September 20, 2020

The Jonah 4 Club

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.)

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. I’ve been thinking along these lines for a LONG time. Lately more than ever. Partly because I’m writing a novel about Mary (i.e., mother of Jesus) and partly because . . . okay, I’m going out on a limb with a bunch of folk I don’t know, okay, but what about dating nonChristians? Huh? Grew up thinking BAD IDEA. Still a big part of me thinks that, though it’s being challenged right now.

    My question about your question is: how do you know when your idea of God is being revised by God, and when you’re just making it up to suit a personal preference or life choice?

  2. Well…that’s why I asked for examples from scripture. I’d like to learn from there, not just from my own experience. The God who has come to me is the God and Father of Jesus.

  3. RonH (yes, *the* RonH) says

    Heh. I like your club. In Scripture, who *didn’t* have to drastically revise their idea of God after coming in contact with Him? “Woe is me…”

    One treatment of this subject that has impressed itself deeply in my mind is Doug Jones’ article on “God the Dangerous”. You should read this:

  4. Robert F says

    I would add Job to the club. He had the idea that if he could somehow talk to God, and explain his situation, then God would understand and make it all better. In chap 13, he wants to reason with God, and by chapter 31, he says that he would approach God like a prince.

    But in Chap 38, when God finally talks to him, he changes his tune. No more questions. No reasoning with God. Just silence. God never answers the question for Job. He doesn’t tell him why all those bad things happened.

    I joined the club about 2 years ago, when I began to face serious issues with my parents. I had expected the health problems, but I never expected that their mental conditions would deteriorate so quickly. This left me wondering why God would allow that to happen. I’ve always been someone who wanted to know why, and it’s been hard to accept that God would sometimes say, “just cause.” But sometimes, that’s the answer, “just ’cause.”

  5. Actually, I think Jonah ran from Nineveh because he did understand how merciful and slow to anger God was and Jonah wanted the Ninevites clobbered. It’s right there in chapter 4 when he’s griping at God. He says that’s why he fled to Tarshish, because he knew God was merciful and wouldn’t destroy Nineveh. And that’s after giving one of the most reluctant, least informative, and shortest prophetic proclamations in scripture to the city. Jonah knew what God was like. He just didn’t like it.

  6. A lot of the exilic literature deals with a radical change in theology. The question they wrestled with was, “If YHWH is sovereign over the world, how were the Babylonians able to conquer us?”

  7. As a prince in Egypt, Moses served a god who needed his help in delivering His people from captivity. Chastened by forty hard years in the wilderness and transformed by the Burning Bush, he went back to announce the Living God who used men at times, but never depended on them.

  8. I had to laugh when I read this. I have an old “Experiencing God” Bible from my younger years. I keep it around because I took lots of good notes in there and because it is my only NKJV version of the Bible. It has little markers in it and one of them is for “Life Adjustments”, characterized by a little wrench next to the verses. There are a lot of these in the Gospels as you might guess, but I didn’t see them in a couple of places I would have wanted them. Nicodemus would be a good Jonah 4 guy as would Paul/Saul. I didn’t know if you included them in your group of the disciples. Maybe Hosea would be a good fit too. And if you include some who were given the choice and decided not to do it, you could include the “rich young ruler” in the gospel accounts.
    Just throwing a few out there.
    Jeff M

  9. I think everyone in the NT who came to realize who Jesus really is, drastically changed their idea of God.

    The Thessalonians in Acts 17, after looking at Scripture with Paul could not change. But the Beroean Jews were able to do this. They must have drastically changed their understanding of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures to accept Paul’s radical teachings: That circumcision means nothing, that the Sabbath means nothing, that righteous living, works and the Ten Commandments do not save, that all those dietary laws and restrictions mean nothing, and that God is now Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

  10. I think John submits his membership application in Revelation 1. The relatively cozy image of Jesus he could snuggle up to at the last supper is contrasted with a vision of the guy who slaughtered death, entered into his glory and is the focus of heaven’s adoration.

    I doubt that any amount theology could prepare you for that moment… isn’t a radical revision of the way we think about God a result of a humbling experience of him?

    As far as Jenn’s question about determining the difference between a revision as wish fulfillment and revision as a response to revelation, I think that the most basic rule of thumb is its impact on your understanding and appreciation of the bible: divine revelation will make more sense of the bible, not less. If you find yourself reading the bible, thinking “Wow! I suddenly get that your love is better than life!” then I’d lay a small wager that it was God opening the eyes of your heart.

  11. I echo Jenn’s point. Many Christian groups/denominations exist because someone, at sometime, joined the Jonah 4 Club and convinced others to go along with him. Obviously, not everybody was right, even though most believed God was leading them, which means it’s easy to confuse human emotion/longing with divine inspiration.

    In scripture, it appears people knew it was God talking to them (or quickly figured it out). Today, God does not speak in such a direct manner (not to me anyways). I’ve joined a few “Jonah 4 clubs,” only to discover that its more me than Him pulling me one way or the other.

    As for examples of life altering revelation, Paul is the first one that comes to mind. The Apostles had Christ for three years to instruct them, but Paul had to switch from OT law to Gospel virtually overnight. Here’s someone who watched with approval while Stephen was stoned for blasphemy, only to find out that Stephen was right all along.

  12. Would you consider Ruth? She was raised believing in pagan gods, but then through Naomi and later possibly Boaz, found God.

  13. I wonder how much John’s perspective changed (if any) after seeing the vision on Patmos. John was an apostle who had seen it all… right? Miracles, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension were all part of John’s schema. Yet, he wasn’t too old nor was he “seasoned” so spiritually that he couldn’t see and be blown-away by something “other-worldly.”

  14. Hosea was told by God to marry a harlot. This is like Peter’s experience in the three-fold vision; it’s not just having to obey something you have moral qualms about — it’s that the moral qualms you got from God Himself, and now He’s contradicting those qualms. Major mental crisis.

    Abraham’s raising of the knife to Isaac was the same sort of experience; Isaac was God’s own promise, not just a son, and not just a favorite son. Isaac was the very symbol of God’s character — then God seemed to say “kill it”.

    I hate to say this, but we’ve worked so hard in Christianity to make God “consistent” that we have to reach outside the church to find mental constructs to help us grasp how deeply God can shatter yesterday’s trust as He hammers tomorrow’s trust into us. Koan. These Hosea / Abraham / Peter moments are more like God is delivering a zen koan.

  15. I think Michael’s question goes beyond just looking for moments when somebody had to learn something new and scary about God. It makes us sort all the experiences of God in the bible into two qualitative categories: 1. those that may stretch and challenge you, but further in the same direction your God had already started in, and 2. those you experience as spinning your psyche around in a brutal contradiction of the god you thought you knew.

    These are both high-stress experiences, but they are fundamentally different types of stress.

    For example, John in Revelation is certainly stretched and has to see and learn new things about Jesus, but it’s all more of the Jesus he had glimpses of already.

    Similarly, when you go from being a pagan polytheist to seeing the One True God, you probably had mental structures in your religious psyche for this God; you just have to admit to yourself all the other ones are fake, but this One is real. Further, in the same direction.

    But when the true God seems to CONTRADICT what you know of Him…that’s not hard. That’s cruel.

  16. So going on that what the true God seems to contradict what you already know about him. In exodus there (along with many other parts in the ot)that doesn’t seem decent at all, such as the law that if you strike a slave with a rod and he/she dies a couple of days later the owner will not be held accountable because the slave is the owners property. And Jesus uses metaphors with slaves to describe discipleship and punishments for not following never seems to speak out against slavery. I know however that there was strong religious influence in the abolition movement in which among other things they used the bible to justify their cause. I’m assuming that everyone here is against slavery. So can we take that perceptive and still worship the God and Hold Christ as our savior and call the bible God’s word if we think slavery is wrong? Not trying to shake anyone’s faith, just trying to figure out my own.

  17. I often think of Acts 15 (?) when the church in Jerusalem revises the entire law and breaks it down to 4 general rules; no sexual immorality, eating blood, eating food sacrificed to idols…I forget the other one….all for the sake of the Gentiles. Huge shift in thinking.

    What I find even more interesting about this is that Paul, later in his dealings with Gentiles, removes the “no food sacrificed to idols” rule, making it more a matter of consideration for others, rather than an outright sin.

    There is a lot of revising going on in these early leaders and followers of Jesus.

    All this from people who heard Jesus say that not one part of the Law would pass away. Obviously some exegesis has to be done concerning all that, but there definitely seems to be an understanding that knowing and serving God is not an easy 3-step program to paradise.

  18. I don’t think Jonah ever changed his mind about God

    Jonah was unrepentant to the end

    He is defiant and shakes his fist at God

    9 But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”
    “I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.”

    10 But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

    Just where is Jonah changing his mind?

    The book of Jonah is all about the sovriegnity of God. God choses. God decides. You will do God’s will if God so choses.

    But Jonah – terrible life example, all the way to the end

  19. You have to put Saul/Paul in that list. Think about it. He even asked the question “Who are you, Lord?” Paul had to scrap just about everything he had been taught, everything he valued to the point that he called them refuse in the face of knowing Jesus Christ. Paul’s education, social standing, political standing, and personal ambitions were all wrapped around who he believed God to be and then it all changed. He is definitely a member of the Jonah 4 club.

  20. treebeard says

    I would suspect that the early Jewish Christians, by which I mean in particular those who took the Jewish law and traditions seriously, would belong in this club.

    Some have commented already on this, for example Peter being told “slay and eat.” I think one good example would be the audience for whom the book of Hebrews was intended. The author (possibly Paul) goes through one detail after another about the traditions and practices of Judaism, and shows how it was all fulfilled in Christ. The offerings, the tabernacle, the priesthood, etc. For an observant Jew to receive this would require a radical departure from his former understanding of God, and God’s relationship with His people.

  21. My own experience at joining is last year as I studied the New Testament to see exactly what was really there and what was I believing that was just taught to me. I read the Gospels and a few Pauline Epistles 4 times just trying to capture the flavor of who Jesus was and then who those closest to him thought he was. At the end I was left – not with a God of Law but a God of Grace.

    My daughter put it the best I have heard. After our discussions of this “New” God that I had found and especially after reading Wayne Jacobsens’ book, He Loves Me, she came to me and said, “I want to divorce my old god and marry this new One.”

    We have all gone though a Jonah 4 club initiation this year. I’m so glad we are here.

  22. Whether Saints of the Old or New Testament or of today, we are not learning a new god, but coming to know God more fully.

    I understand the need to express the deep changes that occur when we are suddenly faced with new insights into God’s character, but there is only One God who has revealed himself in many ways (Hebrews 1:1). The God of my youth is the same God who has brought me through valleys of death to see him more clearly.

    In all of our discoveries, it is the scriptures that keep us in balance. Jenn has an extremely good point that will protect us from greivious error. What we believe in our hearts will come out our mouths and affect all who know us.

  23. Dac & Scott M,

    Before slamming the gavel on Jonah, remember that it was he who either wrote or relayed the book of Jonah for others to learn from. No one else was there under the vine. Haven’t you ever made a mistake and then relayed it in the process of teaching others?

    It actually seems to show Jonah’s humility to tell a story that immortalizes his own shortcoming just so that others would learn more about the nature of God.

    Nowadays preachers would follow 4:11 with something about how wise they are now and how they can impart their wisdom to us, but Jonah was happy just to say, “look how wrong I was.”

    We have no other record of his life “to the end” but it would be a good bet that Jonah’s life message from then on was about coming to grips with the immensity of God’s mercy and love.

  24. I think maybe we could include Christ in there. Yes, he knew that the Christ must suffer and die, but when he was on the Cross it still seemed empty. He needed an answer to “my God my God, why have you forsaken me.”

  25. MerryKate says

    I have to disagree, Matthew. You’re suggesting Christ didn’t fully know God before that point. As He said so many times in the gospel of John, He is one with the Father. How could He not fully know the character and mind of God?

    What you’re talking about is the difference between knowing something is going to happen and actually experiencing it. Christ knew his ordeal with be awful – so much so, that struggling with the anticipation of it caused him to sweat blood in the garden of Gesthemane. The reality of the torture of crucifixion, combined with His separateness from God, was still more awful than He could have anticipated.

    Consider that after His resurrection, Jesus didn’t not go on to say something different about God, or reveal a new understanding. In contrast, all of the patriarchs other people have mentioned did have a new message to share out of their experiences.