While it may not jump off the page at you, the main theme of this chapter is idolatry. So we’re going to ask and answer the following questions:
1) What is idolatry?
2) How is idolatry diagnosed?
3) How is idolatry cured?
1) What is idolatry?
When we hear the term ‘idolatry’ we think of wooden or metal statues and we have the image of people bowing down to them. Idolatry is much bigger than that.
Notice v. 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.'”
Jonah’s theology is spot on. So why is Jonah so upset about God being gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love with the Ninevites? He’s not upset with God being all of that with him or Israel. He’s OK with God being gracious, compassionate, and loving with him and his people, but he’s not OK with God being gracious, compassionate, and loving with the Ninevites. Why? Idolatry.
Jonah’s sense of worth and value isn’t predicated upon being loved by God, it’s predicated upon his position in relation to the Ninevites. God showing grace, compassion, and love to Israel made Jonah special in comparison to other people in the world. Once God showed grace, compassion, and love to the Ninevites, Jonah no longer saw himself as special in comparison to the Ninevites. They were now on equal footing.
This is why John Adams statement is incredibly astute. He said, “every person is strongly actuated by a passion for distinction.”
Jonah’s value and worth came from his position in the world in comparison to other people like the Ninevites. God’s grace, compassion, and love for Israel gave Jonah distinction. Once God showed the Ninevites grace, compassion, and love, Jonah no longer had that distinction because he measured his distinction in comparison to other people.
This is idolatry. I want to take a minute to try to show how idolatry is the root of all sins. I want to start with Jonah’s sin of racism. Let’s think for a minute about how it is idolatry is the root of racism.
Let’s pause and think about racism. What is it? There’s a lot that fits into the category of racism, so I can’t be exhaustive in the moments we have here. But I think we’d all agree that wishing harm on someone of another race fits into the category of racism. This is Jonah’s problem. He, deep down, wished harm on the Ninevites. Wishing harm on someone of another race fits into the category of racism. The flip side of wishing harm on someone is wishing the absence of blessing on someone. Harm is the absence of blessing. To be physically devastated by injury or sickness is really the absence of being blessed physically.
Why wouldn’t I want someone of another race to be the recipient of equal blessing to me? Maybe the reflexive response to that question is: they don’t deserve equal blessing to me. But that answer isn’t deep enough. To say someone isn’t deserving of equal blessing doesn’t go far enough. Why? What happens if they are recipients of equal blessing?
The answer is: I lose distinction. The voice of idolatry says, “If everyone is the recipient of equal blessing, then I’m no longer special. I lose distinction.” The voice of idolatry says, “My value is derived from being set apart from others; from being glorious by comparison.” Equal blessing removes distinction. Equal blessing removes glory.
When I derive my specialness by comparing myself to the position of other people, I have fallen into idolatry. Jonah is a church-attending, Bible-reading, prayer-warrior, idolater. Idolatry isn’t just a problem for the irreligious. Idolatry is a problem for the religious. When we derive our specialness through horizontal means, we have fallen into idolatry. When we derive our specialness through being horizontally distinct, we have fallen into idolatry. We do this a number of different ways:
Sports – One way I pursue distinction in comparison to other people is through athletic achievements. If I show myself to be better than anyone else, I’ll have distinction. My value and worth is predicated on being set apart from others through my athletic achievements.
Academics – One way I show how special I am in comparison to others, is to be better than they are in school. Getting better grades, higher ACT scores, securing academic scholarships, gives me distinction. I set myself apart from others through my academic performance.
Career – I can do with this career. When I make more money or perform better than anyone else in my industry or sector, I create distinction in comparison to others. When my sense of value and worth is rooted in being “more successful” than anyone else, this has become an idol.
Parenting – What does idolatry of parenting and kids look like? How does a passion for distinction manifest itself through parenting? “My kids are holy in comparison to the others.” “My kids are successful academically in comparison to others.” “My kids have memorized more Bible verses than others.” Now listen, when my value and worth is tied to parenting, when it’s tied to raising up kids who are well-behaved and academically successful, I will put a weight upon my kids’ shoulders too heavy for them to carry. Because my passion for distinction is coming through parenting, I need my kids to perform at the highest level in order for me to feel valuable. When I do that, I will crush them with my expectations. This is one reason kids grow up to resent their parents.
What does idolatry in church or ministry participation look like? I can use involvement in church to make me feel distinct or special in comparison to others. “I teach classes in church, most others don’t.” If my value and worth is rooted in teaching classes in church, I have turned teaching in the church into an idol. “I’m a leader in the church, most others aren’t.” If my value and worth is rooted in that, I have turned being a church leader into an idol. “I play on the worship team, most others don’t.” If my value and worth is rooted in that, I have turned the worship team into an idol.
Sports, academics, career, parenting, and church involvement are all good things. Idolatry is turning a good thing into an ultimate thing. This is what makes idolatry such a challenging phenomenon to identify and get rid of. On the surface, it’s a good thing. But when that good thing becomes an ultimate thing, it’s become an idol.
2) How is idolatry diagnosed?
The short answer from this text is: emotionally. I find my idols by looking at my emotions. The ESV does a better job translating v. 1. It says, “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly and he was angry.” And then in verse 4, God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
By showing the Ninevites compassion, God took away Jonah’s source of distinction and Jonah became exceedingly displeased and angry.
If you want to know if a good thing has become an ultimate thing, when the good thing is threatened or taken away, what is your response? Do you get defensive? Anxious? Angry? Hostile? Fearful? When your source of distinction is removed, what happens?
If the source of your distinction is athletic achievement, what happens when you lose it? What happens when you don’t perform well? What happens when it’s taken away?
If the source of your distinction is academic achievement, what happens when you botch a test? What happens when your rival gets a better score than you do? What happens when academic achievement is taken away?
If the source of your distinction is career, what happens when you lose a client to a competitor? What happens when you mess up the deal and lose credibility in your field?
If the source of your distinction is parenting, what happens when your 14 year-old daughter comes home and tells you she’s pregnant. What happens when the school calls you and lets you know your son was caught smoking pot? Like Jonah, would life feel hardly worth living?
Let me push deeper into this parenting thing. A few weeks ago we did a series on Gospel + Safety + Time. We want ABC to be a place where people are able to admit their problems honestly without fear of accusation. We want it to be a safe place. So let’s think about how idolatry makes churches dangerous places. I want to show you how idolatry undermines safety.
So say the source of my distinction is parenting. Having my kids be good in school and well-behaved is critical to me – that sets me apart from other parents. If parenting is an idol, that will greatly impact how I respond when another parent’s 14 year-old daughter comes home and announces she’s pregnant. How will I respond to that? When it’s some other parent who has “failed”, that will give me an opportunity to create further distinction for me. I’ll do this by either being openly critical of that parent, or quietly critical of that parent in my own heart or behind closed doors with others. In other words the root of idolatry produces the toxic fruit of gossip and slander.
Ministry idolatry is another form of idolatry that makes churches dangerous places. It is important for church leaders and attenders to understand the difference between the functions of the church and the forms of the church. The functions of the church never change. They are things like: worship, instruction, fellowship, evangelism, and prayer. The forms of the church are the ways in which the functions are done. The forms must and will change in a church. Examples of forms include: The Gospel Project, Alpha, Awana, and Men’s Fraternity. Ministry idolatry occurs when a form becomes ultimate. If a form becomes ultimate, when the leaders of a church decide to execute the function through a different form, people who have made that form ultimate often respond with despondency.
Idolatry makes churches dangerous places. If we want to be a church that serves as a harbinger of the new heavens and the new earth, do you know what needs to be on the front burner of every ministry here at ABC? Idolatry identification and eradication. Part of the core mission of the church needs to be to identify idols and eradicate them. Idolatry makes churches dangerous places.
3) How is idolatry cured?
Jonah’s specialness is derived from possessing distinction from other people; from being set apart from other people. Jonah’s perceived moral superiority over the Ninevites indicates he believes he has contributed to his distinction. So when God gives Nineveh grace, compassion, and love, he undermines Jonah’s source of distinction. Jonah’s race, religion, and moral performance bring nothing to the table. They contribute nothing to his distinction.
But he is distinct. God’s words to Jonah in vv. 10-11 provide us with enough to conclude Jonah’s distinction and the Ninevites distinction isn’t about their race, religion, or moral performance. But instead what makes them all distinct is the fact that God has created them uniquely in his image and likeness.
“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, which there are more than 120,000 people…”
“Jonah, you’re so concerned for this plant even though you didn’t create it. I created both the plant and the Ninevites, should I not be concerned about their well-being?”
This scene gives us such amazing window into the heart of God and how he views human life. We know the treacherous history of the NInevites. They were evil. But God is slow to anger and abounding in love with people because they are his very image and likeness.
Nicholas Wolterstorff illustrates this well. He imagines some foreigner, knowing nothing about U.S. history, becoming perplexed to find that the Mount Vernon estate in Virginia is preserved as a national monument and treated as an object of such great worth. After all, he might observe, there are quite a number of old Virginia plantation houses of much greater architectural merit and beauty than Mount Vernon. We would respond that this was the house of George Washington, the founder of our country, and that explains it. The internal merits and quality of the house are irrelevant. Because we treasure the owner, we honor his house. Because it was precious to him, and we revere him, it is precious to us. So we must treasure each and every human being as a way of showing due respect for the majesty of their owner and Creator.
So how is idolatry cured? We get engaged in idolatrous pursuits because of our passion for distinction. One of the ways we are freed from such pursuits is by having a healthy doctrine of the image of God. What I do or accomplish doesn’t make me special. The Ninevites were special to God. But what had they accomplished? I’m already special because of who made me and owns me.
In the new covenant this gets ratcheted up even more. When you get the gospel and when you preach the gospel to yourself daily, this struggle with a passion for distinction will begin to dissipate even more. Because here’s why: on the cross, Jesus is saying to us, “You have an inner need to feel valuable; to feel like you’re somebody. By dying for you, I’m showing you how valuable you are. By dying for you, I’m showing you, you are a somebody. Because I don’t die for nobodies.”
If you’re looking to your own performance in life to find distinction, your value will always be determined by your latest accomplishment. And you’ll always need another accomplishment to keep feeling like you’re somebody. Therefore, you’ll never find rest. But in creation God says to us, “You are distinct. You are valuable. Because I made you uniquely in my image and likeness. “ And in the gospel, Jesus permanently changes our status. By going to the cross for us, Jesus says, “You are definitively valued. You are worth dying for because you are a somebody.”
Only when we grab hold of these truths will be free from using our accomplishments to pursue distinction.