A Pastor's Quarrel with God

In ministry, you sometimes find yourself questioning God's grand scheme.

It's not easy these days to figure out what it means to be a servant of the Word in the church. Anti-servant models are promoted daily among us as pastors, teachers, and missionaries. In the crisscross of signals and voices, I pick my way.

William Faulkner once said that writing a novel is like building a chicken coop in a high wind—you grab any board you find and nail it down fast. Being a pastor is also like that. Recently I came across Jonah, and grabbed on. He has turned out to be useful in this vocation-clarifying task.

The Jonah story is a favorite everywhere. Children commonly love this story, but adults are also fascinated with it. Outsiders who have minimal knowledge or interest in our Scriptures know enough about Jonah to laugh at a joke based on the story. And scholars, stuffed to the gills with erudition, write learned articles and books on it. Its influence can be seen in such diverse progeny as Pinnochio and Moby Dick. I got the book at both ends of my educational spectrum: I can remember flannel-graph presentations of the story in my Sunday school in Montana; 20 years later in New York it was the first book that I was to read straight through in Hebrew. It was just as interesting in Hebrew as it was on flannel-graph.

Why Are You Angry?

I want to hold up a single scene in the Jonah story, the final scene—Jonah quarreling under the unpredictable plant, quarreling with God.

Quarreling with God is a time-honored practice: Moses, Job, David, and Peter were all masters at it. Those of us in ministry get a lot of practice in it because we are dealing with God in some way or other most of the time, and God doesn't behave the way we expect.

Jonah is quarreling because his idea of what God is supposed to do and what God in fact does differ radically. Jonah is angry. The word anger occurs five times.

Anger is most useful as a diagnostic tool. When anger erupts in us, it is a signal that something isn't working right. There is evil, or incompetence, or stupidity lurking about. Anger is our sixth sense for sniffing out wrong in the neighborhood. Diagnostically it is virtually infallible, and we learn to trust it. Anger is infused by a moral/spiritual intensity that carries conviction—when we are angry we know we are on to something that matters, that really counts. When God said to Jonah, "Do you do well to be angry?" Jonah shot back, "I do well to be angry, angry enough to die" (4:9).

What anger fails to do, though, is tell us whether the wrong is outside us or inside us. We usually begin by assuming that the wrong is outside us—our spouse or our child or our God has done something wrong, and we are angry. That is what Jonah did, and quarreled with God. More often the wrong is inside us. If we track the anger carefully, we will often find it leads to a wrong inside us—wrong information, inadequate understanding, under-developed heart.

There is a certain innocence in Jonah's anger. It flares up out of a kind of childish disappointment. What it reveals is an immature imagination, an underdeveloped vocation. His wrong was not in his head but in his heart. It was not a theological error that ignited his anger but a spiritual poverty.

He knew his dogmatics: "I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil" (4:2). No, there was nothing wrong in Jonah's knowledge of God. But he was unpracticed in God's ways. He was new at this vocation of gospel ministry, and didn't yet know the lay of the land.

Jonah is standing in a place large and seething with gospel creativity. Nineveh, against all probabilities, has been saved. Jonah saw none of it because of his dwarfed imagination. He had just failed at a religious job—he had predicted the destruction of Nineveh, and it didn't happen, and he blamed God. He wasn't aware that his spiritual vocation had just expanded exponentially.

My Piddling World

When I was five years old, I would walk across the meadow between our backyard and our neighbor's fields. I would stand at the barbed-wire strand and watch my neighbor work the field with his enormous tractor. The thing I wished for most in those days was to ride on that John Deere.

One summer day I was standing at the fence (I would never have dared to climb through it), watching Brother Storm, for that was the farmer's name, plow the field. He was probably a hundred yards away and spotted me. He stopped the tractor, stood up from the seat, and made strong waving motions to me with his arm. I had never seen anyone use gestures like that: he looked mean and angry; he was large and ominous in his bib overalls and straw hat.

He was yelling at me, but the wind was blowing against him, and I could hear nothing. I knew I was probably where I shouldn't be; five-year-old boys often are. I turned and left. Sadly. I hadn't felt I was doing anything wrong—I was only watching from what I thought was a safe distance and wishing that someday, somehow I could get to ride that tractor. I went home feeling rejected, rebuked.

Leonard and Olga Storm were huge Norwegians, and forbidding. I was in awe of them. They never smiled. They exuded a kind of thick, Nordic gloom. They were members of our church and always sat in the back row with their son who was confined to a wheelchair with muscular dystrophy. They were also rich, at least by the standards of our working-class congregation. They had moved into our mountain valley from the plains of Eastern Montana where they had made a lot of money from wheat fields and oil wells.

Whenever there was an emergency need for money in the church—the furnace, say, needing replacement—the pastor would work the fundraising on the spot from the pulpit: "We need $2,000. How many will give $20? How many $50? How many $10?" People would raise their hands. The pastor had a pad of paper and kept a running total.

When the interjected prayers weren't opening up any more hearts or wallets and we were still far short of the goal, Brother Storm (everyone was either "brother" or "sister" in our fellowship), would rise ponderously from his station in the back pew and say, "I'll make up the difference." The "difference" was always several hundred dollars. I was always impressed.

The Sunday after my disappointment at the edge of his field, Brother Storm called me over after worship and said, "Little Pete"—he always called me Little Pete—"why didn't you come out in the field on Thursday and ride the tractor with me?"

I told him I didn't know I could have, that I thought he was chasing me away.

He said, "I called you to come; I waved for you to come. Why did you leave?"

I said I didn't know that was what he was doing.

He said, "What do you do when you want to get somebody to come to you?"

I showed him, extending my index finger and curling it back towards me three or four times.

He harrumphed (Brother Storm, who looked a little like Major Hoople in the comics, was the only person I ever knew who harrumphed), "That's piddling, Little Pete; on the farm we do things big."

I was crushed. I felt small. I was already small on the outside; now I felt small on the inside. Disappointed and crushed. But also a little angry. This gigantic Norwegian farmer calling me and my world piddling. I was a five-year-old Jonah—displeased exceedingly.

A Failure of Imagination

I am not trying for anything precise in setting these two stories alongside each other, but trying to locate the common elements in the failure of imagination that prevented me from enjoying that John Deere tractor and the failure of imagination that prevented Jonah from rejoicing in the salvation of Nineveh.

I had such a small idea of the world. I interpreted the large, generous actions of the farmer through the confined experience of the five-year-old. And so, of course, I misinterpreted. Like Jonah hanging on the fence at the edge of Nineveh, disappointed with what he was seeing. And then angry in his disappointment.

Jonah's sulking disappointment came from a failure of imagination, a failure of heart. He had no idea what God was doing—the largeness of his love and mercy and salvation. He had reduced his vocation to his own performance—he was in the right place doing the right thing—but he interpreted everything through his Jonah ideas, his Jonah desires.

It was certainly commendable that he had become obedient, that he was doing what he had been called to do. But he was inexperienced in God, a stranger to grace. He had a program laid out for Nineveh ("Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"). But God had a destiny to fulfill in Nineveh ("And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city?").

Jonah's program was a child's index finger; God's destiny was a huge gesture. Jonah had a child-sized plan that did not pan out; God had a hugely dimensioned destiny that surprised everyone when it was enacted.

Jonah assumed that he knew exactly what God would do: when God didn't do it, he was displeased. God had purposes far exceeding anything Jonah imagined. Jonah thought he had come to Nineveh to do a religious job, to administer a religious program. God had brought Jonah to Nineveh to give him an experience of amazing grace. The tables are turned: it is no longer Jonah preaching to the people of Nineveh, but the people of Nineveh preaching to Jonah—inviting him into a vocation far beyond anything he had supposed.

The Surprises of Grace

We pastors and teachers have a daily difficulty in adjusting our job descriptions to the vocational surprises of grace. We are in charge of maintaining institutional, moral, and intellectual order in places brimming with spiritual energies. And we repeatedly find ourselves angry with God, disappointed and quarrelsome that our procedures result in something quite different from what we had anticipated.

We stand at our pulpits and extend an index finger to suggest that people tidy up their morality, or embellish their piety, or get the facts straight. And God is waving his windmill arms, calling all of us to grace and mercy and salvation.

Jonah seems such a small, forlorn figure—satisfied when the plant grows and cools him, displeased when the plant withers and he is parched by the hot sun. How can he be reduced to such puny emotions, such piddling obsessions? Here is a man who has been in and out of the whale's belly, who has made the self-sacrificing commitment to be a faithful minister in Nineveh instead of a self-indulgent tourist to Tarshish. Has seen Nineveh, his congregation, turn to God. And he is petulant.

He is petulant because things didn't turn out the way he expected. His program was not fulfilled. No matter that in his preaching God was heard and believed, Jonah was ignored. He had so easily confused the biblical vocation of doing God's work for a religious job in which he used God as an adjunct to his work (and when God didn't do the job he was supposed to do, dress him down good).

Like Jonah, I bossily take charge of the destiny of my Nineveh congregation and get angry when my will is not done. Like Jonah, I line up people for an evaluation review, and get angry when the whole thing turns into a singing and dancing celebration. Like Jonah, I make my small finger gestures, and become puzzled and angry as God waves his everlasting arms in a huge, inviting welcome.

Mysteries of God's Vocation

The story I told you earlier had a good ending. A few days later, I was back at the fence, watching, hoping I might get a second chance. The giant Norwegian saw me, stopped the tractor, and did it again, made that sweeping motion of invitation. I was through the barbed wire in a flash, running across the furrowed field, and then up on the big green John Deere. He let me stand in front of him, holding the steering wheel, pulling the plow down that long stretch of field, my smallness now absorbed into his largeness.

And Jonah? How does the Jonah story end? We don't know. We don't know what Jonah does after his quarrel with God. Does he angrily stomp back to Joppa and try for another ship to Tarshish, fleeing again the presence of the Lord?

I don't think so. Do you know what I think? I think he stuck it out in Nineveh, living in the largeness of God, embracing the surprising and past-understanding mercy of God, for the rest of his life embarrassed at that trivializing quarrel under the unpredictable plant, for the rest of his life running towards the huge windmill invitational arms of grace and blessing, climbing breathless into his pulpit, living into the large mysteries of his vocation.

From Issue:Winter 1993: Conflict
July/August
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.
Homepage Subscription Panel
Read These Next
close