I had the pleasure last Saturday of substitute teaching Dr. Benton’s church school class. After reviewing chapter three of the book of Jonah we moved into the fourth and last chapter which begins with Jonah being displeased and angry.
“Why is Jonah upset?” I asked the class.
“Because the king of Nineveh repented,” one child answered to a chorus of agreement from the others.
“Jonah was so mad he wanted to die,” said one of the older girls. “Isn’t suicide a sin?”
“That is a good question and we’ll talk about suicide a bit later,” I answered. “What did Jonah do next?”
“He made a tent to sit in” was one answer.
“He wanted to see what would happen to the people in the city,” said another.
“And what did God do?” I asked.
“He made a bush grow up for shade but a worm ate it!” replied a younger boy.
“This is true,” I said. Then we talked about the added mercy of the bush God caused to grow for shade even though Jonah already had a tent. We noted how happy this made Jonah. But then during the night God sent a worm to destroy the bush so it withered and then God caused even hotter weather conditions for Jonah. Once again Jonah becomes angry and defeated by circumstances he can’t control, telling God two more times that he wants to die.
“Jonah doesn’t like it when God is kind to other people,” one child pointed out. “He’s only happy when God does nice things for him.” This was followed by a discussion of the childishness of Jonah. “Even adults can act childish,” I reminded the children. “Being “childlike” is not necessarily bad, but childishness is about how we can act when we don’t get our way. Do you think Jonah really wanted to die? Does his life seem that bad?” There was good discussion about this and we decided that Jonah was not in any real pain but wanted to have his own way. We knew this not just from chapter four, but the context of the whole story which more than once shows Jonah trying to escape that which is unpleasant to him. I asked the class if they had ever felt that they wanted to die. Almost all of them gave an example of a time when they felt this way, usually because they had a task or job they didn’t want to do like practice the piano, homework or chores. “Do you really want to die or do you want to get your own way?” I queried. Most agreed that they usually wanted their own way. Then I pointed out that there are people who are in such deep pain that they feel they want to die to escape the pain. Then we spent time talking about suicide and the importance of listening to others who express pain or say they want to die. I underlined the fact they should always tell their parents or an adult if they feel this way or anyone they know expresses a desire to harm themselves. It is not up to them to figure this out on their own.
Jonah’s problem, we decided, was more about wanting to be in control than anything else, a sin we are all guilty of. But God in his mercy and kindness would not give in to Jonah’s temper tantrums. In fact at times he makes Jonah’s life harder. Does Jonah ever acknowledge that God is in control in spite of all circumstances? The text doesn’t say.
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