A few years ago, we were members of an inner-city church in Louisville, Kentucky. Dilapidated buildings, homes with barred windows, unkept yards, and cracked sidewalks lined the two-lane streets. The clouds of poverty, drugs, and prostitution hung over the neighborhood, but the Light of the Gospel shone gloriously from Immanuel Baptist Church at the corner of Oak and Clay. Physical needs within that Louisville community were apparent with even the most casual glance, and the spiritual needs were quite easy to identify. Mercy mixed with Truth poured from the congregation into many homes in the surrounding city blocks, and the Balm began making the old new.
Today, my family lives in a much different place. In this Houston suburb, our street medians are perfectly manicured with beautiful trees and brightly-colored flowers, community pools boast sand beaches and three-story water slides, few vehicles heading to the boutique shops and full-service grocery stores were built prior to this decade, and first-graders are decked in the latest fashions. Physical needs are neatly tucked away in resort-style retirement homes and in older neighborhoods on the other side of the highway.
What about the spiritual needs? They’re here, too. But they are harder to see behind the stylish sunglasses, professionally landscaped yards, and lead-glass front doors. I remember driving into this community on a sunny September day when we moved into our home. I looked at the many affluent neighborhoods we passed, and it felt strange. It felt fake. I looked at my children in the rear view mirror and told them something I never want them to forget. “Honeys, you see all of these large, beautiful homes? Inside every single one there are people hurting. There is pain. There are idols. There is sin. Everything looks so good here; everything looks okay, but it’s not. The people here need Jesus and His salvation, just like they do everywhere else.”
God is the one true God in the city, in the suburbs, and in the rural areas less than an hour drive from here. Jonah had to learn that God was not only God in Israel; He was also God in Ninevah. God commanded Jonah a second time to proclaim His message of judgment to Ninevah: if the city did not repent, it would be overthrown. By now Jonah knew he couldn’t run the other way, and so he obeyed. The Ninevites, led by their king, put on sackcloth, fasted, earnestly called upon God, and turned from their wicked ways.
Ninevah repented, and God relented. “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it” (Jonah 3:10). The city was saved! But, Jonah was angry. How dare God spare these wicked people? Jonah just knew God would do this, and he didn’t like it! “Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4:2).
What is God like? He hates sin. But when He sees repentance and faith, He amazingly displays His Grace, Compassion, Slowness to Anger, Abundance of Lovingkindness . . . and He “relents concerning calamity.” Judgment is removed.
The effective reach of God’s compassion is not thwarted by the flagrant in-your-face evils of the inner-city or the masqueraded behind-closed-doors evils of the suburbs. As He says in Romans 9:15, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” With His last recorded words to Jonah, God made His purpose perfectly clear, “Should I not have Compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand?” (Jonah 4:11).
Yes, He should. Yes, He did. And He still does today. Wherever you live, will you be like Jonah, and proclaim God’s Word to your neighbor, your co-worker, your enemy? Unlike Jonah, will the compassion of the Lord be the lifeblood of your witness?
“The Lord, The Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindess and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Exodus 34:6-7).