemed.
We need your prevenient grace in own our lives every day.
We pray this in the name of Your son, Jesus.
Today’s additional scripture passages are found in:
Watch a video testimony of a woman who was abused and even stabbed by her husband, before she escaped to start a new life. Years later, she was faced with the choice of whether to forgive him.
Invite your family and friends to join us on our Lent journey together, by posting the link from today’s transcript or podcast to your Facebook or Twitter accounts.
The Lent journey podcast and website are a production of the Eurasia Region Church of the Nazarene.