If you’ve ever read the story of Jonah, you’ll see that there’s a definite superior streak in the prophet. On top of initially refusing to go to Nineveh due to their brokenness and depravity, he later says in Jonah 2:8-9, “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!”
Jonah does worship the Lord; but there’s one thing he overlooks in his own heart—that fact that he, too, worships idols. What do I mean by this? First, we need to define what an idol is.
What is an idol? An idol is anything that we worship more than God Himself. Here’s the key: we all worship something. The English word that we know as “worship” comes from two words: “worth” and “ship,”—meaning that we worship whatever is of worth to us. So an idol is anything that we turn to as more worthy or more valuable than God.
What was Jonah’s idol? Let’s take a look at the prophet a couple of chapters later, in Jonah 4. He’s promised to obey God, and even proclaimed back in the belly of the fish, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” However, when it comes time for Nineveh to be saved, and the people repent, Jonah has a very different perspective:
“But it displeased Jonah exceedingly,[a] and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
What’s with the change of tone? When we have an idol, whether it’s subconsciously or consciously, we trust that thing more than God for acceptance, approval, and meaning. If Jonah had trusted God for his own significance, he wouldn’t have been angered or threatened by the Ninevites’s repentance. But his anger reveals a deep-seated worship of his own reputation.
See, if Jonah’s prophecy of destruction didn’t come to pass because God had mercy on the city, then Jonah’s reputation as a prophet could potentially be called into question. This is part of the reason why he didn’t want Nineveh to be spared. He was placing his ultimate identity into his role as a prophet, rather than his relationship with the God who had mercy both on him and on Nineveh.
Chances are that all of us currently have something we turn to for foundational meaning and significance more than God. The question is, are we aware of these idols, and are we willing to surrender them?
What do you trust more than God to gain acceptance, and approval, and to give your life meaning? Let me just say this to you now: whatever you’re trying to build your life on other than God is not going to last. Some of you have already tried to build, and the foundation has been faulty—which is why the old hymn writer had it right when he said, “On Christ the solid rock I stand/ All other ground is sinking sand/ I dare not trust the sweetest frame/But wholly lean on Jesus’s name.”
Anything else that you try to build your life on—that you try to gain significance and meaning from—other than God is going to crumble and sadly disappoint you. Anything we place our trust in other than God will ultimately leave us unsatisfied. He’s the only One who can truly fulfill us.
For Jonah, it took God, a desert, and a dead plant to realize the truth: the very end of the book of Jonah reads,
“But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
Ask God to reveal the idols and strongholds in your heart; and ask Him to reveal how those things may be affecting your ability to love others as He has loved you. Addressing idols isn’t easy, but it will free your mind and your heart for the abundant life He has for you.