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Death To Self-Justification

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | January 25, 2004

Selected highlights from this sermon

Jonah’s rebellion against God persisted.  In the face of God’s abundant mercy to Nineveh, Jonah was angry.  So God tried to illustrate to Jonah, through a plant and a worm, that his anger was selfish and childish.  And yet, the book ends with Jonah being confronted with his heartlessness toward thousands of Assyrian children, while he is still clinging to his “right” to feel comfort. 

Will we stop clinging to our own desires?  Will we let ourselves be broken by God in order that we may give up our sinful rebellion and care for what breaks the heart of God?

Death to self-justification! If there is any trait about fallen human nature, it is the tendency for us to protect ourselves, to justify ourselves, to dig deep walls behind which we hide, to make sure that no one ever sees us as we are, to prevent God and others from revealing to us what we are really like till we begin to even believe our own lies.

Enter Jonah. It’s chapter 4 in the book of Jonah. This is the last in a series of messages entitled Brokenness – What God Does to Get Us to Say Yes. And at the end of the message I’ll tell you whether or not God ever got Jonah to say yes.

We read in verse 1, “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” What happened? Something terrible happened. He preached to the city of Nineveh and the Ninevites repented. Awful! The Hebrew text is actually more vivid, but it was evil to Jonah – a very great evil – and it burned to him. He was really, really mad.

Now isn’t it interesting that God was compassionate and Jonah was angry? The pagans ended up fearing God. Jonah ends up hating God. Even the sailors feared the Lord. The Ninevites repented and God relented regarding the destruction of the city of Nineveh as God had warned, and lo and behold, here is Jonah who is angry at that kind of compassion. That’s maybe why he didn’t tell them what they could do to prevent the overthrow. He just simply said, “Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Thankfully we discover that it was a conditional warning.

I mention that Jonah at this point tells us exactly why he is fleeing. Verse 2-3 say, “And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me.’” These words that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love are based on one of the Psalms and are always sung and said in honor to God. I mean, that’s what we sing about. That’s what we talk about – the wonderful compassion of God, and we adore Him for that. Jonah is indicting God for that. He is saying in derision that God is compassionate.

I mentioned to you earlier that I think what we have here is a case of what I call full-blown narcissism. You know what narcissism is. Narcissus was a young man, the son of the river god in ancient mythology, and he was in love with himself. In those days they didn’t have mirrors and so when he saw a reflection of himself in a pool of clear water he so fell in love with himself that he could never love anyone else.

You’ve heard me say, “How do you identify a narcissist?” because it’s possible that one is listening today. We all have various degrees of narcissism, and if you live with someone like that, or the narcissist happens to be sitting in your chair today I can tell you about yourself.

Narcissists interpret all events through the filter of themselves. They will always say to themselves for everything that comes, “How does this make me look, and how does this make me feel?” And that’s all that matters. I remember the illustration that I love to give. It’s a true story because narcissists exist all over the place. A wife (a Christian woman), who was beaten by her husband, phoned a friend who was also a Christian but who was very narcissistic. Alright, catch the picture. Here’s a wife, you know, who has just sustained a beating. She needs to tell somebody and so she phones her narcissistic friend and says, “You know, my husband just beat me up.” This dear woman, God bless her, is looking for some compassion, some feeling, so what does she get? “Oh really? Is that what happened? Well, you know, you guys are sure a lot worse off than my husband and me. We have our own fights too, but you know, he’s never beaten me, so really we are better off than you in terms of our relationship.”

Thank you so very much for the compassion that I was looking for. What we’re going to see is traits of that in Jonah. So God has this problem on His hands, and this entire chapter is just between God and Jonah. So God tries therapy. You’ll notice He says to him in verse 4, “Do you do well to be angry?” In other words, “Is it good that you are angry?” God wants to get to the root of it, you see. He wants to help Jonah reflect back his feelings, as good counselors do, to try to get to the bottom of the matter. And Jonah won’t cooperate. He doesn’t stay for the session. He walks away. He stomped out of the city (verse 5) and sat to the east of the city. He made a booth for himself there and he sat under the shade until he could see what would become of the city.

Now remember that the king of Nineveh is sitting in an ash heap, hoping that God will spare the city. Jonah is sitting here in his booth that he built for himself, hoping that God will destroy the city. And while God is compassionate, Jonah is full of hate, and he refuses to see the world God’s way. And he’s got this death wish. “I’d rather die than see what You are doing. I’d rather die than see these Ninevites repent and not be judged.” What a man!

So what God decides to do is to give Jonah an object lesson. What the Lord does is He says, “I’m going to give you a lesson in comforts, and so forth, and then I’m going to give you some lessons in compassion. And so that’s the direction that the text takes from here.

You’ll notice that the Lord, first of all, appoints something. Now four times the word appointed occurs in the book of Jonah. First of all it says that God appointed a fish. That’s in chapter 1. But here in succession there are three other appointments that God makes, and let’s look at them. You’ll notice it says in verse 6, “Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad about the plant.”

Can you ever get a narcissist to be happy about something? Yes you can. If they are particularly blessed and you add to their comfort, they will be quite joyful and work it into their day. So that’s what Jonah was doing here. Notice what God does. God appoints comfort for Jonah. Here’s a plant that grows up in a night, as we learn in a few verses. It grows up just very, very quickly in one night. Obviously it was a miracle, a plant like that growing in the midst of the desert, and a plant growing up that quickly. And probably it was what is known as the castor plant, which has great foliage and beautiful leaves that are as big as the palm of your hand. And this plant grows up and it encases his shelter. And you can just see Jonah enjoying it because at last, in the midst of this hot climate, God has given him an air conditioner. So he’s very, very happy about the plant.

Well, that’s not all that God appoints. You’ll notice it says now in verse 7, “But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm.” God said to this little worm, “Little worm, here you are. Do you see that plant over there? I want you to saw it down. Work on it all night but get the thing sawed down because I am appointing you to bug Jonah.” So God talks to this little worm and the little worm comes and he begins to work on this plant, and by morning he has it down.

God appoints our comforts. God also appoints our disappointments and our losses, and Jonah is supposed to learn that lesson. So the little worm comes along, and by morning the plant is down, and soon the sun is going to rise and it is going to become very, very hot, and Jonah is going to become very, very angry. Just as he was exceedingly glad for the plant, he is going to become very, very angry because he’s going to have a death wish again, in just a verse or two, saying, “I want to die. Get me out of this. I would rather die than deal with a God whom I can’t change and whose will I oppose.” Well, it’s going to turn out that this plant was really his God. It meant more to him than the will of God.

It’s amazing what happens when you take away people’s air conditioners. My wife and I live in a condo complex where you either have heat, as you do during the winter, or you can have cold air (air conditioning) during the summer. But the whole apparatus has to be changed over a day or two so they try to find a good time perhaps near the end of April, and then another time in the fall when they make this change. Well, they don’t change it into air conditioning until probably somewhere around the end of April or the beginning of May, but one April about 2 or 3 years ago it became about 85 degrees before April was over. You should have just seen how angry some of these pleasant and wonderful people became. I mean some of them swore. Some of them cursed. Some of then threatened the administration because they didn’t have their air conditioner. And these are nice people who open doors for you and who help you carry groceries if you need it. And you are saying, “Is all this stuff coming from people who are so nice?” No wonder the little girl prayed, “Oh God, make all bad people good, and please make the good people nice.” Isn’t that a great prayer?

Now if you had gone to these people and said, “Hey, by the way, did you know that 25,000 children died today because of malnutrition?” which is approximately the number that die every day because of that, would that have mattered? “I don’t care whether or not the kids died. Get me an air conditioner. I can’t stand it.” Have you ever noticed that God not only appoints our comforts, but He also appoints our discomforts and our disappointments? And the very thing that was bringing Jonah happiness is the very thing that God takes away because what God wants to do is to get at the heart of this guy. The reason for these appointments is that God is saying to Jonah, “I am putting a mirror here so that you can see yourself, and I want to take this mirror and shove it right up to your face so that you can see what’s in your heart.”

Well, God’s not through with him. We know that Jonah is going to have a bad day with this plant that has withered now, thanks to this little worm. And so God is saying, “Oh, Jonah, so you think you’re hot?” Wow! Guess what! Verse 8 says, “When the sun rose God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint.” And once again he asked that he might die. “It is better for me to die than to live.” God had this wind come like a kiln.

Now you know that Nineveh is actually not too far from Baghdad. As a matter of fact, when you are looking at the map (and you often see that there have been flashpoints of resistance in Mosul), directly across the Tigris River from that city is Nineveh. That’s where it is. And our son-in-law who survived the summer in Baghdad said that there was one day when it got to nearly 140 degrees. And the people, by the way, couldn’t understand how the American soldiers were able to manage it with all of their equipment. Well, that’s understandable. I wonder, too, how they managed with all of their equipment.

So this is the area now and God sends this scorching east wind to Jonah and says, “Well, Jonah, how do you like that?
So God appoints our comforts. He appoints our disappointments and our losses, and He also appoints our trials. And Jonah is not handling this trial very well.

Could I say this parenthetically and theologically? Notice that all are equally appointed by God. Do we have comforts today? We believe that God gives us comforts as human beings in friendships, in love, in opportunity, in clothes and houses, and all of the things that we enjoy. And those comforts are God-given. They are appointed by God. But so are our losses appointed by God, our disappointments, those things that we cannot control that just happen, situations over which we have absolutely no control that God brings into our life probably for the same reason that He brought these into the life of Jonah. And then God appoints also those scorching east winds when we are almost about to die and to see what is in our hearts because it’s only these events that really show what’s in there. It’s not all the niceties, all the pleasantries when everything is going well. It’s how do you handle adversity. But each is equally appointed by God.

I’m sure that Jonah was very angry at the worm. I am sure that he had some very choice words for the wind. But actually there’s no use getting angry at the worm, and there’s no use being angry at the wind because the worm and the wind are both sent by God. It’s God that stands behind these events.

So God again begins the questioning. He picks up the therapy and says, “I wonder if you are willing to listen to my question now.” So you’ll notice there in verse 9 that God continues the dialog. “But God said to Jonah, ‘Do you do well to be angry for the plant?’” And this time he answered God. You see, the first time God asked the question it was, “Do you have a right to be angry because the Ninevites repented?” Jonah didn’t answer that question but God says to him now, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And without even skipping a beat he says, “Yes, I do well to be angry enough to die.”

Now just think for a moment about what it is Jonah is really saying. He’s saying, “I have a right to the comforts that God gives me. I have a right to my air conditioner. I have a right to be comfortable and not to be in this heat. But I am denying the compassion of God that brings me those comforts. I am denying the right of other people to experience that compassion. I deny the rights of the Ninevites - eternal comfort. I would rather see them burn in hell than to have me burn under the sunlight here in a temporary way without a good booth and without a plant and with the scorching east wind.”

So you can see here that Jonah is in the midst of this dilemma, and he does not get the lesson at this point that God is trying to teach him. So God goes on and He says, “Jonah, that’s a lesson in comforts. Now what I want to do is to give you a lesson on the whole business of compassion.” So God picks it up in verse 10. “And the Lord said, ‘You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow.’” In other words, “Did you deserve the plant? Did you create it?”

By the way, do we deserve our money? You say, “We earned it.” Oh really! Did you? Who gave you the ability, the brains and the opportunities to be born where you were, to be gifted in the way in which you are? Do you mean to say you have a right to this? Believe me, you and I have no rights to any of this, but you’ll notice that the Lord says, “You have pity for the plant for which you did not labor. You did not make it grow which came into being in a night and perished in a night.”

Now comes the really big question. “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” He may be talking here about children – 120,000 children. If you think about that and you realize that they had parents, you can begin to multiply out how big the city of Nineveh really was. And God says, “You had compassion on the plant, and you have no compassion for people? What is this? Here you have the clash of personal comfort and desire with the eternal destiny of human beings, and all that you can think of, Jonah, is whether or not you are comfortable where you are sitting, and your world ends there.”

Earlier I spoke about narcissism. If I may, let me use one more illustration of a narcissist. The reason I do that is because I’m always interested in the causes of human behavior, and once you are as old as I am you have heard a lot of stories. The fact that I use another woman in no way indicts that women are more narcissistic than men. In fact, the opposite is probably true. There’s much more narcissism out there on the part of our males species, but I am reminded of a man married essentially to a narcissist. And he went to the doctor for an exam and the doctor looked him in the eye and said, “You’ve got cancer.” So he called his wife and said, “I have cancer.” What is the first question out of her mouth? Not the second, not the third, not the fourth or the fifth for it may be a legitimate question at some point! What is the first question? Well, it wasn’t “Is it the kind of cancer that can be cured?” or “Is there medical treatment?” No! The first question was, “How much insurance do you have?” That’s a true story, you know. I’m not making this up.

What happens is that in our lives it is possible to be so focused on self. As I mentioned, all of us are born with narcissism and God tries to rid us of it where our comforts, our perspective and our standard become the benchmark upon which everything else is judged and there is no compassion, there is no pity and there is no sacrifice. All that matters is me. And Jonah here wants to create God in his own image saying, “God, I hate these people, and I want You to know that I think that if You were right You would hate them too. Why don’t You become like me?”

I met a man one time and I said, “Do you want to serve the Lord?” He said, “Oh yes, I want to serve the Lord.” I said, “How do you want to serve Him?” He said, “As an advisor.”

And we become angry because God does not become angry with the people that we are angry at, and God does not exercise His justice that we think He should exercise toward people that we believe a just God should. And so we become angry with God because we know that in back of these circumstances lies God, and therefore we consider our own point of view and our own little narrow place in this planet the most important things by which everything else is to be judged, including God.

There are two or three very important applications of this passage. The first is simply this: Unless we are broken we will never be touched. I need to say this slowly and I am going to say it twice because if you’re in the writing mode you need to write this down. Unless we are broken we will never be touched by what breaks the heart of God. Let me say it again. Unless we are broken we will never be touched by what breaks the heart of God. We will not be touched by the 120,000 children in Chicago, and there are a lot more children than that, and their needs. We’ll not be able to look beyond our own little world with our own little comforts and our own little entertainment centers, and our own little vacation. We will always be narrowed in, and unless we are broken we will never be able to weep or be touched by that which breaks God’s heart. And God is compassionate and merciful and full of pity and we won’t be, because self is on the throne of our lives and all that we care about is ourselves. We look out for number one.

We have so many people in our churches today, and we are all guilty of this. You know I am preaching this message to myself too. I hope you understand that. I always preach to myself first, but we have so many people in our churches today that say they love God, but they have absolutely no concern about those who are precious to God. Talk is cheap, and so unless we are broken we will never extend ourselves. You say, “Well, I am concerned about the children in this city, but I don’t know what to do about it.” Well, one thing you could do is to check the bulletin. We need workers in our children’s ministries right here at this church. God is raising up a marvelous ministry over at Cabrini Green that you’ve heard about. And we need people of compassion and people who care. We need people of sacrifice, people who have been able to see beyond their own little precious circle of comfort. So that’s the first lesson.

There’s a second lesson, and that is, unless we are broken we will feel comfortable in our sin and in our rebellion. We’ll have rationalized it. We’ll have lived in denial. We will not confront. God takes this mirror and shoves it in our face through maybe messages, through songs that are sung, through experiences, through people, through events. God takes the mirror and shoves it in our face and we will not see ourselves, and we will become comfortable in our rebellion and justify our rebellion and say as Jonah did, “I have a right to be angry even to the point of death.” You see, my friend, what God wants us to do is to allow His mirror to actually show us ourselves so that we can open our lives to God and invite Him into every crevice, every closet of our lives, looking in, inviting Him everywhere so that He can show us our great incredible need, and at the same time show us His grace so that we are broken before Him, and so that our will becomes His will no matter what it is. “God, I take your perspective. I don’t understand it but I take your perspective, and I bow humbly before it and I accept it.”

George Mueller, who had so many various orphanages in England (about eight of them, all run by prayer and faith), said there came a time when George Mueller died. He said, “I died to my own ambitions; I died to my own plans; I died to my own reputation; I died to everything that I had been working for and I had only one question, ‘What does God want me to do?’” That is brokenness.

Wasn’t it Barley who told D. L. Moody one day, “We have yet to see what God can do through a man who is totally devoted to Him,” and D. L. Moody said, “By the grace of God I’ll be that man.” And he began a Sunday School, and isn’t it interesting that Moody Church was begun with children, and now so many years later, there are so many ministries that God is birthing in this church for children as his vision gets carried out. But that is brokenness. That is yieldedness.

You say, “Well, did God ever get Jonah?” This book ends and you say, “You know, it really doesn’t have an ending.” I want to read more. I don’t know about your translation, but I’m reading the English Standard Version, and it ends there and then it has room on the page, and I’m saying, “Hey, I want to know more about what happened here. I want to know whether or not Jonah had anything to say after God was finished at this point.” But we don’t know.

You know, the theme of this series is Brokenness – What God Does to Get Us to Say Yes. And even when I began the series I was saying to myself, “Will God work with Jonah?” But he never did say yes because the pages of Scripture just end. I can’t prove this biblically but I suspect that Jonah did say yes, and I’ll tell you why. Every scholar and every rabbi throughout the centuries have been puzzled who the author of Jonah is because we’re not told. And virtually everybody says Jonah must have written it because who else would know all of these details?

Now you tell me something. Would a man write a story like this that makes him look that bad unless God had broken him? I don’t think so, because God looks great in this book. Jonah doesn’t, because you see the person who is delivered from his narcissism no longer asks, “How does it make me look?” Now he’s asking a different question. How does it make God look? And as you read this book God looks great. It’s Jonah who is narrow-minded (or shall I say pigheaded and very narcissistic?), but God comes off wonderfully. And a man who is broken by God is willing to say, “I am willing to tell the truth as the truth is even though I look bad because at the end of the day even my reputation in the lives of others is not as important as telling an accurate story and letting people give praise to God. And so he tells the story here without trying to make himself look good. There’s no tweaking here.

Some time ago a rather prominent woman wrote her biography and I can’t prove this but I heard that one library put it in the fiction section. Everything was tweaked and worked so that it was her point of view, and so that she came out looking a certain way!

For a person who is broken by God even his reputation is left in God’s hands and he’s not always trying to fix it. Appearances no longer become the important thing. Reality does, and it seems to me that anyone who would write a book like this was probably somebody who in the end said yes to God and finally gave up the fiction of his own will and his own desire.

So as I come to the end of this series, I have a question for you today. Are you broken? Let me ask you a different question. What would have to happen in your life in order for you to answer yes to that question? What areas of your life are unyielded, unsubmitted, protected, guarded and rationalized that would have to be given into the presence of the Almighty? What would you have to give up? Who would you have to talk to? What would you have to make right in your life if you were broken? Remember that God especially blesses those who finally say yes.

Let’s pray.

As children bring their broken toys,
With tears, for us to mend,
I brought my broken dreams to God
Because He was my friend.

But then instead of leaving Him
In peace to work alone,
I hung around and tried to help
With ways that were my own.

At last I snatched them back and cried,
“How can you be so slow?”
“My child,” He said, “what could I do?
You never did let go.”

How many of you are here today who would say, “Pastor Lutzer, by God’s grace, I want to let go?” Would you raise your hands please? All throughout the auditorium there are many, and in the balcony I can see you there. You are willing to say, “God, You’ve got me. I’m letting it go. I am yielding it all. I am trusting the Holy Spirit of God to grant me the grace to do that.”

Whatever it is that you need to say to God at this moment, would you say it?

In this message I did not explain that Jesus died on the cross for sinners, and that your first step in saying yes is to say yes to Him as Savior, so you may be here and you are not connected to God at all. You can say, “Lord Jesus, I say yes to You as Savior.” Those of us who know Him have to say yes to Him for a whole host of other issues.

Father, we’ve done what we could do, and if the Holy Spirit does nothing then everything is a failure, but we believe that the blessed Holy Spirit of God has been poured out to change us so work with us. Work with us, Father. Grant us that balance between patience and discipline that we need to bring us to yieldedness, to give up the idea that we can transform You into our image. May there be no point in our life in which we are out of agreement with You we pray. In Jesus’ name we ask this, Amen.


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