When Mercy Brings Anger

Has God’s mercy ever made you angry?  That sounds like a ridiculous question, doesn’t it. What reason would anyone ever have to be angry at God for showing mercy? Well, it’s happened.

In the Old Testament (Jonah 1-4) we read about a prophet who is called by God to go to the city of Nineveh and “cry out against it” with the message that within 40 days, God would overthrow the city because of its wickedness.  And we all know the story of how Jonah ran from God’s calling, was caught in a storm, got swallowed by a great fish, cried out to God for salvation, and was vomited back up on dry land.

Later in the account, Jonah confesses that he did not want to go to preach destruction to Nineveh, because, he said, he knew God would just have mercy on the people anyway.  And sure enough, Jonah preached, the people of Nineveh sincerely repented, and God relented of the disaster He had promised. 

Wouldn’t any evangelist be delighted to have his preaching met with such a sweeping revival and transformation of an entire city?  Not Jonah. Maybe Jonah was concerned that his reputation as a prophet would be damaged because the destruction he prophesied didn’t come to fruition.  But whatever his reason, Jonah pouted because of the mercy God showed to Nineveh. 

In the New Testament (Luke 15:11-32) Jesus relates the familiar story of the Prodigal Son, a young man who selfishly demands his inheritance, abandons his home and family, and wastes his fortune in foolish pursuits. Humbled to the point of eating pig slop, the man finally returns home where he finds his father waiting with open arms.  Immediately the father launches a great feast to celebrate his lost son’s return.

But not everyone is ready to throw a party for the returning prodigal.  The older brother returns from his work in the field to find the house alive with music and dancing.  And when he discovers that the celebration is for his foolish little brother, he is incensed because of the mercy that the father showed to the prodigal son.

The Oxford Dictionary defines mercy as “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm”.  The whole point of mercy is that it is undeserved.  The people of Nineveh, the prodigal son – they were sinful people for whom destruction and rejection would have been completely justified.  But God (and the father, who represents God in the parable) in His mercy showed compassion where punishment was due.

But mercy did not sit well with Jonah or the older brother.  They were ready to see somebody get what was coming to them.  And the glaring injustice of mercy angered them to the core.

Would we ever be guilty of such an attitude?  If not anger, perhaps we have been disappointed when God showed mercy on someone who deserved punishment?  Maybe, somewhat like Jonah, we have resisted building relationships with people whose behavior we find abhorrent, because we are afraid that God will ask us to love them.  Maybe, like the prodigal’s older brother, we have resented that God shows forgiveness to people who have engaged in behaviors from which we have abstained.

If you have ever felt that twinge of anger or disappointment at God’s mercy, there is an important truth of which we should all be reminded.  Jesus taught that the mercy that is shown to us is impacted by the mercy we show to others (Matthew 18:21-35).  We should be quick to remember that however faithful we may now be, we are all sinners saved by God’s grace – a mercy we did not deserve – and we should be eager to show that same compassion to everyone with whom we come in contact.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)

~ Matt Kinnell, NHIM Board Chair

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