By Hope Bolinger, Crosswalk.com
It seems like a bizarre question to ask. Most of us have an understanding of the gravity of sin and how the mercy of God bridges that gap, through Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. But do we not take the mercy of God seriously enough? Have we gotten too used to it?
When I ask this question, I am reminded of the story of Jonah. We see a man who refuses to follow his calling of God, and after three days in the belly of the fish, deems it time to repent of his wrongdoing (Jonah 2). But when he approaches the enemies of God with a message of judgment, they react immediately. They repent, wear sackcloth and ashes, and pray that God will relent (Jonah 3).
So why does this happen?
Why wouldn't Jonah, a prophet of God, repent immediately when he does wrong? And why did the worst of the worst people in the ancient world, the Assyrians, take God's message of wrath so seriously?
We'll uncover these questions and more below.
Why Do Some Christians Forget the Greatness of God's Mercy?
To answer this question, I think we need to analyze Jonah's cultural context. By the time we reach him in the 700s BC, Israel has been the chosen people of God for millennia upon millennia.
They have witnessed God showing his mercy time and time again. They would become stubborn, go after foreign gods, a foreign power would overtake them, they would repent, and the cycle would start over again. This cycle ended up puffing up the Israelites with pride. So much so, that by the time we get to when Jesus steps onto the scene, they absolutely hate the message that God would come to save even their enemies. Just like how Jonah despised the very same message.
We see such stubbornness from Jonah and a refusal to repent right away because he "grew up in the church" in a sense.
No, the church didn't exist during his time.
But in a way, he grew up as one of God's people. And so he learned that God often relented when people repented. And this puffed up his pride.
This may seem far removed from our situation now. But how often do we see Christians having a hard time repenting of their sins? How often do we see them milking the mercy of God?
So why does this happen? And why do sinners, who stray as far as God from possible, repent as soon as they hear the message of God's impending judgment?
Why Do So Many Sinners Embrace God's Mercy Better Than Many Christians?
Have you ever witnessed God cracking open a sinner's heart? That when you preach to them a message of repentance, they burst into tears. They recognize their moral failings and how they cannot achieve salvation on their own. And so they repent. They experience transformative change.
Jesus predicted this in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15).
When the younger son recognizes just how much he had messed up, he experiences an incredible amount of joy when the father not only forgives him but throws a celebration in his honor.
So what about true Christians and nominal Christians who have been a part of the church their whole lives? Why do we struggle so much with repentance?
I think we need to look to the example of the older brother in that same parable for our answer. He technically did "all the right things" but for the wrong reasons. And because of this, his pride gets inflated. He doesn't recognize his need for the father's mercy as well, that he too is a prodigal son. Because he thinks that his works somehow earned him a higher standing than his brother.
And if we're truly honest with ourselves, we fall into that trap so often. We think our church attendance, our giving, our biblical knowledge, our service have somehow placed us on a higher tier than those who did not dedicate their whole lives to Christ. Worst, many people who are not saved think that such sacraments and works will save them alone.
So how do we rid ourselves of our erroneous thinking, and recognize just how much we need to repent quickly, and just how big the mercy of God is.
How Do We Understand the Gravity of Mercy?
We can point to many ways we can recognize our failings and God's greatness. Let's highlight some under our three points below.
First, recognize the equality of sins.
We can so often shrug off our own sins. "It's not really that big of a deal. At least I'm not doing XYZ." All sin sends us to hell (Roman 3:23), if not for the saving grace of God. The sooner that we recognize that we are just like the Ninevites, the sooner we can come closer to God.
Second, recognize you can do nothing to earn God's favor.
God gives us unwarranted favor. We bring nothing to God's team. The very spiritual gifts we have came from God himself. Apart from him, we are wretched, wretched sinners. Whenever we adopt the mindset of the older brother, we hinder ourselves from growing closer to God. So let us recognize that we have all run away from the Father, we have all squandered his inheritance, and that God owes us absolutely nothing. But he gave us everything.
Third, recognize the need for immediate repentance.
Christians, myself included, sure can hold grudges. And we sure can be slow to repentance. But the closer we grow the God, the more we recognize just how sinful we are. When a couple first gets married, they unpeel selfish desires and actions they never even knew they had in the first place.
In the same way, the more we grow intimate with God, the more we recognize how we don't measure up. And that's the beauty of the Gospel. The more we acknowledge our brokenness, the more God can use us for his greater purpose. Remember that Paul considered himself to be the chief among sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). If Paul, who wrote several books in the New Testament, came to this understanding, surely, so can we.
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Hope Bolinger is a multi-published novelist and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 1,200 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her modern-day Daniel trilogy is out with IlluminateYA. She is also the co-author of the Dear Hero duology, which was published by INtense Publications. And her inspirational adult romance Picture Imperfect releases in November of 2021. Find out more about her at her website.