November 30, 2020

iMonk Classic: The Jonah 4 Club

Jonah has Pity on Gourd, Steinhardt

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
from May 2008

Here’s a useful question for me right now. (Maybe it will be useful to you, or maybe not.)

Can you find places in scripture where someone had to drastically revise their idea of God in order to know and follow the true God? If so, why and how?

I’m not asking for places where people just needed to learn some new information. No, I am talking about those in the Biblical story who had to radically revise, even abandon, the kind of God they believed in in order to take hold of the true and living God?

We can call it the Jonah 4 Club, because in Jonah 4, the reluctant prophet had to admit that God was a lot more merciful and gracious than Jonah had previously thought. Actually, in Jonah 4, Jonah is righteously ticked off that God is actually nice to pagans, and expresses pity and forgiveness for them.

Jonah had his idea of God all together on the issue of what bad people deserved and what God should do to bad people. Jonah had, of course, written quite a large check on the “I’m one of God’s truly beloved people” account, and he only found himself outside of Ninevah by the same grace of God extended toward him.

But like many Christians, Jonah prefers the God in his head and his prejudices to the actual Yahweh who is relentlessly forgiving to a whole culture of cruel and violent idolaters. (There were some pretty rotten characters in Ninevah.)

Jonah and the Whale, Moser

The Jonah 4 Club has some other members.

Abraham believed in some kind of moon god when Yahweh started speaking to him. In Genesis 22, when he has Yahweh all figured out, he has to think about God in ways no one wants to think about. When we’re sure what God will or won’t do, along comes a Genesis 22 experience.

Moses no doubt thought that God had hired him for a temp and was going to run the show himself, but he had to learn that Yahweh intended to work through a mediator and everything wasn’t going to be a Red Sea crossing. Sometimes, you were going to spend 40 years making a trip that should take 2 or 3 months at most.

The disciples of Jesus had a traditional Jewish idea of God and messiah, but hanging out with Jesus for 3 years put everything on the table for a revision. Jesus seemed to always be doing something that amounted to “tear up everything you believe about God, guys. We’re doing something different today.”

In Acts 10, God has to give Peter the vision of the unclean animals in a sheet in order to get through his stubborn belief that God has lots of rules of who can eat and fellowship with whom.

The Jonah 4 Club. I’m a member. That makes some people nervous, but I’m in very good company.

So how would you answer the question? And what’s been your own experience at joining?


  1. Other than conversion, I’ve deliberately tried to avoid that club. I’ve observed too many club-members to want to participate in that. “It’s all about grace, now it’s all about sanctification, now it’s all about signs and wonders, now it’s all about love, now it’s all about prayer, now it’s all about right doctrine, now it’s all about spiritual warfare…” Uuuggghhh! I’m sick of it. And every time they discover something new they come and try to convince me that NOW they understand the Christian life, God, the Universe, and Everything. They didn’t understand it at all before, but NOW they finally put it all together. Right up until they get disillusioned and move on to something new.

    In Bible College I had a wise professor who said “Every book you read, every teaching you hear; consume it like you do chicken. Eat the meat and spit out the bones.” Every Christian camp, point-of-view, -ism, etc. has meat and bones in it. I’ve watched too many Christians choke for me to be willing to swallow whole any radically different perspective on God. At the same time I don’t want to miss the particular God inspired perspective in any of the faith traditions that hold to orthodox Christianity. Each has something that is worth learning and keeping on this journey.

  2. I am not only a member of the club, but I feel like I have been initiated multiple times. Every time I think I have God all figured out He seems to throw me a curve ball.

  3. “Jonah is righteously ticked off that God is actually nice to pagans, and expresses pity and forgiveness for them.”

    I love that. I miss reading Michael Spencer’s writings. It was like a little gift every time there was a new post.

  4. We actually risk idolatry if we are not sharp. It won’t send us to hell but it will get us seriously off track and threaten to unhinge us when it must eventually be rectified. God has a vast number of names. Each represents a facet of His nature as we are able to perceive it. When a baby says, ‘I wuv you daddy’, it is heart warming. When a 42 year old says precisely the same thing it is pathetic because that man has not progressed in his relationship with his father. By that time we would hope they were friends (I no longer call you servants but friends). As we progress in our relationship, God expands. The early image then becomes a dead idol. YES. The very image of God that was alive, vital and crucial to our being is no more. That is why it is a continuing journey. We are never done and must ever meet the living Christ within us, not as we remember Him but as He presents Himself. For that we cannot rely on the letter which will kill but on sharp senses of the spirit and deep intuitions of the heart. Then, from that platform of openess to the Holy Ghost, the letter will come to life in communion with the whispers, or yells as the case may be, of the Spirit. As babes in Christ it starts the other way around. We begin with the letter. We learn our ABC’s. When we grow up however we must be ready for His dance when the music starts playing.

  5. David Cornwell says

    For a long time there were some things I did not understand about God. Some experiences made that feeling so much the worse. Actually those questions have never been answered. Or at least not answered the way I thought they should be. But we are now on talking terms once again, at least for now.

    And, like Jonah, it’s easy to want to judge those wicked people over there, or those who are outside the tent I’ve pitched.

  6. My first time on your site. Have to say Jonah is one of my favs simply because I am so much like him. I want God
    to give me easy assignments with people I mostly like and can relate to. God has other ideas.
    Another member of the Jonah 4 Club would have to be Peter. Stubborn, impulsive, confident of his own spiritual strength and insight UNTIL Jesus is crucified; then, he falls apart and goes back to fishing. He has to rethink his idea of a God who can’t or won’t forgive his betrayal and then turn around and love others the same way. Peter if you truly love Me, feed my sheep. Peter seemed to think he was loved as long as he was strong and in charge and action oriented. Jesus seems to say I’m okay with you being weak and headstrong as long as you listen and obey Me.

  7. I think of the man David who became King. David had a simple trust and love for God before his wandering eyes drew him into the things of the world. Hearing the sudden reality by God through Nathan seemed to restart a serious change of David’s focus on God and who might be He. Though David had simply trusted God before, he would learn through more difficult circumstances of his older days that God is God and David wasn’t. Hmmm, maybe there is a lesson for me perhaps? Most likely!

  8. Slightly off topic: my friend was one of those kayakers that got so close to the whales in Santa Cruz last year. She said the whale’s breath coming out of the blowhole is unbelievably stinky!! Jonah must’ve had a lot to think about for 3 days.

  9. Paul comes to mind, of course. Jesus had to literally knock him flat on his back to jar him out of his view of who God is and what he wants. You hear people talk about a “road to Damascus” experience even in a non-religious context.

  10. This reminds me of Lewis’ quote from A Grief Observed: All reality is iconoclastic. It’s something I try to remind myself of daily.

  11. Judy /Ca says

    For me it was the implosion of the charismatic Jesus people church I had attended for 18 years that spit me out on the sand asking the question of “Who are you, If I am going to survive this broken heart I NEED to know who YOU are?”
    Learning to listen to the still small voice instead of the booming one from the pulpit, trusting the direction that I was given through tears, meditation and prayer has opened my understanding to ONE so vast, so beautiful, so filled with grace and mercy it still takes my breath away though I’ve been on this road for almost 20 years now. Indeed we are never done on this journey. If we continue to seek the One who love us, He will always be found, sometimes where we least expect it.