One need not look long or hard to find evidence of bitter political polarization, and Christians are by no means immune to being sucked into the ongoing outrage war. Though we must play our part in seeking the welfare of our earthly home, whether in our personal lives or in the public arena, we must be sure that our convictions never compromise our kindness or compassion toward those with whom we disagree. We must be diligent to ask ourselves: How should we relate with those who think differently? And how can we be reminded to love even the most extreme and hateful individuals?
One resource that can be helpful in answering these questions is the closing sequence of the book of Jonah. In this passage we learn that as triumphant as the prophet’s rescue from the belly of the fish and witness to the Ninevites are, the story does not end there—Jonah has much more to learn about God’s mercy. In Jonah 4 we are given a picture of the Lord’s heart of compassion. The passage gives Christians these three reminders when engaging with those who have political differences:
1. Jonah reminds us of the grace we’ve received in Christ.
Jonah 4 opens by giving us a stark contrast between the merciful heart of God and the bitter heart of his prophet. After the Lord relents from sending disaster to Nineveh (3:10), Jonah becomes incensed (4:1). He says, “This is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you were a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from sending disaster” (4:2, ESV). This is a shocking statement.
The very characteristics of God that Jonah’s people were meant to take comfort in (Exo. 34:6-7) are now the target of Jonah’s ire. The reason such sentiments are especially egregious is the fact that the prophet had just been an undue benefactor of these attributes. It was not much earlier that he had been rescued from the sea and the belly of the fish after his deliberate disobedience. He is as much a recipient of God’s mercy as the Ninevites are, yet he grumbles to God.
It is often easy for us to have memories as short as Jonah’s when we engage with those ideologically opposed to us. It is tempting for us to view them as less deserving of God’s grace than we are, especially if they are hateful and bigoted. But when we are faced with those whose views we find selfish and abhorrent, we must be quick to remember exactly who we were when we were saved.
Paul reminds believers in Ephesus that they were once “carrying out the desires of the body and mind” and that they were “children under wrath” (Eph. 2:3). He tells the Romans that Christ died for us not when we were righteous, but while we were sinners (Rom. 5:7-8). Like Jonah, we were all once wayward souls running from God, and it is only by his grace in Christ that we have been brought into this new and transformed life. This is why we show mercy to our adversaries: without the mercy God showed us, would we be any different than they are?
2. Jonah reminds us our opponents are in need of this grace.
After Jonah expresses his anger to God for showing mercy to the Ninevites, he sets up camp east of the city in the hopes that Yahweh might change his mind and send destruction upon it (4:5). After the Lord grows a plant to shade his prophet from the sun, only to destroy it the next day before sending a scorching east wind to make him more miserable than before (4:6-8), Jonah unleashes his anger toward God. But he is put in his place in the book’s closing verses: “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow . . . should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”
We cannot universally recognize the sanctity of human life until we recognize it in those we find hardest to love.
With this statement, the Lord reminds Jonah of the utter lostness of the Ninevites. From a moral standpoint, the citizens of this city “do not know their right hand from their left”—putting them in desperate need of God’s grace. Are such things not also true of our ideological opponents? When our adversaries say and do offensive and inflammatory things, Christians are often tempted to view these individuals the same way Jonah viewed the Ninevites. But their behavior is not evidence of whether or not they deserve God’s grace. Instead, as is true of all of us, it is a reminder that they are in desperate need of it.
Apart from redemption through the saving work of Christ, all are spiritually and morally bankrupt, and like the Ninevites, do not know their right from their left. Therefore, when engaging with individuals who have worldviews with which we disagree, Christians should not be motivated by anger and bitterness. Instead, we must operate under the conviction of biblical truth and with the compassionate understanding that all are in need of the saving benevolence of God.
3. Jonah reminds us to show compassion to our adversaries, as God does to his.
The patience God shows for Nineveh is merely a foretaste of the grace he would ultimately show in offering up his son. Jesus’s death on the cross was hardly a sacrifice for a group of people who considered him his friends; on the contrary, it was while we were enemies that we were reconciled to him (Rom. 5:10). If the Father’s love is so great to send his Son to die for those who hated him, why should we not show similar love toward our opponents?
We often share Jonah’s struggle to understand God’s heart for our foes, especially amidst such polarizing times. But the same compassion God shows Jonah and his opponents is no different from the compassion he shows to us. We may feel that we are more deserving of his grace and that our sin is lesser, but we were once no less opposed to God than our most aggravating antagonists are. It is for this reason that, even when the worst of humanity is put on display in this era, especially as seen in political division, we must strive to see all humans as dignified but fallen, in desperate need for someone to show them the mercy and compassion of God.
The outcomes of political and other processes certainly have real-life effects on human lives. As Christians, we have the obligation to uphold human dignity in all spheres of life, public or private. But doing so does not negate our obligation to show compassion to those with whom we disagree; in fact, we cannot universally recognize the sanctity of human life until we recognize it in those we find hardest to love. Our adversaries—in the public sphere, on social media, or in another arena—may be sinful and fallen, but they are never out of reach of God’s grace. That he can extend mercy to Jonah, the Ninevites, and to you and me is evidence of this, and it is something to always remember when engaging with those who are ideologically opposed to us.