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What Would Jonah Do? Part 2: Forgiveness

Honestly, until the last five years, I didn’t know the book of Jonah was more than a book about what happens when you disobey God and His man in charge down here, the pastor.

The theme of Jonah isn’t see-I-told-you-so like I thought. Rather, it was a question God had for Jonah that really was a question for Israel that is really a question for us today:

Can you forgive your worst enemy?

We first meet Jonah in 2 Kings chapter 14, where he is called to be a prophet and sent by the LORD to Jeroboam the king of Israel, who was an evil king. The LORD wanted Jonah to tell the king that He was going to bless him and expand his borders.

So, Jonah goes to the king, and the LORD blesses the king, and the king gets worse!

Now fast forward to the book of Jonah.

The LORD tells the prophet to go to the great city of Nineveh and preach to the people there that they should repent or else they will be destroyed, but this time, Jonah doesn’t do it, instead, he flees to Joppa, where he buys a one-way-ticket to Tarshish, 2500 miles in the opposite direction.

To understand why Jonah does this, we first need to understand the Neo-Assyrian Empire that haunts the backdrop of the Jonah story. (Presently known as modern-day Iraq).

The Assyrians were the brutal superpower of the day—not just of that day, but for three hundred years, historians record that the Assyrian armies used advanced technology, ruthless terror tactics, barbaric torture methods, and were superior in siege warfare, which included the deportation of the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel, where Jonah lived, to Assyria,

a foreign land,

with foreign people,

and foreign gods.

The Assyrians inflicted cruel and unusual punishments on their captives like burying them up to their necks in the desert and cutting out their tongues, so that they couldn’t swallow. Never mind the glaring fact that Nineveh is the capital of Assyria according to the Hebrew scriptures.

The Assyrians treated Israel horribly! They were the enemy of the Jews.

Of course, Jonah didn’t want to go!

You wouldn’t either!

Perhaps, in the recesses of Jonah’s mind was the question, “What if God shows the Assyrians kindness and they get worse, way worse, like king Jeroboam?”

In case you are still unclear as to how cruel the Assyrians were, here’s an inscription from an Assyrian temple that records the words of king Ashurbanipal about the physical punishment he inflicted on his captives:

“I built a pillar at the city gate and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up inside the pillar, some I impaled upon stakes.”

That is why Jonah refused to go—

That is why he fled—

That is why he was fast asleep in the bottom of a boat bound for southern Spain—

That is why a terrifying storm arose nearly breaking the boat apart—

That is why he was thrown overboard—

That is why he was swallowed by a giant fish in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and spit out three days later—

So back to God’s question for Jonah that was really a question for Israel that is really a question for us today,

Can you forgive your worst enemy?

It’s a real question, for real people, in real places, in real times.

Jonah struggled with forgiveness.

Do you?

Jonah who had been vomited up only days earlier, reluctantly announced to Nineveh that in forty days their city would be destroyed.

Why does Jonah care?

He doesn’t!

Jonah hates the Assyrians!

He doesn’t want them to repent. He wants them to die!

Hurt people hurt people, Charles Eads said. We want our enemies to pay. We want our enemies to hurt, because we hurt.

Jonah wanted the Assyrians to suffer because of the pain they inflicted on Israel, but that’s not what happened in the story. Nineveh repented, and God changed His mind, but Jonah didn’t change his mind, he still wanted God to judge them and to bring justice for Israel. Without judgement, there could be no justice, at least, that’s was what Jonah thought.

In chapter 4 verse 1, Jonah tells God,

I knew thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness…

What Jonah was really saying was,

See, I knew You wouldn’t go through with it! I knew You would change Your mind!

Jonah seeing his enemy blessed infuriated him. Have you ever felt that way?

I know I have.

While growing up, my uncle sexually abused me and my older sister Pauline and sold us to other men. He killed our pet rabbit and told us that if we ever told, he would kill us like he did the rabbit. He terrified, terrorized, and gave us nightmares. So whenever we would hear extended family praising him and saying things like “World’s best Uncle” and “The kindest and most loving Uncle on the planet,” we would get angry!

Putting myself in Jonah’s sandals—I could see why he was angry that the LORD extended the same grace and mercy to the enemy as He had to Israel. Jonah would rather die, then see his enemies blessed.

The problem is bitterness leads to resentment that leads to anger that leads to revenge.

When I turned twenty-seven, God started dealing with me about my uncle. By then, I had forgiven him, but God was prompting me to tell him nine very specific words: “I forgive you! I release you of your burden.” (Those nine words I had spoken once before to someone else six months earlier, but you’ll have to read the next blog to find out who and why.)

For several months, I tried emailing my uncle and writing him physical letters with those nine words in mind, but none of those attempts ever made it past my fingertips. Then, one afternoon the phone rang and it changed everything. It was now or never. I had to tell him, and here’s what that looked for me…

It’s Mom. I can tell by her cough. I hear the flick of the Bic and wonder what number she’s on for the day. She smokes and not in a charming Hollywood kind of way, but more like a guppy sucking air kind of way. First the unfiltered, then the filtered before switching to the Lite, and the phlegmy cough—not that it’s the cigarettes fault. Never is. Allergies or pollen or something like that.

Mom clears her throat. “I hope you’re sittin' down.”

Her words coupled with her thick Maine accent send shivers up my spine and into my hair.

My heart pounds. “Is Dad all right?”

“Your uncle’s had a massive heart attack, and the doctors don’t expect him to make it through the night. Serves him right. Hope he dies. He’d be doin’ us all a favor then.”

Uncle Jerry?

Memories flood my head and my heart. Unpleasant memories. Memories of pain and abuse. But something surges past the memories. Regret. “He can’t die! I haven’t told him I forgive him yet—"

A series of loud hisses snake through the phone from Mom’s lips to my ears. “That man’s a monster! I thought you’d be happy! Your sisters sure the hell were. Why Pauline said she’d go to his funeral just to spit on his grave.”

Mom’s answer doesn’t surprise me. A lot of people would tell me that my uncle did the unforgivable. Yet, my eyes tear up, and I taste the salt at the back of my throat. Without answering her, I simply ask, “Do you know which hospital?”

Mom talks fast and angry. “After all he did to you girls? After all he put our family through? You’re gonna forgive him? He’s never so much as said he was sorry. You’re a damn fool, Francine.”

“I forgave him a long time ago, but I need to tell him.”

“Go ahead…Call him! He’s at the Portland hospital. Do whatcha’ want, but don’t say I didn’t tell you so.”

The call ends, and a lump invades my throat. I think of the other guys who took what wasn’t theirs. I think of those who didn’t believe me, like my Aunt Mable who was pure evil. I think of all of these things, and I’m overwhelmed. I never asked for any of this pain. But here it was, weighing on my heart like a heavy stone. Even with the rush of unwanted emotion, I knew what I had to do. I might not be able at this moment to make it right with all of the people who wronged me, but this, this thing I could.

Before talking myself out of it, I force my fingers to dial 4-1-1. The silence stretches, and I wait for the operator to connect me.

My hands tremble without permission and butterfly’s freestyle in my stomach. Voices. So many voices entangle my thoughts. Should I be doing this? What if he doesn’t recall or better yet, what if he denies it all?

I listen for him to say ‘hello’ and gaze out the kitchen window at my boys, Myles, Seth, and Ethan, who are playing baseball with their dad and tagging bases marked with shoes. I smile at how fortunate I am. I remember when I was eleven and the doctor saying, “The damage is too great. I don’t know if she can have children.” I hadn’t entirely understood the situation, but I remember Mom crying.

I remember in detail, the little brown house with the mustard-trimmed door, tucked between Grandma Dodge’s farmhouse and Aunt Mable’s trailer in Canaan, Maine. The backsides of our properties fenced in by Grandpa’s junkyard with a thin stretch of pines separating the garbled metal from our view, and cornfields bordering both sides; one to the left of Grandma’s house and the other, to the right of Mable’s.

“Hello,” a weak and gravelly voice says.

It’s him!

A sinking feeling comes over me as images of the two dimes and a nickel he always gave me, the Mafia-styled car, the six-legged octopus, the green school bus, and the spring of ‘87, when warm chocolate chip cookies exchanged hands surged through my memories.

The sound of his voice makes me feel small. It’s me David, and him, Goliath. Fear pumps through my veins, and I push the button to end the call.

Despite the sweaty palms and knot in my throat, I summon the courage to dial him back. When I hear his voice the second time, I breathe deep and say in one breath, “This is Francine! Please don’t hang up.” I pause and listen. No dial tone. So, I keep going. “I forgive you! I release you of your burden.”

Once the words are out, I feel my heart thud against my chest. These are the words I’ve wanted to say for some time. These are the words that I needed to say to free myself.

I press the phone against my ear and wait for a dial tone. When there is none, I quickly say, “We both know it hasn’t done your heart any good carrying this burden around. Do you know what burden I’m referring to?” When he doesn’t respond, I add, “I know you’re not alone, because I can hear others in your room, so if ‘ayuh’ is the only answer you can give, then ‘ayuh’ is fine with me.”

His breathing is labored, and I count in my head one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi, before he responds with “Ayuh.” (The Maine version of saying ‘yes’ and ‘okay.’)

I squeeze the receiver in my hand and push back the urge to weep out loud. “I know the doctors don’t expect you to make it through the night, so I want you to know I’m praying for you.”

“Thanks. I need all the prayer I can get right now,” he says.

I gaze at the plush green fern growing on the porch and am drawn back to the relentless winters in Maine, where the true sign of spring was not a day marked on the calendar, but the true sign of spring was and is the emerald-green fiddlehead. All ferns have fiddleheads. The fiddlehead is not a fern, but it is the unfurled frond of a fern, before the leaf unfolds, and last only a few days.

“Goodbye,” I say as I watch my boys tag the bases marked with shoes, glad that this season of my life has finally drawn to a close... (An excerpt from my memoir coming out in 2021)

The apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians chapter 4, Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.

But what if they don’t deserve it? you ask.

Do it anyway!

Colleen Haggerty gave a Ted Talk titled, Forgiving the Unforgivable. She told how she lost her leg to a careless driver, and how years later, she called the driver to see if he would meet with her face to face. Colleen said, I wanted him to see me. I wanted him to see me limp.

Is that you?

Do you want the person who hurt you to see you limp?

I know for a long time, that was me.

My dog, Truitt, injured his foot on vacation a few years back, and for four days he hopped around on three legs. One night, as my husband and I were walking him and watching him limp, Truitt became preoccupied with sniffing, as dog's do, and suddenly he went from hopping on three legs to walking on all-fours.

I remember saying with my hands on my hips, and one foot tapping the dirt,

Wait a minute! You can walk?

That’s when it hit me, emotions have memory! Truitt couldn’t move past the past, until he allowed something else to take up his head space.

You’ve probably heard it said that the past doesn’t equal the future. Well, that’s true as long as you don’t live there!

There is nothing worth holding onto if it means losing your peace and joy. Jesus on the cross said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Thank goodness that forgiveness for humanity wasn’t predicated on our apology or acknowledgement or level of sorry-ness, but on Christ love for us. The cross is the universal symbol of forgiveness and the Divine means by which forgiveness flows.

I am not alone. You are not alone! We’ve all had bad things happen to us, whether it’s the parent who abandoned us, the spouse who cheated on us, the family member who hurt us, the thief who robbed us, the liar who lied on us, the murderer, the child abuser, the rapist, the bigot, the judgmental saint, the calloused leader, and on and on.

So back to God’s question for Jonah that was really a question for Israel that is really a question for us today,

Can you forgive your worst enemy?

The author of Forgive and Forget said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you."

When you withhold forgiveness, it quenches the Spirit of God in your life. What are you holding onto that you need to release? Forgiveness comes in many forms. You don't have to do it like I did it, but you do have to do it if you want the Spirit of God to flow freely in you and through you!

Stay tuned for Part 3: When Unforgiveness Steals Your Anointing.

I Am M.O.R.E., and so are you!

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