Last fall, we piloted an eight-lesson series on the “I Am” statements in the Gospel of John. I taught them in my Sunday School class to test them out and make needed adjustments.
One of the eight weeks was on John 10, Jesus’ statement, “I am the good shepherd.” After a creative time sharing the beautiful Truth from this passage, I gathered my little group together for the Discussion time.
After 1-2 simple questions, I told the group that I was sure that we would love to hear a time when someone in the group felt like Jesus had “taken care of them,” like the Shepherd cares for His sheep.
I was so pleased that I had tried to engage the boys in discussion without asking a question 😊, a technique I was taught fairly recently. One of the boys looked at the group and got misty eyed and I knew something was wrong.
The nine-year-old looked at me and said, “My uncle was a ‘sheep’ and Jesus was his shepherd. My uncle died from COVID. Why did Jesus let my uncle die?”
This is one of hundreds of examples of the kind of weighty discussions I have had with children over the years. Like us, they struggle with real-life issues. They struggle with integrating God’s Word into their real lives. This was the case with Jonah in his namesake book.
Over the last few weeks, we have looked at how these same five elements are on display in God’s interactions with the prophet Jonah. We have noted the relationship that God had with Jonah, God’s use of experiential activities teaching Jonah, and God’s focus on important truth in teaching Jonah.
In today’s blog, we will look at the fascinating element of Discussion. We will see, as many Bible teachers have noted, the amazing discussion that takes place in Jonah 4:1-11.
The great city of Nineveh has experienced a spiritual revival, facilitated through the prophetic ministry of Jonah. An entire city, including the king, has experienced the grace and mercy of God and the people have repented from their sinful ways (3:1—10).
As we have noted in our earlier blogs, Jonah’s reaction is completely unexpected. He is angry! It is within this context that the discussion begins, revolving around two questions posed by God Himself and an ensuing discussion around those questions.
We can characterize the discussion in four ways.
Accusation and Justification
Jonah begins by expressing himself. He is both displeased and angry. He then explains the basis for his anger.
Jonah’s argument is basically as follows:
- You called me to go to Nineveh with a message of judgment.
- I refused and ran away.
- I did so because you are gracious, compassionate slow to anger, and abounding in love—a God who relents from sending calamity (3:2). I knew you would show grace and mercy to the Ninevites.
- You did just what I thought you would do.
- Therefore, I was justified in running away in the first place.
The implication is that God used the fish to force Jonah to go to Nineveh. In addition to strong-arming Jonah, the Ninevites were worthy of judgment and certainly not to be given the grace and mercy reserved for Jonah and the people of God—namely Israel.
Furthermore, in arguing with God, he quotes from Exodus 34:6-7, placing him in a small company of 1) those arguing with the Divine using scriptural support and 2) the other being Satan with Jesus during the temptations (Matthew 4:1-11). Jonah justifies himself, accuses God, and does so using the Word of God.
Jonah is so upset that he is emotionally distraught. In Jonah 4:3, he expresses his desire to be dead. The emotional outpouring is evident in that he repeats the death wish again in Jonah 4:8 and 4:9.
In some senses, it is a suicide wish. Jonah disagrees with God’s action with the Ninevites, but it does not end with a simple rational dissent. He is clearly emotionally wound up and expresses those emotions in his discussion with God.
Not only does he express his thoughts, feelings, and emotions, but he appears to be “pouting” in response to God’s question, “Have you any right to be angry?” (4:4) Jonah goes out of the city and sits down, not responding to God’s question.
Jonah was waiting to see what would happen with the city (4:5). Apparently, he thought God would come to His senses and destroy the city. To put it in modern jargon, Jonah unloaded on God.
God’s reaction to Jonah’s outburst is exceptional. As we have mentioned earlier, one would easily imagine God getting another prophet.
However, God shows amazing patience and listens to Jonah. His response is to ask Jonah the question we noted earlier, “Have you any right to be angry?” (4:4)
When Jonah pouts, God uses a living parable—an experiential activity—to draw Jonah into deeper discussion (4:6-8). This fails as Jonah reiterates his death wish in Jonah 4:8.
Again, God attempts to prompt the discussion by asking Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?" (4:9). Jonah replies that he does have a right to be angry and then for the third time expresses the death wish.
We could examine the reason for Jonah’s irrational and emotional outburst, but for our purposes, we must be stricken by God’s patience and the listening posture displayed by God.
If we pause to think of the situation and the nature of the participants, God’s part in the drama should both amaze and inspire us.
As the book comes to the climax, God redirects Jonah’s frustrations, anger, and emotions through the statement made in Jonah 4:10-11.
Redirection is a common strategy used by teachers to deal with misbehavior. Redirection draws a student’s attention away from something by providing them with another object of attention.
When toddlers grab scissors, rather than taking them away and making them cry, you draw their attention to a valued toy and they become disinterested in the scissors, exchanging them for the toy. This is done with physical objects and also with thoughts and ideas.
Redirection draws attention away from one thought to another. This is what God does in Jonah 4:10-11.
Jonah’s thoughts are locked in a particular worldview. Israel is God’s people deserving of His kindness, grace, and mercy. The Ninevites are not God’s people and therefore, by definition are unworthy of anything but God’s condemnation and judgment.
This is Jonah’s fundamental worldview and the basis for his anger and emotional state. God attempts to redirect Jonah by making the following statement in the discussion.
But the LORD said, "You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left-- and also many animals?" (Jon. 4:10-11 NIV)
God attempts to redirect Jonah’s thoughts away from himself and towards the lost people of Nineveh. God urges Jonah to consider the fate of one hundred and twenty thousand people, all of whom are lost. God redirects Jonah in a wonderful act of patient grace.
The discussion methodology in Jonah 4 is often overlooked with attention naturally being given to the discussion content. However, for our purposes, we note that the God of the Universe employs discussion methodology.
God’s purpose is to help Jonah integrate the biblical truth that God is loving, merciful, and gracious to all people, Jew and Gentile. The call of Abraham and his descendants to be a blessing to the nations was evident at Israel’s founding. It is this truth that God is seeking to help Jonah integrate into his life.
As we noted in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Discussion is an essential element of life-changing children’s ministry. Discussion is where children express their thoughts and emotions. They can even accuse, justify themselves, or express a range of thoughts and feelings.
Children’s ministry leaders can respond as patient listeners and view the discussion time as a core element of the teaching ministry. We can draw out children’s thoughts, feelings, struggles, and challenges all the while gently directing them towards the truth of God’s Word and their real life.
The challenge is to create an environment where the old paradigm of right and wrong answers is replaced by something new.
Our children’s ministry can be a place where boys and girls, like Jonah, can speak freely, express emotions, and expect listening, patient leaders to work with them to integrate the Word of God into their real lives.