Forgiveness: The Book of Jonah

It is incredibly difficult finding forgiveness that sometimes even the suggestion can be so unsettling it can arouse hate or anger and indeed those emotions can empower a victim, making it far easier to cope with the pain. When one is hurt, the value of their identity and humanity is taken away from them by the perpetrator and it becomes very difficult for the victim to find themselves present as though trapped in that terrible moment. This violence tells a person that their life, meaning, who they are, their identity and place in the world is worthless and so feelings of emptiness can haunt the victim and the longer they remain in that abyss, the more the abyss becomes their new identity (qua Nietzsche) that every thought and decision becomes consumed by it. To forgive would leave that person in a very strange place. It requires an absence of pride, selflessness and understanding during a peculiar time when one has no obligation to do so and it undermines all the time lost and the pain felt that it can feel like an additional blow. Forgiveness can make you feel small, vulnerable and lost.

An apology can usually initiate a move out of that haunted abyss of the past and toward the present as it acknowledges and re-affirms by the very person who took it away that you are in fact valuable, that the time lost and the hurt felt was mistake and you indeed have worth. It is a joint, re-conciliatory effort to make the bad experience past-tense and work together towards the present. However, apologies and repentance is not a common occurrence and surprisingly it is for the very same reason that the victim has difficulty forgiving; to feel guilt is to admit that one is morally mischievous and our identity is mostly developed on conditioned behaviour that is socially acceptable. A mother teaches a child that some things are acceptable and rewarded while others are unacceptable and therefore punishable, teaching young children to navigate through this network of automaton responses most of their life. It becomes their identity, where value is socially constructed.

This interaction can sometimes become displaced, even pathological as one can see through paternalistic cultures that congratulate the bad behaviour of men as a signal of masculinity, these very men who require feelings of reward and so attach themselves to women who comfort their ego, women who in turn believe that this attachment is a signal of love and so encourage them in this odd cycle of falsely created value. It is also why people can become rather ferocious when you point out an error in their character, anxiously attempting to discredit you and gather as many other people to agree with them in order to avoid entertaining the possibility that something may actually be wrong with them.

The Book of Jonah epitomizes these various emotional layers both at a deeper, spiritual level but also at a political and social level where people ignore the very laws of their own religions that they practice knowing that it places them in a position to show mercy and forgiveness even to their enemies. As a prophetical canon it is incredibly unusual since – unlike other minor prophetic books in the Old Testament – there are no actual predictions, on the contrary the central moral concern is the prophet himself who symbolises a dilemma we each experience within a fable that teaches us a little about ourselves.

Divided into four chapters, the story begins when God commands Jonah to Nineveh to prophesy their demise should they not abandon their wicked ways, for which Jonah himself decidedly ignores and intentionally runs away into the direction of Joppa before riding a boat towards Tarshish. God then sends a powerful storm that even the heathen mariners are convinced of the Hebrew God and after throwing Jonah into the sea on his request, he is swallowed by a large fish. There he remained for three days and three nights (together with the number seven and forty, three is regularly used in biblical literature) where he repented and promised that he will do as requested. The fish vomited him back to dry land to begin the journey back to Nineveh.

There, humorously, Jonah only says a few words of prophesy that the city will fall:  “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” It appears almost as though he is indifferent to the society, or perhaps even unwilling to really tell them anything in the hope that the prophesy would be fulfilled. To his utter dismay, the King of Nineveh, his nobles and even the livestock repent in sackcloth and ashes and so God shows the city and the inhabitants mercy. This frustrates Jonah who perhaps believes this mercy to be unqualified and perhaps even a form of injustice that he instead prefers to die then to witness this act of forgiveness. Indeed, when Jonah attempted to escape the word of God for Tarshish, he made it clear later in the story that the reason for this was because he was aware that God was merciful and he felt uncomfortable by it.

“And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.”

Despite repentance of the Assyrians who were at the time of Jonah the most vicious and cruel empire and notorious for extreme forms of violence, Jonah was frustrated that God did not punish them and instead chose to forgive. His brief proclamation that he preached was perhaps intentional because while he uttered the Word of God, underlying it remained a hostility and a desire for punishment since he felt that the Assyrians deserved it, that it would be just and moral. With a bitterness, he sat outside the gates of Nineveh wishing to die and using a plant to shade him for one day, he is taught one final lesson by using a worm to destroy the plant, a lesson or punishment to teach him compassion. The complex ending attempts to explain that a city as large and as violent as Nineveh has nevertheless within those walls many innocent people who will suffer, but by this act of forgiveness are now comforted by the change in the King and his nobles following such repentance. It is to see the bigger picture outside of his own personal affliction, his own desires for revenge.

I love this story!

Jonah erred mostly because what he wanted was revenge and not justice by holding onto a past resentment. He believed that the people of Nineveh deserved to be punished and repentance cannot change what has been done. Indeed, ignorant people who are told that they are wrong tend to puff up their ego and immediately charge and attack and so one often desires that such people are punished to deflate this ego, to bring them back down to earth and humble themselves. Hence why when the King did repent he fell down onto the ground in sackcloth and dirt as guilt would make one look down in silence and shame. Is that not what we want? So the moment that they repent, the moment that they express guilt is the moment that we are required to let go of the past and to reconcile toward a better future – to forgive – and sometimes we fail to believe in this repentance or that we do not really trust it. We remain caught in the past abyss.

Jonah is still caught in the past and his value remains determined by this past, on the unsettling feelings of hatred or anger that keeps him motivated. When God forgives, Jonah is caught in a strange and depressing position where he no longer has his old identity neither does he have the hatred or anger that motivated a desire for punishment since he is required to forgive that left him feeling empty and so wanted to die. He could  not understand beyond his own selfish emotions the broader possibilities that the repentance offered.

It raises the question that when one has been wronged, can we find the possibility to transcend beyond our desire to see punishment and whether we can trust and accept remorse in the hope that it may change and improve? Can we forgive our enemies and show them mercy despite being hurt by them? While Jonah was a prophet selected by God, his responses are indicative to a very human reality. He attempted to escape from his responsibilities through sheer self-deceit and fear, who felt anger towards God and though displaying some kind of submission to His word nevertheless secretly hoped that the injustice by the inhabitants of Nineveh would be exacted.

Taking the Book of Jonah as an example of the human in all of us, repentance at individual or personal level is an expression that returns and acknowledges our value and so when one does not repent or apologise, we are left with a choice. Either we stay in that past abyss where anger and hatred remains perpetual and so our identity becomes that, or do we learn to move on or let go of that abyss and start re-creating our own value? ‘Moving on’ – which is to say moving away from the past toward the present – is not forgetting the experience (i.e. “just move on!”) as that only undermines the harm experienced, but rather finding that value for yourself without relying on others to tell you that you are valuable. This empowerment is authentic and transcends beyond your own individual pain towards something bigger than you and your emotions – like the case of those inhabitants in Nineveh who are actually innocent and undeserving of any harm – and so one should direct their attention toward those innocent, toward righteousness and justice rather than remain trapped in the abyss of anger, revenge and hostility.

If one finds forgiveness, it confirms that they have found their own identity, their own independence, their own value.

A greatest flaw in human thought, in my opinion, is making ourselves an exception to the moral obligation we have to be kind and compassionate, that we think we need to treat others with kindness, respect and affection erstwhile set very little value in ourselves. It is true that ‘self-love’ has become a buzzword that is actually indicative of narcissism and vanity, synonymous with immorality and an expression of pride and arrogance, as said by Erich Fromm:

“Most people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved rather than that of loving, of one’s capacity to love. Hence the problem to them is how to be loved, how to be lovable. In pursuit of this aim they follow several paths. One, which is especially used by men, is to be successful, to be as powerful and rich as the social margin of one’s position permits. Another, used especially by women, is to make oneself attractive, by cultivating one’s body, dress, etc. Many of the ways to make oneself lovable are the same as those used to make oneself successful, to ‘win friends and influence people’. As a matter of fact, what most people in our culture mean by being lovable is essentially a mixture between being popular and having sex appeal.” 

Fromm rightly differentiates between self-love and selfishness, or the difference between knowing how to give love with wanting to be loved and so shows that to authentically love yourself is to be capable of self-reflection and genuine honesty, someone capable of experiencing the present. Desire and lust, anger and hatred, playing games and self deceit, these are merely obstacles that tempt us to escape from our responsibility and why it more or less often leads to hedonism or a crippling depression that borders the pathological. People who care about their physical appearances, who physically hurt themselves with facial or bodily alterations in order to be accepted or be a part of a group do not respect themselves, people who over or under eat, who smoke, drink and take drugs is an expression of wanting to be loved and who they show love to is often aligned intentionally with this narcissistic mode of being or around people who only encourage them in this odd cycle of falsely created value. There is no real substance or honesty.

Forgiveness is therefore an act of real love, it is one who has found their own value, who is capable of respecting themselves and of honest self-reflection that they are capable of giving love (hence why it is called for- give -ness). It is indicative of one who is capable of self-love. The process is not easy, on the contrary the reason why the Book of Jonah ends without an actual result and does not define forgiveness is because the experience is uniquely individual. It is an expression that can only be understood by personal reflection.

When value is given to you by society and by the people closest to you, it can be taken away. Forgiveness is confirmation that you have found your own identity and it becomes concrete, fixed in present reality rather than caught in the determined landscape of the past. It is to accept that the past cannot be changed, that it may very well be that those who have wronged you will continue to do wrong and your place is now to help educate why it is wrong – like how Jonah should be thinking about the innocent inhabitants of Nineveh – and work hard to prevent that behaviour from being tolerated. It is to fight the good fight.

I have only just found forgiveness through the Book of Jonah and I feel like a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. It was a painful transformation that left me feeling bitter towards God and wishing to die, but I learnt that I cannot force people to understand. All I can do is fight the good fight, do good in a world where there is so much wrong and focus on those who are innocent in between all of that. I am learning how to value myself through God. Thanks Jonah. 🙂



2 thoughts on “Forgiveness: The Book of Jonah

  1. I so needed to hear this message today … not just read it … but to hear it in my soul. I have studied Jonah’s story, but you brought personal meaning that speaks to my present situation. God worked through you today. Thank you most sincerely. Jan


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