Jonah was one angry guy! He gave an eight word sermon, had an entire city respond to it, and it only made him angrier! We don’t know for certain exactly why he was angry with the Ninevites (maybe someone in his family had been killed or suffered at the hands of the Assyrians), but it’s obvious that this destructive anger was the dominant force in his life. That’s not good.
Anger itself is neither right or wrong, good or bad; it is neutral. It can come for the right reason or for the wrong reason. It can be used destructively or constructively. Anger per se is not the problem—it’s why we have anger and how we handle it that constitute the real issues.
Perhaps Jonah was angry for valid reasons, but he allowed his anger to be destructive rather than constructive. When anger is constructive, it resolves things or does something positive. When anger is destructive, it is a corrosive acid that eats away at everything—especially its possessor. It fixates on injustices suffered (real or imagined), and replays them over and over. It’s reenacting a stabbing by taking a knife and plunging it back into the wound.
But the truth is, all anger brings pain with it and that gets to the heart of why we have trouble dealing with it. We’ve been hurt and our instinct is to hurt back. A big issue in anger management is how do we handle our hurt without hating or retaliating? In other words, how do we keep from ending up like Jonah?
It seems to me that what Jonah had lost was his good will (at least in regard to the Assyrians). Even though they repented and turned toward God, that wasn’t enough for Jonah. He had been hurt and wanted to see them hurt.
Wanting to see someone hurt—that’s the antithesis of good will (agape). Our Father takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23), how can we? And yet, this is the depth to which Jonah had descended. He had become a hater, wishing bad for others. How can we keep our anger from becoming a malignancy that destroys our good will, leaving us bitter and cynical?
When we are angry, we should pray for perspective—that God will help us rise above our anger, see it for what it is, and use it constructively.
When we are angry at sin in others, we need to see the sin in our own lives and measure our response accordingly. Specifically, this is where mercy must enter the picture. Mercy is what prevents anger from eroding our good will. When we think about how mercifully God has treated us (Psalm 103:10-14), it provides the emotional and psychological means for us to be merciful and compassionate to others.
Mercy will lead us to forgive. Forgiveness means that we release someone from the pain they have caused us by having good will toward them. The last part of this (having good will toward them), is critical. If we don’t have good will for them then we haven’t truly released them from the pain they have caused us. Jonah’s healing couldn’t begin until he chose to let go of his anger through mercy and forgiveness and neither can ours. None of this is to suggest that any of this is an easy process; only that we can either be overcome by evil or we can overcome evil through good (Romans 12:21). Christ chose the latter and we’re called to do no less.