What Could Have Been – Jonah (When God’s Mercy Isn’t Enough)

What Could Have Been – Jonah (When God’s Mercy Isn’t Enough)

by: Jeff Baker


We don’t know a lot about Jonah. When we first meet him, the Lord speaks to him and asks him to perform a very specific task. We read in verse 3 of Chapter one, “But Jonah…” Obviously, this task was unpleasant to Jonah and as a result he disobeyed and fled to Tarshish. He decided to go the opposite direction from where God had called him to be. You see, Nineveh had a problem not much different than what our country has today. Their sin had reached a point where the wrath and judgment of God was on its way. Within 40 days Nineveh would face the consequences of their choices and sin. 

But God… sent His messenger Jonah to let them know what was about to happen. But Jonah knew something about God that he often ignores throughout his interaction with all parties involved. The mercy of God. But more on that in a moment.

The Ship:

The crew is your average everyday shipping crew. They are going about their life doing what they do every day. Taking cargo from one place to another, making a living, and providing for their families. On this day something significant was about to happen. 

Jonah boarded the ship possibly in disguise or just simply trying to keep from being noticed by anybody. As  the ship set sail, things begin to change dramatically. A huge storm overtakes the ship and this weathered group of men begin crying out to anything or anyone that could possibly save them. But who could possibly save them? All their idols, false gods and world views weren’t enough. In fact, things got worse.

Only God could help them. And as providence would have it, His representative was on that ship… somewhere. Actually, he was deep within the ship trying to hide from God and man. 

Back on deck, the crew threw everything overboard they could think of to try to save the ship. Think about that for a moment.  Everything that they were entrusted with by their clients was now lost and destroyed.  Their shipping careers were most likely over. Afterall, who would want to use a carrier that willingly destroyed all that cargo. 

And yet, the storm raged on. After casting lots they discovered that Jonah was the reason for all of this. They even tried to save him by not listening to him about throwing him overboard. And again the storm worsened. Finally out of desperation they pleaded with God for mercy and threw Jonah overboard. 

What Could Have Been

From the moment Jonah boarded the ship he could have been God’s message of love and mercy. Here were a bunch of men who seemed rough and tough on the outside, but when faced with overwhelming circumstances, they clearly welcomed and even worshiped the God of Jonah. 

Then the men became extremely afraid of the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. Jonah 1:16 (NASB)

Instead of experiencing a God of mercy, they met a God of wrath. Jonah knew that God was a God of mercy and yet kept silent on the matter from the moment he boarded this ship. How often do we keep silent amongst those who we pass by everyday?

The Big Fish

We all know what happened next. Jonah is swallowed up by a really big fish. After 3 days and nights, Jonah came to his senses. He prayed. He returned to the God he knew to be merciful. Even in the midst of extreme disobedience, Jonah knew God would forgive and restore him. And He did.


Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah (a second time). This time Jonah obeyed. Reluctantly, but he still obeyed. With the fresh experience of the mercy of God on full display in his own life, Jonah spent 3 days (20 – 30 miles each day)  walking across Nineveh. With a population of 120,000 (about the size of Columbia, South Carolina), Jonah simply repeated what he heard from God. “In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown!”. No mercy, no grace, just straight judgement. 

We don’t know if Jonah had any previous issues with Nineveh. Perhaps they were the political party of the day he didn’t like. Or maybe, the people of Nineveh identified as something he didn’t approve of. Or perhaps they were just a bunch of ignorant people that didn’t really strike him as worth much. We don’t know. But we do know that he delivered God’s message with zero compassion, grace or mercy. I can almost see a gleam in his eye that he can’t wait to see this place laid waste in the next 40 days. They will surely get what they deserve.

The amazing thing is that Nineveh repented. God relented.

I bet it was a sight to see cows, dogs and cats in sackcloth. 

What Could Have Been

What if Jonah approached the city with the fresh experience of mercy he had just received. What if, as he shared the message of God’s coming wrath, he also shared with them His amazing mercy and love. Jonah could have explained that repentance was indeed required, but that the cows, dogs and cats weren’t required to wear sackcloth. He could have shared with them his own experience and intimate knowledge of God’s mercy. But he didn’t.

The reason we receive God’s grace and mercy is not so that we can feel better about ourselves. We receive His grace and mercy to become exactly that. 

As I look at the world around me, there are well meaning Christians that have all but become what God has called them to. I am forgiven so that I may forgive. I am shown mercy that I may show mercy. I receive grace so that I may give grace to others. I am loved by God so that I might become love to others. After all, isn’t that what it means to be created in God’s image. If God is love, then let us also become love. The world desperately needs it. 

Is God saying the same thing to us today? Does Jonah 4:11 not apply to you and I?

Should I not also have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 people, who do not know the difference between their right hand and their left, as well as many animals?”

If you listen closely enough, you might even hear the echo from the cross saying much the same thing. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”  

Christians and Forgiveness

If we’re honest with one another, …and I certainly hope we are (otherwise it’s just a waste of time for both of us)…… Forgiveness is a tough nut to crack for many Christians.  In fact, it just so happens that God is working overtime with me right now on this very subject.  I suppose we could say that I’m speaking about some struggles that are close to my own heart at this very moment.

We all know that we are supposed to forgive.  We know that Jesus, when asked by Peter how many times we are to forgive a brother who has sinned against us, responded with a number that seems to indicate “without limit.”  He was trying to get across the idea of forgiveness as an act that’s necessary repeatedly and consistently with/for each other.  The issue with many of us, however, is that when left on our own to complete the act of forgiveness – we confuse that with issuing the offender a pardon – and then true forgiveness doesn’t happen at all.  We mask it and move on, still harboring our grudge, and feeling that we are slighting ourselves if we somehow manage to “let go” and show mercy to the other party.  The truth of our situation couldn’t be more opposing to our actions.

So what does the Bible say on forgiveness?  According to the Bible, forgiveness should be offered, but not in a way that denies that a sin or a transgression has happened. The Bible also tells us that because we are flawed and sinful human beings, we don’t have the moral right to hold grudges or bitterness toward others who have trespassed against us. In fact, we’re supposed to pray not just for us in our efforts to forgive, but for the other person – the one that trespassed against us!!  Think about the Lord’s Prayer…

If we desire peace and emotional balance, forgiveness is a necessary first step for us to take.   If it helps, remember the scene when a group of Pharisees and scribes accuse a woman whom they’ve brought to Jesus of the sin of adultery.  They are pushing that she be stoned to death and they want Jesus to sanction that course of temporal justice.  Jesus responds by suggesting that the “person who is without sin” step up and cast the first stone. Amazingly…………the crowd seems to disperse, one by one by one by one…….until finally, there is none left.  Jesus asks the woman, “Woman, where are those accusers of you? Has no one condemned you?” The woman then responds “no one.”  Jesus replies to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”    In that story, Jesus issued forgiveness while still acknowledging that the sin was real.

So far, we’ve talked about forgiving others,……..but what about forgiving ourselves?  How do we even begin to do that when we know that our sin or transgression has wounded the people around us.  In many cases, we’ve so deeply wounded the people we claim to love the most that we aren’t sure HOW or even IF we will ever overcome the situation.

Let me share with you some common lies I believe that we tell ourselves, when we as individuals stumble.  These lies are dangerous and can keep us from ever allowing God into our unique situation to begin the healing process that involves forgiveness of all parties involved:

The lies

I am not worthy of love from Christ nor man.

I am not worthy to be forgiven by Christ nor man.

I cannot do anything that has value in this life.

I have no value as a person, husband, wife, sister, brother, mother, etc…

I have nothing to contribute in this life or to the kingdom.

I will never be happy – I don’t deserve it and I’m not worthy enough to have it.

I will never know true contentment – there will always be this emptiness and unfillable void.

I sinned, therefore there is no hope – I am destined for a life of nothing but sin.

My sin is who I am and I will never be better than that or different.

My sin is what defines me and worse, it’s what is expected of me by those around me.

Christ can’t use me for His glory because of my sin.

Now let me take a moment to flip those lies inside out,  and rephrase  them with what I believe are some spiritual truths that can help us overcome a “spirit of unforgiveness” towards ourselves, as well as others.

The Truth

Christ loves me no matter what – it’s not about being worthy of His love – I can never achieve that through works….I’ll fail and come up short every time if I try that  – Besides, ….He doesn’t use a performance scale to decide whether to love me or not.

I am forgiven by Christ, even though man may choose not to forgive me.  We are called, according to the forgiveness shown us by Christ, to forgive others. I am capable only through His grace to forgive myself and others who have sinned against me.

I can do all things through Christ Jesus, who gives me strength and provides for my every need.  Because I am created by God, I have value.  I am able to actively contribute to His kingdom through his ordained use of my talents, my spiritual gifts and my efforts to be Christ-like in my behaviors.  I can be salt and light with His direction and through the Spirit.

I acknowledge that my happiness does not come from outside sources: not other people or things.  My happiness/fulfillment  is through my relationship with my savior, Jesus Christ.  Only He and He alone can fill the void within me caused by past hurts and unhealed wounds.  He won’t heal me, however, unless I give Him reign to do so.  I need to turn everything over to Him.  He knows about every single thing that I think and everything that has caused me pain and all that I am harboring in my heart.  His love for me never changes and it endures forever.  He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Although I have sinned, I am forgiven upon repentance.  God’s mercy is fresh every morning.  Though my sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.  Isaiah 1:18   I am redeemed by the blood of the lamb.  My sins are forgiven.  As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed my transgressions from me.  Psalm 103:12

I am not defined by my sin. God gave me life.  I am defined according to His holy purpose for my life.  He made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb.  Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex….  The Lord will work out His plans for my life… Psalm 139:13-14, Psalm 138:8  Even the very hairs on my head are numbered.  No detail of my life is too small for Him.

I believe that the only way we can offer forgiveness to others, as well as to ourselves, is to bring God into the situation…whatever it happens to be and whomever it happens to involve….and however much pain we are in at that moment….

“O LORD, if you heal me, I will be truly healed; if you save me, I will be truly saved. My praises are for you alone!”  Jeremiah 17:14