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Paul Graves: God’s ‘gotchas’ turn our tantrums into compassion

Some biblical stories are too serious to be taken literally.

Jonah’s little prophetic episode is one of those stories. When we get so obsessed with whether the “big fish” was a whale or not, we tend to miss the writer’s outrageous “God gotcha” altogether.

Please read the entire book for yourself. It’s so short that it won’t take long. The most famous part – the “great fish” drama – is fun to read, but its drama can mask over Jonah’s running from God simply because Jonah knew what God would do with the Ninevites. And Jonah wanted nothing to do with God’s plan.

Jonah wasn’t a happy person. Jonah hated the Ninevites. He seemed to hate anyone who didn’t believe just like he believed, or act like he acted. And that included God. Jonah anticipated God’s “gotcha,” so he wasn’t surprised when God forgave the Ninevites.

But he was angry. “Why would you do that, God? They don’t deserve to be forgiven!” What Jonah seemed unwilling to accept was that God’s root (radical) nature was so much deeper, thus loving, than Jonah’s. God’s “gotchas” are like that a lot.

We are often on the receiving end of one of God’s gotchas, whether we expect it or not. We seem surprised that love wins out. Sometimes we’re frustrated like Jonah because we don’t want love to win. We want God to do what our fears drive us to do ourselves!

But when Isaiah 43:19 has God saying, “Behold I’m doing a new thing,” it is a signal – for then and now – that God won’t settle for doing what we expect should happen if we are in charge. God’s gotchas happen because we aren’t in charge.

But God’s new things are so often beyond our expectations and out of our comfort zones. For example, consider a primary controversy when the Christian Church first began. Paul’s mission was to the Gentiles (non-Jews). Jesus’ disciples and followers were Jews.

This was a major clash-in-the-making. Why? Because those Jews who followed Jesus wanted the Gentile followers to be circumcised. After all, circumcision was always the sign that showed who was part of God’s covenant with Israel – and who wasn’t. They expected Gentile converts to Jesus to be circumcised. But Paul saw God doing “a new thing” with Gentiles.

“Grace through Christ” – not through the Law – was Paul’s message to the Gentiles. Grace was based on unconditional love, not performing rituals correctly. So Paul and the early church leaders clashed. I think Paul’s embrace of grace was a “God gotcha.” God did a new thing.

I can just hear the Jewish followers of Jesus shouting, “But we’ve never done it that way before!” Precisely the point!

While we embrace the old attitudes and behaviors, God will have something new in mind, something more radical (closer to God’s loving, inclusive nature) for us to consider.

We are bombarded with “new things.” Every day, we are challenged to think new thoughts, consider new cultural changes or new and disturbing relationships.

Every time we watch national news, we make judgments about what we see – racial inequality, economic inequality, subcultures of hate and disrespect, homosexuality at so many levels of society, and on and on. We tend to argue about these and so many issues every day.

Rarely do I hear us consider this: Do our political, social and personal turmoils have any possible connection to God’s gotchas? Might God be doing a new thing that could transform even our tantrums into acts of deeper justice and compassion? Do we really act like Jonah?

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is the founder of Elder Advocates. He can be contacted at
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