Most people I talk to that are skeptical of God’s character are skeptical of his judgment. They want God to be merciful to everybody, or at least the vast majority of people. They like God so long as he’s “loving” and “gentle” but turn away from descriptions of his wrath. When they say, “God’s not fair”, they mean “he’s not fair in his judgment.”
This past week, though, I spoke to someone who was more offended by his mercy than his judgment. This young woman told me boldly, “I hate a lot of people. I don’t think it’s wrong to hate.” I know this young woman, and I also know that she has been seriously wronged in her life. I could go into details but I won’t. Suffice it to say, from a human perspective, she has every reason to hate at least a couple of the people she hates. From the outside, it’s clear that her hatred is eating her alive, destroying her from the inside, but from her perspective she feels justified.
I attempted to encourage her from Romans 12:17-19. Here we are encouraged to forswear revenge and to seek peace because we can “leave room for God’s wrath.” In other words, wrath isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not ours to wield. We trust God to be the judge because he’s the only possible perfect Judge.
The young woman understood the passage but it didn’t make her feel better. She responded angrily – “but what if he repents?” She understood the mercy of God, but it offended her. She knows that if her enemy repents before God his sins will be forgiven and at the core of her soul she does not want that to happen.
I was immediately reminded of the story of Jonah. He was called by God to preach to Nineveh. Nineveh! Nineveh, at one point in its history, was the capital of the Assyrian empire, an empire that became the bitter enemies of the Israelites. Jonah was told by God to “preach against [the city], because its wickedness has come before me” (Jonah 1:1).
Jonah went in the exact opposite direction. He did not want to preach to Nineveh and it wasn’t just because he feared for his own personal safety. He didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he knew something about God. He knew God was merciful. What if they repent? Is God really going to let them off the hook?
God had other plans and brought Jonah to Nineveh against his will. Finally Jonah relented and preached to Nineveh the message God gave him – “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” And, almost shockingly, the very next words of Scripture say, “The Ninevites believed God.” They repented. They fasted. They cried out to God. And when God saw them repent he did exactly what a merciful God would do – he relented. He showed compassion on the city. He forgave.
Jonah was angry. This is exactly what he feared would happen.
“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:1-3)
This is exactly what this young woman doesn’t want to happen. The possibility of her enemy’s repentance and God’s mercy offends her. I even understand why.
God’s response to Jonah was essentially this: I made this city grow and flourish and I love its inhabitants. I love its people, even in their sin. My wrath was ready to be unleashed but I gave them a chance to repent and they did. Why are you angry with my love?
Maybe God’s mercy offends you. Maybe you’ve been wronged deeply. Jesus gives a tough command – to love our enemies. Part of loving our enemies means being open, and even eager, for God’s merciful response to their repentance. And we can only be open to God’s mercy when we ourselves are captured by his love, his love for the whole world.